Saturday, January 1, 2011

Winter in the Delta

The Arkansas Delta is the winter home of many migratory birds. Located along the central flyway, great numbers of waterfowl from Canada and the northern United States winter in the Delta. The harvested agricultural fields offer the migratory visitors ample high-energy food, and the Mississippi River and its tributaries afford cover and protection. The temperate Arkansas Delta experiences four distinct seasons. As fall turns into winter, ducks and geese arrive in great numbers. The last week of December brought large flocks of pintail ducks, as seen in today’s photo. I encountered these puddle ducks feeding in the wet stubble of a harvested rice field near one of our bee yards. Other fields hold mallards and northern shovelers, both colorful puddle ducks. Wary wood ducks hide in tree-lined corners of lakes on our bird sanctuary. Overhead, large flocks of snow geese can be seen throughout the day. A few dozen Canada geese drop in with our domestic geese at sundown. The birds gain weight in the winter eating high-energy spilled grain, plant material, and invertebrates. The migrants are driven to the South by snow cover preventing them from accessing food. They will remain in the Arkansas Delta throughout the winter unless the surface remains hard-frozen for an extended period. Then, they will move further south. The area’s farmers welcome the migratory waterfowl; many flood fields to provide food for the birds. The birds help control crop weeds, especially red rice, by eating the seed in flooded fields.

The waterfowl evolved a survival strategy based upon migrating with the changing seasons. In the fall and winter, they leave their snow-covered northern range and fly hundreds of miles to suitable grounds in the South. Some, like gadwalls and American wigeons fly early, but most wait until late. Migrating at night, they let the strong North winds of an arctic cold front carry them South, saving a great amount of energy. Meanwhile, honey bees remain inside their hives, generating warmth from high-energy honey.

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