At Brinkley on Interstate 40 in east Arkansas a big billboard boasts that the little town is ‘home to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’. You have a much better chance of seeing Bill and Hilary Clinton riding naked on a tandem bicycle at Brinkley than you do of spotting an ivorybill there, but never mind, there’s a good story here anyway. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was thought extinct for the past seven decades but in 2004 reputable observers reported seeing one or two in the vicinity of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge south of Brinkley. This was so astonishing that numbers of experts who think they know better simply don’t believe it. I’m inclined to accept the claims and feel heartened by the notion that a big beautiful woodpecker – North America’s largest – could be hanging on by a toenail or two in the wilds of southeastern Arkansas despite the best collective efforts of 300 million Americans to wipe out their habitat. Jan and I of course did not get to see one; the closest we got to an encounter was seeing a lovely illustration on the cover of an Arkansas birding brochure but what fun it was to imagine that we might have been within a hundred miles of a healthy mated pair going about their carefree business in the same fashion their ancestors did throughout the eons.
Jan and I like American national wildlife refuges. Typically they are beautiful out-of-the-way oases often as devoid of people as they are chock-a-block with birds. Two refuges entertained us in the past few days: Holla Bend in Arkansas and Salt Plains in Oklahoma. Neither provided spectacles as grand as some we have seen in other NWRs but we always feel rewarded by the time we spend in these marvellous places.
NWRs are there for wildlife, not people; normally there are no camping facilities so we look for nearby public campgrounds boasting unique or attractive natural features. State parks have been very good to us on this trip: lately we’ve had fascinating geology at Petit Jean, mountain vistas at Mount Nebo (both in Arkansas), salt flats and selenite crystals at Salt Plains, expansive sand dunes at Beaver Dunes (both in Oklahoma).
At this time of year crowding is not a problem – we can usually find a corner off by ourselves. We camped at Great Salt Plains State Park adjacent to the NWR, went to sleep with a horned owl calling from a tree beside us, then awoke to find a huge flotilla -- hundreds of white pelicans and double-crested cormorants -- rafting down the Arkansas River Salt Fork right behind our camper. Try matching that at your typical KOA campground.
On these transcontinental migrations all we can ever do is a trace a long thin line, trying to ensure the current line is sufficiently different from the ones we’ve traced before. Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma were ‘lifers’ for us this time so we headed out into that new territory. Following Oklahoma 64 along the Oklahoma Panhandle, squeezed between Kansas to the north, Texas to the south, we know we’re now well and truly in the west: prairie-dog towns, loggerhead shrikes, singing western meadowlarks, rusting ranch windmills. New Mexico is next on our horizon.