For an Arkansas birdwatcher, seeing is believing
The year I turned 14, the winter had three holidays: Christmas, New Year’s and the annual Audubon Society field trip to Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge. It was the most heavily attended of the monthly field trips hosted by the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas, and for good reason. January at Holla Bend held the promise of seeing dozens of bald eagles, thousands of snow geese and always the possibility of surprises. Even today, birders are sometimes able to flush a rare long-eared owl from its grove of cedar. A walk through broomsedge fields might yield the often-elusive Le Conte’s sparrow. At Holla Bend, where the river draws birds like a magnet, anything can appear.
I had begun birding at age 11 when my family got a bird feeder. With the help of a neighbor’s bird book, I started trying to identify the species that came to our backyard seed tray. I would often hide under a trash bag to take pictures of the birds that flew in from the nearby woods. I became a regular at Audubon Society meetings and field trips, being picked up at early hours and taken birding by a kind group of lively birders who wanted to encourage my enthusiasm. Blessed with time and an obsessive personality, I learned to identify nearly every common bird in Arkansas without the help of a field guide. I knew many birds simply by the way they flew across the road. I could recognize birds as though they were old friends—a quick flash of wings was all I needed to say “white-throated sparrow,” “yellow-rumped warbler,” “northern cardinal.”
We know what is familiar.
When the day of the Holla Bend Field trip came, my long-suffering parents dropped me off at the Little Rock carpool site in the wintry pre-dawn. I rode in a car with several birders I knew: Bill Shepherd, a longtime naturalist who knew nearly every plant species in Arkansas; Brant Buck, an Audubon regular; and Jeremy Davis, a friend my age whom I’d introduced to the wonders of birding. We took the long way, birding our way along Arkansas Highway 10 to 9, then 154, up and over Petit Jean Mountain and down into the Holland Bottoms southeast of Russellville, where Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge occupies an oxbow off the Arkansas River.
The day was good. The bald eagles were broad-winged and imposing, even if they were common; the 10,000 snow geese shimmered in their white magnitude. Along with 30-odd birders, we explored every cedar and oak and hickory tree, every tall grass field and brushy snag of the 6,486-acre refuge. Dusk was beginning its mid-January warning when we finally left for the hour-and-a-half drive back to Little Rock. It was then, as we came around a bend in the highway, that an odd-looking bird flew across the road. Bill Shepherd spotted it first, exclaiming, “That looked like a scissor-tail!” Scissor-tailed flycatchers are common birds in Arkansas during the summer, but in January, they should be speaking Spanish and eating tropical insects, not braving the Arkansas cold. We stopped the car and got out, everyone searching the trees for the bird.
I got my binoculars on the bird first—the white throat and black cap with a long streaming tail gave it away. My heart raced. “It’s a fork-tail, it’s a fork-tail!” I cried out. There was a frenzy. Another car of birders stopped to see what the excitement was, and they too saw the bird: a flycatcher with its black-cap tail flying back and forth between the levee and the bare winter cottonwoods. It was unmistakably a fork-tailed flycatcher, a lost Latin American native, and not some scissor-tail that had decided against migrating. This was a bird that most of us knew only from legend and bird magazines—a bird that should have been in Mexico or Argentina that time of year.
It has been 20 years since I saw that fork-tailed flycatcher, and though I’ve seen other rare and fascinating birds, none stands out in my memory quite like that one. What has made the memory remain so strong for me isn’t the fact that the bird was so beautiful (though it certainly was); nor is it that the bird carried with it the notoriety of discovery (though as the first one to ever spot one in Arkansas, my name will forever be enshrined in the annals of Arkansas natural history). What made spotting that flycatcher so memorable was the realization that came with it: that finding something extraordinary requires the ability to see it. All the time I’d spent learning to identify the common and expected birds of Arkansas had prepared me to recognize one small wonder in the world when it wandered into view. How many people had driven by the bird, not realizing its peculiarity, before we finally saw it for what it was? And how many times do I pass by rare wonders—an unusual rock, an endangered flower, a dying star in the midnight sky? How much around us is common? How much is rare? I don’t know the answers, but as that lost bird from Argentina taught me: We’ll never know until we start looking.
Ragan Sutterfield is a native Arkansan currently penning stories from Alexandria, Virginia.