Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wild West Bird Show

I'm writing from North Platte Nebraska, home of the Buffalo Bill Ranch.  The birding madness has begun. It’s been a whirlwind since I got up at 4:15 yesterday morning to head for the airport, catch a plane at 6:10 that took me to Dallas where my Toyota Tacoma chariot awaited, my brother Chris as chauffeur.

We drove up into southern Oklahoma in a snow storm to the Hackberry Flats wildlife management area and spent 3 hours cruising around on dykes built between water catchment areas and fields of stubble left from the planting of crops to attract wildlife. The wind was blowing so hard that the snow was going sideways, but the birds were unperturbed and we were birding from the truck so we were totally comfortable. Lots of ducks and sparrows, the highlights of the day were the Lapland Longspur and the American Pipit, both new birds for me. The longspur, which is skittish and hard to find was very cooperative and let us get a good long look..

Driving across the plains in the snow was remarkable, the landscape tranquil, rolling brown hills with little stream valleys filled with cottonwood trees. The fence and hedgerows had snow drifted up against them that looked like fluffy piles of shaving cream, sculpted by the wind. Wind farms ran along the ridge lines, the huge turbines turning slowly but steadily.
At the end of a very long day, in the truck from 8:30 AM until 8:30 PM, minus an hour for an all we could eat catfish dinner, we arrived at the 14,000 acre Spelman ranch in northern Oklahoma. Sue Spelman, a 3rd generation Okie, greeted us and showed us our digs, a funky bunkhouse that was the relocated train depot from the town of Spelman. As soon as we got out of the car I threw on my coat and headed up the red dirt road in the fading twilight, a lucky crescent moon and Orion overhead, I was so glad to be out of the car and walking, breathing the cold night air, smelling skunks or cats or sage brush I’m not sure, but moving on my own steam. When I got back we compared notes and tallied our list before falling into bed. We saw 40 birds for the day. Not bad.

Today we woke early and were back in the truck at 7:15 to drive out to the Lesser Prairie Chicken lek before dawn. We immediately spotted 4 males cruising around their mating ground but we spooked them off when we tried to drive a little closer. After waiting a few minutes they returned and we got pretty good looks at them before they spooked again and did not return.  They did not do their dance for us, we speculated because it was cold, and early in the season and the females have not yet arrived. We are hopeful we will see the mating dance of the Greater Prairie Chickens later this week in Colorado.
On our way back to the ranch for breakfast we spotted a flock of fifty cedar waxwings feeding at the side of the road.
Driving across Kansas today we stopped at every other telephone pole to make a study of the variations of Red Tail Hawks. The Harlans’ which is a dark variation, almost completely dark grayish black with a grayish white tail, and the Kriders, very white, almost no markings whatsoever on the breast, and with a much paler red-tail than on the commonly seen Red-tailed Hawk.  We also saw rough-legged hawks, a new hawk for my life list.

Western Meadowlarks have been plentiful the past two days, if we’ve seen one we’ve seen 500, also kestrel are abundant and the red-tailed hawks are everywhere we turn. The true highlight of today was finding the Common Crane, which isn’t common at all, in fact its from India! It was seen on Friday and posted to the rare bird list, we went searching in the vicinity where it had been seen 2 days ago. We scanned each group of Sandhill Cranes we saw feeding in farm fields north of the Platte River in Nebraska. Literally like looking for a needle in a haystack, we actually found the bird.  It has a darker tail and white and black markings on the neck that differentiate it from the Sandhill Crane which has a red patch on the top of its head.

In the morning we will rise before dawn again and go to the Platte river to see the cranes amassed there and watch them take flight back to their feeding grounds for the day. We’ll then head for Colorado to see what we can see. I’ve got a promise from my bro that we will actually get out of the car tomorrow and do some walking, I cannot bear one more 12 hour day in the car! Despite the long hours, I’m so glad to be here, hanging out with my brother and being crazy obsessed birdwatchers together.


C. Kay said...

Glad you are keeping a birding blog while on tour with Chris. Quite the pace! Have fun and good luck on getting him to slow down! xo

Garden Girl said...

Yeah right, I've yet to see the slow part of this birding trip, though we are currently holed up in our room in Steamboat Springs awaiting the next snow storm!