27 January 2013 Blog
“Gardening with the Experts” was held Saturday morning. The Shawnee News-Star had a picture of Linda Vater, one of the presenters, on the front page of the Sunday edition. A morning full of valuable information was dispensed, but I was not in attendance.
Saturday morning was also the bird count for Pontotoc Ridge, 2,900 acres of some of the most diverse ecosystems found in Oklahoma. From forests that fill in the bottomlands, ridges of exposed limestone, sink holes and caves, prairies and canyons, Pontotoc is a great place to walk about.
Every January a group of mad birders gather, usually in bone-chilling cold, to form groups and fan out over the large tract of land in Cross Timbers. Our group was composed of people from all walks of life, from retired and/or working ornithology professors, teachers, students, experienced and amateur bird lovers to even some photographers.
We met at the former headquarters building, now converted into a large garage. A new HQ building is slated to be built within the year, but a trailer now serves as headquarters. We slugged down some coffee and gathered up breakfast bars and water. Divided into separate teams, we armed ourselves with maps, bird lists, binoculars, and keen senses of sight and hearing… most of us anyway! My bird-spotter team consisted of an ornithology prof, a monk, a chemist and myself, today an amateur birder!
Our group quietly paced along the woods, recording the turkey gobblings, vulture fly-overs, cardinals, crows and other edgy birds. Plunging into the bottomland woods, we heard woodpeckers banging on trees or chirping, chickadees, and wrens. Our path surfaced to an exposed limestone outcropping with bushes full of sparrows. We carefully walked along the rocky rise until our path turned at the Osage Orange tree into a small patch of prairie, prime site for LeConte’s sparrows. Back we traveled over small cacti, rocks, brush, small canyons and grasses to the headquarters, diligently counting and identifying birds along the way. We did find a few LBJs. What are LBJs? When a bird, usually a sparrow, can not be identified, it is labeled an LBJ, or Little Brown Joe. It's bird talk. Have you tried to identify all your sparrows?
We were the last group to arrive, about 4 hours later. Everyone was positioned at picnic tables in the large garage chowing down on hot tasty chili, crackers, cheese and cake. While we ate, a group of guys got out their lawn chairs and placed themselves into a half circle behind us. The only thing missing was a campfire in the middle. Tidbits of conversation floated our way. “Too old for this”. “It’s been a chilly morning”. “Birds were spotty this year”. Consider the youngest man in the circle was 67 years old, the oldest was 75. The American Tree Sparrow, cowbirds and starlings were seen for the first time. One group flushed a covey of quail. All ponds had dried up but one, but I do not think any waterbirds were sighted. A final posting will be issued in a few weeks, but I am interested to know if this deepening drought is affecting the bird populations. It certainly has affected the plant and animal populations.
From Pontotoc we went toward Sulphur. Over 20 black and turkey vultures, all hunkered down on the ground, watched us drive by at the Tishomingo Fish Hatchery. Two vultures had been hit along the road. We arrived at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, one of the nation’s smallest National parks and the fifth tract of land declared a national park by Teddy Roosevelt. Travertine Creek was not flowing. Things had come to a standstill. The springhead at Antelope Springs was dry, as was Buffalo Springs. Talking to the ranger at the Nature Center, he said the park had gone dry 21 times in recorded history. In the 1950’s, it stayed dry for 3 ½ years. The past two years have experienced periods of no running creek….like right now.
They had Eagle Watches during January, one being this Saturday. While we counted all birds, others came to Sulphur to count eagles. They sighted 5. Bald eagles overwinter at the recreation area, but do not nest there.
All the way back to Shawnee we traveled in cloudy, but dry, conditions. Some mist, but nothing measurable. Most ponds are dry, the grasses are stunted, and I wonder what will happen to the peach crop this next year. Be careful in your water usage and remember your plants.