Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge

On a very early, very cold morning, we packed ourselves up to head somewhere to find some wild creatures. We wound up at Holla Bend (which is the best name ever) about an hour after sunrise.

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We didn’t meet up with anyone while we meandered around, half in the car and half trying to convince the dog to get out of the car because he thought it was too early in the morning. It would be our luck to adopt a pet that needs the equivalent of three shots of espresso to wake up before 11am.

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Holla Bend sits between the old and new paths of the Arkansas River, and attracts myriad birds and wildlife that hang out there at various times of the year. It even has alligators!

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The added bonus here is that it’s absolutely gorgeous, so you get lots of photo vomit to look through. For instance, we didn’t realize that apparently cormorants are planning to take over the world. The very first thing we saw was a large congregation of them in the middle of the river, plotting amongst themselves until their scouts warned them of our arrival.

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About the time the Other Half convinced me the trail ended three miles ago (obviously an exaggeration. It was only thirty feet), we returned to the car to move on in our attempt to find eagles, swans, geese, and zebras.

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You’re probably thinking, what is this girl on? Zebras? You’re in the wrong spot for those, missy! But hear me out. In medicine and a few other fields, a ‘zebra’ is a disease that has a very rare occurrence but may resemble other, more common diseases. There’s a saying that goes with it: ‘when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. It’s a reminder that although you remain vigilant for the rarities, you’re more likely to find something common.

For instance, bald eagles would be a horse; they’re extremely common in Holla Bend and commonly nest there. Golden eagles, on the other hand, are zebras. They hardly ever go south of I40, but when they do, it’s awesome. Unfortunately, this became an important distinction for us later in the day.

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But I digress. Our first meeting with any people was actually at an old boat dock where several swans had been seen over the past week or so. We didn’t find any of them, but we found a group of my favorite funny-looking waterbirds diving around the area:

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Something we realized early on in our adventure was that Holla Bend was a predator’s paradise. Not that we saw lots of food, but we saw lots of predators, including a vast list that you can read through below.

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Among the coyotes and foxes we saw were red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles, kestrels, harrier hawks, cooper’s hawks, turkey vultures, and, most importantly, barred owls.

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Yes, that’s right, we finally found one of the buggers that we could take a picture of. Now we just need to get a picture of a great horned owl and we’ll be set.

While we were walking near the owl, we noticed a strange noise. We listened to it for several minutes, unable to figure out what it was. apparently, though, it was a decoy. When the pup and I turned around, several large does had walked up to the car and were quietly inspecting it. And then, as we were pulling out the camera, they noticed they’d been spotted and bolted. The cads.

No matter where we looked, it seemed like the refuge was teeming with life, even during the winter.

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And when we reached the refuge observatory, we were totally stoked to find a total of 12 snow geese flying near us. How cool was that?

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How were we going to top that? Well, we decided that we should take a break from the refuge to go see this giant waterfall at a nearby state park, so on our way out we took one last look at the refuge before leaving for the afternoon.

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Well, but that’s not the end of the story, is it? After visiting the falls, we still had about an hour of sunlight left. And that, my friends, is the witching hour of life. Suddenly, everything wants to get their last meal in before it gets cold and dark. Trust me, it totally works.

Sure enough, the Other Half was getting hungry and had a hankering to get home. See, told you! Ha! However, he gave me the benefit of the doubt and we visited the refuge again.

When we pulled out of the car, it was very quiet. Then, a quiet roar filled the air. We turned to each other and asked, “Do you hear…geese?”

About that time, a giant black cloud rose up from the eastern horizon, and I thought, this trip is perfect. We even get bats! Okay, I didn’t think that, but it still reminded me of the funnel-clouds of bats coming out around sunset.

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As a matter of fact, it was a giant cloud of snow geese, making our earlier observation a bit underwhelming. By our estimates from our pictures, there were approximately 3,000 geese flying over our heads as they landed in the Arkansas for the evening. While that’s not a huge flock of them by any means, it was still pretty stinking awesome.

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Once they were gone, we looked at each other and said, “I’ll bet the swans are back, too!” (We do a lot of looking at each other and saying obvious statements.). So we hopped in the car and down the road we went. About 2 miles up the road, I got distracted by a cardinal. I was holding out for the perfect cardinal picture ever, a close-up in focus with some kind of manic glint in the little bird’s eye. As I was leaning on the car to put a lens on the camera to do just that, a massive brown bird swooped down over the river suddenly, massive legs extended at my little camera.

True story, this actually happened. As the Other Half and I saw the shadow, we were going “Eagle! It’s coming right for us!” While we fumbled with the lens, it broke from its dive just long enough to apparently realize I wasn’t a deer, and instead made an embarrassed beeline for the trees. I took off after it, determined to have pictorial evidence that I had just been broadsided by an eagle.

I realize now that every time something really cool happens, you get a UFO picture. Oh, you saw Nessy? Your camera hit a sunspot right at that moment and blurred it out. Oh, you saw a giant eagle come after you? Sorry, all you can tell is that it’s something that may or may not have wings.

Remember that discussion from earlier? Horses, not zebras? We were completely convinced we had just seen the elusive golden eagle. I mean, this thing was humongous. How could it not be this rare and gorgeous bird? Well, I guess it might not have if it was a desperate little third year bald eagle. Unfortunately the biggest impression I got besides “Holy crap, giant bird!” was that it had extremely broad wings near the body, which points toward a baldie instead of a golden eagle.

However, we did get the chance to play a resounding game of ‘how many deer do you see?’ Let’s play it now!

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You should see 3 big does, right? Well, so did we. It wasn’t until they flagged their tails and leaped off that we realized there were like 27 of them behind those rushes and across the left side of the street.

We also got to see the most harrier hawks I’ve ever seen in my life.

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I wondered where they were headed since they all seemed to be going the same direction.

On the one hand, we could have spent days there. On the other hand, it wasn’t until the geese and the eagle that the Other Half was suddenly wanting to stay an extra night. I guess Holla Bend just has that impression on people.


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