- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

GENTRY, Ark. (AP) - Soaring bald eagles, colorful butterflies and wildflowers are the attractions at the Eagle Watch Nature Trail west of Gentry. Now, there’s even more to see along the level, one-half mile path through meadows and forest near Swepco Lake.

A new wildlife viewing pavilion smells of fresh-cut lumber where it overlooks the blue water part way down the path. The original viewing pavilion at the end of the trail is upgraded with new wooden hand rails and steps. Either pavilion is ideal for bird watchers and photographers to see feathered and furry wildlife, which is abundant, within a short, easy walk.

The fresh look starts as soon as visitors pull into the parking area, located two miles west of Gentry on Arkansas 12. The lot has been resurfaced with gravel, one of the first amenities Terry Stanfill pointed out during a leisurely walk Feb. 17 on the trail.

Stanfill is the volunteer caretaker at the trail. The path leads to Swepco Lake, north of the Flint Creek Power Plant, operated by Southwestern Electric Power Co. The coal-fueled plant draws water from the lake that’s used to produce electricity for much of Northwest Arkansas.

Even the trail surface is new. The trail has been resurfaced with ash that is removed from the power plant smoke stack, said Stanfill, who worked at the plant for years.

Small signs that identify tree types and vegetation have been replaced with new ones. Bird houses built by students welcome species from bluebirds to screech owls.

Stanfill noted power plant employees and volunteers did much of the work to bring a fresh look to the trail and grounds. They help maintain the trail and did major work on a butterfly garden at the start of the route, he said.

A meadow blackened by a recent prescribed burn sat on Stanfill’s left as he started down the trail.

“We try to burn it every year. Burning removes all the thatch and exposes the soil so new growth can come up and germinate,” he said.

Fire helps wildflowers and native grasses thrive while keeping invasive species in check, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette (https://bit.ly/2nb8ncQ ) reports.

Little Flint Creek, dry this time of year, was on Stanfill’s right. Some early blossoms on a small tree got his attention. He nosed up to the petals and took a sniff.

“Ozark witch hazel.”

The blooms had a sweet, slightly pungent aroma.

“There’s a fall type of Ozark witch hazel and a spring type. This is the spring one,” he said.

The new wildlife pavilion comes into view more toward the lake. Stanfill showed a screech owl house near the entrance built by 4-H youths. They built two screech owl houses and two bat houses.

“We’ve cleaned up brush and planted swamp milkweed for monarch butterflies,” Stanfill said.

Seeds for coneflowers and other species were sown on some of the 65 acres that take in the trail.

A major work day takes place close to Earth Day. Adult and student volunteers gather at the Eagle Watch Nature Trail to clean up, fix up, dig, trim, plant, whatever needs to be done. The crew gets a bountiful pizza lunch and a nature program. Lynn Sciumbato with Morning Star Wildlife Rehabilitation near Gravette brings some of the live birds under her care to dazzle the volunteers.

Stanfill stepped on to the planks of the new pavilion. Southwestern Electric Power Company funded construction of the pavilion. Transparent plastic panes keep the cold north wind at bay. Windows in the pavilion are perfect for seeing bald eagles and shorebirds. Five hundred acre Swepco Lake is home to a sizable wintering population of eagles.

There are tables and benches inside, a perfect spot for a picnic, Stanfill noted.

Eagle Watch Nature Trail is a teaching destination as well. All sixth-grade students in Gentry public schools visited the trail Feb. 24 on field trips. Gene Collins, a teacher at Siloam Springs High School, brings his animal science and plant science students to the trail.

“We try to go two to four times a year in the fall and spring,” he said. “In the fall, they get to see the fall foliage and the different plants we have in the fall. We like to go in the winter for the eagles. In the spring they see all the new weeds and wildflowers coming up. What we teach in the classroom transfers to actual experience out in the trail.”

The trail was built in 1999 as a stewardship effort of the power company.

Visitors are asked to sign a register. Stanfill said 19,000 visits have been recorded since the trail opened. That likely represents less than one-half of the total visits, he said. Those who sign in often leave notes of praise for the trail.

Eagle Watch Nature Trail has received national awards, including citations from the Wildlife Habitat Council and Corporate Lands for Learning. The trail has been named a “pollinator friendly site” by the Wildlife Habitat Council, Stanfill said.

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Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.nwaonline.com

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