Rare Birds Prompt Bird-Watching Migration to Lonoke

Sharp-tailed sandpiper
Sharp-tailed sandpiper
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission

Lonoke, AR -(AmmoLand.com)- The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery has been buzzing in the last week from a few sightings of rare shorebirds finding their way to The Natural State.

The latest sighting is of the sharp-tailed sandpiper, an Asian species that is rarely seen in the U.S., spotted Monday evening.

According to JJ Gladden, AGFC hatchery biologist, people have been coming in to view an interior least tern and piping plover in the last week, both of which are endangered species. But the real gem has been a rare glimpse at the Asian traveler.

“We had about 15 people come in from all over the state within an hour of the first sighting, and people came out Tuesday morning in the pouring rain with giant cameras to try and get a picture of the bird.”

If accepted, this will be the first recorded sighting of the sharp-tailed sandpiper in Arkansas. According to Karen Rowe, ornithologist for the AGFC, it’s unclear how the bird found its way from its normal migration route.

“This species usually travels from Siberia to Australia,” Rowe said. “Since the 1960s there are approximately 30 reports on the West Coast, maybe an additional 20 on the East Coast and a dozen or so sightings in the interior states of the U.S., so this is very exciting for Arkansas birders.”

Arkansans aren’t the only ones traveling to get a chance at witnessing the bird. According to Gladden, an ornithologist from Georgia and a couple of avid birders from Arizona have stopped at the hatchery to look for the lineup of rare species.

Dick Baxter, AGFC assistant chief of wildlife management, says the sighting is even more special because the bird found at Lonoke is an adult.

“Most sightings of this species in the U.S. have been juveniles,” Baxter said. “You just don’t see that very often anywhere.”

Kenny and LaDonna Nichols of Cabot were the first to identify the bird Monday evening while scanning the mudflats left after a hatchery pond had been lowered.

“I’ve been birdwatching for probably 25 years or more,” Nichols said. “It’s really hard to describe, but for me this is just like a hunter getting that 12-point he’s been after or a fisherman catching a big bass.”

While Nichols says he never thought he’d see one in Arkansas, a friend’s experience 30 years ago did give him enough hope to file away the species in the back of his mind.

“One of my friends spotted one in Memphis before I ever started birdwatching,” Nichols said. “So it’s always been a species I’d hoped to see one day.”

Rowe says shorebirds generally are not as prevalent in Arkansas as in decades past, largely because different land use patterns no longer provide the mudflats the birds use to feed.

Mudflats provide crustaceans, insects and other macroinvertebrates these species depend upon for energy and protein during their migration, which can be the longest of any bird species.

“Some may even travel all the way from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America in late summer and early fall, and fly back in spring,” Rowe said. “Habitat in Arkansas is critical to providing a refueling stop for the birds during their travel route.”

The AGFC has tried to improve habitat conditions for migrating shorebirds on many waterfowl-oriented wildlife management areas. Rowe says some waterfowl impoundments which are flooded for early teal season also hold promise for these birds during their journey. Most shorebirds begin their southern migration to wintering grounds in late July and early August, well before most waterfowl hunters pursue on Arkansas WMAs, so these open impoundments can be temporarily flooded and drained to offer some habitat without impacting hunting activities on the WMA.

Hatcheries, such as Joe Hogan and the Charlie “C.B.”Craig Fish Hatchery in Centerton, offer excellent mudflats when the ponds begin to be drawn down in late summer and fall. All AGFC hatcheries are open to the public for bird-watching activities, but people should be aware that fish-rearing activities occur throughout the day.

“We welcome anyone to come out and enjoy the wildlife-watching that occurs as a side benefit to our work,” Gladden said. “We get to see some great wildlife out here when we drain the ponds and the animals take advantage of the exposed mud flats. Just be sure to park at the visitor center of the hatcheries and walk from there on a self-guided hike.”

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