National wildlife refuges, or NWRs, belong to the people and are entrusted to those who work for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to manage for the benefit of wildlife. There are 10 NWRs across Arkansas and they are great spots for outdoor endeavors like birding. Three of them – Felsenthal, Overflow and Pond Creek NWRs – are under the reins of the South Arkansas Refuges Complex.
“Most national wildlife refuges focus on providing more opportunities for activities other than hunting,” said Amanda Wilkinson, visitor services specialist for the South Arkansas Refuges Complex. “Wildlife observation, photography and hiking, for example: they also protect and manage critical habitats for birds. Birding on refuges encourages participants to become aware of the needs and challenges birds face. Refuge paths and trails can lead to a greater understanding of conservation and restoration efforts, not to mention that you’re outside with nature.”
Felsenthal NWR is located around five miles west of Crossett. Established in 1975, it is crisscrossed by a system of lakes, rivers, creeks, bayous and sloughs. These water resources are dominated by the Ouachita and Saline Rivers and the Felsenthal Pool. Primarily the refuge was established for wintering waterfowl habitat, endangered species and outdoor recreation. But wildlife is key. Felsenthal NWR lies within the Mississippi Flyway so the potential for birding is big. Hundreds of species of birds are known to nest in the area. A famous one is the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the refuge has one of the highest densities of this species in the state.
“Felsenthal NWR offers birding enthusiasts a diverse array of habitats to explore,” said Wilkinson. “The upland pines serve as a permanent home for red-cockaded woodpeckers, easily observed with intermediate skill level throughout the year. The open water of the Felsenthal Basin comes to life each winter with those weary fliers seeking refuge along the river banks. The bottomland hardwoods provide safe shelter and pristine foraging habitat for even the most songful travelers. Felsenthal NWR is far enough south to support many bird species through the winter, including pine warblers, yellow-rumped warblers and bald eagles.”
Birding can be done year-round in Arkansas and each season offers its own distinct flavor to savor. For those interested in a winter birding venture to Felsenthal, Wilkinson said that water levels of the Ouachita River determine the ability, or lack thereof, to access certain areas during spring and winter months. The refuge is also open to public hunting beginning September 1 until the end of January. “Those interested in visiting should consider off-peak times and no-hunting zones,” she said. “Contact the Refuge headquarters prior to planning a trip for the best up-to-date information. iNaturalist and eBird are social networking applications that are good to use while visiting too.”
Birding can also be done at NWRs across Arkansas including Pond Creek and Overflow NWRs. Overflow is located in southeast Arkansas and was established in 1980 to protect bottomland hardwood forests considered vital for waterfowl populations in the Mississippi Flyway. Located in an area where the Central and Mississippi flyways overlap, Pond Creek NWR is a bottomland, wetland ecosystem that lies between the towns of Ashdown and De Queen.
Overflow and Pond Creek NWRs provide their own distinct birding and wildlife observation opportunities, but as with Felsenthal, birders should be aware of the hunting season beginning September 1 and continuing until the end of January.
Across the U.S., national wildlife refuges teem with resident and migratory birds and those in Arkansas are no different. “Whether it is the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker at Felsenthal NWR or the thousands of ducks on Bald Knob NWR, one fact remains constant: these refuges boast a diversity of birds and their habitats,” said Wilkinson.
Many of the refuges across the nation, and especially in Arkansas, were established due to the sale of duck stamps. “Around 98 cents of every duck stamp dollar goes directly to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to purchase wildlife habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System,” said Wilkinson. “It all began in 1934. It required waterfowl hunters to purchase a federal duck stamp. Since then, more than 5 million acres of habitat have been bought and protected through this program. Duck stamps are not just for hunters, though. Birders, conservationists, and stamp collectors have become great supporters of the duck stamp program. Their support helps ensure wildlife and habitat will be around for future generations.”
Other NWRs in Arkansas include Bald Knob NWR in Bald Knob; Big Lake NWR in Manila; Cache River NWR in Augusta; Holla Bend NWR in Dardanelle; Logan Cave NWR in Siloam Springs; Wapanocca NWR in Turrell and the Dale Bumpers White River NWR in DeWitt.
By Zoie Clift, travel writer
About Arkansas Tourism
Arkansas Tourism, a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, strives to expand the economic impact of travel and tourism in the state and enhance the quality of life for all Arkansans. The division manages 14 Arkansas Welcome Centers and employs more than 60 staff members across The Natural State. For more information, visit www.arkansas.com