WE’VE ALL SEEN the ubiquitous deer and raccoons that are so prolific throughout the state. But what about the less-frequently encountered fauna? Where does one go to see the black bears, the alligators and the bobcats? The otters?!
Thanks to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and conservationists like Kirsten Bartlow, the organization’s watchable wildlife coordinator, Arkansas has an impressive infrastructure for viewing these noble creatures. “A lot of what I do is develop places for people to get outside and see wildlife,” Kirsten says from the Camp Robinson Special Use Area Woodlands Auto Tour one morning in February where she’s out updating and replacing signage. “So I develop water trails around the state, nature trails, auto tours, different kinds of wildlife viewing areas.”
If you’re looking to take advantage of the AGFC’s resources or even venturing into the wilderness yourself, there are a few things you’ll want to know first. Here, Kirsten suggests a few tips for observing Arkansas’ wild things.
Where: Boxley Valley
When: Primarily in the fall; dawn and dusk
Elk are often found feeding in the fields along Arkansas highways 43 and 21 in Boxley Valley, particularly in the mornings and evenings, Kirsten says. “Of course, people’s favorite time to view them is in the fall because that’s when the elk are bugling—the males are trying to attract females,” she adds. But would-be elk viewers should be careful and aware of traffic when pulling off the highway, and make sure to stay on the highway side of the fence while observing. For one, those fields are private property. For another, it’s important to be respectful of the animals’ space. “They’re large animals,” Kirsten points out. “They don’t want to cause us any harm, but especially in the fall when the males are just full of testosterone, it’s not a good idea to approach them. They’re feeling a little feisty.”
Want to learn more about this majestic creature? If you’re out elk-spotting in the valley, be sure to stop by the AGFC’s Elk Education Center in nearby Ponca.
Where: White River National Wildlife Refuge
When: Spring, summer and fall; dawn and dusk, and all day during the fall
“For being such a large creature, they’re so elusive,” Kirsten says. So while you might have a hard time peeping one in the wild, Kirsten advises visiting the wooded areas around the White River to maximize your chances. “Most people associate the Ozarks and the Ouachitas with black bears, but [there are actually] more bears per square acre around the White River National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Arkansas. A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Depending on the time of year, you might see bears feeding in slightly different environments. “When they first come out in the spring, they’re really hungry,” Kirsten explains. “They’re going to be in places where they just may be grazing on different types of grasses and plants. In the summer when berries are ripening, you’re going to see them in areas where we have blackberry patches. And in the fall, they may feed almost 24 hours a day, so they especially like areas with lots of acorns because that’s their job come fall—really fatten up for that winter sleep.”
If you’re out searching for these animals, or even simply taking a camping trip to bear country, it’s important to be conscious of any food you take with you. Never keep food in your tent, and it’s best to keep it in your vehicle overnight. And certainly don’t try to feed the animals. “You know, the thing with bears—they’re pretty scared of us,” Kirsten says. “But they become acclimated to us when we feed them, so we don’t want that.”
Where: Statewide, near bodies of water
When: Primarily in the winter; any time of day
“Eagles can be found in Arkansas year round, but we really get a bigger population of eagles during the winter months,” Kirsten says. “They migrate down from Canada, Alaska, the northern United States to Arkansas because we have all these great lakes and rivers where they can hunt that aren’t frozen.”
In most instances, it’s the bald eagle you’ll see sailing through Arkansas’ skies, but occasionally you might spot a golden eagle as well. Sometimes you’ll even see them steal food from other other birds like the osprey. “They are not always the most noble of birds,” Kirsten says. “Benjamin Franklin thought that the wild turkey should be our national emblem, not the bald eagle.”
If you really want to see these birds in action, though, you’ll want to get out on the water where you might get to watch them diving to catch a fish.
Don’t have a boat of your own? Don’t fret. State parks like Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville and Hobbs State Park in Rogers offer boat tours for eagle viewing during peak seasons.
Where: Southern third of the state
When: Spring and summer; whenever it’s warm out, and the sun is shining
“One of the best places to see them is at Arkansas Post National Memorial,” Kirsten says. “They’ve got trails and that sort of thing around their facility. Believe it or not, we do have a water trail there. So I’ve seen them from canoe or kayak as well. It’s a great spot to see alligators.”
Alligator viewing is almost exclusively a warm-weather activity. “As a reptile, they’re just going to be active when there’s enough sun and warmth for them to be able to eat and digest food,” Kirsten says. So you’ll usually see them on sunny areas of shoreline, basking in the warm rays.
In general, alligators don’t tend to view humans as prey. But they can certainly be dangerous when provoked, so it’s important to keep your distance. You’ll especially want to be careful as spring transitions to summer, the time of their mating season. “Males are gonna probably feel a little bit more aggressive and have a little more testosterone that time of year,” Kirsten says. “So if I was out paddling, and I saw a large male—or any large alligator—I would just ease the other way.”
Where: Statewide, on rivers, streams and bayous
When: Year-round; anytime
Otters are some of Kirsten’s favorite animals to observe in the wild. Why? “They’re extremely bright and playful, and it’s fun to watch their antics as they swim,” she says. “They seem to almost make games, sliding down muddy embankments. You’ll see a mother with her young engaging in play behavior. Gosh, they’re just neat to watch.”
The fact that they’re active practically 24-7, 365 days a year and can be found statewide also makes them an excellent subject to seek out. Kirsten says she’s even seen a handful of otters playing behind the Walmart in Pine Bluff near the access to the commission’s water trail on Bayou Bartholomew.
Otters aren’t known to be aggressive, but as always, be cautious and respectful of their space, even if they approach you first. “They’re near-sighted, so what I find if I’m in a canoe paddling along, I’ll have one pop up and look at me,” Kirsten says. “Sometimes it’ll even make a little Ah! [sound]. They’ll go back underwater, and they’ll pop up again somewhere else and look again like they’re just trying to figure out what you are before they skedaddle. They come up looking like a little periscope.”
Where: Statewide, near the edges of fields and forests
When: Year-round; dawn and dusk
“I think people don’t realize how many bobcats there actually are here, even in urban areas,” Kirsten says. “I’ve seen one crossing River Mountain Drive [in Heber Springs] as I was heading down to the river trail one afternoon.”
But despite their abundance, bobcats are “super elusive,” Kirsten says. “Overall, you’re not going to see one. They don’t want to bother us. They’re small. I mean, this isn’t a large animal.” The average size of a bobcat is around 20 pounds and 2-3 feet long.
“Hollow Bend National Wildlife Refuge has got really great wildlife viewing, and that might be a good spot—if you got lucky—to see a bobcat walking the edges between fields and forests,” Kirsten suggests. “They like to hunt areas like that.”
Where: Red fox, on prairies, pastures and the edge of forests: gray fox, in wooded areas
When: Year-round; dusk till dawn
“We have two kinds of foxes in Arkansas: We have a red fox and a gray fox,” Kirsten says. You’ll mostly find the gray fox in wooded areas largely due to the semi-retractable claws that allow them to climb trees and escape from predators. In the pre-colonial days of Arkansas’ history, the state’s heavily wooded landscape provided a perfect home for these animals.
“When the English came here and wanted to hunt fox with their hounds, they really didn’t like hunting for the gray fox because they would hightail up a tree,” Kirsten explains. Instead, the English hunters set their sights on Arkansas’ small population of red fox (and even imported some of their own).
“That being said, we have a lot of red fox now because we have more open space,” Kirsten says. “Red fox like pastures and edges next to forested areas. If you’re going to see a fox in a more urban area, it’ll be a red fox. It’s not uncommon to have them hunting for rodents and things around a more urban area.”