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Gettin' a jump on spring.... and yearbirds!!
(SW Oklahoma field trip)


     On Friday, March 28, Phil Floyd and I set out for southwestern Oklahoma, intending to rendezvous with the Oklahoma City Audubon group in Altus for a long weekend tour of Hackberry Flat, Kizziars, Olustee, El Dorado, and anywhere else our fearless leader, Jimmy Woodard, chose to lead.  Since we didn't plan to meet the others until Saturday morning, Phil and I headed out to the Wichita Mountains for the day.  Our first Great Egret of the year flew across Hwy 39 as we headed west, and we stopped to get a better look (than at 65 mph, y'understand) at a Red-tailed Hawk tending her nest near the highway.

     Our first stop in the Wichitas was the Holy City, where in Feb 1999, Larry Mays told me that we could find Rock and Canyon Wrens out in the canyon behind the City.  Well, Phil and I didn't find any of either wren out there (but then neither did Larry and I, despite his awesome wren-pish).  We DID find an extremely vocal Bewick's Wren, Mockingbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and any number of Cardinals, Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice.  From there, we continued west and turned off at the parking lot at the head of the trail to Lost Lake.  Here we encountered our first Blue-gray Gnatcatchers of the year, and were they ever cute!  Y'know, the first couple of Blue-grays you see are exciting: "hoorah, spring is sprung!!" but gnatcatchers are persistent and omnipresent: every darned one of 'em is gonna follow you, no matter how long it takes, until you find 'em!! and by the end of the day, we were dismissing gnatcatchers as easily as most birders dismiss House Sparrows.  Isn't that a shame? well, as Phil always says, you see one, you've seen 'em all.

     As we hiked along the creek into the canyon, we upset a Belted Kingfisher who rattled something fierce at the interruption of his fishing.  And when we got around to the other side of the rocks where the hills on both sides of the lake climb high up through the rocks, we found a comfortable (but rocky) perch and settled down to enjoy the sunshine in the lee of the hill which protected us from the rather fierce wind.  And I heard that most beautiful of bird songs, the Canyon Wren, singing from the rocks across the lake.  O, what a glorious sound!  We never did see the little guy but that didn't matter; the song was well worth the hike.  Then a pair of No. Rough-winged Swallows (yearbird!) zipped across the surface of the lake, and one of them broke off and landed on the branch of a small tree just down the hill from the rock where we sat.  Then two, three, four---- at one point, we had 5 RW Swallows perched in the same tree, several of them lined up on the same branch.  Best look I've ever had at Rough-wings.  On our hike back to the car, we flushed Downy, Hairy, and Red-headed Woodpeckers and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; White-breasted Nuthatch, a Carolina Wren, Spotted Towhees, and a stunning male Black-and-white Warbler, again, our first of the season.  For as windy as it was, this was shaping up to be a fine birding day.

     Continuing west, we stopped and got out of the car for a hike through Charon's Gardens, an almost ghostly place at mid-day on a workday.  (As we hiked along the trail, we came across more than one bison hoofprint, and more than once, I asked Phil if he knew Paul Hogan's ("Crocodile Dundee") trick on hypnotizing water buffalo; luckily for us, we never came across the beast himself.)  As we passed the stone restroom buildings near the parking lot, we flushed a covey of 5-6 No. Bobwhite several times; they'd fly ahead of us and land, but everytime they thought it was safe to come out, we got closer and they'd flush again in panic.  We also watched as a Broad-winged Hawk took off through the woods parallel to the creek but flying the other direction, yet another yearbird for both of us, and we joyfully exclaimed that neither of us had ever seen a Broad-winged Hawk in flight at such close range.  Sure, I've seen them several thousand feet up in the clouds, but never right there in front of my face!

     We finished our brief tour of the Wichitas with 10 new years!  It was also getting late in the afternoon, and we hadn't stopped for lunch or a snack all day, so we were STARVING as we headed for the highway and trucked on over to Altus for supper and early-to-bed.  An exhausting day but absolutely delightful, birdwise.

     After breakfast Saturday morning at the Country Kitchen (?) in Altus, Jimmy Woodard, Max Fuller, Sheila Edgmon, and Phil and I toured the small lake near downtown Altus, hoping to find some interesting ducks.  Alas, only Double-crested Cormorants, Amer. Wigeon, and Pied-billed Grebes (the latter in breeding plumage), and Phil and I found a Wilson's Snipe in the ditch that runs parallel to the lake, but that was all.  When we got to the house where we were to pick up Patti Muzny, she announced that there were Inca Doves in the backyard so we dashed through the house to see 'em, flushing the doves into the next yard in our hurry.  Luckily for us, they flushed to a tree next door where we all got to see 'em (yearbird!), then piled back into our cars and headed for Eldorado.

     Jimmy guided us to a tin barn (or some kind of building) near the highway where he always checks for Great Horned Owls, and as we approached the structure on foot, we flushed the resident owl into some trees in the distance.... but we still got good looks at it.  We drove around Olustee for a bit, picking up No. Harrier (the first of many), Eurasian Collared-Doves, Barn Swallows, Cedar Waxwings, Bewick's Wren, W. Meadowlark, and at least one Loggerhead Shrike.  And in Eldorado, we roamed neighborhood streets looking for---and finally finding---several Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.  At one point, there was a pair of these golden birds perched in the same tree.  We all got real tickled as we walked down a grassy alley between two residential streets, and this little girl challenged our right to be there with the question, "what are you doin' in my alley?"  She seemed singularly unimpressed when we told her we were looking for woodpeckers and other "pretty birds," but she did consent to let us continue on our way down "her" alley to our parked cars.

     As we meandered south from Eldorado, we made several stops to hike into the woods here and there, flushing Bobwhites and picking up Field, Vesper, Lark, Savannah, Song, Harris's, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows.  Also Black-crested Titmice and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, so we were all pleased that we had most of the anticipated species under our belts before lunch.  We laughed as we watched a titmouse repeatedly pluck hairs from a raccoon asleep in a nest in the trees above our heads.  That raccoon never moved.  We also suffered a jolt of excitement when Jimmy and Phil startled a Long-billed Curlew to flight, whereupon they hollered to the rest of us, "curlew! Curlew!!"  Well, we ran like hell but most of us only saw the south end of a northbound bird, certainly not enough for a satisfactory look.

    By now, it was well after the noon hour so we got back on Hwy 6 and drove south across the Red River into Quanah, TX and the Medicine Mound Depot Restaurant for lunch.  With an old-fashioned country store feeling about the place, peanut shells scattered on the floor by the patrons (including yours truly), model trains running around the ceiling, and excellent food, this restaurant is always one of the highlights of the SW Oklahoma trip.  Unfortunately, they were terribly busy that day but we got a table in about 10 minutes, and then even tho' we had to wait some time for our food, when it finally arrived, it was well worth the wait!  If you're gonna drive as far south as Eldorado, OK, you might as well cross the river and eat lunch in Quanah, TX.

     Back across the river after lunch (I teased the others about "what will I do if Oklahoma won't let me back in?"), and Jimmy led us to his spot near the Red River where we were to look for Verdin.  I gather that Jimmy has looked for Verdin in this spot for 5-6 years at least, always failing to find them.  We parked the cars, climbed the fence ("forgive us our trespasess..."), and hiked down the hill toward the river.  The afternoon was warming up and I was tired and sleepy after my lunch, so I sank down on the ground to rest while waiting to see whether Jimmy's screech owl tape would bring in the birds.  We were spread out somewhat, Max having apparently decided to return to the cars, Phil rock-hounding and wildflower-hunting, Patti resting on the ground near me, and Jimmy and Sheila---apparently the only ones of us with any energy left---slid farther on down the hill into the trees.  Then Jimmy called, "we have Verdin!"  Well, you can imagine Patti and me scrambling to our feet and I'm calling to Phil to come back over near the rest of us, all of us trying to see the birds as they flitted nervously back and forth down the hill, calling "dee, dee, dee!" with Jimmy pointing here and there, trying to make sure we all got to see them.  Eventually, at least one of the birds gave Phil a good look but Patti and I had still missed it.  Then one of 'em flew up the hill and over our heads (which was MY best look), perching in a tree to the west of us where I was essentially battling the bright glare of sunlight while trying to get a better look.  I saw a small grayish bird with a light-colored head and clearly heard it calling as it flew, so I KNOW that's what I saw/heard, even tho' I didn't get a real good look at it.  But then, it was a yearbird, not a lifer, so I was satisfied with that.

     On our hike back up the hill toward the cars and Max, Jimmy spotted a Rock Wren singing on the boulders near the gravel road.  And Larry, darlin', with that, Phil Floyd and I had "found" _both_ Canyon AND Rock Wrens in the same weekend.  So who needs ya, anyway?? [hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!]

     We found 4-5 Burrowing Owls during the day, at several different locations that I couldn't find today if my life depended on it.  Also Curve-billed Thrashers.  We drove out toward Hollis for a bit, then headed back toward Kizziars, where we tried our darnedest to turn a Red-tailed Hawk into a Prairie Falcon.... but then the bird flew and proved itself a Red-tail.  However, we did get a look through our scopes at a distant bird on the horizon that appeared to be a Golden Eagle.  As Jimmy said, "I'm seein' a golden back of the head and there's nothing else that big with that golden head."   Whereupon, I wrote down "Golden Eagle" on my checklist.  We did drive some distance onto one of the pastures, hoping to get a better look at the eagle and passing more Curve-billed Thrashers on the way, but that was about it for thrills-and-chills for Saturday.

     And then as we headed back toward Altus, a flock of about 50 Long-billed Curlews flew across our path, some distance away but easily seen.  Simply awesome!!  I've never seen that many LB Curlews at one time before, let alone a flock in flight like that.  Their cinnamon wing linings were clearly visible, even without binoculars.  To my mind, they were the best bird of the day.

     Jimmy knew one other place to stop, hoping for a Barn Owl, and he did manage to flush one out that flew back and forth over us (who waited patiently on the road) a few times before taking off for parts unknown.  And while we waited for Jimmy to flush the owl, I heard the distinct squawk of R2D2.... a lone Yellow-headed Blackbird among the hundreds that lined the powerlines extending on down the road ahead of us.  The BEST blackbird!!

     Phil and I added 14 yearbirds to our triplist on Saturday.

     Sunday morning, the rest of the group---Jimmy, Max, and Sheila---headed back to the area northwest of Altus (Patti had headed home late SAturday afternoon) while Phil and I drove over to Hackberry Flat, the second time we'd been there in as many years.  To see it so dry and brushy was a terrible disappointment, but I guess you can't make the water be there if it isn't, can ya?  Greater Yellowlegs were abundant, and we picked up Blue- and Green-winged Teal, No. Pintail, and Gadwall for our triplist, but everytime we stopped the car and got out to set up the scope to scan the ducks, said ducks picked up and flew off.  As I said, terribly disappointing.  We did see the mass of dowitchers that was reported early last week.  They looked like a sandbar until we put the scope on 'em and then saw they were hundreds, if not thousands, of individual birds.  We also stalked a Marsh Wren through the reeds along the water's dedge along the northernmost east-west road around the Flats, but even this guy seemed extremely skittish.  Anyway, when we finally turned west in the middle of the levee to head back to the highway and hoje, we noticed a few "peeps" scurrying around on the mudflat.  Stopped the car on a dime and what do you think we saw?  Snowy Plovers, _5_ of 'em!!!!!!!!  Sometimes when you're about ready to give up on birding for the day, you get lucky.... and boy, we got lucky!!

     And despite the poor birding at Hackberry Flat, we added 7 more yearbirds to our triplist on Sunday, plus the Wild Turkeys we saw on our way home.

     Great birding!!  Really a wonderful, enjoyable, exhausting trip, and if you've never done the southwest Oklahoma route, I highly recommend it.  I think Phil and I finished the trip with 94 species altogether, with 30+ of them new for 2003.  That's an increase of more than 30% on my yearbird list, in ONE weekend!!  Some kinda fun, eh??

(c) copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2003
April 3, 2003
our fearless leader,      
Jimmy Woodard >>