GA departure, Welcome to Oklahoma!
Oklahoma… “Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!” Does anyone remember the Rogers and Hammerstein musical? I sang in the high school choir and “Oklahoma” was the first musical production I was in. I can still remember a lot of the songs! So, when we decided to drive from Atlanta to the most western part of Oklahoma, I did a lot of singing in the car!
Why Oklahoma you might say? Well in my quest for at least 50 bird species in each of the 50 states, Oklahoma was pretty near the bottom of the US list with only 17 birds. And on the way to OK we could bird AL, MS, LA, and AR, all states lacking in birds! I was able to get each one of the states above 50 bird species and I got OK to over 100! A pretty good run for a quick trip!
My eBird US map. Shading shows # of species
We also included some history for Ed. He has always wanted to go to the Civil War battlefield in Vicksburg, Mississippi. We spent a half a day there and it also turned out to be a good place to bird. Our trip wound up being 10 days and a total of 10 states! AL, MS, LA, AR, OK, CO, NM, KS, and TN. I love when the GPS says, “welcome to …”!
People often ask me how we know where to go in states and where to bird. Well, eBird is an invaluable tool. First, we decide where we want to visit…a national park, state park, recreation area, or a family trip. Then I click on the menu section of eBird and choose Explore, then scroll down and choose Alerts. This lets me choose a state or county, which you tap in and see the birds you “need” for that area. I see what birds I “need” (am missing) in that particular state.
Planning at home, map and yellow pad notes
It’s a bit overwhelming if you’ve never been to the state, but at least you know what are the common and easy birds you can pick up. AND, what life birds are there. Then you look for hotspots and find any hotspots on your route. You click on them and check the sightings that have been seen recently. And then you start making copious lists in a notebook or on a yellow legal pad. Our car is always overrun with sheafs of paper that I have notes on. LOL!
You begin to break things down by counties. Ed always prints me a county map of each state off the Internet so I can see what counties are along our route. But I am also the queen of the old-fashioned paper map! I lay all my maps out on the dining room table before we go. I highlight our route and then can see what counties we will pass through for reference. I can then search needs on eBird by county in any state. Easy pick-ups can be made at hotel parking lot edges and rest areas. I once picked up 5 warbler species at a good wooded rest area off I- 80 in PA! So, it’s a rather mind-boggling process but it’s fun to plan and break it down. And remember, no one has to be as obsessive compulsive as me. LOL! Just enjoy!
Mountain Bluebird, Chihuahuan Raven
When we got to Oklahoma, we began to see western species. Western Meadowlarks, Mountain Bluebirds, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (OK state bird). A scissor-tailed greeted us soon after we crossed the OK border. It’s such a joy to see this glorious beautiful bird with its salmon under parts and ridiculously long tail! At one point in western OK Ed said “gosh these crows look awfully big”. And when we stopped along a country road to look at one, it croaked, and we realized they were Chihuahuan Ravens, another western species!
Wichita Mountains NWR
Western Meadowlark, Bewick’s Wren
Crossing OK, we visited the Wichita Mountains NWR, a beautiful refuge, where we had great looks at the western species Bewick’s Wren, a relative of our Carolina Wren. One of the favorite parts of our trip was in the most Western point of OK, Black Mesa State Park. It is not a large park, but what a beautiful day we had there! We were lucky to get a Sage Thrasher and some Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays, both western species related to our thrasher and jay.
Black Mesa State Park OK
Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk
Driving through miles of grassland on the way to Black Mesa, we spotted so many Red-tailed Hawks sitting on utility poles. And mixed in with them was a beautiful Ferruginous Hawk! Hundreds of Western Meadowlarks serenaded us with their songs. They are very similar to Eastern and the way to distinguish them is by their song. Thank goodness for Merlin sound app, which can be pesky and give you wrong species, but in this case it was very helpful with the meadowlarks. Another nice surprise was lots of White-crowned Sparrows, sitting in fields of sorghum. Driving some dirt roads through grasslands we also spotted Scaled Quail and Northern Bobwhite.
Sage Thrush, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay
White-crowned Sparrow, Scaled Quail
We were at the far end of the OK panhandle, and hiked partially up to the highest point in the state – Black Mesa at 4973 ft. After the hike, we were close to the tri-state monument on the corner of OK, NM, and CO, in the middle of nowhere! It was a hot afternoon and there were no birds to report, however, we did spy some scary tarantulas! We picked up another quick state, spending the night in KS, just across the OK border while crossing the state. If you get one really good early morning stop, as in KS at a water treatment plant, you can sure load up on a lot of new state birds. Ducks were everywhere!
Black Mesa, highest point in OK, 4973 feet
Tri-state monument: OK, NM, CO and the Tarantula
The Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge looked like an interesting stop, but we were saddened to see that severe drought had dried up most of the marshes and ponds. A large lake in the center of the refuge still had water, but was seriously down with large amounts of dead fish. Hopefully, they will get some rain soon, but it will take a lot to fill up those marshes and ponds. There were still thousands of Franklin’s Gulls, (a relative of our Laughing Gull), hundreds of white pelicans and avocets, ducks and many shorebirds!
Snowy Egret on 100s of fish, American Avocet
So, a great 10 days on a “spontaneous” 3200 mile trip! And, we crossed the entire state of OK without going on an interstate??? Believe it or not, that is the way the GPS took us, state and county roads at 60-65mph! Who does that? Only a crazy birdwatcher and her photographer husband!
Article by Aija Konrad, photos by Ed Konrad