Tale of a Christmas Bird Count
or, "Storming the Western Wall"
Jan 5, 2002
(c) copyrighted by C.Browning 2002

     It was a holiday tradition a hundred years ago for many Americans to participate in a competitive afternoon hunt on Christmas Day in which they tried to shoot as many birds as possible.  Then in 1900, Frank M. Chapman, editor of the then new magazine
Bird-Lore (predecessor to today's Audubon magazine) wrote an editorial suggesting that his readers participate in a bird count instead of the hunt.  Twenty-seven birdwatchers participated in 25 counts that first year, and the results were published in the first 1901 issue of Bird-Lore.  And ever since, Christmas Bird Counts ("CBC's") have been held every year all over the USA and Canada, during the 2-3 weeks right around Christmas.

     On Saturday (Jan. 5, 2002), I participated in the CBC at the
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve northwest of Tulsa.  (This was the 4th year in-a-row that there's been a CBC at the Tallgrass.)  "Count circles" of 15 miles in diameter are drawn on a map prior to the count (and the same circle is often used year after year), and each circle is then divided into territories of varying sizes.  The territory I helped count on Saturday was at the Western Wall Primitive Area of the Osage Wildlife Management Area, just east of the Preserve.  Last week, Dan Reinking, whose team I was assigned to, wrote of the Western Wall, "[it] is very remote and rugged (at least by Oklahoma standards).  There are no facilities of any kind close to the area, so you will need lunch and snacks and drinks.  A single, steep, rocky loop road of about 11 or so miles goes through it.... The road is very bad in spots, with rocky creek crossings and such.... one crossing is particularly bad, so I often go one way to the crossing and then turn around and go back to it the other way...."

     Luckily for us, the weather chose to cooperate despite dire predictions to the contrary.  Aside from a brief spate of rain on my way to Bartlesville, our weather was clear altho' bitter cold, and once the morning fog burned off, we had fabulous views of the surrounding vistas ("miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles") from up on the prairie.

     We found lots of birds during the morning, but the funny thing was that several times during the day, one of us would mention a bird we should be seeing, and the next thing you know, we'd find it!!  For instance, during our afternoon hike, Dan remarked, "we still need a nuthatch," and within a minute or two, we heard one calling nearby!  We both laughed at the coincidence.

     Continuing our walk, we hiked into some woods that reminded me of the woods at Oxley Nature Center (here in Tulsa), and I said, "y'know, I look up at these trees and think I should be seeing Red-headed Woodpeckers."

     Dan replied, "I don't know.... Red-headed Woodpecker would be a good bird for this count but I don't recall if I've ever seen one in this territory."

     Well, we walked along for a bit when suddenly Dan noticed a bird above us:  an adult
Red-headed Woodpecker!!  Well, hey, now.... I began thinking we have some kinda magic goin' for us here, where we have only to say a bird's name out loud, like "we want one o' those!" and the next thing you know, we're lookin' at it!!

     About the "crossings" that Dan had mentioned last week:  I remember one verrrrrrry steep downhill, S-curved section of road with a rocky bit of creek waiting ominously at the bottom of it, the water crusted over with an inch of ice, but we sprang on through it without difficulty.  At the time, I thought THAT was the "bad" crossing referred to in Dan's e-mail, but that turned out to be one of the easier ones.  We were drivin' on around the loop after our hike, the road running beside an icy creek, when Dan said, "y'know, we're right here by the water so we need to keep a lookout for a Kingfisher!"  Well, the NEXT stop turned out to be the "bad" crossing, and honey, it WAS _bad_!! about 6 feet across with big boulders along the bottom, the water about a foot deep, with a thick crust of ice that would not have held the weight of the truck and would definitely have made for a nasty trap had we tried to cross it and failed.

     Anyway, Dan got out of the truck to check the crossing and decide whether to chance driving across it when a
Belted Kingfisher flew right over our heads, first down the creek and then back up again, chattering his annoyance at having his fishing so rudly interrupted.  That was our 3rd "wished-for" bird in-a-row, and by this time, I think even Dan was startin' to believe in our magic!!

     But having decided that discretion is the better part of valor, we turned around and headed back up the way we had come, deciding to approach the "bad" crossing from the other side (which meant we'd have to go all the way around to the start of this road and come in from the other side).

     Now, the Western Wall area is divided into several "pastures," each of them named, fenced off, and divided by gates (altho' the gates were open).  We had already driven through the whole Pond Creek Pasture area having seen almost NO birds at all, so as we drove back through the gate and into this particular pasture again, I said, "alright, Pond Creek, we're giving you one last chance to find us a turkey."

     Dan glanced over at me and said, "well, y'know, finding turkeys is almost always a matter of luck."

     He looked back at the road and immediately brought the truck to an abrupt halt!!  We both gasped in amazement, for stretched out across the grassy area between the road and the treeline, maybe 40 yards ahead of us, lined up virtually shoulder-to-shoulder from the edge of the road to the trees, was an
ARMY of Wild Turkeys!!!!!

     At first, we both laughed, not believing our eyes, then quickly brought our binoculars up to our eyes.... yes, indeed-y, those WERE Turkeys!!!!!!!!!!!! dozens of 'em!!  Still laughing about "our magic" and the good story this was going to make at the countdown supper later that night, we started counting.

     I said, "well, I'm counting' somewhere between 40 and 50."

     Dan replied, "yeah, I got 43 on my first pass, and now I'm countin' em again."

     I started counting again, too, and we noticed a few more birds coming out from the trees and from across the road to join the ranks.......

     And then I heard Dan say, "he-e-e-ere they come!" and y'know what? 
THE TURKEYS WERE _RUNNING_ TOWARD US!!!!!!! racing through the grass toward the truck at warp speed, all the while maintaining their shoulder-to-shoulder line-up, as if re-enacting Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, or like they were going to attack the truck and eat the both of us for lunch!!

     I tell you, it was the most INCREDIBLE thing I've ever seen in the wild!!!!!!

     Suddenly, the lead bird on the right veered off into the trees and the rest followed, but we also saw even more turkeys racing through the trees beside "our group," birds that had not been in the line-up we'd seen from the road.

     When it was all over, Dan said, "I'm writin' down 60 birds.  What d'ya think?"

     "Sixty works for me," I answered.  (Jeez, I thought, that's more turkeys than I've ever seen in one day, let alone in a single pile!!!  In fact, I'm sure to this day that there were probably more like 100 turkeys in that one group!!))

     We drove on.

     I said, "y'know, Dan, if we had crossed the 'bad' crossing back there, we would've missed the turkeys."

     "Yeah," he answered, and we continued down the road in silence, both rather shell-shocked from our close encounter with an army of WILD Turkeys.

     We finished the count about 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon with 39 species for the day, including the
only Wild Turkeys seen on the whole count!! and one species, Smith's Longspur (a type of sparrow), that was a lifebird for me (meaning, I'd never seen or heard the bird in the wild before in my life).

     But I can't help wondering:  would all those turkeys have massed together and made that mad dash down that road if we hadn't been there to see it??

Wild Turkey by Bill Horn