Pretty birds and Petit Jean

Posted January 31, 2013 at 10:05 am

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I always wonder in the winter, when everything is completely frozen and the only available water is the flowing shoals of the rivers, how do wild birds and small mammals survive without water? There are times here in the Ozarks when there is absolutely no available water for days. In northern states there are weeks when water isn’t available.

Right outside the window of my office here on Lightnin’ Ridge, there’s a little bird feeder, which a dozen species of birds visit and empty in about two days. During that last session when we had rain beginning to freeze, long icicles hung from the little roof of that feeder. As the temperature warmed, those icicles began to drip and a red-bellied woodpecker, feeding on the seeds below, took advantage of the situation by tilting his head sideways and sipping the dripping water with the tip of his beak. I watched all kinds of birds come to the feeder that day, and he was the only one getting a drink from the dripping icicles. The feeder is only a couple of feet from the window, but wouldn’t you know I couldn’t find my camera.

There are several dominant species in the collection of birds which feed there. The red-bellied woodpecker is one, and the bluejay and doves do not seem to worry much about being chased away. Nuthatches, though small, are not bullied by much of anything, but titmice and chickadees have a rough time of it. The nuthatch never eats anything at the feeder; he just dashes in, finds what he wants and takes it to a nearby giant white oak where he stashes food in the bark. I think a big pileated woodpecker, about a foot long, gets some of his stash on occasion.

I can watch birds come to that feeder for hours, and it fascinates me. It is something to see some species come to the feeder that you seldom see there, like the white-throated sparrow. On this ridge-top, I have seen about every kind of bird. Not long ago an eagle sat on the limb of a tall oak only a few yards from my office. The little pond I built 100 yards from one window is visited on occasion by migratory waterfowl. In January, about five years back, a roadrunner came up my driveway. I haven’t seen one since.

Remember when I was puzzled about six or seven bluebirds returning to the bluebird nesting box in December? Joan Jefferson, from Freeman, sent me an e-mail saying that many bluebirds stay all winter and they like to group together in nesting boxes they used in the spring and summer.

“We actually see more bluebirds in the winter when they come to our heated birdbath for a drink or quick bath than we do in the summer,” Ms. Freeman stated. “We have also watched our two Carolina Wrens come to their former nest box about 4:30 in the evening during the winter and spend the night together in the security and warmth of the box hanging under our house’s eaves.”

And now I feel guilty because I don’t have a heated watering place for my birds. Guess I will have to invent something since I can’t afford to buy anything but bird food. Grain has become so high the last couple of years I have to cut back on ammunition just to pay for dog food and bird food.

Another thing that amazes me is a couple of lawn plants that have been producing blooms all winter long. There are little white blossoms on a bush known as bridal wreath spirea and they have been there since October even with many nighttime temperatures falling into the teens. The coldest two nights we have had was 17 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Not far away, there are always a few red blossoms on a flowering quince bush. How can this be? January blossoms, encased in ice.

I wrote last week about going to Hot Springs and I thought I might tell readers a little about Petit Jean State Park, which is one of the most spectacular places you will ever see. Petit Jean Mountain towers above the Arkansas River, and it is a huge flat-topped mountain with unbelievable views. In the 1700’s a French explorer by the name of Chavet sailed a ship up the Arkansas River and came upon the mountain where Indians had several villages. He and his crew spent the summer there with those Indians. A girl, said to be Chavet’s betrothed, had disguised herself as a cabin boy, and apparently did such a good job, no one knew. On the day that Chavet was to descend the mountain, the boy, known as Petit Jean or ‘Little John’ in English, became very ill, and died a day or so later. She was buried on a beautiful overlook at the east side of the mountain and thousands visit her grave each year. The bulk of the park sets on the west side of the Mountain and there is a rustic lodge and restaurant there open all winter. Several cabins are also available.

A deep, deep gorge runs through the west side of the mountain, formed by a huge waterfall that must be 100 feet high. Nearby is a great yawning opening known as the Rockhouse Cave, where prehistoric men lived and there are still petroglyphs (red paintings) in the wall of the cave. The rock in that area is hard to describe, but you have never seen anything quite like it. People who visit Petit Jean Park take pictures of the unusual rock design, and all kinds of old walls, water towers and cabins built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The most photos, however, are taken from those towering cliffs and sheer rock bluff outcroppings. There have been many people killed in falls from those steep precipices at Petit Jean over the years, and I want to say to anyone who takes children there, stay away from those overlooks. As magnificent as those views are, stay back. There are several places where strong decking with fences afford you a safe view. Use those.

Petit Jean is located about 25 miles by road, southeast of Russellville, AR, about 12 miles due east of Centerville, AR, part of the Ouachita mountain range. In the summer it is hot and humid, and crowded. In the winter it is not crowded, and much warmer than it is up here in the Ozarks. I recommend that if you run out of things to do in the winter, you go see this magnificent, splendid park. It towers over a lowland waterfowl refuge down on the Arkansas River known as Holla Bend, which is also worth seeing when spring migrations begin in February and March.

You can listen to my “Outdoorsman” radio program each Sunday morning at 8:06 a.m. on KWTO 560 AM out of Springfield. This coming Sunday I am going to talk about a place to find early crappie fishing, way down in the corner of Arkansas and Texas at a very unusual lake, Millwood. The spawn comes early way down there, and the crappie are really big ones. If you can’t pick up the station on your radio, you can hear it on your computer by going to or

You can contact me via email at or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613. My website is

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