Phil Floyd and I trekked out to Cherokee, OK on Friday (the 26th) to take part in the annual Celebration of Birds at the nearby Salt Plains NWR.  Neither of us had been there before so after checking into the motel late in the afternoon, we headed out to familiarize ourselves with the area.

     Along the 15-mile stretch of highway between Cherokee and the Refuge, we found a
HUGE flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds behaving as cowbirds at the feet of a small herd of cattle.  These were the first Yellow-heads I've seen since the OOS meeting at Roman Nose State Park a year ago and I've missed seeing them; in my opinion, they're the "best" blackbird.  We even got to hear some of their "R2D2" calls.  Continuing east, we found ourselves slowing and even stopping on each bridge across the many streams and ponds that dot the route.  At one stop, we watched Barn, Cliff, and Rough-winged Swallows perform an intricate inter-species aerial ballet.  At another, two pairs of Wood Ducks, right out in the open.

     Soon after we turned into the drive through the Refuge, we ran into Berlin Heck and Jim Deming.  They'd just talked to Jim Harmon, who said the only shorebird of note he'd seen so far was one "Semipalmated," no doubt because of the poor weather.  We weren't sure if that was a plover or sandpiper, but we nodded in mute commiseration over the possible dearth of shorebirds on Saturday if the weather didn't improve, and continued on our way.  Because of the cold, we didn't get out of the car at the Refuge HQ but continued south on Hwy 38.  At Nescatunga, we found a pair of dirt ruts that led out to the beach through what was apparently a city park.  Phil and I share a passion for dirt roads; whenever we find one, we can hardly resist turning into it, altho' Phil expressed some reservations about turning into THIS dirt road because of his van's low ground clearance.  But accepting the risk yielded a singing
Brown Thrasher as well as E. Phoebe, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, E. Bluebirds, Amer. Robins, a Bewick's Wren, Purple Martins, Chickadees, Titmice, and lots of Cardinals.  Also Chipping, Field, and Lark Sparrows.  Despite the cold, we were finding a goodly variety of birds.

     We arrived at the dam just as the sun was setting.  By now, it was REALLY cold and the wind had not let up one iota but we couldn't help ourselves; we just had to see what was out on the water, so we hiked up the stairs and took a look!  Several large flocks of Pelicans were feeding below the spillway.  One really bedraggled Gr. Blue Heron fished on the rim of one of the spillway tiers.  We watched two
Spotted Sandpipers fanny-dipping their way along the shores below us, their spots really startin' to show on their flanks.  (By the way, how do you s'pose they learn to walk like that??  I tell ya, I have GOT to learn how to mimic their gate; being single, I think it's a talent that could do my social life a world of good!!)  Large flocks of Franklin's Gulls flew over, apparently on their way to a night roost.  Many flocks of small shorebirds flashed over our heads, altho' none landed---which frustrated me no end!!  "Follow that bird!" I kept urging Phil, who merely rolled his eyes at me and slowly drove on.  We finished the evening with a whopping (considering the weather) 55 species in 3-4 hours of birding.

     Initially, we had planned to join the 6:30 Advanced Birding tour or even the 8:00 Intermediate tour on Saturday morning.  But neither of us are early risers by choice, and gettin' up in the cold and dark---let alone the rain which developed overnight---at 5:00 a.m., to bird for several hours BEFORE breakfast, did not appeal.  So we decided to sleep in until daylight, bird on our own in the morning, and then join one of the tours in the afternoon.  After a hearty breakfast, we headed back over toward the Refuge.  At one of our bridges (where we'd stopped the previous evening), we now found 2 Amer. Avocets, a couple Long-billed Dowitchers, Greater Yellowlegs, and some peeps.  And as we pulled off the bridge and over to the side of the road to let cars pass, I watched a rather tall whitish bird with bold black-and-red stripes down the back/sides of its head and neck land near the Avocets.  I knew at once that THIS was something different!! so as Phil killed the van's engine, I hurriedly leafed through my Sibley's guide.... and discovered that I'd just seen a female Wilson's Phalarope!  The last time I'm certain I saw a Wilson's Phalarope was in July 1999 (in Minnesota) so you can bet I was excited about this bird.  We walked as quietly as possible (god, I was
SO excited!) back to the bridge and "snuck up on" the shorebirds still remaining in the water below us, and sure enough, there was the phalarope.  It was behaving rather un-phalarope-y, tho'.... picking at the sand along the shore instead of swimming in circles, stirrin' whatever it could find in the water.  I'd only recently learned that the sex roles of Wilson's Phalaropes are reversed in that the drab male incubates the eggs while the brightly-colored female wanders, and I'm especially fond of any bird where I can tell whether it's male or female by its plumage, so I drank in the sight of this one bird like a parched man who finds water in the desert.

     Eventually the bird flew and we turned our attention to the swarm of peeps on the mudflats below the bridge.  Neither of us has a scope but these little birds were so intent on feeding that they let us get to within about 20 yards of them; best look I'd ever had of shorebirds with only binoculars:  Semipalmated, Pectoral, and Least Sandpipers, Sanderlings, and a few Greater Yellowlegs.


"...98, 99, 100..."
Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge
April 28, 2002
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(c) Copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2002
    It was now just after 10:00 so we drove back to Sandpiper Point where Jim Harmon was to have been stationed, helping birders to "find and identify those confusing peeps."  We hiked down the trail toward the observation "tower," battling a fierce headwind the whole way that kept threatenin' to steal my birdin' hat, and upon arriving at the "tower" (it's about shoulder-high off the ground), we found ONE Semipalmated Sandpiper and NO Jim Harmon.  (I wondered if this was the "Semipalmated" Berlin had mentioned the night before.)  We met Charlotte and Bud Puckett of Enid out there, and the 4 of us stood in the wind and tried to share bird notes, but it was hard to hear what each other was saying with the wind snatching every word the moment it was spoken, so we mostly just nodded and smiled at each other.  Finally, we said good-bye, hiked back to the car, and turned again toward the Refuge.

     As we approached another pond along the highway, Phil noticed something in the water that caused him to swerve off the road and bring the van to an abrupt halt.  We bailed out of the car and found ourselves watching A FLOCK of _9_ Wilson's Phalaropes, and this time, they were whirly-gigging (my own word) in the water in true phalarope style!!  Females and males together this time so again, I got great looks at this wonder-of-wonders that's been too long absent from my yearly birdlists.

     "Isn't that the way it goes?" Phil observed, "you see one, you see a dozen!!"
    The sun came out by the time we reached the Refuge HQ so we decided to go for a walk on the nearby Nature Trail.  Didn't see much---a few Butterbutts (properly called "Yellow-rumped Warblers"), Downy Woodpecker, Red-eyed Vireo, and one bird I'm still tryin' to figure out (gray back, white wingbars, white belly with grayish streaks on the breast, vireo bill, white spectacles??  I don't know...), but it was sunny by now and warming up considerably so the shade of the trees felt good.  Lots of Franklin's Gulls flying overhead.  We came upon a man and woman seated on one of the benches scattered along the trail, apparently having stopped to try to look up in their field guide a bird they'd just seen.  We joined in some light bird conversation (y'know how you do when you meet other birders on the trail) and then suddenly realized we were talking to Bob and Jenelle Harris of Altus, whom we'd met during a trip to SW Oklahoma in March a year ago.  When we finally parted, we agreed to meet again at the 4:00 tour that afternoon.  Phil and I hiked the entire loop of the trail, adding Great Crested Flycatcher to our growing trip list.

     By the time we returned to the Refuge HQ building for the tour at 4:00, we had accumulated something like 67 species for the day and 85 species for the trip.... but it turns out we were only gettin' started.  About 15 of us piled into two extra-long vans and were taken out to parts of the Refuge not normally accessible to the public.  Here, we found Eared and Pied-billed Grebes, Canada Geese, Ruddy Ducks, Gadwall, No. Shoveler, Lesser Scaup, the uniquitous Blue-winged Teal, and another Spotted Sandpiper.  (Yeppers, I really need to learn that walk!)  At the next pool, we added Amer. Wigeon to the list, and then an extra-special treat:  White-faced Ibis!  I hadn't seen THEM since May 2000 at Black Mesa.  Moving along, we came to a wide-open waterway where we picked up No. Pintail and Snowy Egrets.  A Black-crowned Night-Heron flew above us and gave everyone great looks!  Berlin managed to flush a Sora! (without even getting his feet wet!)  We also began finding Yellowlegs and sandpipers in larger numbers than we had seen so far.  Phil got tickled at the lively discussions among "the experts" about whether those were Western, Semipalmated, or Least Sandpipers, and those of us listening in learned a lot about what field marks to look for in each species.  We hiked for some distance along the levee (followed by our tour vans.... what a waste of comfort!), getting even closer looks at the "peeps" than Phil and I had enjoyed earlier in the day.  (Like, who needs a scope?)  However, we had about 6 scopes among the group so everyone got to see everything to our hearts' content.  The last new species for the day were several Semipalmated Plovers who did us the kindness of landing close to a Killdeer so we could clearly see the differences between them.

     As we left the Refuge, I tallied our count for the day and for the trip, and discovered we had 96 species on our trip-list.... so far.

     "Uh-oh," Phil remarked, "you know what THAT means.... now we HAVE to try for 100."  We've birded together a lot in the past three years but this was the first time to my recollectoin that we've ever come close to 100 species for a trip-list while birding more-or-less on our own.

     As we drove through Cherokee on our way back to the motel, I spotted Chimney Swifts over the downtown.  That would be #97.....

     That night, Bob and Jenelle Harris joined us for dinner at the Cherokee Station.  (And if you travel out to the Great Salt Plains to bird, I highly recommend this restaurant on Hwy 8 in Cherokee at the south end of town; the food and service were superb! and the accommodations at the Cherokee Inn next door were clean and comfortable.)  Also, the owner of both establishments (who is, I believe, the mayor of Cherokee) greeted us at our table and told us of baby Great Horned Owls at the cemetery, so after dinner, we drove out to the cemetery and found one baby perched up in a fork of the tree about 8 feet off the ground, exactly where Her Honor, the Mayor, had said it would be.  It was drawing down dark and we were timid about being swooped-down-upon by the mother owl (which she has apparently done to the mayor, and more than once), but we were able to see the baby clearly, even in the dark, and we left the cemetery well-pleased with ourselves.

     ...#98.........

Then two Bobwhites flew up off the road in front of us and into the fields.

     ...#101....... damn, we're good!!

     At our now-favorite bridge, we found dozens of Avocets.... and ONE Black-necked Stilt, ONE Baird's Sandpiper, and ONE No. Harrier in the field beyond the pool, ALL new trip-birds!!  I began to believe we were invincible.  Just before we turned into the Refuge drive, Phil stopped the van abruptly again (I have got to talk to him about that!), asking, "what's that?" and pointing excitedly.

















What it was, was an American Bittern, right out in the open, right beside the road, standing stock-still with no camouflage in sight.  It turns out this was a lifebird for Phil, who immediately drew out his camera and took a couple pictures of it.  A real kick-ass look, if ever I saw one.  That's the way all lifebird sightings should be.

     We stopped for a break at the Refuge HQ, where I found my first Pine Siskin since Oct 2000 visiting the Refuge feeders, and before we turned the van toward Enid and home, we also added Barred Owl, No. Flicker, and Orange-crowned Warbler to our trip-list, finishing the weekend with _109_  species altogether, 23 of them yearbirds for me!!
    After breakfast Sunday morning, Phil and I stopped at the cemetery again to see the baby owl, and this time found the two very fluffy youngsters huddled together high in the tree.  "Mom" flew out of the tree to a nearby lamppost and studied us intently for a few minutes, apparently deemed the both of us to be "utterly harmless," then hopped over to an adjacent tree and immediately blended into the foliage.  We looked at the babies for some minutes---who stared right back at us---then headed east of town to try to find the sewage lagoons we'd heard about.  And did not find them.  However, as we drove north toward the highway, we came upon a singing Western Meadowlark.

     ...#99........

     We began flushing sparrows onto the barbed wire fence along the dirt road but they all seemed to be Savannahs.  Disappointed and anxious under pressure, we continued on.  And then we found one sparrow that gave us some trouble.  Tail too long for Savannah, white eye-rings, interesting dark cheek patches, streaky breast.... a check in Sibley, and we declared it a spot-on Vesper Sparrow.

     ...#100!!!!!!!!!  We'd done it!  Well, now we could sit back and relax.  We had reached our goal; anything else was pure gravy.
street sign at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge:
"Hither, Thither, and Yon"
OKIE-BIRDERS
FIELD NOTES
TULSA BIRDS
EOER
GREAT SALT PLAINS