Friday, February 29, 2008

Reflections from the Wichitas

I spent most of yesterday afternoon at the Wichita Mtns NWR. Two of the classes that I am taking are both nature oriented (imagine that!), and instead of lecture we got a tour of the Special Use Area. Not only a tour, but got dropped off and spent about an hour on our own, reflecting on the natural world. Not that I need any more outdoor experience, but I am always ready to jump at a chance to get out into the wild! My little spot happened to be a place where there were some pretty ancient looking Post Oaks, about a hundred yards south of that was a stand of mixed Cedar and Oak with a spring running throughout. Not a bad place to think.

A few of the oaks were particularly old, showing there age well. Unfortunately the largest must have got struck by lightening. I decided to park myself there to reflect, sitting against the fallen portion of the tree, and looking at it's successor. I took a few photos of the knots on the few feet of stump that remained erect (pictured). Can you imagine what that tree has seen? The hundreds of thousands of bison, the Merriam's elk that went extinct and was replaced by its Rocky Mountain cousin, the fires, the lightning storms, wow!

Of course I also took the opportunity to look for a few birds. The cedar grove was full of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, taking advantage of a shallow leaf filled pool that provided a nice spot to bathe. Also lurking about was a group of Spotted Towhees, White-throated Sparrows and some more of the more common stuff. Actually a total of 23 during the tour, there were a lot more things around but I was not in charge of the schedule. I was able to get a pretty good picture of this Sturnella magna (Eastern Meadowlark), a very pretty individual who posed quite well for me.

Okay so I'll leave you with a little bit of my "creative writing", please feel free to let me know how bad it is!

I sit against a fallen behemoth.
Barely able to make out its successor, who is hidden by another.
This brute, which fell to lightning, looks at me with twisted knots,
full of truth.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Texas Society of Mammologists

Well, I don't often make it down to Texas unless it's to visit friends in Wichita Falls. However, I was offered a chance to join my advisor and some other interested students from Cameron University in attending this meeting. I know, I know it was a mammology meeting, but science is science and there is always something to be gained in an atmosphere like the one presented at the Texas Tech Field Station in Junction. Yes, there were a few birds I was interested in seeing, so that just added to the excitement.

Our first stop on the road to Junction was at San Angelo, for which I already posted about. We continued onto Junction after our visit. No birding to be done when we got there, only a poster session and dinner. The poster session was interesting with lots of information about bats, rodents, and Hog Nosed Skunks. Really very interesting stuff. The remainder of the evening was spent behind a few cups of good Texas Shiner Bock as well as some scattered discussion about everything and nothing!
Fortunately the next morning we were able to get out and see a few good birds before the presentations begun.

This Green Kingfisher was the highlight of the trip for me. For some reason I was really looking forward to seeing this bird. I mean it was a life bird so I was excited to get to learn it, but for some crazy reason that particuliar species has been on my mind for some time, I don't know why. Some other lifers for the trip were a couple Black-throated Sparrows, Verdin, Pyrrhuloxia, and a few singing Cactus Wren. Not bad for a mammology trip! Actually all of the species except the Green Kingfisher can be found in SW Oklahoma, minus the Black-throated Sparrow which can be found at the Black Mesa in Cimarron County (also in Oklahoma). Our count for the trip was either 89 or 90, not bad considering we are currently in that lag time between winter, and the spring migration.There are only slight differences between SW Oklahoma and the west-central Texas area, they have alot more scrub/mesquite habitat, in SW Oklahoma we have a bit of a smathering of habitats which happen to include a little scrub/mesquite.

That's about it for now, got some more studying...........

Picture credits: Black-crested Titmouse (me), Green Kingfisher (Jeffrey Dupree)

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Visit to Angelo State University, Texas

I love getting to visit a new specimen museum. You never know what they have in store. In the case of Angelo State this Shoebill proved to be my favorite. Imagine getting tangled up with that bill, you could loose your hand! That's really one of the best things about getting to visit a university collection. You get a great chance to see some examples of species that you may never get a chance to see in your life time.

The universities ornithology collection has been kept under the close and attentive eye of Dr. Terry Maxwell (pictured below with the Shoebill on his head!). I was really excited about meeting Dr. Maxwell, he is a "classically" trained ornithologist, so can only imagine some of the stories he has saved up over time?

Not only is Dr. Maxwell a superb ornithologist he also has the eye of an artist. I haven't found a link to some of his work but the color chalk drawings that are present in some of the department labs speak for themselves. Take this Ocelot for example, it's a chalk drawing on a blackboard! In anycase what a great way to spend the afternoon.

If you'd like to read a weekly column that Dr. Maxwell writes, one of the latest can be found at . This is a great article concerning mesquite and its history in the southern plains. Enjoy!

Stay tuned, I have a weekend of birding (can you say Green Kingfisher) and mammology conference to report on from way down in west central Texas!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

An Evening With Christopher Cokinos

It's not everyday that you meet the author of a well known book, to top that, you almost never get to share an intimate meal with one. I had the fortunate opportunity to sit down to a delicious meal (veggie lasagna, and leafy greens w/ dried cranberries and roasted pine-nuts!) with Chris Cokinos. Actually I sat down to dinner with a total of four very accomplished writers and had a wonderful evening. If you are not familiar with Christopher Cokinos or his work he wrote a book called "Hope is the Thing With Feathers : A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds" it is well accepted and appreciated amongst birders and researchers, and if you haven't read it, I'm not sure what is taking you so long! In any case, before I share any more of my evening I need to share some interesting things about my connection with this book and the author.

It has been almost two years since I worked on the Sutton Centers Lesser Prairie Chicken Project. During one of the first few weeks Don Wolfe (Senior Biologist) and I were talking at the field station when he handed me a copied version of a chapter of Chris's book (with consent from the author of course). It was the section entitled "The Heath Hen", for some that may not know the Heath Hen went extinct around the late 20's. You can still see it's close relatives the Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens in a few of the Great Plains States. However, if you plan to see the Lesser you had best do it soon, because they are perhaps the next species in that genus to follow the Heath Hen out of existence. But that's another matter for another post! In any case Don gives all of his technicians this section of Chris's book and hopes that they will read it. I did, and enjoyed it greatly no matter how sad the stories were. The current story of the Lesser Prairie Chicken is paralleling Chris recount of the Heath Hens so closely that I almost get sick thinking about the possible outcome!

I enjoyed the book so much that I set out to find my own copy. Well, that was more difficult than I would have imagined, the book had gone out of print and I couldn't find a copy (which speaks highly for the content!) It was almost a year before I would find one. Funny enough I was in Memphis staying with some family, I had been out birding in the morning at a local Refuge and had jumped over to the city to see a little of the big town. One of my stops was at a local used book store where I happened to find a perfect used copy of it. Not to mention it was an uncorrected proof that had made its way to the shelves. Somebodies loss was certainly my gain that day! Happy as a walrus at a clam fest I paid the eight dollars and ran like I had stolen it.

Fast forward a year and a half. I am currently taking a Professional Writing class and it just happens that Chris was coming to read a bit of his new book to some folks at Cameron University. Fortunately I missed the reading, but got invited to a wonderful dinner so that I could meet him and share stories and what not. To say the least he was a very kind and sincerely genuine person. We talked birds of course, shared storied, and had a wonderful evening. I can't speak highly enough, I will look forward to reading his next book which I'm sure will be just as top-notch as his last. Oh and that super special book, yeah, it now contains a kind message from the author.

Chris if you happen to read this, thanks, I hope our paths cross again sometime!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

End of the Season, and Some Bad Photo Fun!

Well I'm sure some of you from Oklahoma are glad that the Winter Bird Atlas Season is over, I know my wife is. I think I have added about 7,000 miles to the truck, a few new grey hairs in the beard, and have developed a great ongoing conversation with myself in the past three months. What good news you ask? Well, I helped the Sutton Center finish their data gathering process for the Atlas, I've learned the state pretty well, and I have seen a lot of good birds through the last two years. Another fun thing to come out of this atlas season was this blog, I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing my stories with everyone, and appreciate the great responses and comments regarding it. I have enjoyed it so much in fact that I am going to keep it going (if you haven't noticed I've changed the name and look). So you can look forward to the next few months. Starting in March I will be runnning surveys for Lesser Prairie-Chickens, and then in mid-April my marsh bird project gets started again(everybody loves a good Black Rail story!).

Before I bore you to death I have decided to share some of my worst photos of the last two atlas seasons. That's right, not the best, but the worst! If you can identify any of them kudos to you, and yes I do know what all of them are. Actually all of them are rarities from around the state, so that makes it even more entertaining. Enjoy and make sure you have a good laugh! If you are truly interested click on the photos to enlarge them (this works for all of them within the blog).

Okay, Okay a little help: Tundra Swan, Western Grebe, Pacific Loon, and a possible Iceland (possibly Thayer's)!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Superb Day!

Monday was certainly a stupendous bird day. I haven't actually sat down to tally the total species count, but I found a few good rarities along the way. My day began before the sun, I spent the night at an in-laws place in Oklahoma City and left early in the morning hoping to beat the traffic, which I did. For some reason as I drove west Swans kept coming to mind. I guess the region had been getting some rain lately as most of the depressions were filled. I knew from past experiences that this was exactly the type of habitat that swans love to feed in. So as I cruized down the highway I made sure to take a good long glance at every water hole I could. A little past Hennesey along the south side of the road I found them. Three big white things! No, three great looking Tundra Swans. Two adults and a single immature bird. It took a while for me to ID them as they were off pretty far on the opposite side of the large impoundment, it wasn't until they moved closer that I could see their bill and head shapes. For a moment I caught a glimpse of what look liked a yellow lore on one of the individuals, but they remained just a little to distant for a positive on that specific marker.

Feeling confident with my somewhat grainy digiscope photos and positive ID I moved on. Canton resevoir was my next stop, I needed to get to my block before ten thirty so that I would have enough time to get a few hours on it and move on. The dam was my first and only stop at the resevoir. As I drove up I noticed a large gathering of waterfowl and gulls pretty far out on the lake (aprox 300+ yards), I could make out what most of them were but soon turned my attention to a single bird much closer and on its own. I threw the scope on it and low and behold a Western Grebe was looking back at me! What a surprise, this was truelly unexpected. I managed to get a couple really bad photos, but adequate for positive verification, and then moved on to my first block for the day.

A special interest species (SIS)is one that the Sutton Center requires a little more evidence when reporting for the atlas. Thus far I had found two and all before 10:15 am! My first block proved to hold another SIS species. For about three days Purple Finches had been alluding me visually, as if teasing me to say we are here but you don't know where! Finally I tracked a couple birds down that I had heard, they were all females and enjoying a feast of some kind of delicassy. It's always reasurring to hear a bird and feel confident that you know what it is and then to actually verify it's existence visually. Number three special interest species for the day.

On to my next block in time to knock it out and take advantage of the late evening owling possibilities. Doby Springs is fast becoming a favorite of mine in Northwestern Oklahoma. Just north of the springs I located 4 Lark Buntings which makes number 4 SIS. The actual Doby Springs park provided me with #5, a Marsh Wren, always fun to try and watch. A slight over oversight on my part, I drove out of my atlas block accidently and that little slip produced twenty five Lesser Prairie Chickens, #6. My final,and number 7 if you're counting,was a Short-eared Owl. I finished the block up at 6:30pm and made a mad dash for Laverne, trying to beat the closing time for the grocery store. I beat the closing time and picked up the owl in the process, it was floating over a tall grass field that was filled with about twenty Ring-necked pheasents, which I found after running into the field in hot pursuit of a photo (which I never obtained). What a way to end the day....I'll have to ask Dan but that might just be a record for the number of Special Interest Species in a sungle day.


Oh, the photos are both Pine Warbler from SE Oklahoma taken the day before my Superd Day. They have been the discussion on the OKbirds Listserve as of late.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Hoot of a Night!

I have had a few run-ins with owls of varying species over time but I have never actually spent a night "owling". On the 8th of February Steve M., Kim W., and I ventured to south-eastern Oklahoma to owl the Winding Stair Ridge, which is along scenic highway 1 in LeFlore County. The sky was crystal clear which allowed great views of falling stars and constellations throughout the night. We met at 7:15 pm and kept on until the wee hours of the morning (2:30am). Our true intent was to locate a Northern Saw-whet and we were fully aware of the probabilities(very slim), but this year they have been found in Alabama and a few other far reaching places throughout their range, so why not give it a shot?

We stopped at approximately 20 locations, to be honest at about 1 am I was beginning to get a little tired and probably forgot to jot a couple spots down where we failed to find any birds. We totaled 15 Eastern Screech, 5 Great Horned, and a single Barred Owl. Unfortunately no saw-whets, with the presence of the larger owls a lot of the smaller guys were staying pretty quite. The screech owls sometimes showed up without a sound, and Steve and I would get lucky and spot one with the mag-lite. Fortunately Steve is a world class bird photographer and he was able to get a bunch of really great shots, some of which are pictured here.

Perhaps the really exciting thing about the night (at least to me) was seeing the variation among the individual screech owls. One bird had an unusual amount of white on it (pictured), it will be interesting to hear some comments about that particuliar bird. A quick story before I go.

We had called in a particuliar individual and couldn't locate it. It would call from the left, then the right, then in front of us, and then from behind. Steve and I were standing there waiting to hear it call again when I turned to face him. Just at that moment when I turned with my flashlight the owl came into view. The light was shining just past Steve, and about that time I think it figured out what was going on. He put his breaks on which gave me a wonderful look at its fully extended under wing, and all of this just a few inches from Steve's head! He nearly got scalped. Steve finally got a photo of it, which I'm pretty sure is the third bird in the sequence.

Until next time.......

Screech Owl Photos by Steve Metz (; please practice professional courtesy!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Owls, and Woodcocks On My Mind!

Well at last I have enough stamina to post something to the blog. I left off with a Barrow's Goldeneye, alot of good birds have come and gone since that time. I think I have added a few thousand miles to the truck as well. I guess the good side of all of this is that I have been able to work up a few good stories.

Let's see I have been to Cimarron County and back. That always makes for a fun trip. The best birds were two unexpected Burrowing Owls, and a Northern Shrike. None of which I was able to photo. I layed on my belly for about twenty mnutes a few feet away from the Burrowing Owls hole, hoping to get a good photo of his big yellow eyes peering out, unfortunately that did not happen. The shrike was a life bird, and I became so captivated by it that I forgot to get a photo, which would have made for a good shot considering it was perched about ten feet outside my passenger door window! I actually thought I had two, but examination of the photos of the second bird and a discussion over it with Mike Husak laid it to rest as a good looking, hook-billed Loggerhead. Oh well, maybe next time I actually see one I'll have the photo to prove it.

Hmm, what else. There's the Mew Gull at Kerr Lock and Dam. That was also a life bird, and one for which I will not likely top this year. I'm not sure how I managed to find that one. It was in a flock of aproximately two thousand swirling ring-bills, and bonapartes. They were all feeding below the dam. This bird I did manage to get a photo of! It was also present the next morning, fortunately for a few birders who were able to get it on their Oklahoma and life lists.

There are a lot more interesting things to tell you about. Like getting mired in three feet of mud, north of Panama in LeFlore County. I will save that one for later though. Currently I am in Antlers. I spent the day in Atoka Co, chasing loads of Purple Finches around. As a matter of fact the first bird on yesterdays block was a female purple finch, and today another female managed to be the third species located. Your probably saying big deal, I have eight of them at my feeder. I say to that, it's more fun to find them ( aprox. 35) in the wild! I actually got to hear one give its breeding song, something that I haven't heard before. I guess the beautiful, warm day had everybody feeling good. The male bluebirds were practicing for the upcoming spring, oh, and so were the Woodcocks!

That's right, 1 mile north of Antlers on a county road I located two displaying woodcocks. Which, if you are keeping track (and I am) makes this the second year in a row where I have found them displaying in Febuary (today counts as the earliest though), top that Revels! Anyway, I need to find a place to camp so I had best wrap this up. I am hoping to get a very early start in the morning. Owls, and wodcocks on mind, I'll keep in touch.