“North with the Spring” #20: Warblers and Woodcock in Minnesota’s Wild North

Upland Sandpiper at Felton Prairie, a carefully managed remnant prairie in northern Minnesota. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Upland Sandpiper at Felton Prairie, a carefully managed remnant prairie in northern Minnesota. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

June 3, 2015 Blog #20 of my North with the Spring journey:

From northern Wisconsin, I traveled west to Minnesota and the north shore of Lake Superior. Based out of Gooseberry Falls State Park, about an hour northeast of Duluth, my wife Carol and I toured the boreal forests of this marvelous area.

The first night, on the way in from the airport, Carol saw a silvery timber wolf on the roadside as we drove along highway 61. White spruce and aspens marked our campsite, where Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Chestnut-sided and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows serenaded us each morning. Temperatures hovered near freezing at dawn, and strong winds blew off Lake Superior. Ground squirrels, red squirrels, and chipmunks visited us at our picnic table for treats.

At our picnic table, we had visitors like this ground squirrel. Photo by Bruce Beehler

At our picnic table, we had visitors like this ground squirrel. Photo by Bruce Beehler

In the interior, which we visited each morning, we heard Ruffed Grouse drumming and chased down boreal warblers—Nashville, Tennessee, Canada, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Mourning, Yellow-rumped and more. Sadly, we missed Connecticut Warbler.

North of Duluth, we saw many warblers, including Mourning Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

North of Duluth, we saw many warblers, including Mourning Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Headwaters of a Great River

At Itasca State Park’s 32,000 acres of natural habitat, I was amazed to see the headwaters of the Mississippi. They were no more than a few yards wide, winding among a mix of lakes, bogs, and mixed-boreal forest. Right at the headwaters a lovely adult male Black-backed Woodpecker surprised us, flying to a large white spruce and allowing us to gaze for more than a minute at this rare creature.

We saw a Black-backed Woodpecker in Itasca State Park, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Photo by ShutterShock

We saw a Black-backed Woodpecker in Itasca State Park, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Photo by ShutterShock

The following day we wandered westward, to Felton Prairie, where in spite of strong winds we successfully searched out Upland Sandpiper and Greater Prairie Chicken. This wide-open expanse of prairie was quite a change from the closed boreal forest I had been birding the previous several days. As with Crex Meadows, this lovely remnant prairie is carefully managed, especially with periodic fire, to maintain its special qualities that the birds love.

Searching for Woodcock

My last birding day in Minnesota was spent at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. Tamarac’s 40,000 acres are a mix of lakes, marshes, bogs, and mixed upland forests, and targeted habitat management is enriching its songbird and wildlife values year by year.

There I visited with Peter Dieser and Earl Johnson. Peter is an ABC field staffer working on habitat improvement for Golden-winged Warbler and American Woodcock. Earl Johnson is a retired state wildlife biologist who now works on banding and surveying American Woodcock. We went afield in search of these two elusive species.

Golden-winged Warbler have responded quickly to habitat management at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. Photo by Laura Erickson

Golden-winged Warbler have responded quickly to habitat management at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. Photo by Laura Erickson

Earl quietly showed us a nesting woodcock hen sitting on four eggs. It was amazing to see how camouflaged the sitting bird was—Earl spent quite some time describing where this bird sat in the grassy tangle before I could actually see it.

I saw various patches of forest that had been managed for these two species, which love early successional woodland and forest openings. I was amazed to see how effective this management could be in such a short time: One patch, treated two years ago, was filled with singing male Golden-wings. Another site, treated only a year ago, supported a singing male goldenwing and nesting woodcock. Build the habitat and they will come!

Note from the editor: Thank you so much for joining ABC Field Naturalist, Bruce Beehler, on his journey “North with the Spring.” Stay tuned for highlights from his epic adventure in a post-trip wrap-up later this summer.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #19: In Wisconsin, Reminders of the Past

I saw this Sedge Wren at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area, in Wisconsin.  Photo by Bruce Beehler

I saw this Sedge Wren at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area, in Wisconsin. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

June 3, 2015 Blog #19 of my North with the Spring journey:

In the southwestern corner of Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin River meets the Mississippi, there are a series of high bluffs that hem in these two great rivers. The bluff south of the Wisconsin is called Wyalusing, and is home to a superb state park. I camped there for four nights, and biked and birded the park and adjacent natural areas in both Wisconsin and neighboring Iowa.

A Grasshopper Sparrow in Wisconsin. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A Grasshopper Sparrow in Wisconsin. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I found lovely oak forests and deciduous bottomlands near the confluence of the rivers. A male Cerulean Warbler serenaded me from just over my tent site morning and afternoon. American Redstarts played around every patch of woodland, often foraging nearly to ground level in pairs. Henslow’s Sparrows gave their asthmatic call from a large grassland patch near the center of the park. And Bell’s Vireo sang its crazy song from a row of trees in an open oak glade. Dozens of northward-traveling Tennessee and Blackpoll Warblers enlivened the canopy oak trees.

Ancient Mounds

This part of the Mississippi is famous for its American Indian Mounds. These are ancient mounds that Native Americans built for funerary or ceremonial purposes. There are several thousand mounds scattered across much of the East, but the Mississippi mounds are the most famous, perhaps because some of them are formed in the shape of animals.

Migrant birds like American Redstart filled the woodlands of Effigy Mounds National Monument, in Iowa. Photo by Greg Lavaty

Migrant birds like American Redstart filled the woodlands of Effigy Mounds National Monument, in Iowa. Photo by Greg Lavaty

I visited Effigy Mounds National Monument just across the River in Iowa on my first afternoon here. Over the centuries, the forest has grown up around these mounds, so I experienced the best of these remarkable historical features in a woodland setting. I was particularly moved by the mounds shaped like bears. The area also was filled with migrant birds—especially Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and American Redstarts.

Once Forest, Now Prairie

A birder from North Dakota whom I met in Wyalusing State Park mentioned that I should visit Crex Meadows, near Grantsburg, Wisc., in the far northwest part of the state. Crex Meadows Wildlife Area is an amazing natural site of 30,000 acres that has been heavily managed to bring it back to what is thought to be its primeval prairie state.

At Crex Meadows, fire and mechanical means have transformed closed-canopy deciduous forest into prairie. Photo by Bruce Beehler

At Crex Meadows, fire and mechanical means have transformed closed-canopy deciduous forest into prairie. Photo by Bruce Beehler

There is no conservation area on my travels that has received smarter management than Crex Meadows. The result is positive: Sandhill Crane pairs were scattered all through the marsh and prairie setting. I found Trumpeter Swans, Whip-poor-will, Common Raven, Sedge Wren, Alder Flycatcher, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Mourning Warbler.

Crex Meadows is home to many nesting pairs of Sandhill Cranes each summer. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Crex Meadows is home to many nesting pairs of Sandhill Cranes each summer. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Several wolf packs inhabit this part of Wisconsin, and I saw tracks in the soft sand. This vast open mix of prairie and marshland is a wonderful reminder of the way things used to be, before the long period of fire-suppression and the dominant regeneration of former prairie into deciduous forest.

Trumpeter Swans at Crex Meadows. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Trumpeter Swans at Crex Meadows. Photo by Bruce Beehler

The Far Northeast

Looking at a map of Wisconsin, I decided to head to an area with hundreds of small lakes in the state’s far northeast, near the border with the upper peninsula of Michigan. Known locally as the Northern Highlands, this area had an abundance of balsam fir, white and black spruce, and tamarack, as well as sphagnum bogs. It reminded me of the northern Adirondacks.

I saw this Mourning Warbler in northeastern Wisconsin, in an area known as the Northern Highlands. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I saw this Mourning Warbler in northeastern Wisconsin, in an area known as the Northern Highlands. Photo by Bruce Beehler

The highlands also featured Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, giving their cadenced drum; Ovenbirds; Mourning and Nashville Warblers; Hermit Thrushes; and Lincoln’s Sparrows. Now I was in the far north—the southern edge of the Great North Woods! From here, I plan to head west into Minnesota, my last stop before heading into the wilds of Canada.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #18: Palisades and Prairies of Northern Illinois

The bubbling song of the Bobolink greeted me in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

The bubbling song of the Bobolink greeted me in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 25, 2015 Blog #18 of my North with the Spring journey:

As I travel past St. Louis, I am now in the northern half of my journey. I know this because I have left behind the Carolina Chickadee for the Black-capped Chickadee, and I have lost the Fish Crow and Black Vulture. Instead, while birding the hayfields of northern Illinois, I now hear the exciting bubbling song of the Bobolink. Nesting Bobolinks tell me I am in the North! So long, cypress and cherrybark oak!

Testing a Theory

For much of the drive up, I followed the Illinois River valley, which is broad and agricultural but hemmed in by handsome wooded bluffs. Black locusts bloomed in profusion. Late in the morning, I caught sight of a beautiful big male coyote standing in the stubble of a corn field.

Tidy Farm northern IL

A tidy farm in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I decided to camp two nights at Argyle Lake State Park, a small park situated some 30 miles east of the Mississippi. I wanted to see if a small and isolated woodland park in open farmland would produce a greater concentration of migrant songbirds on passage north.

Argyle is a hilly patch of oak woods surrounding a small, dammed lake. I had two good mornings for birding to test my theory: Lots of migrant Tennessee Warblers, a Canada Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and Swainson’s Thrushes. Also there were resident breeders—singing Kentucky Warblers and Ovenbirds. Still, I was hardly overwhelmed by the numbers of migrants in the woods. So much for my theory!

I saw Scarlet Tanagers in a hilly patch of oak woods at Illinois’s Argyle Lake State Park. Photo by Greg Lavaty

I saw Scarlet Tanagers in a hilly patch of oak woods at Illinois’s Argyle Lake State Park. Photo by Greg Lavaty

Not far from Argyle Lake is a restored patch of prairie at Spring Lake Park. I visited early in hopes of Henslow’s Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers. Instead, I saw Bobolinks, Dickcissels, and too many Red-winged Blackbirds to count. From here, I made tracks for my last stop in Illinois: Mississippi Palisades State Park.

At Spring Lake Park, I saw this male Dickcissel in a restored patch of prairie. Photo by Bruce Beehler

At Spring Lake Park, I saw this male Dickcissel in a restored patch of prairie. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Last Look at Summer Tanagers

Mississippi Palisades resembles a northern version of Missouri’s Pere Marquette State Park, featuring bluffs with scenic views of the great river. Hooded Warblers were on territory in the upland woods, and migrant Tennessee Warblers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were noisy in the canopy.

A Wild Turkey hen in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A Wild Turkey hen in northern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

About seven miles up the road was the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The area supports extensive prairie openings—all across a former U.S. Army Depot. From a river overlook set on a 70-foot natural sand dune, I watched a small group of White Pelicans and several adult Bald Eagles. This is the last place I will see Summer Tanagers, who don’t make it as far north as my next stop in Wisconsin.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #17: Smart Management for Forests and Birds

A rare Black-throated Blue Warbler was among the 54 species I saw at a

Black-throated Blue Warbler was among the 54 species I saw at a “migrant trap” in central St. Louis. Photo by Scott Streit

By Bruce Beehler

May 20, 2015 Blog #17 of my North with the Spring journey:

Arriving in southern Illinois, I came  to Trail of Tears State Forest. Foresters here are working hard to manage this beautiful mature oak forest for the long-term, which means planning for a forest succession that maintains a dominant oak overstory beloved both by hunters and birders.

I saw this male Baltimore Oriole during my travels in Missouri and Southern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I saw this male Baltimore Oriole during my travels in Missouri and Southern Illinois. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Because of the natural forest dynamics here, this forest, with time, will transition to beech and maple unless there is human intervention in the form of prescribed fire and thinning. It is fascinating to see that the forest needs to be purposefully disturbed to allow oak seedlings to grow successfully into canopy trees.

A Champion Tree

After a morning of intensive learning about managing forests for Cerulean Warblers and Wild Turkeys, I visited the Cache River State Wildlife Area. While exploring a cypress swamp at Heron Pond, I saw two cottonmouth snakes in the water not far from the boardwalk. I also visited a “state champion” cherrybark oak with a diameter of more than five feet.

This cherrybark oak at Cache River State Wildlife Area had a diameter of more than five feet. Photo by Bruce Beehler

This cherrybark oak at Cache River State Wildlife Area had a diameter of more than five feet. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Historical actions and ongoing human disturbance in the Cache ecosystem threaten to degrade the wetlands that make this place so special. What I am learning is that conservationists and foresters have to fight the good fight to see that management of forest and water preserves the natural benefits these places offer to migratory birds and other native plants and animals.

Open Woodlands

The next day, accompanied by ABC’s Larry Heggemann, I visited Wildcat Bluff, in the Cache River ecosystem, and Simpson Creek Barrens. These are both upland sites where forest managers are using fire and selective thinning of the forest canopy to emulate the natural disturbances that historically shaped these open woodland communities.

Forest management creates open woodlands favored by the Prairie Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Forest management creates open woodlands favored by the Prairie Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Though not as stately as mature forest, open oak woodland habitats provide critical foraging and nesting cover vital to many declining grassland-shrub and savanna bird species like Red-headed Woodpecker, Prairie Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat.

Warblers in the City

After leaving southern Illinois, I traveled on to camp just north of St. Louis at Pere Marquette State Park. My plans were to visit an urban “migrant trap” in downtown St. Louis. Many U.S. birders see most of their warblers in an urban setting, so I thought it would be useful to experience this firsthand along the Mississippi with those who know their stuff.

I stood on the spot where the Missouri meets the Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I stood on the spot where the Missouri meets the Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Tower Grove Park, in the center of the city, is a prime spot. Urban parklands like this provide joy for local birders as well as critical stopover habitat for migrants passing through. I was with several local birders, and by 9 a.m. we racked up 54 species.

Highlights were a sighting of Black-throated Blue Warbler, as well as Philadelphia Vireo and Olive-sided Flycatcher. The concentrating effects of a large urban expanse were obvious here, as we had migrant species in numbers that I was not seeing in the heavily wooded state parks.

Check in again soon for the next in my North with the Spring journey with migratory birds!

Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #16: Following Birds and History in Southern Missouri

A Red-Headed Woodpecker in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A Red-Headed Woodpecker in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 16, 2015 Blog #16 of my North with the Spring journey:

From Land Between the Lakes, in western Kentucky, I headed to Missouri, crossing the Mississippi once again. My destination was Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, where the eastern edge of the Missouri Ozarks meets the northern extension of the Delta—a perfect place for wildlife, especially migratory birds. Mingo featured all the goodies: expansive marshy wetlands, grasslands, cypress swamp, oak bottoms, and hilly and rocky uplands.

Early in the morning, I met up with Larry Heggemann of American Bird Conservancy, an expert on Missouri wildlife. As we stood birding in the parking lot of Mingo’s visitor center, a car drove up with Mark Robbins and John Bollin, who were doing a four-day bird survey of the state. Mark is senior author of The Birds of Missouri. I first met Mark more than three decades ago, so it was great to have this surprise encounter.

 I quickly spotted this Prairie Warbler at Cane Ridge, in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I quickly spotted this Prairie Warbler at Cane Ridge, in southern Missouri. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Larry and I tagged along with these two for the early morning. Mark has a phenomenal ear and knows songs, calls, and chip notes. Birding with Mark was a rude reminder of how many warbler songs I now have a hard time hearing—a product of age and youthful decades of loud music.

With a lot of help from Mark, we saw more than a dozen migrant warblers and lots of thrushes and vireos to boot.

Shorebird Bonanza

Adjacent to Mingo is Duck Creek State Conservation Area, where Larry worked for many years as a wildlife officer. He gave me the cook’s tour. We focused on the wetlands and saw many shorebirds: Spotted, Solitary, Pectoral, and Least Sandpiper; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; dowitchers; and a single Black-necked Stilt. Waterfowl were abundant; Wood Ducks, in particular, were everywhere.

I spotted a Black-necked Stilt in the wetlands at Duck Creek State Conservation Area in Missouri. Photo by Dan Lebbin

I spotted a Black-necked Stilt in the wetlands at Duck Creek State Conservation Area in Missouri. Photo by Dan Lebbin

Trail of Tears State Park

From Mingo I shifted my base to Trail of Tears State Park, 5,000 acres of hilly upland oak woods on a bluff overlooking the great Mississippi. Across the river were the  rolling, forested hills of Illinois. The park’s stunning location, several hundred feet above the river, is itself worth the price of admission. What a view!

Trail of Tears State Park has a sobering history, though. It marks the spot where groups of Cherokee Indians, uprooted by government mandate in the late 1830s, crossed the Mississippi on the way to a reservation in Oklahoma. What a beautiful place to memorialize such a terrible story.

Trail of Tears State Park featured Mississippi Kite, above, as well as Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler. Photo by Greg Homel, Natural Elements Productions

Trail of Tears State Park featured Mississippi Kite, above, as well as Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler. Photo by Greg Homel, Natural Elements Productions

Once Forest, Now Savanna

The Cane Ridge oak glades, near Poplar Bluff, Mo., is an area that forestry management has opened up into something of a savanna. Fire and selective clearing has allowed grassy understory to attract birds that live in early successional forests. Closed-canopy oak woods now dominate this protected landscape, shutting out the open-country birds, so the oak glades provides important habitat.

At Cane Ridge, forestry management has created grassy understory that attracts birds like this Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo by Bruce Beehler

At Cane Ridge, forestry management has created grassy understory that attracts birds like this Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo by Bruce Beehler

The management has clearly worked, and needs to be done in more places. At Cane Ridge, it has had the desired effect on the bird fauna: I quickly located Red-headed Woodpecker, Prairie Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat, and a bonus bird was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, stopping over on its way to Canada. I missed seeing Blue-winged Warbler, a bird Mark had gotten the previous day.

This Olive-sided Flycatcher stopped in southern Missouri on its way to Canada. Photo by Bruce Beehler

This Olive-sided Flycatcher stopped in southern Missouri on its way to Canada. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Mosquitoes and Migrants

My last morning in Missouri I spent at Big Oak Tree State Park, famous for its champion trees and also an excellent warbler trap. Rain interfered, but there were good numbers both of mosquitoes and migrant songbirds. Golden-winged Warbler was the bird of the day. Next stop, Illinois!


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #15: In the Land of Mighty Rivers

Crossing the Mighty Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Crossing the Mighty Mississippi. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 12, 2015 Blog #15 of my North with the Spring journey:

After a long day of driving from Arkansas, I negotiated Memphis’s evening rush-hour traffic and arrived at the little-known Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. Located in Millington, Tenn., about 15 miles north of Memphis on the east bank of the Mississippi, the park is an unexpected sylvan oasis. It boasts 12,500 acres of old-growth hardwood upland forest as well as an impressive strip of bottomland — with a large stand of giant cottonwoods — right on the Big River.

Fabulous, Buggy Forest

This has to be one of the few places in the United States where one can drive through a closed canopy old-growth forest for miles and miles. Home to a number of champion trees, the park is also a stunning stopover for migratory birds. At this time, the park was filled with thrushes: resident Wood Thrushes as well as Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes passing through. They were everywhere. Given how few thrushes I see in the Washington, D.C. area in spring, this was a nice surprise.

Resident Wood Thrushes filled Tennessee’s Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Resident Wood Thrushes filled Tennessee’s Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Meeman-Shelby Forest had another notable feature: biting insects. This site, among many stout competitors, had the most ferocious biting insects of the trip so far. They were active noon and night — mosquitoes in the mornings and evenings, and black flies when the sun was high. Migrant birds seemed to love the horde. Large numbers of Tennessee Warblers sang in the forest, along with Hooded and Kentucky Warblers and many others.

Moving Fast

After two nights at Meeman-Shelby, I paid a quick visit to Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge and then continued on to Reelfoot Lake, which hosts a state park and a national wildlife refuge. Reelfoot Lake features stands of cypress in lake water, a theme I have encountered in quite a few bottomland sites on this journey.

The surrounding agricultural lands were flat and overworked, though, with little in the way of natural habitat along the fringes. Too much agriculture today is industrial and wall-to-wall, allowing little marginal habitat in which nature can thrive.

Twin Lakes and Lovely Hills

What a change it was to visit Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area. I left the Delta and entered hilly, forested uplands nestled between two sinuous lakes formed by the damming of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.

I camped in an open oak forest overlooking Kentucky’s Energy Lake, with a marvelous sunset my single night there. As dusk settled, I could have been in the middle of the Adirondacks, except the area was happily bug-free.

These Purple Martins were among the many birds I saw at Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area in Kentucky. Photo by Bruce Beehler

These Purple Martins were among the many birds I saw at Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area in Kentucky. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Warbling Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Red-eyed Vireos, and Great Crested Flycatchers sang in the canopy that evening, providing a pleasing day’s-end chorus for an exhausted ornithologist. The next morning, during a long bike ride through the woods, I encountered 10 Tennessee Warblers, four Kentucky Warblers, and two Northern Parulas. Among the singletons I saw were Hooded, Black-and-white, Palm, and Myrtle Warblers. Refreshed by the brief stay between the lakes, by noon I was on my way to Missouri.

During a long bike ride around Land Between the Lakes, I saw this Black and White Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler

During a long bike ride around Land Between the Lakes, I saw this Black-and-white Warbler. Photo by Bruce Beehler


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #14: Giants of the Swamp Forest

Forty acres of old-growth forest in Arkansas’ Delta National Forest are home to giant trees like this sweetgum. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Forty acres of old-growth forest in Arkansas’ Delta National Forest are home to giant trees like this sweetgum. Photo by Bruce Beehler

By Bruce Beehler

May 11, 2015 Blog #14 of my North with the Spring journey:

After leaving Crossett, Ark., I headed southeast to Mississippi. There, a resident forester at Delta National Forest guided me on a backwoods road to the Green Ash-Overcup Oak-Sweetgum Research Natural Areas. Here I found 40 acres of old-growth forest: Magnificent sweetgum trees were scattered among giant oaks, ash, and a dozen other Delta National Forest species. Many topped 120 feet in height; all were nestled within some 60,000 acres of forest.

A Haven for Migrants

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers almost certainly would have visited some of these big trees when they were only 150 years old. Today, these giants are more than 300 years old and shade a beautiful bottomland forest. On my visit, the trees hosted many calling Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as vocalizing Kentucky Warblers, Acadian Flycatchers, Prothonotary Warblers, and more. Mississippi Kites soared gracefully in pairs and triplets over openings in the canopy.

The gravel forest road that cut straight through the large expanse of forest was wonderful for butterflies and birds and other wildlife. Many Indigo Buntings moved along the edge of the road, and were especially abundant in places where the forest bordered the scrubby edges of fields. These birds were migrants headed up the Mississippi in droves.

Kentucky Warblers called from towering 300-year-old trees in Arkansas’s Delta National Forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Kentucky Warblers called from towering 300-year-old trees in Arkansas’s Delta National Forest. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A Flooded Forest

After a night in Delta, I headed northwest Arkansas’ White River National Wildlife Refuge. Walking along a bottomland trail that drops off the bluff and passes by the banks of the White River, I found foraging Northern Waterthrushes and singing Tennessee Warblers. And once more, I encountered small flocks of Indigo Buntings — a species that is turning out to be a featured migrant bird of the trip. Much of the area was flooded, including part of this bottomland trail.

The giant of the forest was an immense cherrybark oak with a diameter of more than five feet. In the late morning, I put my kayak in a flooded forest north of the main road. Prothonotary Warblers entertained me to no end: These were males on territory, and they were noisy and aggressive — as well as gorgeous.

Indigo Buntings, heading up the Mississippi in droves, have been a signature species on my journey. Photo by John L. Absher/Shutterstock

Indigo Buntings, heading up the Mississippi in droves, have been a signature species on my journey. Photo by John L. Absher/Shutterstock

A Famous Woodpecker

Because of my obvious fascination with the Ivorybill, I felt compelled to visit Brinkley, Ark., and the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. There, I paddled the Bayou de View, where the famous 2004 sighting of the Ivorybill took place — an event that created a huge flurry of interest in this part of the world. Brinkley loved the publicity and interest the Ivorybill sightings generated; even today, some local establishments still highlight the Ivorybill in a big way.

A 2004 sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was big news in nearby Brinkley, Ark., where the bird’s likeness features prominently in local establishments like Gene’s Restaurant. Photo by Bruce Beehler

A 2004 sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was big news in nearby Brinkley, Ark., where the bird’s likeness features prominently in local establishments like Gene’s Restaurant. Photo by Bruce Beehler

These tracts of bottomland hardwood forest are now exceptional features in the landscape. Row-crop agriculture now dominates the Mississippi Delta. Agricultural policy over the decades has led to the clearance of vast expanses of these wet forests, as farmers expanded into places not meant for this type of intensive production.

Today, some of these cleared areas have been bought back from farmers, and millions of dollars are being spent to bring back the forests to these cleared areas. I saw large-scale re-plantings at a number of national wildlife refuges. I am only sorry they were cleared in the first place.

Crossett’s pine monoculture was very different from the bottomland forest I saw in the Tensas. Row crops now line the prime bottomland that once had forest with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Bottomland forests of the Mississippi Delta – once Ivorybill country – were cleared to create land more suitable to farming. Today, an effort is under way to bring back the forests. Photo by Bruce Beehler


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered. The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.