Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Beautiful Barrow's Goldeneye

Ahh yes, a life bird. Some people get all buzzed up on a life bird. If it comes to early in the day and they don't find anything else worth jumping about, the buzz weares off. Fortunately I'm not one of those people. I stay rather composed when I get a life bird in public, as a matter of fact most people probably don't even know when I get one. But, catch me alone and it's whole other monster! I even get all jumpy talking about it, and it happened almost two weeks ago.

I was heading home from Harper County and decided to stop by Fort Supply to see what was happening, and to get a lake survey done. The lake was nearly 70% frozen over, but there were hundreds of waterfowl out in the middle where a few open areas remained. When I finally reached a location close enough to actually see what was out there I was happy to find several hundred (aprox. 275) Common Goldeneye's (COGEs), as well as around 75 HOMEs, COMEs, and a few other less numerous but more common species. This was by far the most COGEs I had ever seen at one gathering, and judging by the number of northern vsitors we have had this year, I knew that the chances of finding a Barrow's (BAGE) Goldeneye was pretty good. So, my search began.

Aproximately 20 minutes, and ten frozen fingers later I was pleasently suprised by a single male BAGE. Oh, the joy, the excitement, and yes, the lifer monster jumped on my back and we bothed danced a good jig and hollered. I'm sure if someone where to have seen me at this point they would have thought one of two things. Jeez, it's 8 in the moring and this guy is drunk, or this guy just escaped from the prison that is across the highway! Luckily no one one was there to see me.. ha.ha. I know, I know you would love to see this. However it is my duty to remain calm and reserved in the presence of other birders and bird type researchers. Just thinking about the story get's me all fired up!

A little about the photo. It is digiscoped from about 175-200 yards away. Suprsingly it turned out pretty well, compared to all of my other digiscope attempts at rarities, this should be on the cover of Nat. Geo!

Doby Springs and an Icy Mishap

I know, I know, it’s been a while. Over a week, at least! I last left off on a trip to the panhandle, and the places that I visited after that were in Beaver (still in the panhandle) and Harper counties. I actually surveyed a location in Texas County however it didn’t amount to much. So let me take you back with me to the point in the story where it becomes mildly entertaining. Hey, there is even just a tinge of danger in this story. Not James Bond like danger, more like, you should have been paying more attention, you could have killed yourself!
A winter storm had blown through the panhandle, nothing too terrible a little snow and ice. Mild compared to some of the storms that can beat down this region. I was cruising to an atlas block in Beaver County, and was driving along a country road that skirted the western boundary. I was doing around 25 mph, the road had a small bit of ice. Well, that all changed as I got to the top of hill and started heading down. By the time I had noticed that the entire road was an ice rink it was far too late. The trucks rear end started fish tailing, I corrected, it got worse, then it got real bad, and then it threw me around 180 degrees. I ended up safely in a ditch, facing the direction I had just come from. I took a moment to breath, shook my head, dropped the truck into 4-Low and drove out of the ditch. Needless to say, the rest of the day was pretty much safe. Although a rear tire picked a nail up at some point, which sent me heading towards Harper County and Laverne. The sweet sanctuary of the Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Project Headquarters, and a new truck until I could get the tire fixed the next day, since it was a Sunday.
The block I ended up doing in Harper County was highly productive, and I actually acquired some company from Kathy, one of the field technicians that works with LPCH’s. Centered in this block was Doby Springs. If you were to read a little of George Sutton’s Oklahoma Birds, in the beginning of the book (if my memory serves me correctly) he mentions some of his favorite stomping grounds. Doby Springs is one such place. This little hot spot is a great place to stop and look around. There are ancient cottonwoods and various other species that make this a great place to check for wandering birds of either western or eastern origin. Marsh wrens were abundant around the small pond and cattail chocked stream, I was able to get an Eastern Screech Owl to respond to my call. I also ventured into new territory and gave an attempt at a Barred Owl call. I won’t comment on how well that went, but no more than ten minutes after I did this we found a Barred Owl not far from where we were. You decide whether or not it was successful attempt! The topper for the day had to have been the Short-eared Owl that cruised past the truck at sunset. Kathy may not agree with that last statement.

As we walked around the trails at the springs we found ourselves on one of the more tucked away ones. Just after we heard the Screech Owl, I was standing at the top of a very short down hill slope. The trail was a little muddy, but no worries. Well I took a step, and then my left foot proceeded to come out from under me. About the moment I caught my balance the other foot left the ground. It all seemed like slow motion, and sooner than later both feet were in the air, I was on my rump sliding down the very muddy trail, Kathy laughing. No I didn’t get hurt, just muddy. In fact I had slipped on some ice at home and had been battling with a hurt lower back all week. I think my little slip-slide down the muddy hill actually corrected the problem, so who needs doctors!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cimarron County, Great Wild Oklahoma!

I have finally returned from my venture to the Oklahoma Panhandle. Unfortunately I was not able to post anything new to the blog while I was out there. For two reasons, first, the locals don't believe in Wireless. Second, when I actually had a chance I was too exhausted to get any of my thoughts together. Now that I am home and a little relaxed and rested I will attempt to share a little of my trip with you.

Every chance I have had to visit the Black Mesa country has been constricted due to other obligations. Well I finally had the oppurtunity to put a little time in. I had four atlas blocks that surrounded Boise City. This gave me plenty chances to find life birds (4) and learn a little of the countryside. So I bet you are wondering what new birds I found while I was out there. Well I picked up two new thrashers (Curve-billed, and Sage), a Western Scrub Jay and oops, well I guess it was only three. Still, very exciting!

A really neat thing happened while I was walking around the mesa country. I walked around the edge of a bluff, turned and there no more than fifteen feet from me was a Western Screech Owl! I suppose he was taking a morning siesta, he just sat there, I took a few photos and then quietly walked away. Not long after that I called in a Scrub Jay. The jay was a life bird, the owl wasn't, but it was certainly the best look I have had at one.

The nights were cold, mostly around 10 to 20 degrees, and I spent them in the back of the pickup in my sleeping bag. Usually around three a.m., I would wake up due to some portion of my body being too cold. It might have been an arm, I would move it, get warm, dose off, wake up because my back got cold, and so on until I would finally get up and crawl out of the back and into the front where I would proceed to turn the truck on and warm up for ffteen minutes. So no, I really never got a great night's rest, but who cares with all of the great birds out and about?

A few last thoughts. Cimarron County is certainly an amazing place. When you find yourself in the Mesa country it's as if you have stepped back in time. I couldn't help but get nostalgic thinking that I may have been stepping where the late great George Sutton himself had been, or even better where no one had stepped (which is unlikely, but still nice to think of!). In fact the Black Mesa was a favorite of George Sutton's, so much so that his ashes were thrown to the wind there. I get to visit Cimarron again in a month or more, and will look forward to it with excitement. Each time I visit, I get sucked into the place a little more, and each time it becomes a little part of me.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Simple Pleasures

For the last two days I have been surveying a little of northwest Oklahoma, and a little of southwest Oklahoma. Beckham and Roger Mills counties to be exact. Yesterday was mostly clear and chilly, today mostly foggy and chilly. Not especially good days to be out weather wise, but the birds turned out to be decent.

Yesterdays highlights from Beckham were few and far between. I was able to come up with a total of fifty species for the day, the highlights being a single Prairie Falcon, and two flocks of Lark Buntings. The buntings were a pleasant surprise the first flock comprised of 15, the second a larger group of 40+. Surprisingly I was actually able to capture this photo (above) of one of the individuals. The second photos is of a tree that was loaded with them! Well I think one good photo a week is about all that I will ever produce, so the Lark Bunting will have to do until next week.

Today I awoke in a fog, literally. I camped at Foss Reservoir hoping to arise to rare gulls and loons. Alas, it was too foggy! I did check anyway and found a few Common Loons, nothing to get excited about though. I moved on to the Washita National Wildlife Refuge headquarters where I found my first Pine Siskens and Fox Sparrows for the year, also present were a few Red-breasted nuthatches, after that it was time to move onto my atlas block.

I cruised the country roads for a little while stopping here and there hoping to find something interesting. Nothing really happened until I reached Wild Horse Creek (I just love that name). I had stopped my truck at a bridge that crossed the creek and was standing there quietly, listening. I guess the landowner got curious and decided to find out what I was up to. After about a twenty minute conversation with Chelmar (very friendly individual), I received permission to walk his property. I had suspected that there may be a Marsh Wren present somewhere along this stream, as it was chocked full of dense cattails. Well not only did find one, but I came up with four! I was actually able to follow the stream for about a half mile and had a great time of it. At one point I reached an area where the stream made a pretty radical U-shape. From that point I began giving my Screech Owl imitation, which I will proudly admit has become pretty convincing. Enough so that every small and medium sized bird in that area needed to come and check it out. Much to my delight after about ten-minutes of standing silently and calling every so often a real Screech Owl decided to call back. So there I was out in the middle of nowhere; me, marsh wrens, Wild Horse Creek, and a Screech Owl. Very peaceful, very pleasurable and forever entrenched in my memory.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Wind, Rain, and Some Red Crossbills!

Well maybe I am a weather man, yesterday I predicted a 90% chance of rain for today and was right on the money. I picked Michael H. up around 6:40 am and after a much needed stop at the local Starbucks for a Venti 3-pump Toffee Nut Latte (mmmm..), we were off. I think we were both wondering what the hell were we thinking going out to chase birds on a rainy, windy day. All the same, we were on our way.

Even though we had a morning with pretty steady mist and moments of drizzle we managed to tally 75 species. Not bad! We really didn't have much luck until we started hitting the more secluded spots. This may have been for two reasons. First, there wasn't nearly as much wind (obviously), second, Mike finally stopped complaining about the wind and being cold! South Texans don't deal with the cold very well, I suppose I should have a been more understanding (of course this is just me taking a quick and easy jab, with little chance for a witty response from Mike! He never complained.). All jokes aside Mike is superb in the field and I'm convinced if he recorded his phishing and marketed it, he would make a killing. Now that I have made this a known fact publicly I would require at least 5% of all profits.

Well as my title suggests, yes in fact Mike and I located 4-5 Red Crossbills at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge this morning. Actually Mike first pointed them out and then I proceeded in attempting to get at least one decent photograph. Alas, I am not a photographer. But I do have a funny story that goes along with this, since my photo is pretty sorry!. We had been observing the birds for nearly ten minutes, they seemed preoccupied with feeding on the bunches of Pecans that were still left hanging on the now mostly naked outer branches. I decided to try and get a closer photo, so I proceeded getting as close to one as possible without scaring it off. Well, I got within ten feet or so, put my camera to my eye......and then nothing, the screen was completely black. Whoops, forgot to turn it on, I proceeded, put the camera back to my eye, all black. Damn, I never charged the camera. So unfortunately the only documentation photo I have is the one that is tagged along with this story.