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Oklahoma Adventure

Black Mesa

Decided to check out the Black Mesa Area Sunday, as I was concerned I would have to abandon the original plan to bird that area Monday if a storm system we were all keeping our eye on developed in the next day or two!  I was very glad I did: my socks were blessed off with all the terrific western birds, plus one write-in!

A post from Mark Peterson, as well as a printout from the Internet, clued me in to the Black Mesa Wilderness Reserve and the road going up to the Colorado state line, so I headed there first, nearly running down a couple of pheasants on the way.  Other good birds on the New Mexico side included a pair of Swainson's Hawks and a Burrowing Owl sitting on a post!  A raven on a telephone pole happened to get his neck feathers blown by the breeze, revealing him to be a Chihuahuan.  Once in Kenton I did get Mark's Collared Dove, but also my first "eastern" bird: Common Grackle!  Away from town, the habitat was gorgeous with the rocky hills dotted with juniper!  Two of the birds to hit my ear upon getting out of the car at the trailhead (besides the ubiquitous Western Meadowlarks) were two old friends from home: Bewick's Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow!  A short hike up the trail added a pair of Canyon Towhees, and I was very pleased to hear a Juniper Titmouse singing away, as this appears to be on the very edge of their range.  Up on the rocks both Rock and Canyon Wrens serenaded me!

     

                Coming into Oklahoma from New Mexico                        Scenes along the Black Mesa Wilderness Trail

     

                              

        Canyon Towhees, whose range barely             Black Mesa itself, the highest point in Oklahoma!

               squeaks into Oklahoma here!   

After that I headed up to the state line and came back doing the drive-a-mile bit, and the best stop was actually about a half mile south of the trailhead: Mark had mentioned Eastern Bluebirds, and two suspects sat on the wire, then flew down towards the trees; I got out to listen, and sure enough, that's what they were, and then I spotted one sitting near the ground!  But there were lots of goodies in that little area: Field Sparrows were singing away, and a really weird-sounding Song Sparrow sang from the riparian area.  There were lots of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers around, and a single Flicker cleahed from the tree.  But the best bird was a Townsend's Solitaire that came wheeling in, showing off that buffy wing stripe!  (Wonder if it was the same bird Mark and Mary saw?)  A poor Roadrunner couldn't figure out what was going on as I cooed at him and he kept coming closer and closer, rattling his bill the whole time!  At another stop Turkeys were gobbling away, and I managed to see one making his getaway!

   

                                                            Scenes along the road...                                Curious Roadrunner

      

                                                                                                                                    Colorado state line  

After that road, I headed on to the state park, where the lake was indeed almost dry (a local lady said it was probably due to the drought, and they just decided to "clean up" the bottom since it was exposed).  Picked up a big mob of White Pelicans in there, though, as well as a few DC Corms, the Greater Yellowlegs Mark mentioned, and a handful of ducks.  The Nature Trail was great, although I probably wouldn't do the whole thing again as it's pretty strenuous.  The trail dumps out on the main road and you walk back through a little "canyon" where again both Rock and Canyon Wrens were singing, and I got to see both this time (as well as another Rufouscrown singing tentatively from a bush).  A Say's Phoebe was going nuts, skylarking away, and at the top where I rested for five, I swore I heard a Vermilion Flycatcher, but it was just one short spurt, and when I got back to the bottom and strolled through the trees at the residence, I couldn't kick anything up, so I figured that maybe I just heard the phoebe doing an excited call.  But then on the way back to the car, I heard it again, and suddenly there he was, skylarking all puffed up like a little butterfly!  He obviously didn't like the phoebe in his "turf", and as I followed him around trying to get a shot, suddenly there was a female!  I was thrilled, as according to the book, they aren't supposed to be up here! But according to the OKBirders who responded, there has been a pair here for the last several years, and while Sibley shows them as vagrants in the state, another book shows their range just skootching up into the Panhandle, so I guess they’re not as rare as I thought!

  

Entrance road into Black Mesa State Park

      

                                                                                                                            Start of the nature trail

     

                        View from the top of the mesa                            "Wren Canyon" along the main road coming back

                                

Vermilion Flycatchers: depending on which field                     Bossie guards the picnic area...

guide you use, they either just make it into

Oklahoma here, or they don’t occur at all!   Note:

the right-hand photo is greatly enhanced; the

original was barely a silhouette!   

           

                    A very dry Lake Etling (note the fisherman at right)                                                        Killdeer 

Everything was rather anticlimactic after that: I drove the roads and got a closer view of the lake, then birded the road back out to the main highway, picking up a female Mountain Bluebird.  Taking the main highway over and down to Felt, had a beautiful Ferruginous Hawk up on a pole! The plan was to hit Black Mesa first thing the next day, then head over to Guymon, get a room, and pre-explore Optima NWR.  Wellllll.....

It was a gorgeous, cloudless day the next day, and I was surprised that more things (besides the meadowlarks) weren't singing: I just basically road-birded the Black Mesa Road and the entrance roads into the state park, and had everything I had the day before minus the Canyon Wrens, titmouse. sparrows, and bluebirds.  But did pick up Curve-billed Thrasher and a lumbering Great Blue Heron for the state.  Then I had another question for the locals: I knew Spotted Towhees winter here, but did they start singing before they head north?  Their Spotteds sound decidedly different than ours in southern California, and I heard a bird that sounded like a non-California Spotted (kind of a variation on the Eastern's "Drink your TEEEEE!"), but I really couldn't rule out a weird-sounding Bewick's Wren, either, even though I didn't hear the "inhale" you usually hear the wrens do.  Again, the overwhelming feedback was that it was a Spotted Towhee: not only do they start tuning up, but they have even bred there, so again, I was safe!

  At the state park the Vermilion was still in the same place song-battling with the Say's Phoebe, plus a couple of White-crowned Sparrows joined the House Finches.  A couple of Red-winged Blackbirds were being territorial in the little marsh that the road crosses, but didn't see the kingfisher I saw there yesterday.  Green-winged Teal had replaced the ducks I saw at the lake the day before, and now that I wasn't invading any camper's space, I pulled out the scope at the shallow end and not only refound the Greater Yellowlegs but a Lesser as well!  I thought I heard some rattling behind me, so I cooed, and up popped a Roadrunner!  He kept cooing back at me after that, though...  Going out of that campground, a robin-sized bird flopped around in one of the trees, who turned out to be another solitaire!  He was great!

               

               Ferruginous Hawk                      Tiny marsh at the state park with Red-winged Blackbird

 

Birds at the lake...

                

                                  White Pelicans                                Townsend’s Solitaires; the bird        Pronghorn Antelope

                                                                                           at right shows the buffy wing

                                                                                                stripe a little better   

The biggest surprise was along the wide-open, barren, over-grazed "exit" road: amongst the oodles of Horned Larks, a couple of Chestnut-collared Longspurs "kettled" overhead, and I actually caught sight of one of them: a male starting to get his black belly!  Great bird to add to the list!  At the intersection with the main highway spotted a Prairie Falcon batting away, and not far after that a dark morph buteo flew overhead that I'm leaning towards Ferrugie with: the tail wasn't all that pale, but he did have pale primary patches above, which neither Swainson's nor Harlan's apparently have.  Saw a regular Ferrugie to be safe.

I also had another question about Ravens: the day before I felt I had both species in the course of the day (one wind-ruffled individual showed no white on the neck, and at another stop heard the low, deep "honk" common amongst our ravens, not the higher, more nasal croak I associate with Chihuahuans): according to Sibley, Commons shouldn't even be in Oklahoma, or else they're right on the border!  My question was, what really is their status out here? Again, a very knowledgeable local birder (who just happened to be studying ravens out there) concurred that he believed Common Ravens did extend into Black Mesa, and not surprisingly given the "mountainous" habitat out there. He thought my comment on the vocalization was interesting, and warranted further study as a diagnostic tool!

Headed toward Guymon as planned, but just as I pulled into town to start looking for the Best Western, I got a call from David saying the storm chase was on!  So I immediately headed north, and settled down in in Colby, KS, ready to go observe a monster system that was supposed to dump snow in eastern Colorado!  (Roger Hill, the guy actually guiding me this time, was leaving his Colorado home early that night to make sure he didn’t get stuck in it...)