Oklahoma Big Day Attempt – Sunday, 5-10-2009
Paul Van Els, Jason Heinen, Dustin Lynch and myself Vince Cavalieri, left Stillwater at 10:30 Saturday Morning on our way to Black Mesa. Our big day plan was to start in the Black Mesa area, then bird our way back east stopping at various hotspots and birds we staked out on our way out there. Being confident at finding eastern birds in the Stillwater and Tulsa areas (this would prove to be our undoing).
In general our Saturday trip out there was successful in finding target birds to stake out for the next day. At an old house and barn near the intersection of 412 and 95 south we staked out a Barn Owl. In the fields around Boise City we located two fields that had courting Mountain Plovers and a lingering Northern Harrier. The Boise City Sewage ponds were very active with 3 Red-necked Phalaropes in a large group of Wilson’s Phalaropes, as well as other common shorebirds, ducks and a Black-crowned Night-heron. The road between Boise and Black Mesa had many of the usual suspects including Lark Buntings, Long-billed Curlews and Ferruginous Hawks. We also found a Curve-billed Thrasher at the large prairie dog town south of the state park (but no burrowing owls). At the State Park we had a Bald Eagle at Lake Carl Etling and the usual Wild Turkeys hanging out in the park. Our best spot was the canyon and Mesas above camp Billy Joe where we had Pinyon Jays, Western Scrub Jays, a Juniper Titmouse and Common Ravens. I was a bit concerned about the time it would take to bird that spot the next day, but we had enough birds there to warrant the time we felt. We ended the day camping at the State Park, ready to get a few hours sleep before starting the big day very early the next morning.
We awoke at 3:45 am and got our first bird, Wild Turkey at 3:47 (three of them were roosting in the cottonwoods above our campsite). While we were packing up the tents, we added some other birds singing or calling in the darkness like Western Meadowlark and Killdeer. North of the state park we stopped at a spot we had heard a Poorwill the night before and not only picked up that species but also a singing Cassin’s Sparrow. We stopped at the Cimarron River Bridge hoping for Western Screech Owl and instead got lucky with a singing Lesser Goldfinch. Driving the road north and then east into the riparian area along the river again, we did hear a Western Screech Owl and then shortly thereafter we had Great-horned Owl.
As the sun was rising we raced over to Camp Billy Joe and made our way into the canyon and then up the canyon walls to the top of the Mesa. Here we had multiple Ash-throated Flycatchers, Canyon Towhees, Rock and Canyon Wrens, Bewick’s Wren and a Western Scrub Jay. Trying to keep up with the fleet footed Paul I stepped on a loose rock and went tumbling down the mesa side. Luckily I was mostly unhurt but did rip my jeans, leading me to bird the rest of the day with a jacket tied around my waist in an effort to not let the whole world know the color of my boxer shorts. On top of the Mesa we added Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse and Bushtit. Back near the actually camp Billy Joe we added a seemingly out of place House Wren and a Bullock’s Oriole. We next drove into Kenton and quickly added Black-chinned Hummingbird, several of which were coming into the feeders at the Merc. At the merc we also had a Say’s Phoebe and two Yellow-headed Blackbirds in a nearby snag. We also added some more town oriented birds like House Wren, House Sparrow and Eurasian-collared Dove. We made a quick stop at the Hoot Owl Ranch but were unsuccessful in spotting Lewis’s or Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. We did however pick up Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped (both Audubon’s and Myrtle in the same tree!) Warbler and Northern Waterthrush. Other passerine birds included Blue Grosbeak, American Goldfinch and a Red-breasted Nuthatch of the pale variety seen in the Rockies.
At the state park we added Yellow-breasted Chat, some lingering sparrows like White-crowned and Lincoln’s, also a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Could not find a Vermillion Flycatcher but did pick up a Willow Flycatcher. At Lake Carl Etling we quickly spotted our staked out Bald Eagle, sitting very near to where we saw him the day before, other water birds included Double-crested Cormorant , Blue-winged Teal and Spotted Sandpiper. Here we also spotted what was to be our only Orchard Oriole on the day.
Checking out the Prairie Dog town south of the state park we added our staked-out Curve-billed Thrasher, as well as Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting and Horned Lark (still no sign of Burrowing Owls). Farther along the road to Boise City we had one amazing occurrence where we spotted a Ferruginous Hawk, then in the same binocular view noticed a Long-billed Curlew with a Chihuahuan Raven flying over it. Paul then spotted a “Puma” which of course turned out to be a House Cat, which seemed to unfortunately be stalking the Curlew. Shortly after we added our Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks and then Great-tailed Grackle as we arrived in Boise City. The Sewage Ponds had fewer birds then it did the day previous, some Wilson’s Phalaropes were still there but we could not locate any Red-necked Phalaropes or the Black-crowned Night Heron we had seen the previous day. We also had Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Eared Grebe and assorted Swallows and a Chimney Swift.
At our staked out Mountain Plover spot, we had Mountain Plovers and a Northern Harrier in a matter of seconds and then soon thereafter added American Kestrel and Scaled Quail sitting on a water tank. In Keyes we finally added Rock Pigeon and European Starling. As we were nearing the Texas County line we spotted a Prairie Falcon (how regular are they in Texas County in summertime?) and then picked up our staked out Barn Owl. Along 412 we picked up Turkey Vulture and Eastern Kingbird which put us at 93 species, exactly halfway to tying the current Oklahoma record of 186. As it was only 11:00 and we weren’t even yet to Guymon we were feeling somewhat confident at this point.
In Guymon we lost some time getting gas and then having to retrace our steps when Jason thought that he had left his binoculars back at the gas station. Fortunately his binocs were safe in the trunk so we were able to continue on with our big day attempt. We decided to take the northern route across the state so we could bird the Salt Plains. This route had a lot of water and there were many little Playas and wetlands scattered across the landscape between Hooker and the Salt Plains area.
A wetland near Turpin had Cattle Egret, White-faced Ibis, Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Ring-billed Gull and Long-billed Dowitcher. Though we now had over 100 species our hopes began to fade as we drove through the rest of the panhandle and through Harper County, encountering only a few new species over the next hour. In places like Ocain, Gate and Buffalo we added Loggerhead Shrike, Mississippi Kite, American Crow, Canada Goose, Eastern Bluebird and Common Nighthawk.
One amazing wetland complex near Ingersoll briefly restored our hopes as we started racking up a big number of species. We saw Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Franklin’s Gull, Willet, Eastern Meadowlark, a remarkable flock of 15 – 20 Marbled Godwits and 3 – 4 Hudsonian Godwits right next to the road, as well as some singing Dickcissels pushed our species total near the 120 mark.
The Sandpiper trail at Salt Plains NWR was simply full of birds. Here we added many of the remaining potential shorebird species like Semi-palmated Plover, Snowy Plover, Piping Plover, Least Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Semi-palmated Sandpiper. We also picked up Purple Martin and Forster’s Tern but unfortunately did not see any Least Terns here. The marsh overlook and observation deck near the exit of the Salt Plains auto tour also proved productive as we added a good number of species here. These included, Little Blue Heron, American White Pelican, Pied-billed Grebe, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black Tern, Great-crested Flycatcher, as well as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
As we continued east we picked up a few more birds along the roadside, including Baltimore Oriole, Gadwall and a solitary, Solitary Sandpiper in a roadside wetland. Despite hitting 140 species we knew we were now in trouble as it was now past 4:30 and the weather was pretty terrible, windy, cold and overcast. We knew eastern migrants and residents were going to be hard to come by in this weather and that we probably didn’t have time to bird the Tulsa area well. We decided to take a gamble and go to Sooner Lake hoping for some lingering divers and hopefully a few surprises and then bird the Stillwater area the last few hours of daylight since we knew the area so well.
Unfortunately for our big day attempt the Sooner Lake plan turned out to be an almost total bust, the big lake and the power plant area had almost no birds and we didn’t add a single new bird between 4:30 and 5:30. The line of small trees along the fishermen’s access road did have some species, including Brown Thrasher, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Bell’s Vireo, and Northern Cardinal. We all found it humorous that Northern Cardinal was not seen until we had seen nearly 150 other species on the day.
With somewhat heavy hearts we continued on to Stillwater still hoping for a mini fallout of warblers or some other unlikely event that could give us the more than 30 species needed in the last couple of hours of fading daylight and poor weather. The Lake Sanborn area pushed our total to over 150 with common eastern species that we still needed like Carolina Chickadee and Blue Jay but there were very few migrants about just some Swainson’s Thrushes and a Nashville Warbler. Lake Carl Blackwell proved a bit more productive with Summer Tanager, Fish Crow, Orange-crowned Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and a Chuck-wills Widow that began calling at just past 8:00 to tell you how dark it already was due to the overcast sky.
We went to the Teal Ridge Wetland and picked up a Green Heron for bird number 164 on the day, as the last of the light faded. We could have pressed on and perhaps driven our total over 170, as we still needed things like Barred Owl and Eastern Screech Owl. We knew that the record was out of reach however and being tired we decided to call it quits. Of course we were a bit disappointed that we had fallen well short of the record after a pretty promising start. Perhaps if the weather had been better and we had been a bit quicker at some of our stops we may have had time to bird the Tulsa parks and pick up enough migrants to break the record. Likely the better plan is to start in the east and pick up as many species as possible during the dawn chorus before heading west. We wanted to stake out some of the harder species in the Cimarron County area however, and we did do pretty well out there.
Despite the small amount of disappointment however, we were all happy with a day well spent, many fine bird species seen and multiple state birds and even some lifers for some people in the group. In addition I made a huge addition to my Oklahoma year list pushing it well above 200 species which I was happy about. In the end a great day in the field in Oklahoma!!