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Oklahoma Adventure

Wichita Mountains NWR

Back at Hackberry, Kurt led me down to where he had seen some distant Buff-breasted Sands, but we couldn't pick them out, so since it was getting late, he offered to show me where he had had Black-capped Vireos at Wichita Mountains.  So I followed him over there, and he took me in the south entrance, where he suggested I might hear Poorwills in the morning.  And what a gorgeous place!  Rolling hills and lots of oaks; it sure reminded me of the Texas Hill Country!


Following Kurt to the Wichitas!


Scenes shot on the fly...


                                                                                                                                Bison relaxing by the oaks 

On the way to the Sunset Picnic Area we stopped at the Prairie Dog town for the Burrowing Owl, then headed on.  Kurt showed me where they had found the vireos; it was a little off the beaten track, but not so badly that it qualifies as "bush-beating".  We couldn't get anything to respond then (aside from the ubiquitous gnatcatchers), but overall lots of titmice, Indigo Buntings, and White- and Red-eyed Vireos were singing.  A Rufous-crowned Sparrow sang from the hillside while a Blue Jay called in the distance; that was bizarre hearing those two together, at least for me!  A sweet songster turned out to be Kurt's year Summer Tanager!


Areas at the Sunset campground where the endangered Black-capped Vireo hangs out


                                            Canada Goose                              Picturesque lake at the campground


Elk (left) and Longhorn Cattle (right, although it should be obvious which is which...) on the way to headquarters  

We made a quick stop at headquarters where we asked about places to stop for night birds; technically the refuge is open before dawn, but they don't want people out hiking, so if I stayed by the car it was okay (which is what I do road-birding anyway).  Kurt wanted to show me his other favorite trail over by the Boulder Picnic Area, where a bird sang that sounded like it was probably the Painted Bunting (I remember having tons of them near San Angelo, Texas, then being fooled by an identical-sounding Varied Bunting that popped up--a first Concho County record!).  Kurt was dubious, and the thing was stubborn (while the Indigos were up at the tippy tops of their trees, in plain view), so we went on to the overlook, hearing Orange-crowned and Black-and-white Warblers along the trail (something sang that kind of had the rhythm of a Tennessee Warbler, but I got to thinking that it might have been a Nashville as well).  At the rocks both Canyon and Rock Wrens sang, and on the way back the mystery bird was still singing away, but this time we spotted him partially hidden, and he was indeed the Painted Bunting!  Kurt assured me that now that one has shown up, there's gonna be tons of 'em....


   Kurt on his favorite trail at Boulder Picnic Area     Carolina                             Kurt enjoying the scenery


I was shot after that, so Kurt showed me on the map where to make a quick stop on the way out of the state for Black-crested Titmouse and Golden-fronted Woodpecker (for real), then we headed our separate ways.  I went out via the eastern road, and drooled at what looked like good owl and Poorwill habitat; I couldn’t wait to explore this place the next morning! 

And it was a wonderful last day of the "official" trip!  Got up at minus-oh-dark-hundred to be at the eastern entrance at oh-dark-hundred to listen for night birds, and I have to say it was magical: everywhere I stopped there must have been at least three Chuck-will's-widows singing!  It was absolutely cloudless with the moon shining and fireflies blinking; it was wonderful!  In the open plains the Nighthawks were beenting and booming, and I was surprised to hear the Grasshopper Sparrows going at it already when there wasn't a hint of sunlight in the eastern sky!  Other pre-dawn daytime birds tuning up included Turkeys, Bobwhites, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.  At Lake Rush a Black-crowned Night Heron "quarked" for the day.  At a couple of stops I could understand why the rangers don't want you hiking at night: I was hearing scary noises from the underbrush next to the road, so who knows what you could run into out there all by yourself!  (They were probably snoozing cattle...)

I basically did the drive-a-mile bit all the way through the refuge, and gradually more daytime birds joined the pre-dawn chorus: Eastern Meadowlarks, bluebirds, cardinals, titmice, Great Crested Flys, Carolina Wrens, etc.  I did want to check the southern entrance that Kurt recommended before it got too late, so I zipped down there and listened, and if there were any Poorwills there, they were being drowned out by the Chucks!  But as the sky lightened I was delighted to hear a pair of Barred Owls duetting!  There was another pair further back up the road, so I was very pleased to at least get them.  Also picked up a Louisiana Waterthrush back here.

The air was so filled with birdsong after that that it was hard to sort out things!  Unfortunately I didn't write down the names of all these tiny little fishing lakes because I assumed the map had them, but it didn't; but this one little lake I stopped at not only had a Canyon Wren singing but an Osprey scouting out the place!  Every lake I stopped at (those of any size, anyway) seemed to have a pair of Canada Geese or two!  Many of the places I stopped at were still closed, as they have a very strict nighttime usage rule: they normally don't open the gates to these day use areas until 9:00, so I would stand outside and record whatever came in at the gate.  At one stop (I think it was the Doris area) was a flock of Chipping Sparrows with a singing Clay-colored, and he finally decided to show off himself!


Sunrise at the refuge...


                          Cardinal                                        Doris Area                                            Turkey Vulture

The ranger had just opened up the gate to the Lost Lake area (and it wasn't anywhere near 9:00; I think he was just being nice...), and somewhere between the turnoff to Lost Lake and the Boulder Picnic Area I slammed on the brakes: there was a Black-capped Vireo singing right next to the road!  I found a dinky little area on the shoulder to pull off, and tried to pish him out, but in typical BHVI fashion, he completely ignored me and continued to happily sing away...  Oh, well; at least I got 'im!  Down at the Boulder trailhead I heard that same funny warbler that I thought sounded like a Tennessee yesterday, but then found a Nashville up in one of the trees, so that's probably what was singing.  On the way out I saw an SUV parked at a skewed angle on the road with a monster lens hanging out the window: turned out to be Warren again, shooting some Turkeys in full display!  They happened to be on my side of the road, so I took advantage of the opportunity myself...


                                                                Lost Lake?                                              Turkey on the way in...


Turkeys on the way out... 

I think it was after this road that I stopped where a little creek crossed the main road, and was surprised to hear (and see in one case) two species I would have thought would be gone by now: Cedar Waxwings and Pine Siskins!  Barn Swallows were all over, nesting under the bridge.

Kurt was right about the Painted Buntings, too: this day they were all over (but still not sitting out in the open)!  Also had a couple of Blue Grosbeaks as well as the ubiquitous Indigos.  Headed down to French Lake for the short little Elk Trail, and if I thought it was gonna be a nice, easy little loop trail, I had another thing coming: I got my exercise on that one!  But it was worth it: it took you up to a marvelous overlook of the lake!  I thought I heard another Blackcap on this trail, but he was too distant, and everything else was drowning him out (especially the gnatcatchers...)!  Driving out of the area a little bird up on a dead tree turned out to be a Black-chinned Hummer! 


                                                                    French Lake                                                Cedar Waxwing


                 Typical habitat along the Elk Nature Trail                                View from the top


Indian Paintbrush?                                                            More scenes from the trail

Again, they don't have it on the map, but somewhere in here was the Prairie Dog town we stopped at yesterday, and when I pulled in the parking lot, there was Warren again, telling me he had the Burrowing Owl!  So I sauntered over (shooting some cute little Prairie Dogs that were just begging to have their picture taken on the way), and enjoyed the owl, chatted with Warren a little, then left him to do some more shooting.  In the nearby grasslands were lots of Lark and Field Sparrows, plus a singing Dickcissel.


                              Photographer Warren Williams checks out the             The Prairie Dogs are infinitely more

                                                        Prairie Dog town                                    cooperative than the Burrowing Owls!



                                                                           Pups playing at their burrow    

Headed down the road to the southwest corner of the refuge, and after making that hard right and crossing the creek, doggone it if there wasn't another BCVI by the road!  I had to use the flashers this time, as there was no place to pull off, and again, he was being a typical BCVI, having fun with me.  Grrrr.  A Black-and-white Warbler was more cooperative, however!


                      Black-and-white Warbler                    Trees congregate where there are creeks

Headed on down to an area that again, is not labeled on the map, but the road ends at the jumping off point for the Charons Garden Wilderness Area.  Stopped at a pulloff among some trees about halfway to the end, and while I was enjoying a Chippie up close, I heard rustling behind me, and there was a huge Bison just casually strolling past Jip into the woods!  That left me frozen for a minute! 

The end of the road was a lovely area with another little lake, where I again thought I heard another vireo, but very distant, so I wasn't sure.  Backtracked up and over to the Sunset Picnic Area where Kurt had showed me where he had his vireos, and even though it was getting on to elevenish, things were still singing.  Headed up to the area he showed me and got the Rufous-crowned Sparrow for the day, but didn't hear the vireo, so I just headed on up the trail since I was curious about it (and needed more exercise).  At one point something rustled next to me, and I spotted a rather large patterned snake hiding in the leaves!  He rattled at me while I tried to get a better look, confirming his identity...  At the turnaround point I rested for five, and guess what sang...  He was too far away to try and pish in, though, but because most everything else had quieted down, he was a lot easier to hear and pick out.  Headed back to the car thinking that three for sure and two more possible Black-capped Vireos wasn't bad (and I didn't even have to bush-beat or climb boulders! J)


                           Chipping Sparrow                        Charons Gardens Wilderness Area


More scenes around the Charons area


Bison on the way to Sunset Picnic Area


Looking again for Black-capped Vireo along the Elk Mountain Trail


                                                        Caddo Lake                                                        Sphinx Moth that got caught in

                                                                                                                                       someone’s van on the road...

Headed out the west end (and the timing was perfect: it was right around noon) and decided to check out that road south of Eldorado that Kurt told me to check for Black-crested Titmouse, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and Verdin.  Found the road fine, and indeed, that mesquite looked great for all three species (at least it reminded me of the mesquite forests of the lower Rio Grande Valley)!  I did hear some titmice, but they wouldn't come in, and to me the two sound identical, so I didn't want to count it without a visual.  A couple of Melanerpes woodpeckers did call, but the one that flew over was definitely a Red-bellied with the white wing patches.  At the end of the road, things were quiet except for a Mockingbird with an incredible repertoire, but I did add some nice day birds to the list: Ash-throated Flycatcher, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and a singing Cassin's Sparrow on a fence!

Got almost as far as the Interstate that night, so I planned to home from there, with some quick exercise stops on the way, so the trip list wasn’t be over yet!  Unfortunately I ended up not really getting any wilderness walks in at all, as I think I was anxious to get as far as I could, and the first night in New Mexico, it was threatening to rain (actually, it was spitting when I unloaded the car), so I opted to circle around the hallways several times, and actually rode their exercycle for awhile (I was amazed that my body was hungry for exercise)! Made it as far as Havasu the next day, and I really wanted to take my walk in the refuge, but ended up in an extensive and noisy (but very nice) Ramada Inn, where the nearby state park charged nine bucks to get in! So the nice ranger pointed me to a city park where they were having a kids’ softball fund-raiser (so I ended up paying anyway), and the walk was shared with lots of beachgoers, but I managed to add a couple of trip birds, including Abert’s Towhee!

It was an easy drive into San Diego the next day, and everything was still here, PTL!