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Oregon to Oklahoma

June 2003

Part 13:  Neal Smith NWR

I found some of the forecasting websites, but it was clear that I didn’t have a handle on the Zulu times, so I cheated and went straight to the Severe Storms Prediction site and saw that nothing really horrendous was in store for the next day; the most promising scenario was in Iowa, so since that was an easy day's drive, I took off the next morning and headed north.  As it turned out, as I approached Iowa, I ended up right in the middle of the brewing storms; I kept the Weather Band on the whole time, and while it didn't look right for tornadic storms, they did say small ones were possible. The best show was coming up to a tremendous shelf cloud that was so close to the ground I felt like I could reach up and touch it! It was shaped like a big white umbrella with teeth, and as I passed under it I saw the so-called "whale's mouth", the underside of the cloud that is concave and rough. And shortly after that I hit the wall of water (no hail, thankfully) and swam through that all the way to Des Moines, where there was enough of a respite that I could get a room in a nice hotel in Urbandale. My plan had been to find a room, check the local radar, and then jump right back out to chase storms till about 8:30, but after driving through that mess and looking outside at more mess, I decided that if I wanted to chase any more storms I'd sign up for another tour... (it was more fun vegging in the whirlpool in the room...)

But I had chosen Des Moines because it was close to a new (to me, anyway) NWR called Neal Smith, so I birded there the next day, which was glorious! It's actually closer to Prairie City off state route 163, so once getting there I drove in along the entrance road, stopping a couple of times and picking up the abundant Dickcissels, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Yellowthroats in this prairie grassland. Eastern Meadowlarks were dominant as well, and in one patch was a new (although certainly expected) trip bird: Sedge Wren!


Eastern Meadowlark and Red-winged Blackbirds (male center, female right)   

They have a great little nature trail called the Savannah Trail that takes you through Oak/Hickory woodland next to the grassland. It was the perfect length with lots of benches, and since I had dipped my clothes in Off I didn't get bothered by the mosquitoes (which didn't seem too bad, really). But lots of woodland stuff made an appearance (or at least sang): Catbirds were the most obvious, acting upset and probably with nests. Both Song and Field Sparrows were around, and both Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers called unseen. A Baltimore Oriole sang a great little motif, along with House Wrens and a Yellow Warbler. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher came in to pishing, and a Great Crested Flycatcher gave his obnoxious call in the distance. At the resting spot, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo sang and a Black-capped Chickadee gave its distinctive call, and on the return loop a White-breasted Nuthatch was very cooperative.


The Savannah Trail took you through a little oasis of woodland in the prairie that had Vesper Sparrows (center) and White-breasted Nuthatches (right)

From there I meant to head to the Prairie Learning Center, but I got on the wrong road and drove a mile before realizing I was out of the refuge and into private property! It was a great detour, however, because where I got out to listen a pair of Vesper Sparrows were very upset, one of them running around the road with his wings and tail spread; talk about showing off all the field marks! A Red-headed Woodpecker also swung up on a telephone pole, and a Warbling Vireo sang from another wooded area.

Finding my way back to the main road, I found the learning center: a huge, fancy place with a wonderful paved two-mile loop trail through the tallgrass prairie! Despite the limited habitat, this turned out to be the best spot of the day: Field Sparrows and Dickies were all over, but right at the get-go a Bobwhite flew across the trail, and what should be singing off to the left but a Grasshopper Sparrow! He was pretty close and gave great looks at his unmarked breast and stripy crown (and even his tongue as he sang)! Where the trail passes a little patch of woodland I picked up a singing Brown Thrasher and an exposed Hairy Woodpecker, and as I rested on a bench a male Orchard Oriole went shooting by. Goldfinches were pretty common, and next to the Buffalo range both a Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawk flew overhead, along with a retreating Great Blue Heron. Incongruously an Eastern Wood Pewee shot in and hung onto a strand of wheat for dear life (the wind was really picking up) before zipping off again!


Left:  The Savannah Trail from the Learning Center’s Tallgrass Prairie Trail.  Right:  Tallgrass Prairie Loop


American Goldfinches (males left; female right)


Field Sparrows


L-R:  Dickcissel, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk

But then I heard a cle-DIP! off to my left, and thought, "Henslow's Sparrow!" Like I said, the wind was getting pretty bad, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't hearing part of something else, but it sounded pretty authentic; unfortunately the little guy was hunkered down (don't blame him), and as I walked further up, I clearly heard another Sedge Wren singing. I was starting to sweat the sparrow, thinking I had indeed only heard part of the wren (or part of a Dickcissel, which was also singing away), but when I turned the bend and headed up the switchback up the hill, he sang again, much closer, and this time there was no mistaking it! He was still hunkered down, so I never did see him, but I was thrilled just to be able to have him for the year!

After finishing the trail and reporting the sparrows (both are considered "rare" according to the checklist, although they do breed there) I continued on the auto trail, adding Western Meadowlark just before entering the Buffalo range. There was indeed a herd of them lazing away, looking regal as they did. There was nothing else of note on the auto tour, so I just wandered around the dirt roads surrounding the refuge, and found a couple of prairie potholes that had Canada Geese and a Belted Kingfisher. I stopped at a couple of creek crossings hoping for some additional woodland birds; a knockout Indigo Bunting was at one spot. Another woodland pond had a Downy Woodpecker whanging away, and a Red-tailed Hawk being chased by an Eastern Kingbird! After the kingbird was done a couple of Blue Jays picked up the harassment! I also noticed a lot of stripped trees and buildings being repaired (one roof had a pretty good hole in it); I couldn't help but wonder if a tornado had come through here recently. Two new birds for the day, an Eastern Phoebe and a singing Lark Sparrow, were at somebody's farm house. A Horned Lark flew around one of the corn fields as well, and a male Pheasant strutted around someone's yard.


Trio of Brown-headed Cowbirds and lazing Buffalo


Overview of the prairie with Downy Woodpecker and Gray Catbird

I stumbled upon another trail that I wasn't aware of (the Basswood Trail) but didn't have time to hike that one; wrapped up the roads in short order and headed west towards home, making it to just west of Omaha and having some great veggies at Cracker Barrel. Headed west the next morning; gaining an hour with Mountain Time, that got me through Denver by 2:00, and battled the hairy slow traffic over the mountains, landing in Silverthorne (I think it is), where I managed to avoid the awful motel I stayed at last time and checked into the Quality Inn instead. Before unloading everything I went to look for a nice place to walk in the National Forest, and didn’t have to go far as I noticed a nice bike path along the river! That was a lovely walk (even though you were next to a touristy shopping center, etc.), and added six species for the day: a Black-capped Chickadee feeding its baby, several Violet-green Swallows, a couple of magpies, a Pine Siskin flying over, a couple of singing Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a singing Yellow Warbler on the way back. I thought I heard a Dipper tearing by, but without hearing it a second time, I was hesitant to count it.

Continued on the next morning, and made it into St. George, and I’m beginning to like this practice of getting the room and then finding a little park or something before unloading everything. Only today I really paid for it: found a little place on the map called Snow Canyon State Park, and it convinced me that no matter how dinky the little green square is on the map, it’s still worth checking out cuz God’s creation is still displayed in wondrous fashion! This place was absolutely awesome with the lava rocks and spotty pinyon vegetation! They had a great little bike path that made a perfect little loop, but it also must have been close to 100 out there, and even after dousing myself with water and taking a bottle with me, I was hurtin’ on the way back to the car! Even poor Jip didn’t like the drive up the road and began overheating! Of course the birds were smarter that I was (even the ranger warned me about that) but I did pick up a Gambel’s Quail calling in the campground, as well as a scolding Bewick’s Wren.

Picked up a KFC in case I got hungry later that evening, and settled in for the night. Made it into San Diego the next day around 2:00 without incident and didn’t do much except get the bags into the apartment and get groceries!

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