Duck Soup

Audubon, May-June 2006

In a floodplain near the Mississippi River is one of the country’s last remaining bottomland forests. The primordial ooze in these soggy woods is home to millions of small fish and insects—enough to feed 300,000 wintering mallards, gadwalls, teals and other ducks.

Down in the bottoms, the hard rain has stopped, and Larry Mallard and I slosh through ankle-high water into the deep-green forest of the White River National Wildlife Refuge, near St. Charles, Arkansas. Sturdy oaks, elms, sugarberries, and ashes tower over us as cicadas and chorus frogs break the afternoon silence. Mallard, the manager of the refuge, points to a line of light-brown silt on the thick trunk of an oak, about 16 feet up from the forest floor. “That’s the high-water mark,” he says. I peer up, amazed. Such massive flooding would kill most trees as easily as an overwatered houseplant. But the ones here are thriving. Even Mallard, who for decades has seen winter floodwaters submerge this forest, seems momentarily impressed by the height of the year’s flood. “That would be extreme water,” he says.

Mallard and I are walking just a few miles from the Mississippi River, in the closest thing the Mississippi Valley and most of the nation have to the forest primeval—the vast bottomland forest fringing Arkansas’s White River. It’s a land where centuries-old tupelo gum trees still sit in watery backswamps alongside bald cypress trees that grew here before Columbus.

An hour ago we were standing at the edge of the White River, across from recently flooded trees sitting far above its muddy bank. Now we’re in the forest, and Mallard, a bearlike man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a baritone drawl, is explaining how native river fish make full use of such floods: “The water comes out here and sits, currents are moving, and the fish move out here looking for something to feed on.” It’s a bit jarring to imagine a two-foot gar chasing minnows at the level of my face right now. But such sights are common here when the water’s high.

As the White River snakes toward the Mississippi across the flat delta land of southeastern Arkansas, its floodwaters nourish a unique 155,000-acre forest that still shelters most of its original species, including bald eagles, river otters, black bears, and bobcats. Up to 350,000 ducks—mallards, gadwalls, teals, and wigeons—winter here each year, fattening up on insect larvae and other invertebrates before flying north to breed. All told, the White River refuge harbors more than 250 species of birds, including rare songbirds, herons, egrets, storks, and kites.

In the spring of 2004, a few miles upstream in the 64,000-acre Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, searchers videotaped the long-lost ivory-billed woodpecker. The discovery made headlines worldwide, and some scientists believe a remnant population of the woodpecker remains in the White River refuge. Still, Mallard says, “the compelling story is the ecosystem.”

That ecosystem once covered river floodplains throughout the Southeast, especially in the Lower Mississippi valley, whose flat floodplain spreads up to 125 miles and stretches from southern Illinois to Louisiana. For millennia the Mississippi and tributaries like the White, the Yazoo, the Tennessee, and the Tensas would abandon their banks each winter, linger in the woods for months, then retreat reluctantly each summer. Today just 4.8 million acres—or 20 percent—of the original 24 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest remain, much of it cut off by levees from the rivers that once fed it. But not here. On this day Mallard and I are wandering one of the finest such forests left on earth.

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