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Great Salt Plains, where the first 60 species are easy...



     The "Phil-and-Cyndie-birdin'-show" took itself on the road last weekend to the annual
OK Ornithological Society Spring Meeting, held this year at the Great Salt Plains State Park near Cherokee, Oklahoma.  Saturday at 8:00 a.m. found us at the Community Center at the State Park, tryin' to figure out where everyone was headed so we could join 'em.  The field trips seemed to be somewhat loosely organized so Phil and I decided to bird on our own until 11:15, when we were scheduled to board a pontoon boat and visit a nearby heronry.

     Among the yearbirds in our first 60 species for the day were Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Little Blue and Green Herons, White-faced Ibis, Mississippi Kite, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, Indigo and
Painted Buntings, and Baltimore Oriole.  Ring-necked Pheasant was our 12th bird of the day, No. Bobwhite #13, and Orchard Oriole #17, so you can see we were finding "good birds" along with the usual rifraff.  By 11:00, when we met a lot of the others taking a rest break at the Refuge headquarters,  we had almost 70 birds on our trip list for the day.... but then the Great Salt Plains is like that:  there are SO many birds out there this time of year, you don't even have to half-try to find 'em all.

     On our drive down Hwy 38 to rendezvous with the pontoon boat, we picked up a lone
Upland Sandpiper and 13 Whimbrels grazing among the Cattle Egrets in the cow pastures along the highway.

     John Brock, manager of the
Salt Plains NWR, piloted the pontoon boat.  I got tickled when he said, "now, I have life preservers for anyone who wants one...." (because I know Phil can't swim) "...however, if you fall overboard, just stand up; the average depth of the lake is _3_ feet."  So assuming he didn't land on his head and pass out, even Phil could survive a dunking should such come to pass.  Fortunately, it did not.  About 10 of us boarded the pontoon boat and headed across the lake to the island where all the egret and heron species we'd already seen, plus a number of Black-crowned Night-Herons, were crowded together in unimaginable density.  What a racket those birds make!  The only other heronry I've ever visited is at High Island on the Upper Texas Coast, and I'd thought THAT place was noisy!!  Herons and egrets make this weird gurgling noise that absolutely cracks me up, but I thought these Oklahoma birds really didn't have much to crow about, what with NO crocodiles surrounding their island.  The crocs in Texas definitely increase those birds' degree of difficulty for entering and leaving their nests and raising their chicks.

     John was careful not to get the boat's engine stuck in the muddy shallows near the island, while regaling us with the tale of John Sterling who, earlier that same morning, had had to leap into the water and push the pontoon boat into deeper water.  Some people have ALL the fun, I tell ya.

     Upon returning to dry land, Phil and I opted for lunch at Ms. Dottie's Cafe in town, then headed back to Sandpiper Point to look for shorebirds.  The gods were smiling on us because we arrived while Marty Kamp and Suzie Ruby from Tulsa, and Kim Snipes and Wayne Meyer from Austin College in Sherman, Texas, were still unpacking their scopes and heading out to the point.  Wayne was very helpful in explaining to us shorebird-novices how to tell one species of "peep" from another, and in very short order, we had Least, Semipalmated, and White-rumped Sandpipers, Semipalmated and Snowy Plovers, and Sanderlings to our trip list, along with dozens of whirly-gigging Wilson's Phalaropes, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Yellowlegs.  Franklin's Gulls were the only gulls or terns we saw all day.

     We continued birding until late afternoon when, while walking along the hiking trail down the hill from the Refuge HQ in search of a Prothonotary Warbler we'd heard about, the biting insects began making the hike more painful than it was worth.  I suggested a retreat to the motel for a well-deserved nap (a total of 88 species then on our checklist) -- an ol' gal like me needs her beauty sleep, y'know.  Feeling much refreshed after our naps and a bite of supper, Phil and I returned to the Community Center at the State Park for the evening's program presented by John Brock, whom we instantly recognized as our pontoon-boat captain.  John's program was informative and entertaining, and we also enjoyed the checklist countdown held immediately afterward.  Here, I thought the two of us had done exceptionally well for ourselves with 90 species for the day, but the field trip total for the whole group was an awesome _166_ species!!!  It was incredible to think that we'd seen only half of all the birds seen on Friday and Saturday out there.

     As we left the Community Center after the evening program broke up, we heard Chuck-will's-widows calling from the woods around the parking lot.  And on our drive back to Cherokee for the night, a Barred Owl flew out of the woods and landed on the edge of the pavement, right in front of Phil's van!!  Always a great bird but I sure would've hated to have had to report here that we killed it.  Luckily, Phil wasn't driving very fast and he managed to swerve and avoid the bird, but I think all 3 of us were pretty shaken by the near miss.

     We birded at the
Great Salt Plains last year, too, during the annual birding festival at the end of April, and accumulated 109 species during that birding festival weekend.  So on Sunday morning, with 92 species already under our belts, Phil announced:  "we're not leaving until we get 100 species!!"  We birded the dirt roads south of the Refuge, an area we hadn't even known existed until we studied the map we'd been given on Saturday morning, and where we presume Bonnie Gall and others heard and saw a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and other marvels on Saturday.  No such luck for us on the flycatcher but we did add another 10 species to our list that morning, including so many Dickcissels that I'm already sick-to-death of the sound of their calls, even tho' they just got here!  So, to our minds, our reputation is sound and well-deserved:  even tho' we don't see or hear every bird that many others do, we can still pull 100+ species of birds out of the air while birding for a weekend at the Great Salt Plains!!
May 6, 2003
(c) Copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2003
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