For the Birds Radio Program: Oklahoma!
This month I drove down to southwestern Oklahoma to look at birds and camp in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. I picked a week that just happened to be marked by the first tornado to hit the Wichita Mountains area in over a decade, and managed to be out camping when we had a few torrential rainfalls, including one downpour that unloaded 7 inches of rain in two hours. The first few nights I didn’t want to set up my tent because of all the rain, so I slept in my Prius, which has plenty of room for an air mattress and sleeping bag as well as all the stuff I needed for almost two weeks away from home. The night the tornado hit north of the Wichita Mountains, I was wakened from a sound sleep in my car by two nice Refuge guys who had to evacuate me from the campground. I moved my car to higher ground, and then they brought Photon and me to the refuge environmental education building. Photon really loved that—she got to sniff all kinds of real stuffed animals. All in all, this was not only an exceptionally beautiful vacation—it was also an exciting adventure.
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is one of my favorite places on the planet. I was there in May, 1991, and totally fell in love. My aim back then was to add a critically endangered species, the Black-capped Vireo, to my lifelist. But what I ended up seeing was ever so much more—I spent a morning out with Joe Grzybowski, the researcher who did much of the work on this species in Oklahoma since the mid-80s, and who wrote the species account for the American Ornithologists’ Union’s huge work, the Birds of North America. Joe didn’t just show me some generic vireo—he showed me individuals—each one of which he had held in his hands as he gently placed US Fish and Wildlife Service numbered aluminum bands and one or two colored plastic bands on its legs. He showed me these individual vireos and told me lots of fascinating stories based on his years of studying them up close and personal.
This time, I got to spend a few days with Joe and also with Vic Fazio, who has been doing a lot of work in the refuge and is starting to take Joe’s place as the lead researcher. But it wasn’t just vireos—the Wichita Mountains has three Prairie Dog towns, bison, elk, some of the coolest lizards I’ve ever seen, and rattlesnakes. And I’m not even at the birds. The abundant birds there—the ones anyone driving through would notice—are spectacular. The most common raptor is the Mississippi Kite—I could sit and watch as many as a dozen at a time darting gracefully through the skies, and I even watched a pair mating in my campsite. The state bird of Oklahoma, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, is abundant, and this being May I got to watch this exquisite bird at its best, fanning it’s glorious tail in flight displays which also showed off the salmon pink wing linings at their best. Another beauty, the Painted Bunting, named the second most wanted bird in a recent Birder’s World poll, was everywhere—except on the treeless prairie, there wasn’t a spot you could stand anywhere without hearing at least one of these scarlet, brilliant blue, and green birds. During the week, I saw my first Poorwill nest, my first diamondback rattlesnakes, lots of Black-capped Vireos, and a bazillion other things I took photographs, videos and sound recordings of for my website. And all that rain made for the most wondrous profusion of wildflowers I’ve ever seen, from huge pink flowers on barrel cactuses and brilliant yellow flowers on prickly pairs to Indian Paintbrush and Indian Blanket. I took over 10 gigabytes of photos, so it’s taking a while to get everything posted, but every day I’m adding more to my blog. So far I’ve posted video and close up photos of a diamondback rattlesnake, video of a singing Painted Bunting, photos and a recording of a Black-capped Vireo, and lots of pictures of flowers, a mother and baby bison, prairie dogs, and lots more—my totally non-commercial blog is linked at lauraerickson.com. Check it out!