Ft. Gibson bird-banding
and Nickel Preserve
June 16, 2003
(c) copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2003
    On Saturday morning (6/14), after rising at an ungawdly hour and feasting on a hearty breakfast at Phill's Diner in Tulsa, Phil Floyd and I drove down to the Ft. Gibson Waterfowl Refuge in Wagoner County, where we arrived "fashionably late" and were soon joined by other Tulsa Audubon-ers at the MAPS birding banding station of Don and Joyce Varner.  One of the first birds we saw there was a 2nd-year male Summer Tanager, as red-and-green as a Christmas ornament---a real beauty!!---and freshly banded, ready to be let go.

     Soon thereafter, I accompanied Jim Harman and Marty Kamp on one of the "rounds" of the nets, where Jim freed a Brown Thrasher from a net and then held it while Marty wrote the net number, approximate time, and species of bird on a brown paper sack.  Jim blew on the bird's belly to check for a brood patch but apparently didn't find one.  I remember Jim saying, "well, Don (Varner) will know whether it's male or female so just leave that space blank."  Jim deposited said bird in the sack, but not without some difficulty because said bird was definitely fighting the procedure.  Then Jim folded over the top of the bag, clipped a clothespin on it, and handed the bag to me to carry back to the banding tent (with the bird wrestling to get out of the bag the whole way back) while Jim and Marty moved on to the next net in search of other captured birds.

     When I returned to the tent, Don directed me to remove the clothespin and clip the bag to one of two scales, where we soon discovered that the Brown Thrasher weighed 69 grams.  Then I unclipped the bag from the scale and turned to hand it to Joyce, who was sorta distracted just then and not really payin' attention to the bag, which was all the excuse the Thrasher needed to attempt an escape.... and he did, too!!  Just flew up outa that bag and off into the trees, just as pretty as you please, while Joyce and I stood there open-mouthed, watching him go.  Don duly wrote down in his log, "Brown Thrasher, caught at 9:00am, adult (because of the yellow eyes), weight: 69 grams," and then asked, "was it a male? or female??"

     I said, "Jim said YOU'd be able to tell!" but obviously, this would be difficult without the bird in hand.  Don said something about "_WE_ should've been able to tell...," and then I remembered the moment when Jim blew on the bird's belly, lookin' for a brood patch, when I'd noticed a curious little clump of disordered feathers between the bird's legs as it lay belly-up in Jim's fist, so I asked Don, "do male Brown Thrashers have male hangy-down parts?"  Don assured me that they do, at least during breeding season, whereupon I confirmed: "then it was a male!"  And we all laughed in that self-conscious way of adults who don't know each other when sex is the subject of the joke.  I can tell you now that I'll be keepin' a PRET-ty close eye on those Brown Thrashers from now on and will forever after want to know, "is it male? or female??"

     It was hot standing around in the sun, even before 10:00 o'clock in the morning, hot and humid, and on hearing Don describe where we might find some "good birdin'" on the refuge, Phil and I decided to go lookin' for birds.  And in the next two hours, we scared up 45 species of birds, 3 species of dragonfly, and 6 of butterflies.  We didn't see any new birds for the year but especially enjoyed the one Bell's Vireo who perched atop a small tree beside the car and sang his twangy little song for us, "go-to-the-kitchen-and-get-me-a-beer! go-to-the-kitchen-and-get-me-a-beer!!"  (Y'know, ya HEAR those birds everywhere in the summer but they're usually deep in a thicket where you can't SEE 'em!)  We also got tickled at two White Pelicans in the lake, one of them with its "elbows" spread high in the air behind its body.  We couldn't figure out what that pasture meant but it sure looked odd.

     When we finally dragged ourselves back to the banding station, we discovered that said banding station was long gone and the "back gate" into the Refuge closed and locked, so we backtracked to the west gate and got out with no trouble.  With no idea where the rest of the Tulsa Audubon-ers were headed after lunch, we decided to drive on over to Tahlequah, look for (and found) a Mexican food restaurant for lunch, and then go birdin' at the
Nickel Preserve.... that is, if I could remember how to get there.  I didn't drive two weeks ago when Tulsa Audubon birded there and it was anybody's guess whether I could duplicate the left- and right-turns I'd observed from the back seat of Jim Thayer's car in order to find the Preserve.  But then, Phil had never been there before and I wanted to show it to him, and we didn't have anything else to do....

     ....so after lunch and after consulting the OK Atlas and Gazetteer, we ventured out into "the wilderness" of Cherokee County to try and find the Nickel Preserve on our own.  It took some serious ziggin' and zaggin' until we reached the place where, two weeks ago, Jim Thayer had announced, "okay, I guess it's time to start birdin'."  Our first bird was Blue Grosbeak, a young male not yet fully blue but singing mightily in spite of himself.  Chipping Sparrows, apparently abundant throughout the Preserve, were the only sparrows we found all afternoon.  We stopped beside some recently felled trees around which we noticed a flurry of bird activity---mostly chickadees and titmice, and a pair of Orchard Orioles chasin' each other (that li'l hussy!), and we also heard an Ovenbird singing in the dark woods beyond the downed trees.  However, after birding from the car for some 20-30 minutes and finding the Illinois River runnin' alongside the road, I realized we STILL weren't on the right road, so we backtracked a little and, at long last, I recognized a few landmarks and announced with confidence, "we're here!"

     At our first stop on the Preserve, we heard Carolina Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and, alas, House Sparrow, calling.  I watched a Hairy Woodpecker land in a big ol' oak tree and a Bewick's Wren poke around some badly rusted metal fenceposts stacked behind an outbuilding, and Phil found a Black-and-white Warbler in the same tree as the Hairy WP (altho' I missed the warbler).  We also found a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches near the road and the first of many Eastern Kingbirds.  Moving up the road toward the new stone gate into the Preserve, we stopped briefly, hoping to find the Kentucky Warbler I'd seen with the
Tulsa Audubon group a couple weeks ago, but except for a Barred Owl who promptly flew off in a huff and a Great Crested Flycatcher and Red-eyed Vireo calling nearby, the woods were silent.

     We continued up the hill into the open pasture beyond the woods, and watched a flock of Pine Warblers feeding in---what else?---pine trees and heard a Yellow-throated Warbler singing from the woods but didn't see him.  A couple Chimney Swifts chittered across the sky overhead, and a few E. Meadowlarks called lazily from the grass but the rest of the bird world appeared to be napping.  I was sitting in the car to get out of the sun and bringing our checklist up to date when Phil returned and said, "I think I saw a Scarlet Tanager."  So we walked back along the road where he said he'd watched what he thought was a Scarlet Tanager feuding with a Nuthatch over territory or food, or whatever, but we didn't find either bird, only some E. Bluebirds, more Phoebes, and a 1st summer Orchard Oriole apparently feeding two recently fledged juveniles.

     Phil had expressed reservations (not unwarranted, I'll grant you) about birding along this road what with all the "No Hunting-No Trespassing" signs posted, but I assured him that we would, indeed, observe the "No Trespassing" signs as far as entering the property on either side of the road, and that I had been told "the public" (namely, us) was permitted to bird along the county road that goes into the property.  And that seemed to satisfy him.  However, when we reached a point where a wide metal bar gate over a cattle crossing had been unlocked and propped open, I looked at the clock and, seeing it was already 5:30, suggested that we NOT go thru that gate in case someone came along behind us and closed and locked it, locking us in.  We'd already experienced this scenario (of being locked in) at Ft. Gibson a few hours earlier, and I didn't relish the idea of being locked in overnight at the Nickel Preserve, not knowing whom to call to get us out.  So we turned around and birded our way back down the road.... but not before we noticed two Wild Turkey hens on the road ahead of us.  I said, "Oh, I've been hopin' we'd see some Turkeys, so let that be the highpoint of our day and let's go home."

     As we approached the stone gate THIS second time, I heard what sounded like the Kentucky Warbler singing from the same general area where I'd seen him 2 weeks ago so we bailed out of the car.  And promptly scared off the
Barred Owl again (probably the same one we'd seen earlier at this same spot), only THIS time, he really set some birds to squawkin' about his bein' there.  And one o' the birds he set to squawkin' was a _Scarlet_ Tanager!  Phil saw the bird clearly, sittin' "right out in the open!" but I never got more than a glimpse of a bright red bird in the distant trees.  On the other hand, _I_ recognized the "chik-burrrr!" call and confirmed for Phil that yes, he wasn't crazy, that really WAS a Scarlet Tanager!!  First one I'd SEEN in two years!!! (the last one was in Minneapolis, MN in May 2001) altho', after checking my Avisys records at home, I discovered that Phil and I had found one at the Bixby sod farms in May 2000, so it turns out this one wasn't, as I initially thought, a new Oklahoma species for me.  Nonetheless, I don't expect to see Scarlet Tanager in the regular course of my birding in Oklahoma and I was absolutely thrilled about it.

     The commotion around the owl continued and in following the flurry through the woods around us, Phil and I also got to SEE _3_ Worm-eating Warblers!! in that one spot!  Altho' the Tulsa Audubon group heard these elusive birds at the Preserve just two weeks ago, I'd only ever SEEN a Worm-eating Warbler once before, at High Island in Texas in April 2000, and even that wasn't a very good look.  Well, we got spectacular looks---really kick-ass!!!---at 'em on Saturday as they perched right out in the open for us, still calling in agitation over the owl.  Simply awesome birds, and waaayyyy more beautiful than their name would suggest.  And all the while, the Scarlet Tanager was "chik-burrrr-ing" in the background on one side of us and the Kentucky Warbler singing on the other.  We never did see the Kentucky but eventually things settled down so that the Tanager began singing and we were able to discern how the song is different from that of the Summer Tanager that we're more familiar with.  I tell ya, this one stop was the highpoint of our whole birding day, and we left the Preserve with 49 bird species "in our pockets" and an accumulated tally of 65 species for the day.

Summer Tanager by Warren Williams