Great Salt Plains:
Breaking Our Own Record!
(c) copyrighted by C.Browning 2002

     I met Phil Floyd at the
Great Salt Plains last weekend, the 3rd year in-a-row we've trekked out there in May to look for migrating shorebirds and warblers, and breeding birds.  After getting settled at the motel on Friday afternoon, we ventured out to get a quick taste of the birds in the area.... and in just 2 hours, we accumulated _71_ species!!

     After visiting the Salt Plains in May a year ago, I wrote a story about how "
the first 60 species are easy" out there.  Finding 71 species in 2 hours shows you why; the diversity of birdlife out there in the spring will knock your sox off!!

     We were somewhat disconcerted to see the road construction along Hwy 11, where they're raising the roadbed some 10-15' above its present level, since the new road blocked our view of many of the "good bird" ponds lying north of the highway.  However, along a newly graded dirt road south of the construction, lined with berry trees of some kind or other (sorry, I don't do trees!), we happened upon a wealth of Yellow and Nashville Warblers and Common Yellowthroats, Bell's and Warbling Vireos, E. Kingbirds, Goldfinches, both flavors of Orioles, and the ubiquitous Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  (We also got bit to within an inch of our lives by mosquitoes, flies, gnats, and no-see-ums.... no wonder there are so many birds in that one spot!)

     We found hundreds of
Wilson's Phalaropes feeding in a vast shallow pond near the Refuge, not their usually whirly-gig performance but wading together in tight almost military formation, tails up, bills down, back-and-forth across that pond, grazing on whatever it is that phalaropes eat.  Did you ever see the musical "Evita" (the play, not the movie) where the soldiers zig-zag back-and-forth across the stage while singing "Dangerous Jade"?  Well, those phalaropes reminded me of the soldiers in "Evita".... but no, the birds weren't singing.

     My choice for the "best birds of the day" was a family of Barn Owls we found in an old barn, the 3 babies not much more than dingy fluffballs with beaks, lined up on a ledge in the rafters like Frick, Frack, and his friend.... with faces only a mother could love.  Oh, I LOVE
Barn Owls!!

Anne Wilber met us at the motel early Saturday morning.  Piling ourselves, our packs, and Phil's scope into her SUV, we were off for a day of "birdin' the Salt Plains."  Anne asked if we'd seen any Eurasian Collared-Doves yet because everytime we come to the Salt Plains, we drive all over lookin' for 'em, only to have Ann write after we get home and say, "how could you have missed them?  They're all over town!!"  Well, imagine Anne's surprise and dismay as we drove all around Cherokee and couldn't find even ONE Collared-Dove.  "Y'see?" we teased her.  However, we did finally find 3 Collared-Doves perched on a powerline south of town, and I laughed to hear Anne breathe a sigh of relief that she hadn't dipped on the Collared-Doves that she always swears are "all over town" and that we can never find.

     Anne's friend Phyllis Hammer joined us for the morning as Anne drove us north of the Refuge to a marsh we never would have found on our own, and what a treat it was, too:  Avocets, Ibis, herons and egrets, Black-necked Stilts (that I missed seeing at all last year!), and 3 Whimbrels flying toward the road where we'd stopped the car.  Phil spotted a male Ring-necked Pheasant apparently preening in the distance (Phil has a real knack for spotting birds at a distance that none of the rest of us notice until he points them out), only its head visible above the tall grasses, the first of 3 pheasants we saw that day.  Driving back toward the Refuge, we stopped at the Byron Fish Hatchery ponds and found dozens of Black Terns and Spotted, White-rumped, Baird's, and Pectoral Sandpipers, both Yellowlegs, and Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, all at one pond!  At one of the far ponds, we found a lone female Canvasback, all by herself and weeks out of date, and we wondered if she was sick or injured.  Nearer the Refuge, we finally found a male
Painted Bunting that we'd been searching for all morning; in fact, I believe it was the only one we saw all day.

     After dropping Phyllis back at her car and grabbing some lunch in Ingersoll, we stopped at Anne's house to deliver lunch to her husband and take a look at the fountain/pond in her backyard because the day before, she'd seen Least Flycatcher, Catbird, Black-and-white Warbler, and a female Black-headed Grosbeak that would've been a lifebird for me, right in her own backyard.  Alas, all I saw was the flycatcher.  Phil _claimed_ he saw a Ruby-throated Hummer come to the feeder while we were there; however, it didn't go down on MY list since _I_ didn't see it.  (Hey, it's MY list, y'know....)  Oh sure, I added the hummer to our trip list but with the notation "PF" to indicate that _I_ didn't see it (because, as I explained to Anne and Phil, I don't want to add the sighting to my Avisys software as a bird that I saw if _I_ didn't see it!) and from then on, Phil and Anne have teased me no end that "the bird doesn't exist if Cyndie doesn't see it!!"  (By the way, a male Black-headed Grosbeak visited Anne's backyard on Sunday and she sent me pictures of it, knowing full well, of course, that the bird doesn't really exist since _I_ didn't see it!!  ~;-)

     From Anne's house, we headed out to the area south of the Refuge and soon added Savannah, Grasshopper, Chipping, Field, and Lark Sparrows to our day-list.  Anne took us to a place where she habitually "guarantees" Horned Larks and y'know what? we found 'em!!  We also watched one
Burrowing Owl at the prairie dog town until it flew.

     At lunch, Anne had looked over our list for the day and determined that she could and would find us the dozen or so species we still needed to get over 100 species for the weekend, but when we got to the flats where they dig for salt crystals at the south end of the lake, we were disappointed to find NO Snowy Plovers even tho'  Anne said the place had been literally crawling with 'em during the Birding Festival 3 weeks ago.  Well, we still had the north edge of the lake to look for Snowy Plovers so we pushed on.

     We found a
Green Heron at the edge of a creek who posed beautifully right next to the car, only to fly just as Anne reached for her camera.  Darn! and double-darn!!  And at a spot overlooking the lakeshore, we found one Willet among dozens and dozens of peeps, Yellowlegs, gulls, terns, and Shovelers.

     Our only warblers for the day were Yellow, Wilson's, Prothonotary, and Common Yellowthroat, but we finished the _day_ with 104 species!! which is as well as we've ever done at the Salt Plains.  Two years ago in May, we got 109 species for the weekend, and last year 102, so we were well-pleased with the results of our efforts on this one day.  Not only that, but in the past 3 years, we'd accumulated 159 species at the Great Salt Plains all told, and yet on this trip alone, we'd already added 12 new species to our overall list.

     We were also dead-tired.  At breakfast the next morning, Phil said, "I feel like I'm comin' off a 3-day drunk!!"  I wouldn't know what that feels like.... ~;-)  but _I_ felt like I'd been "rode hard and put up wet" the night before.  And yet we still didn't have Pelican, Downy Woodpecker, Red-eyed Vireo.... there were still a few birds that we "always" get at the Salt Plains and had missed so far on this trip, so we finished breakfast and drove wearily back to the Refuge, intending to hit a few more spots and then drag our sorry behinds home.

     Our first stop was the Sandpiper Trail where we found more
Snowy Plovers than you can shake a stick at!!  They run around like Sanderlings and seemed to be particularly bad-tempered with each other, chasing and pecking at each other and flashing their wings.  They were everywhere!  So were vast numbers of Stilt Sandpipers which were new for our triplist.  It was terribly windy on Sunday morning so we didn't stay out there very long, but just as I turned to leave, I noticed a small bird perched on the sand with its back to me and called Phil back to see it, and thus added Least Tern to the list.  There were several Least Terns nearby, and I'm glad I got to see 'em then because NO Least Terns have come back to Zink Island here in Tulsa yet, and the water in the Arkansas is pretty high right now so they wouldn't have any place to nest even if they were here!

     We stopped briefly at the Big Marsh along Hwy 11 where we added 2 Coots to our list.  It's a helluva thing when you're happy about adding Coot to your trip list!  Our next (and final) stop was the Eagle Roost Nature Trail at the Refuge.  We were headed out to the point when I heard a warbler singing behind us and so turned back to find it, and located an Orange-crowned Warbler singing from the top of a Red Cedar.  We also scared up a flock of Cedar Waxwings from a mulberry tree, and while looking up at them, watched a small flock of White Pelicans fly over.  I heard a Wood Thrush singing back in the woods along the trail, and a
Prothonotary Warbler, but it was verrrrrry windy out at the point where we watched various herons and cormorants struggling to fly against the headwind before we turned back to the car.  We found a Northern Parula singing vigorously up by the Refuge HQ building and, finally, a Red-eyed Vireo singing from the woods behind the HQ.  Still no Downy WP but we decided we'd had enough and headed for home.

     We finished the weekend with a whopping _119_ species!! the best we've ever done on any one trip anywhere in Oklahoma, and not only that but we added 14 species to our accumulated Great Salt Plains list and 22 species to my yearlist.  In fact, even with our half-hearted efforts to add a few species to our triplist on Sunday morning, we still accumulated _73_ species in 2 hours!! which is why the Great Salt Plains is my favorite place in Oklahoma to bird in the spring.

May 19, 2004