I picked up Phil Floyd in OKC at noon last Friday (4/29) and we headed west, then north to the Great Salt Plains for the annual Celebration of Birds Festival in Cherokee, OK. Those of you who were out last Friday know it was cold, windy, and damp---a nasty combination for birders, not to mention the birds!! We drove through Roman Nose State Park (because it was on the way), fighting for every one of the dozen or so species of birds we found there, and the only trip bird we got there that we never saw the rest of the weekend was a Red-shouldered Hawk.
About 3:00pm, after checking into the Cherokee Inn, we headed out to the Refuge for a quick drive through the Auto Tour before supper. We were amazed to see so much water along Hwy 11 because the last time we were out there, the place seemed dry as a bone. At one spot where a creek runs under the highway, we found several Amer. Avocets and one Black-necked Stilt and at another stop, a lone Willet---all yearbirds for us. Also, lots of Snowy and Great Egrets, a few Cattle Egrets, the occasional Little Blue Heron and, of course, the Great Blues. We found a few Ibis, too, but the light wasn't very good and it was too darned cold and windy to stand outside the car with my scope and try to figure out which might be White-faced and which Glossy, so I didn't try; I just counted them all as White-faced. The only shorebirds we found, aside from Killdeer, were a few Greater Yellowlegs and hundreds of Wilson's Phalaropes---in fact, by the end of daylight Saturday, Wilson's Phalaropes had become "junk birds" for us!! We found the usual ducks for the season: No. Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard, and Gadwall, with a fair number of Amer. Wigeon mixed in, and I giggled when I saw a family of Canada Geese, the babies reminding me of fluffy yellow tennis balls with heads.
We found one little "hot spot" on the Auto Tour where a motley crew of passerines suddenly appeared "in a single pile," and in short order, we added Spotted Towhee, Brown Thrasher; White-throated, Lincoln's, and Lark Sparrows; Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, the ubiquitous Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and overhead, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Barn, Cliff, and Tree Swallows and Purple Martins to our trip list.
Jim Harman and David Gill drove up about then and, after greetings all around, went on ahead of us, and when we next caught up with them, Jim told us they'd just seen a Merlin perched on a tree above the Big Marsh (out near the highway), but it flew just as we drove up. (Yeah, that's what they always say: "you should've been here; you just missed it!!") But we did pick up Marsh Wren out there, another yearbird for both of us.
At the northwest corner of Hwys 11 and 8, we watched a Swainson's Hawk adding sticks to its nest. Anne Wilber told Phil and me last year that Swainson's Hawks nearly always nest at this corner, and we'd seen the birds there last year, too. Same birds? who knows?? I also found an adult Cooper's Hawk lurking in those trees and wondered what he was up to.
On our way back into town for supper, we decided to get Eurasian Collared-Dove out of the way. Everytime we come to Cherokee, we hear from Anne Wilber and Karen Hawkins (Her Honor, the Mayor, who also owns and operates the Cherokee Inn motel and Cherokee Station restaurant) that Eurasian Collared-Doves are "everywhere" in Cherokee, but still, Phil and I have to hunt for them everytime!! Well, we started at the grain elevators (and got Rock Pigeon and Mourning Dove out of the way) and drove up and down a few residential streets until we found our quarry, and then added a couple more after that for good measure.
We'd decided to participate in the Advanced Bird Walk at the Refuge at 7:00am on Saturday, which meant we'd have to get up at 5:00 (and I am NOT a morning person!) and get breakfast at Miss Dottie's at 6:00, so we treated ourselves to an excellent meal at the Cherokee Station and turned in early.
About 20-25 birders gathered at the Refuge HQ the next morning and we walked south past all the garages and maintenance buildings into the woods and around the ponds, lookin' for birds. Carolina Wrens and Gnatcatchers were up early, too, and I heard an E. Wood-Pewee calling nearby and heard/saw waaayyyy too many Brown-headed Cowbirds!! Someone spotted a male Belted Kingfisher perched on a Wood Duck nestbox out in the cat-tails, and looking through Jim Harmon's scope, I got a great look at the Kingfisher, one Barn Swallow, and one Tree Swallow, all perched near enough to one another so I saw all 3 at the same time. All the herons/egrets were out there, along with abundant Red-winged Blackbirds and singing Com. Yellowthroats. Then we found a cluster of warblers: Nashville, Prothonotary, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Orange-crowned, and at least one Warbling Vireo, as well as more than a handful of Baltimore Orioles. In fact, I've never seen so many Baltimore Orioles as I saw and heard this past weekend. When we got out to the lake, we picked up Amer. White Pelicans, Franklin's and Ring-billed Gulls, Forster's Terns (whose method of diving for fish always gives me a headache!), Green-winged Teal (a welcome change from the abundant Blue-wings), Avocets, flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers, and more Willets.
When we got back to the Headquarters, our guide was loading up an open trailer lined with hay bales for seating, towed by a large 4WD pick-up truck, so we joined about 10-15 other birders for one of the scheduled "refuge management tours." Nancy Vicars and her husband arrived just in time to come with us, and we headed out. At one of our first stops, we got a closer look at the gulls, terns, pelicans, Willets, and Avocets we'd seen earlier, and one shorebird that "didn't look right" to me. I asked a few of the more experienced birders to take a closer look at it and they soon declared it a Black-bellied Plover, a species I'm not familiar with but was very pleased to find. At the next stop, I found a single Com. Goldeneye which John Sterling said was a yearbird for him. (So you owe me one, John!!) A Black-crowned Night-Heron flew up the creek, and at another stop, we all got great looks at a Swainson's Thrush, both yearbirds for me.
As we broke out of the trees and began finding vast expanses of water filled with birds, we soon added Lesser Yellowlegs, No. Pintail, and more Black-necked Stilts to our list. Nancy was just saying, "where are all the Yellow-headed Blackbirds?" when we came upon one perched in the reeds, just begging to have his picture taken. I found a lone Bonaparte's Gull resting on the water. And did I mention the Wilson's Phalaropes?? Hundreds, even thousands of them.... they were everywhere!! If all their whirly-gigging had any power at all, they'd have stirred that water into a froth!!
As we moved along the levy around the water, we noticed Bill Horn's caravan of bird photographers and students some ways behind us, stopping to take pictures of the abundant bird life in that pool. And then all of a sudden, every bird there took the air, thousands of 'em, a vast white cloud of birds, and we all looked around for the predator that must've scared them all and quickly found a Peregrine Falcon!! He made 4-5 passes across the water, scattering birds on each pass but didn't catch anything. I marveled each time he'd fly up into the air and turn after each pass, right over our heads, so that I could clearly see the dark teardrop markings on his face. I've heard of and read accounts of Peregrines "raiding" shorebird gatherings like that but this was the first time I'd ever seen it, and it was a thrill to behold!!!!! He surely and purely messed up some good close shots of shorebirds for Bill Horn's group, tho'...... (sorry, Bill ~:-)
When the tour ended, Phil and I decided it was half-past lunchtime and headed back to town, to Miss Dottie's Café. That morning at breakfast, we teased our waitress that we come to Cherokee every year so we can eat all our meals at Miss Dottie's, and we just go birding for something to do in between meals. (And that's not that far from the truth!!)
Altho' there were planned activities scheduled all afternoon, Phil and I have birded the Great Salt Plains often enough to know our way around the area pretty well, so we decided to bird at our own slower pace after the somewhat frenzied pace of the morning. Our first stop was the intersection of 8th and Oklahoma where we'd heard there was at least one Great Horned Owl family. We looked in all the big trees around that intersection but never found any owls.
From there, we headed out to where they were digging for selenite crystals (did you hear about the law that just passed, designating selenite as the Oklahoma state crystal? Does Oklahoma really need a state crystal??). I don't "get" the fun of digging in dirty sand and salty water, baking under the hot sun, for crystals or anything else, but we did enjoy watching one Snowy Plover that we found right near where we parked the car as it scurried this way and that, like a drunken sailor, catching bugs. Anne Wilber was helping out at the official "registration tent," and pointed us toward a Snowy Plover nest she'd found within the roped-off digging area, that she'd framed with logs and marked with a tall stick, to make sure no one accidentally trod on the eggs: 3 sandy-gray/brown eggs with black spots, laid in the impression left by somebody's shoeprint. Silly bird didn't even have to scrape out a depression first, just used what was readily available.
After leaving the digging site, we drove north on the first dirt section road we found, stopping whenever we crossed bridges over creeks to look for birds, and lo! and behold!! we discovered 3 White-rumped Sandpipers snoozing on the muddy bank of a small creek below one of those bridges. If we hadn't slowed down to look for possible birds down in that creekbed, we would've missed 'em entirely, and those were the only White-rumps we saw all weekend.
From there, we zig-zagged over to the Cherokee sewage lagoons, one of our favorite stops. We never know what we'll find there. What WE found this time was more Wilson's Phalaropes than you can shake a stick at!! and a one-legged Long-billed Dowitcher that hopped from point to point, feeding in the mud. For some reason that we couldn't discern, the female phalaropes seemed to take offense at the poor Dowitcher, and several of them---one-at-a-time---would run up to it and peck at it, apparently trying to drive it off.... poor thing! There was a small flock of Ruddy Ducks and several Lesser Scaup in one of the lagoons, a few Franklin's Gulls overhead, and we found several Least Sandpipers (yellow feet!) in among the Semipalmated SPs. I heard a Ring-necked Pheasant call nearby, another yearbird.
Now, there are two large vehicle gates at the sewage lagoons, both of them locked. However, the barbed wire fences are low and sag in the middle of each section, probably from people like us who carefully step over them to get closer to the lagoons. I noticed a people gate beside the one larger "car gate" but didn't remember it being there last year and didn't expect it to be unlocked, so we didn't even try to use it. Instead, we carefully held down the top strand of barbed wire and stepped over it, one leg at a time. No problem, right??
WRONG!!! As we walked back to where the car was parked, I handed my scope to Phil, then held down the top strand of barbed wire and carefully---_carefully_, mind you!!---stepped over it with one leg, then shifted my weight to swing the other leg over..... and snagged my jeans on one of the barbs, lost my balance, let go of the fence, and more-or-less somersaulted over it!!!!** coming to rest curled up on my back with one leg stuck up in the air, my jeans still tangled in TWO barbs of the wire that was tearing bigger holes in my jeans with every move I made. Phil said, "hold still so I can untangle you!" and he managed to make the fence let me go. I finally stood up, shook myself off, scowled at the two air-conditioning holes now torn in my new jeans, and peeked inside the holes to assess the damage. I saw two bloody scrapes on the inside of my left thigh, but they didn't look too bad so I applied some Neosporin+Plus creme (that I always have with me) to them, and we continued on---intrepid birder that I am!!
**[NOTE: Don't try this at home, boys and girls. That somersault cost me $60 for a tetanus shot (+ $35 co-pay for the doctor's visit) the next Monday because my medical insurance doesn't cover "innoculations" for people over the age of 18!!]
Heading west on the road back to town, we soon passed another section road heading north. I stopped the car and backed up, telling Phil as I turned onto the new road, "let's make our own fun!!" (My friend Blaine always says that.) We soon added our first Dickcissels of the year to our trip list; first one counts, y'know (altho' after that first one, you're soon sick-to-death of 'em!). Both Eastern and Western Kingbirds were perched on power lines along the road, and we stopped to take a good long look at a Grasshopper Sparrow perched on a fence. We were also bound-and-determined to find a Western Meadowlark to go with all the Easterns we'd been hearing, stopping near each perched Meadowlark to give it a chance to "be Western." "Sing now, or forever hold your peace!" Imagine how we laughed when a Western finally sang for us!!
And then we pulled up to an intersection where, perched at the top end of a plastic sheath (about 1 inch in diameter) that protects the lower 4-5' of a guy-wire supporting a power pole, we found a BURROWING OWL!!!!! He was maybe 10' away from us, just lookin' around, scanning his surroundings and the sky every now and then, and didn't seem the least bit alarmed at our presence. In fact, we sat and looked at him for 5-10 minutes, and he just stood there, lookin' around. We had given up any hope of finding Burrowing Owl on this trip since the only prairie dog town we know of is on private land and we didn't have permission to go there. And then not 10 minutes after my shedding of blood via somersault over a barbed wire fence, here's a verrrrry cooperative Burrowing Owl giving us kick-ass looks!! and not a prairie dog in sight! Phil and I laughed and remarked that maybe I should somersault over barbed wire fences more often!! (Notice that HE didn't volunteer to fall over the next one.....) (And for those of you who are already worried about me, I went to the doctor on Monday and got a tetanus booster shot. Better to be safe than sorry.....)
Well, from there, we drove to a relatively new dirt road that we found last year, lined with blooming honey locust trees and biting insects that seemed to have taken a particular liking for eating Phil's ears. We'd been whining about the lack of Mockingbirds on this trip, but despite the bugs along this short road, we soon found _2_ singing Mockingbirds AND a singing House Wren.
When I'd asked Anne Wilber earlier about the location of the Great Horned Owl in town, she'd said it was at _9th_ and Oklahoma and told us which tree to look in. Well, as we returned to town for supper, we stopped there and soon located a beautiful adult GHO perched in the tree, right where Anne had said it was. As we walked toward the tree (intending to look for babies), the bird flew off and we never located any babies in any of those trees, but still, an adult owl counts for a trip bird as well as a baby. By now, we had 105 birds FOR THE DAY!! and 114 species for the trip. Our best weekend trip ever to the Gr. Salt Plains was last year when we accumulated 119 species!! so we knew we were close to our own record, which left us something to shoot for on Sunday morning. Meanwhile, we stopped for a quick bite at Miss Dottie's and returned to the motel, where I soon discovered that I'd actually punctured my thigh rather badly in one spot (well, _I_ didn't puncture it; the barbed wire did!!) and had several more scratches, scrapes, and rather colorful bruises all down my thigh and behind my left knee. So I showered, applied more Neosporin, and went to bed and died.
Sunday morning, as we loaded up our gear and said good-bye to Her Honor, the Mayor, we learned that the people gate at the sewage lagoons WAS unlocked ("NOW she tells me!!") and she laughed heartily as we described my mis-adventure with the barbed wire. She also gave us permission to stop by the metal barn on her property nearby so we could see the Barn Owls that live there (last year, we got to see the Barn Owl babies!), and in due course, we added Barn Owl to our weekend list, too.
From there, we headed back out Hwy 11 toward the Refuge. We never turn off the highway onto the main gravel road to the Refuge HQ but we hear Field Sparrows singing in those fields, but so far, we had NOT heard one Field Sparrow. As I turned off the highway, I stopped the car and we listened for several minutes. Then Phil found a Hairy Woodpecker in a tree across the fields from us, we found two young Red-tailed Hawks perched on the edge of their nest (they were pretty well feathered-out, with the juvenile striped tails, but their heads still looked pretty naked!); a Bobwhite sang out a couple times, tho' it sounded as if he was still learning his name; and THEN we heard the Field Sparrows!! We also found a female Amer. Goldfinch at the feeders in front of the Refuge HQ building.
We drove slowly east from the HQ building, stopping frequently to listen for Red-eyed Vireos in the dense woods, which we ALWAYS get in those woods, but could not seem to find on Sunday (and never did find 'em, either). And as we swung around the curve out of the woods and out into the open pasture near Hwy 38, Phil said, "remember the time we saw the Upland Sandpipers out here?" I'd just been thinking the same thing, when I realized that what I'd thought was a Killdeer flying away from the car was actually an Upland Sandpiper!! and another, and another, and then another!! There must've been 2 dozen Uppies in that field, right next to the fence and beside our car. There were several Snowy and Cattle Egrets in a pond at the lower end of the field, and we heard a Wild Turkey gobble from over at the fence at the lowest end of the property.
Down near the State Park, we found a No. Flicker, a singing Bewick's Wren, and a Green Heron perched high in a tree pretending to be a woodpecker, and picked up our only Spotted Sandpiper of the trip below the dam. All of these Sunday birds I've mentioned, except the baby Red-tailed Hawks, kicked our trip list up to 125 birds!!!!!! The best we've ever done, ever!!
If you haven't participated in the Celebration of Birds Festival in Cherokee before, mark your calendars NOW for the end of April next year. Martin Brown of Tulsa attended the Beginning Birding Workshop with his family on Saturday afternoon, and wrote that each attendee was given the latest edition of National Geographic's Field Guide, just for attending the class. There was to have been a drawing at the end of the class for a set of new Bushnell 7x35 binoculars, but so few people attended (10) that everyone in the class received new binoculars!! As Martin wrote, they aren't "Swarovski's, but they aren't junk by any means. Coated optics, close focus to about 10-12 feet. Very serviceable." And now his wife and daughter each have their very own binocs!
Now, don't you wish you'd been there??
|Barbed wire + somersault =
(The Great Salt Plains)