Counting Feathers

World Class Birding in Bella Vista

A happy place for both birds and the humans who count them.

“Tangerine skies
in a soft gentle glow
lay upon the water
wind laced ripples
carry me to shore”

— Joanie Barrett Roberts


Bella Vista is a community sitting in a nearly 50 square mile region of broadleaf forest and meadow at 1,150 ft. on the Springfield Plateau of the Ozark Mountain range. The terrain is sandstone and shale upland forests, lowland valleys, and creeks. Seven man-made lakes, significant undeveloped acreage of oak and hickory forest, and more backyard feeders per capita than anywhere else in Northwest Arkansas make it a happy place for both birds and the humans that count them.

Eastern bluebirds have received a lot of attention because of the success of a local bluebird box campaign. Public participation in the effort to restore the bluebird population has informed conservation and environmental restoration conversation. Unfortunately, although bluebird numbers are rising, the total bird population has dropped 30% since the 1970s, so Bella Vista birders are watching more than just bluebirds.

Butch Tetzlaff, who co-owns The Bluebird Shed in Bella Vista along with his wife Sarah Coffer, is one of NW Arkansas’s resident ornithologists. Although Tetzlaff has a degree in biology and did graduate work in ornithology at Illinois State University, he still calls his interest in the birds an ‘overgrown hobby.’ When Tetzlaff moved to the region, he immediately began scientifically documenting the birds that visited his backyard.

Four billion birds take to the sky over the United States in annual migrations. As Tetzlaff has observed, “The edges of fly zones going in all four directions pass over the Ozarks so the local bird population, both in species and numbers, has the potential to change as the wind blows. Flocks pursuing their historical flight path— north to summer to breed in the Great Lake region, and south again to the coast— are likely to stop for a while in Bella Vista.” Tetzlaff estimates that one could theoretically see about 300 different species in the region over time.

Titmouse Take Off. Quin Warsaw © 2020

Canadian Geese

Individual birders have long pursued their fascination with birds, documenting that passion on personal life-lists. For the past century, professional and citizen scientists have worked together in Audubon’s highly organized on-going project of education, observation, and sharing of data—the Christmas Bird Count. Until relatively recently, Bella Vista birds both resident species and migratory visitors, went uncounted.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a massive effort across the Western Hemisphere to collect and analyze data about bird populations. As Tetzlaff points out, “effectively counting birds takes a lot of people covering a large area, which is prohibitively costly for scientific organizations without the help of citizens.” This past December was the 120th year of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the second year that the Bella Vista birding community requested and was assigned an official area to count. The Western Hemisphere is divided up into circles 15 miles in diameter and the count within each circle is coordinated by a count compiler. Tetzlaff is the organizer and count compiler for the circle that includes Bella Vista.

The center point of the circle is right on the southernmost tip of Bella Vista and entirely encompasses the City of Bella Vista, 1/3 of Bentonville, and most of Centerton. The birds in each circle are counted on the same day in the last two weeks of December and the first week in January. Count volunteers follow specified routes, reporting every bird they see or hear all day. It’s not just a species tally—every individual bird is counted if seen or heard. If your home is within the boundaries of a CBC circle, then you can stay home and report the birds that visit your feeder on count day as long as you have made prior arrangement with the count compiler. Local citizen scientists stood up for the count on Saturday, December 14 and reported sighting 81 species and a total of nearly 8,000 birds within their designated circle.

When she retired to Bella Vista two years ago, avid birder Gail Storm wasted no time in forming the Bella Vista Birders group. Storm was active in her local Audubon Society chapter in California. Eager to learn about the birds of NWA and missing the community of fellow birders, she organized Bella Vista Birders and encouraged them to participate in the project to help put Bella Vista on the birding map.

Canadian Geese. Quin Warsaw © 2020

Heron Rookery

Storm is enthusiastic about the response to her desire to bring birders together. “Lots of people enjoy watching birds,” she says. “We are helping folks become better at identifying species and giving them the ready, regular, and coordinated way to report what they see. Paying detailed attention and participating in organized environmental events also helps people become more aware of the need to protect the habitat.”

In addition to participating in services such as the CBC, plans for the club include local birding outings and walks beyond the backyard. Storm suggests travel to places like the Swepco Lake to see bald eagles or stay in Bella Vista on the Back 40 local trails, now 40 miles and rapidly expanding.

Both Tetzlaff and Storm agree that historical data in the area about the bird population is important. Service projects will include one-time events like the recent POA organized Berksdale Golf Course BioBlitz and recurring events like the Christmas Bird Count, but a more scientific approach to collecting data throughout the year will inform understanding of the health of bird populations in NWA and in Bella Vista specifically. Tetzlaff and Dr. Jennifer Mortensen of the University of Arkansas have set up a scientific data collection protocol to study how bird populations ebb and flow every month of the year. As more and more residents count and report bird activity in their own backyards as it unfolds each month, a valuable picture of how bird populations are being affected by changes in weather and habitat will come into focus.

Heron at Sunset. Quin Warsaw © 2020

In the last decade, Northwest Arkansas was ranked as the 13th fastest-growing region in the nation. Bella Vista’s property development was—and is—designed by its history. Land-ownership in Bella Vista has been managed since early in the 20th Century by a series of visionaries. Today, much of Bella Vista is still under the control of the Property Owners Association. From the man-made lakes, open green-space golf courses, and undeveloped land bordering residential lots to the Back 40 Trail system, this chain of changing hands has been good for bird habitat.

Local environmental awareness is evident in the decision to work toward certification of Berksdale Golf Course as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. The Audubon certification is a rigorous process requiring complete documentation of the habitat, flora, and fauna of the course and a redesign of course management policies and procedures to create and maintain a space that ‘works for the game of golf’ as well as maximizing it as an environmentally healthy open green space. Wendy Barnes, assistant superintendent of Berksdale Golf Course was drafted to head up this rigorous effort. Barnes has a background in horticulture and landscape management with a BA in Agricultural Science from the University of Arkansas and a career of jobs that steered her interest, knowledge, and experience toward sustainability.

Wendy has a passion and concern for the environment, which she shares with her supervisor. At a time when golf courses are under intense scrutiny and criticism for land and water uses, the POA made a decision to work with Audubon to see if there was a way forward for both the environment and the game. It has not been an easy project. There are seven stringent components to qualify as a sanctuary, and as a result, the management of Berksdale Golf Course has changed the way it maintains the course including implementing custom design water conservation and water quality practices. Even management of the proportion and location of greens and rough have changed.

Ironically, Berksdale is not currently open as a golf course. In 2016, major flooding forced the POA to close nine holes. The damage was significant and the decision was made to experiment using it as a nine-hole course. Last year, another rain event resulted in a log jam damaging the bridge that provided access from the club house, so a decision was made to close the entire course for safety reasons. However, Barnes and the Berksdale team continue to pursue the Audubon Sanctuary goal. Successfully, it turns out. Barnes cites evidence: “In 2015 I saw maybe a single monarch on the course. Planted milkweed was one of our improvement efforts and last year it was covered with Monarchs. It was exciting to watch the caterpillars hatching.”

Education and outreach is one of the qualifying components on which Berksdale is still working. Bella Vista participated in Audubon’s International BioBlitz in May of last year. Residents and a number of visiting professional naturalists from other parts of the state explored and documented micro-habitats and the fauna that live there. On that day, birders counted 55 different species on a course now being well managed for birdies—and the birds.