At 8:00 Saturday morning (Nov 2), Jo Loyd and about 14-15 other Tulsa Audubon-ers rendezvoused in Cherokee, OK, and set out in the rain with Anne Wilber as our guide to find as many ducks, geese, and Sandhill AND WHOOPING CRANES as we could find in and around the Great Salt Plains area in northcentral Oklahoma.  It was not only raining (a light spatter but more than sufficient to turn the dirt roads into muddy quagmires), it was also about 40-something degrees, and even if the air temp rose to 50 during the day (which I doubt), the wind chill kept the air verrrrrrrrry damp, heavy, and cold.  Challenging weather, but to a birder, just another hurdle to overcome.

     You couldn't stand out in the open for 5 minutes and NOT hear Sandhill Cranes yodeling overhead as they flew to their daylight feeding grounds in the morning and back to their night-roosting areas on the salt flats at dusk, even when they were miles away.  I mean, they were EVERYWHERE in the air:  ropes, whips, and skeins of 'em that continued in waves across the sky for as far as the eye could see.... the most Sandhill Cranes I'd ever seen or heard at one time, thousands and tens of thousands of 'em.

     Well, our first destination was the sewage ponds east of town.  Bob Germany drove a 10-12 passenger van (provided, I gather, by the Refuge), Phil Floyd and I in Phil's minivan, and Jo Loyd, Tomye Mainer, and Peter Lowen brought up the rear in Jo's 4WD.  When the pavement ran out and we hit the dirt/mud at speed, it took Phil a few seconds to regain control of the van.  That mud was pretty slick and we thought a few times we'd find ourselves in the ditch.  But in due course, we arrived at the sewage ponds, passing acres and acres of Snow and Canada Geese on the way.  We never stopped to scope out the geese so I never got the chance to look for Ross's or Greater White-fronted Geese, and so have continued to miss both species this year (at least, so far).  But nearly every species of duck you could imagine was waiting for us at the sewage ponds, except for any teal, Pintail, or Common Goldeneye (if there WAS a Goldeneye there, I never got to see it).  A flock of about 8 Snipe flew off as we got out of the cars and began setting up our scopes.  Two winter-plumaged Black-bellied Plovers were "grazing" in shallow water (a yearbird for me!), their identity confirmed by their black "armpits" when they flew.  And 4-5 Dowitcher species were also seen there.  Eventually, we moved around to the back ponds where we found one Eared Grebe and one American Coot (or "Ivory-billed Rail," which I prefer to call 'em; makes 'em sound glamorous).

     From there, we drove out to the G.S.P. State Park where we found rafts of American White Pelicans performing their synchronized fishing "ballet" below the dam, and 3-4 Greater Yellowlegs and about 30 American Avocets feeding on the far bank.  Y'know, even without their salmon-colored heads and blue feet, Avocets are still a very handsome bird in winter.  We also watched a Common Merganser fly up and down the river.  Up closer to the dam, we found dozens of Ring-billed and Franklin's gulls, then picked out the smaller fairy-like Bonaparte's Gulls (my favorite gull!), and one Herring Gull among a string of Ring-bills, all perched precariously on some rocks where the water was beginning to churn up rapids, looking as much like bears waiting for salmon to run upstream as I've ever seen on TV.  And that lone Herring Gull, trying to pretend he was just one o' the guys and didn't stand head-and-shoulders above the Ring-bills.  Boy, he looked huge!

     Eventually, we moved on to the Refuge.  One little sweet spot added the first of hundreds of Robins to our list (if you've been wondering what's become of the Robins in your yard, they're all up at the
Salt Plains NWR), a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a White-throated Sparrow who was still learning his song.  (I think one of the car-groups flushed a Spotted Towhee out there, either before or after us, but Phil and I missed it.)  At the Refuge HQ building, we added Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, Chickadees, a House Finch, Yellow-rumped Warblers ("Butterbutts"), and a very tame Wild Turkey (it was still there on Sunday).  After a pit stop at the HQ, we drove downhill to the parking lot at the far end of the lawn and hiked the Sand Point Bay trail out to the lake.  At the lookout, Patty Moser spotted first one, then two Forster's Terns flying toward us, and I saw a flock of Mergansers (that I still think were Red-breasted) before they flew.  (Whether it was their species or just the rain, these guys were definitely having a "bad hair" day.)  Walking back down to the hiking trail from the lookout platform, several of us heard the glorious song of a Winter Wren and tried to find the bird, but all we caught were glimpses of two "little brown jobs" who seemed bent on NOT being seen.  In the end, we had to satisfy ourselves with the memory of that song.  We added Flickers, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, more Kinglets than you can shake a stick at (I heard that some of the group saw at least one Golden-crowned, too, but I missed it), and a couple White-breasted Nuthatches.

     Next, we drove down the Auto Tour route and picked out American Wigeon from among the other duck species.  I spotted a drab green warbler with yellow underparts, dingy-lookin' yellow breast, NO wingbars, and broken eye-ring---an Orange-crowned Warbler---and radioed it to the other cars.  I think a few others saw it but it didn't stick around long.  At that point, Anne declared a lunch break and we drove over to Ingersoll for barbecue.  The one high point on the way to lunch was an Osprey teetering on a powerline right beside the road.

     Several of the group had to leave after lunch so we headed back to the motel to let them off, but on the way, we drove through town so that Anne could prove to me that Eurasian Collared-Doves are, indeed, to be found in Cherokee in fairly good numbers.  Phil and I have looked for them everytime we've been to Cherokee (this was our 4th trip this year!!) and never found 'em.  Well, they were right where Anne guided us so now we've seen 'em and don't ever have to go looking for 'em again.

     Having let off our morning passengers and reduced our caravan to the big tour-van and Phil's NOT-tour van, we headed some 5 miles west of Cherokee to find the Whooping Crane.  That's right:  One.  Apparently the day before (Friday), Anne Wilber had received a message that some "30 Whooping Cranes" were out feeding in a corn/wheat field west of town.  You can imagine she nearly had a heart attack just thinking about the possibility of _30_ Whooping Cranes in one spot!!  Well, Anne, Jo, and a few of the others who had arrived in Cherokee on Friday afternoon drove out to this field and found ONE Whooper among thousands of Sandhills.  I heard they got a good long look at it and fairly close-up.  Boy, was I envious when I heard about that.

     Anyway, on Saturday, after we'd re-fortified ourselves against the cold and wet with a good hot lunch, we drove west, up and down a few hills, and then turned onto an uphill dirt road.  That is, it used to be dirt; yesterday, it was one of the quagmires.  We reached the crest of the hill (about 100 yards? off the pavement) when the rear of Bob's tour-van began sliding to the right, heading for the ditch.  Phil drove up behind the larger van, stopped his minivan, looked on down the next hill at the mud waiting to ambush us, and decided right then and there, "I don't think we'd better try to go any further."  Apparently, Bob had reached the same conclusion because immediately everyone began piling out of the tour-van.  We could see the field where the one Whooping Crane had been seen the afternoon before, about a mile below us, so we walked a-ways up the road (to get out of the mud), set up our scopes, and almost immediately, Peter located the Whooper.  Well, hey, it'd be kinda hard to miss a giraffe in a herd of goats, y'know.... and that's just what that great white blob of bird-ness among all those Sandhill Cranes reminded me of.  It stuck out like a sore thumb!!  It was just SO white, and being about a foot taller and bigger around than its smaller gray cousins, there was no confusing it for one of the Sandhills.  Sure, it wasn't the best view I may ever have of a Whooping Crane, but it was H_U_G_E, white, and I could see its long legs, big white body, long neck, head and bill shape as it fed, preened, and looked around among the other cranes.  I'm satisfied there's nothing else that bird could've been except maybe a flamingo pumped up on steroids and rolled in flour.

     Phil and I walked back to his van to see if we'd be able to back down the muddy hill to the pavement and did so with very little trouble.  However, the tour-van passengers had to walk alongside their van, steadying it to keep it from drifting into the ditch before they got back to the pavement.  Once there (and congratulating Bob and the others that they had not gotten stuck in the mud), we found that we could still see the Whooping Crane, even from the paved road!  Again, with the 45x magnification on Phil's scope, I made out such details on that bird as I needed to distinguish it from the thousands of  Sandhills around it.  Absolutely AWESOME!!!!!! and a lifebird for Phil and me (among others, I'm sure).... AND we got to see it _IN_ Oklahoma!!!

     We also watched about 7 Ring-necked Pheasants flush across the road from a field downhill from the cars.  Quite a sight and sound to behold!

     By now, it was getting dark and the cranes were starting to fly off to their night-roosting areas so Anne led us to the observation platform she uses at the south end of the lake to count the birds, down where they dig for the selenite crystals.  It was cold, wet, windy, and my toes felt frostbitten all the way up to the arches in my feet, so we said good night to the rest of the group, got in Phil's van, and headed back to the motel.  However, I think the others were not far behind us as I'd heard John Clark say several times, "let's just say 'we won,' and call it a day."  We all felt pretty much like we'd been rode hard and put up wet... and looked it, too.  But there was still a ghost of daylight left so Phil and I decided to drive out to the Cherokee cemetery and see if we could rustle up a Great Horned Owl (there was a GHO nest out there this past spring and we'd seen the fledglings in May or June) since I'd missed the hoot of a GHO that Phil had heard near the crane observation platform.  We found no owl but did add to our trip list a tree-ful of White-crowned Sparrows, apparently settling down for their "long winter's nap."

     Having begun our Saturday morning at 5:30 (leaving Enid in time to reach Cherokee and join the others for the day-trip), we treated ourselves to an extra few hours' sleep on Sunday morning, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Ms. Dottie's Cafe in town, and then moseyed out toward the Refuge again.  We spotted Pintail ducks in several ponds along Hwy 11, and soon added Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds, and Northern Mockingbirds to our trip list.  We got real tickled when we pulled off the road just past a bridge/creek and walked back to the creek to get a better look at the ducks we'd glimpsed from the road.  All Mallards.... yeah, big deal!! and then Phil noticed that they were all shaped exactly the same, and none of them moving.  He asked, "you don't s'pose they're decoys, do ya?"  I took another look and realized that, yeppers, that's just what they were.  Then we heard the decoys "quack!" and laughed at ourselves for being lured into stopping to look at decoy Mallards, and we felt pretty silly, especially if the hunters had seen us stop and look.  Which they had---because we soon spotted 3 men, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage hunting gear and standing quietly behind a bush, waiting to see if any REAL ducks would land among their decoys.  So we waved at 'em:  hey, I figured if they'd seen us in our humiliation at being deceived by duck decoys, we oughta let them know in return that WE could see _them_ despite their clever camouflage.

     Once at the Refuge, we soon picked up 1, 2, 3, 5, 8.... 10 Red- and Yellow-shafted Flickers, feeding on the ground in a single pile.  That's the first time I remember seeing Red-shafted Flickers in Oklahoma altho' Phil's sure we saw them in SW Oklahoma over a year ago (and we probably did).  However, we soon saw SO many Red-shafted Flickers that they quickly lost their novelty.  We also found Harris's, White-crowned, White-throated, Song, and Lincoln's Sparrows, and a Bewick's Wren.  Also, an Eastern Phoebe at the foot of the lawn at the Refuge HQ building.  We hiked back out to Sand Point Bay and on the way flushed 8-10 Wood Ducks, a species we'd missed on Saturday.  We also found 3 more Phoebes back in those woods along the creek.  Anne had mentioned that Phoebes were still being seen at the Refuge LAST weekend; well, Anne, we saw 4 of 'em THIS weekend, too.

     A drive along the Auto Tour route finally yielded Tufted Titmice---another species that had eluded us on Saturday, as well as Chipping and Field Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and at least one American Goldfinch.  Also, a Turkey Vulture high overhead.  There were still 34 Avocets swimming (it's weird to see a shorebird swimming!) and feeding below the dam, and then we headed back to Enid and home.  Our final trip list count was 89 species, including 1 lifebird (the Whooping Crane) for both of us, and an additional 4 Oklahoma species---not a bad yield for such miserable birding weather.  And not only that but we're already looking forward to our NEXT trip to the Great Salt Plains.
One giraffe in a herd o' goats
November 3, 2002
story (c) copyrighted by C.Browning
A young Whooping Crane, apparently migrating with a flock of Sandhill Cranes, made a surprise appearance in Corpus Christi, TX on 11/4/2005.  As you can see, Whoopers tower over Sandhills; hence, the title of my story. (CB)
photo used with permission of and
copyrighted by Patty Beasley 2005