By Larry Dablemont
You see some strange things in nature when you spend as much time outdoors as I do. I live in the woods far from people, and I always have…always will. And I travel all over the Ozarks visiting wild places, seeing things that amaze me. On the first day of January I saw something that really surprised me. It was a flock of ten or fifteen white pelicans on Truman Lake, which lies just along the edge of the northern Ozarks of Missouri.
Do you realize how odd that is? Pelicans migrate from northern waters well up into Canada each fall. They are usually down around the Louisiana coast by now, and not migrating back north until April. Why would they be in the Ozarks now? The only reason I can think of is the abundance of food. On Truman Lake, gizzard shad are dying off by the thousands, as they do each winter. If the water doesn’t freeze, I suppose Pelicans can stand the cold, to slurp up hordes of dying shad. Pelicans are at the peak of their numbers now, overpopulated to my way of thinking. But never ever have I seen a pelican in the Ozarks in January.
That isn’t the only unusual occurrence this January. All over the Ozarks there are flocks of shoveler ducks, also commonly known as spoonbills. I killed one a day or so ago while duck hunting. I’ve never even seen a flock of shovelers in January that I recall. They migrate early, just a little behind blue-winged teal in the fall. Then they are one of the early migrators in the spring too. You will see them in bright plumage, coming through the Ozarks earlier than any other duck beside the blue-wings. And then, they are a beautiful bird, but not so much now. They, along with the goldeneyes are perhaps the poorest eating of any of the puddle ducks, and not very large, just a step or two larger than the teals and buffleheads. Last year about this time I saw the only flock of ruddy ducks I have ever seen while duck hunting.
I am seeing the natural world completely out of alignment over the last few years, and I wonder what it means. Now I am seeing the black vultures moving into the northern Ozarks as well, and I don’t like it. They are scavengers, but also killers. They will search for and kill newborn calves, and other offspring of farm animals. Native turkey buzzards won’t do that. I would kill every black vulture I could if I was a rancher or farmer. Conservation departments everywhere should encourage that, but instead these non-native birds are protected, expanding and coming north, I believe partly because of the thousands of dead chickens and turkeys that huge poultry farms discard.
I spend hours along the watershed of this giant northern Ozark reservoir, Truman Lake, because of almost 120 thousand acres of land around it set aside and protected from developers. There is one particular area that is as close to a natural Ozark wilderness as I have ever seen, with gigantic trees of dozens of hardwood species larger than any individuals of many species I have ever seen. It is a phenomenal place. It is full of Ozark wildlife too, eagles nest there, as do most birds, and migrating waterfowl of all species pass through.
From February through April, I take up to a dozen people at a time to that area via a large pontoon boat and guide them into that forest to see and enjoy what is really rare woodland. That goes back to my days as Chief Naturalist for the Arkansas Park System and a stint as a naturalist for the National Park Service on the Buffalo National River, and then the years I worked as a naturalist for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, exploring and reporting on rivers and woodlands in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. On these trips into natural areas on Truman, we return to have a big fish fry on the lakeshore, and do not return to civilization until the sun sets. You can join me if you want on one of those trips, which will continue until the morels are gone in April. I take any group of eight to 15 people.
The timber is so large and diverse that it will be destroyed someday. The Missouri Department of Conservation is a partner in managing much of the 120 thousand acres with the Corps of Engineers, and they make part of their millions by contracting loggers to take the big trees from such areas. They have been doing much of that on the upper end of the big lake for years. But for awhile that forest is there to enjoy, and I spend countless hours there this time of year with my camera. It is a magnificent natural area, something representative of the Ozarks long, long ago. I wish such areas could be saved from the loggers, but of course they cannot. A nation with exploding populations never has enough lumber. I just thank God every time I go there that I get to see such places, while 99 percent of Americans spends such days in crowded suburbs, office cubicles and traffic jams. I know they are the normal ones in society. I’m the oddball. But I like being one!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.