Well, if you weren't there, you missed a really good time!!
Phil Floyd and I met Kurt Meisenzahl and Lou and Mary Truex in Elgin (Comanche County) on Friday afternoon (Feb 6) and drove east to see if we could find the Trumpeter Swans. Nope! and the owner of one of the ponds where the birds have been hanging out said he hadn't seen 'em in a week. So while Mary and Kurt nattered with the property owner, Phil and I "made do" with the rather less exotic waterfowl in the pond across the street: Gadwall, American Wigeon, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, and Bufflehead. Also a Loggerhead Shrike perched on a powerline. I know these aren't very exciting species to most of you, but they were all yearbirds for me so I was tickled to see 'em.
We meandered around the section roads east of Elgin, stopping wherever we found water, and soon added Wood Ducks and Cedar Waxwings to our trip list. As we drove south into Sterling, I spotted a Merlin perched on a telephone wire beside the road. All were yearbirds. (In fact, nearly every bird I saw this weekend was a yearbird for me so I'm gonna stop sayin' that!)
Lou and Mary led us "the back way" into Medicine Park where we found some more Bufflehead and lots of mostly sleeping Canvasback in the (sewage?) pond there, and then we headed into the Wichita Mountains NWR intending to see a Rock Wren that Lou and Mary swear is "always there," and we also hoped to find a Canyon Wren while we were at it. Didn't happen. We did get nice looks at a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, but no wrens. BUT while I was tellin' them about the Merlin I'd seen near Sterling, and as I said "y'know how sometimes you think you're lookin' at a Kestrel but it just doesn't look right?" I noticed a bird flying in the distance, pointed at it, and announced, "yeah, it was just like that!" Another Merlin. I love it when nature fills in the blanks of your story for you. Mary had said that she and Lou needed a Merlin for their yearlist, so I was happy to help. (You're welcome.... no extra charge. ~:-)
From there, we headed up the hill to the grassy-weedy fields just beyond the turn-off for Meers, to look for longspurs, especially Chestnut-collared Longspurs as I'd never seen one in Oklahoma. Altho' Mary and Lou insisted that the Chestnut variety are abundant "around here," we succeeded in flushing more Smith's Longspurs than Chestnuts. Nevertheless, Phil and I agreed that the one Smith's that flew over our heads gave us the best looks we'd ever had at one. Chestnuts, however, proved to be very elusive until we finally managed to corner one where he was hiding on the ground behind a "berm" of red grasses and seemed to think by his stillness that we couldn't see him, even tho' we were almost standing on top of him. The bird filled the view of my binocs and I looked him all over for about 5 minutes. New statebird for me!! and Phil thought it was a lifebird for him.
As it was gettin' on toward dusk, we decided to drive over to Doris Campground where Lou and Mary said they had a pretty reliable Eastern Screech-Owl tree staked out. We waited and waited, and the sun went down and still we waited. Bird never showed. By now, Phil and I were teasing Lou no end that if he said he was gonna show us a bird that he knew exactly where to find it, we could count on NOT seeing it.... but it was gettin' dark so we headed back to Medicine Park for dinner, and then Phil and I drove on out to Frederick for the night.
Bright and early Saturday morning, the other field-trippers and I gathered in the parking lot of the motel, sorting ourselves out for car-pooling, distributing extra walkie-talkies (if you own a walkie-talkie and leave it at home, it does you absolutely no good when you're out in the field!), and I lectured my troops on staying together and paying attention to "the car in front of you AND the car behind you" and waiting when you make a turn to make sure that the car behind you sees that you're turning, so that no one gets left behind because the leaders are driving too fast and don't wait for stragglers. (That's a pet peeve of mine whenever we're caravaning between birding spots, and I want to say to my troops right now, "you did great!!" We didn't lose anyone and we all got to see all the birds we found.)
Kurt, Lou, and Mary arrived in due time and we headed over to Hackberry Flat (Tillman County). Since we wanted to see as many birds as possible in southwestern OK, we agreed that we'd scope the lake at Hackberry and then head out toward Jackson County to find as many of the area "specialties" as we could in the time allowed.
The lake at Hackberry Flat yielded American Wigeon, No. Shoveler, No. Pintail (my favorite duck!), Green-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, one Snow Goose and several Greater White-fronted Geese, and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Hackberry Flat was clearly a paradise-on-earth for No. Harriers and Red-tailed Hawks, but Ferruginous Hawks also seemed to be abundant; we saw several, both in flight and perched. We stopped at some falling-down buildings and flushed 3 Barn Owls and 1 Great Horned Owl from the same building, most of us surprised that the two species would tolerate sharing shelter with each other. We flushed a couple more Barn Owls from a worn-out building that stood behind a "primitive camping area" sign (the description of "primitive" fit that building to a T!!) and when we looked closer, we saw the tufts of a Great Horned Owl wafting in the breezes above the edges of a nesting platform inside the building. Not the whole bird, just the "ear" tufts. Some of the camera buffs took pictures.
Scanning the plowed fields near the primitive building yielded Horned Larks, altho' this is one of the birds I missed all weekend.
It was time for a pit stop so we returned to our cars and caravaned over to the indoor toilet facilities at the new Visitors Center. Then all 17 of us spread out and began tramping across the field north of the Center, hoping to flush up "some" Short-eared Owls who might be hunkerin' down in the shin-high grasses to get out of the 25mph wind. Boy, howdy!! We flushed up one, then another, then three-at-a-time, then a couple more, and at one point, it seemed as if everywhere we looked, there were owls swirling over that field!! By the time we were done, Phil counted _17_ Short-eared Owls in all!! and as there were 17 in our party, I figure that's an owl apiece!! Definitely, the best bird of the day!!
When we left the Visitors Center, we drove southwestward to Davidson, hoping to find Inca Doves at the feeders in a yard where Lou and Mary have seen them before (didn't find 'em!), and then headed northwest about 4 miles to see if a very large prairie dog town would yield any Burrowing Owls. Mary spotted one owl near the far end of the field, but the bird flew a short distance and disappeared down a burrow while we were all gettin' out of our cars and gettin' ourselves organized. We decided to wait with our scopes trained on that burrow, and before long, the bird popped his head (from the eyes up only) above the lip of the burrow and we all got to see him. A 4-owl day---before lunch!!---is hard to beat, I'll tell ya!
By now it was about 11:30, so we got back in our cars and drove across the Red River to Vernon, Texas, and then northwestward to Quanah. For me, part of the ritual of birding in southwestern Oklahoma is crossing the Red River to eat lunch at the Medicine Mounds Depot Restaurant in Quanah, TX. The food's good and the rustic ambience sublime, altho' try as she would, Mary just couldn't bring herself to throw her peanut shells on the floor. (In contrast, I tossed all my peanut sheets---one-at-a-time---over my shoulder. ~:-)
After lunch, we drove north on Hwy 283 back across the Red River, then turned east at the first possible section road, then south as soon as we could in order to get back down to the River to look for Verdin. At our first stop, we stood atop the rim of a small canyon and Mary played a tape of the bird's call, hoping to bring in our quarry. I and some of the others saw a couple of the small grayish birds with yellow heads hoppin' about in the trees below us but the look wasn't very satisfactory, so some of us decided to hike down the nearby road that led to the very trees where we'd seen the birds. About halfway down the hill, Lou called out that he'd seen one of the birds coming our way. We all stopped and began scanning the nearby trees for the bird, then someone up top called out, "it's not a Verdin, it's a Rock Wren!" I got a good look at it. "Okay, Lou," I told him later, "you're off the hook for the Rock Wren. Now, about that Screech-Owl and the Swans...."
Continuing on, we drove down several section roads, stopping now and then, hoping (and failing) to pish out the Pyrrholuxia that was last seen in the area in January and heading generally toward the yard of some people living in the area who keep an array of birdfeeders in their yard---including one feeder that said Pyrrholuxia would visit now and then. Altho' we missed the Pyrrholuxia, we did pick up Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Bewick's Wren, Spotted Towhee, Greater Roadrunner, Harris's and White-crowned Sparrows. In the birdfeeder yard, we found Amer. Goldfinches and a Pine Siskin, Field Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and at least one Mockingbird. A covey of about 20 Bobwhite scurried across a nearby field and out onto the road. At the second stop for Verdin, I decided I'd had enough hiking for the day so I sat in my field chair and enjoyed the quiet and shady breezes---and a Cooper's Hawk fly-by---while the rest of the group climbed over the oil lease fence and trudged on down to the River. Zero Verdin for them, altho' they did see a Sharp-shinned Hawk along the way. We stopped a couple more times hoping to bring in a Black-crested Titmouse (missed again), and then called it a day. Gene Reid, Dan Livengood, Cheryl Kilpatrick, Phil Floyd, and I stopped in Altus for dinner and then drove back to Frederick for the night.
Gene, Dan, and Cheryl were still game to take a closer look at Hackberry Flat on Sunday morning, so we headed out on a windy, overcast Sunday morning. Late Saturday afternoon, Bret Umber had drawn in some locations of water on my map of Hackberry Flat. For no particular reason, our first stop was the Visitors Center building again, where we all took advantage of the indoor restrooms. (Indoor restroom facilities are not to be taken lightly when you're traipsing around a vastly unoccupied landscape like you'll find in southwestern Oklahoma.) While standing outside the restrooms, I noticed a hawk-like bird flying toward us from across the field where we had flushed Short-eared Owls the day before, but as it came closer, I realized I was looking at a Prairie Falcon. I called out to the others, "Prairie Falcon! Prairie Falcon!!" Dan and Phil already had their binocs on the bird, and Gene had just come out of the men's room a moment before and got a really kick-ass look at this falcon (a lifebird for him!) that flew right over our heads and not very far above us. Unfortunately, Cheryl was still in the women's room as the bird flew over so she missed it!! Just goes to show you that birding really is a "crap" shoot!! [hahahahahahahahahaha!] That is to say, if the bird is there and you're there and you're looking in the right direction, then you get to see it, but if not, then you miss it. Alas, Cheryl missed this one but she must've been holdin' her mouth right because a little later on, we watched another Prairie Falcon (or the same one?) flying along the same route we were traveling. Prairie Falcon is my nominee for best bird of the day on Sunday.
Well, we continued on our journey, driving all the way across the east-west road that runs from the Visitors Center to the observation tower at its far end. On our way back, we got terrific looks at an adult male No. Harrier (the "gray ghost"), the only adult male Harrier we saw in the two days we were down there. We continued counter-clockwise toward the lower end of Hackberry to one of the water areas Bret had drawn on my map, and from the main east-west road next to that water we found the same ducks we'd seen the day before. But when we got to the one road that runs north-and-south for some little distance, we decided to drive up and back since it ran right next to that large pool of water. And I'm glad we did, because in short order, we found about 2 dozen Long-billed Dowitchers, a lone presumed White-faced Ibis (it was flying and never landed so I never got a really good look at its face or any of its other field marks, and therefore I'm relying on the range maps in my field guide for calling it a White-face), Semipalmated, Western, and Baird's Sandpipers, and Rusty Blackbird. We also watched several No. Harriers take turns feeding on a Green-winged Teal, which was kinda gross but also spectacularly interesting. I want to add that I recently replaced the spotting scope I broke in December with a bigger, even better model than the old one, and the 5 of us watched those Harriers eat breakfast through my new scope at 40x magnification, an awesome sight even if a little gruesome.
The lake was nearly empty of birds, just a few Shovelers and Green-winged Teal, Yellowlegs, Killdeer, and Great Blue Herons. It was considerably colder and windier on Sunday than on Saturday, so after we'd scanned the lake to see if anything else was around, and finding none, Phil and I got back in the car and headed home.
I got home dead-tired late Sunday afternoon, and (thankfully) took today off work so I could tally up our birds for the trip and get a few things done around the house before going back to work tomorrow. Our list of "official" field trip birds totals 70 species, more than half of those at Hackberry Flat on Saturday and Sunday. A number of our group got lifebirds on this trip and that was a lot of fun to share. Phil and I picked up an additional 16 species in Comanche County (including the Wichita Mountains) on Friday. I added 67 species to my yearlist over the weekend, including one new Oklahoma bird, the Chestnut-collared Longspur, but the two best birds of the trip for me were those 17 Short-eared Owls on Saturday and the Prairie Falcons on Sunday.
Many, many thanks and kudos to Lou and Mary Truex and Kurt Meisenzahl for their excellent organization of our itinerary, and for the birds we did find (even tho' there were others we didn't). Also, thanks to my fellow field-trippers; I enjoyed your company and also enjoyed sharing all those birds with you.
|(c) copyright by Cyndie Browning 02/2009|
|AN OWL APIECE
February 6-8, 2009
|Short-eared Owl courtesy of Michelle St.Sauveur|