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Birding Trip to Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona -- April 2013
lesser prairie-chicken

Liz and I took a 3-week trip out to Oklahoma and Texas visiting family and doing some wonderful birding. We had a good time. Trip Map

petrified forest national park
Petroglyph at Petrified Forest National Park

We left home mid-afternoon heading for a motel in Holbrook, AZ, that would set us up for the next day. Holbrook is a town mainly passed by time, but one clinging to interstate traffic for a steady stream of overnight guests. We stopped at America's Best Value Inn Holbrook, which was old but clean, comfortable, and had a nice relationship with the next-door cafe for great breakfasts.

We walked up the street for dinner at the El Rancho Restaurant, which was decorated with petrified wood and even petrified logs. The meal and service were fine, and a family at a nearby table looked familiar. After we ate, we introduced ourselves, but they were strangers. They were biologists -- I guess we all look alike.

We headed east and made a quick visit through Petrified Forest National Park. Well known for fossilized trees, the park also preserves the towns and musings of prehistoric peoples. Apparently, they had oversized ibis that ate unruly children.

El Morro National Monument
Onate: "I passed by here ..." on April 16, 1605

We continued east, bypassing the interstate, and made a mid-day visit to El Morro National Monument. The prominent feature of the park is a sandstone headland that juts into the New Mexico sky. Water collects in a pool at the base of the cliffs, and people have been visiting the water pocket for some 13,000 years. Western Scrub Jay and Townsend's Solitaire also visit the water, while a Peregrine Falcon hunted along the cliffs.

As they do, people carved their marks in the stone. Prehistoric people left petroglyphs, and others have been adding to the etchings ever since. Spanish explorers entered the area early, and although disappointed by the lack of gold and sliver, Don Juan de Onate inscribed his name in 1605 - the first European inscription at El Morro (Onate colonized New Mexico, bringing 400 colonists, 10 Franciscans, and 7,000 head of stock into the area). More recent etchings record other explorers, missionaries, the first wagon train, the US Army, the CCC, and railroad workers. The park erases all graffiti dating after 1900.

Le Conte's Thrasher
Le Conte's Thrasher in Albuquerque

We continued east towards Albuquerque to visit Liz's brother's family. We were delayed by a series of Gunnison Prairie Dog towns along the road, but made it to town just after dinner. We stayed over two nights in Albuquerque.

Unfortunately, Bill was away, but we had a nice visit with Karen (sister-in-law) and Lorena (niece). Grandma, who just turned 100 and still lives alone, was too frail for visitors.

The weather was terrible with high winds and snow, but Karen kept us warm and cozy until after the interstate highway reopened and the storm had passed. The bird feeder attracted Dark-eyed Junco and even a Le Conte's Thrasher!

Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Cold and windy on the virgin shortgrass prairie

We continued east onto the Texas panhandle, and late in the afternoon, we stopped at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The lake was dry (drained in the 1970s?) and the buffalo are long gone, but the refuge preserves a bit of shortgrass prairie that was never broken by the plow. We birded the area, followed wild turkey tracks down a trail, and visited a black-tailed prairie dog town. The dogs are not stupid - it was cold and windy - and they didn't show themselves.

We drove another half-hour into Amarillo for the night. We stopped at the Travelodge Amarillo West, another older motel, but again, it was clean and comfortable. Unfortunately the recommended Tyler's BBQ joint across the street ran out of meat early and closed, and we were resigned to the Popeye's Chicken down the street - such a disappointment!

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl in black-tailed prairie dog town

We then continued northeast towards Oklahoma, but stopped to do some birding in the city park at Canadian, Texas. The Canadian River runs through the city, but in Texas, you have to wonder how that name stuck!

The park was surprisingly good for birds, and then we continued into a state wildlife management area along the Canadian River, which didn't fulfill our high hopes. They apparently charge $25 per person to birdwatch in these areas, but we couldn't find a way to pay, so we just hoped for the best. We poked around, saw a few birds, and were preparing to leave, but Liz noticed another small bit of riparian habitat marked on the many-times photocopied map. We left the river, followed dicey dirt roads into the hills, and were surprised to find a spectacular, high and dry, Black-tailed Prairie Dog town. The dogs covered the landscape and there were about a dozen Burrowing Owls living among them.

lek trek
Festival poster

We finally arrived in Woodward, northwest Oklahoma, to attend the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival, which was hosted by the the Oklahoma Audubon Society. We stayed at the Northwest Inn, which was comfortable and convenient, but the check-out policies don't really fit a festival like ours.

I don't know what to expect about birding "festivals," but this primarily was a series of organized bird-watching and other field trips over three days (with a 2-day add-on). There were also lectures, dinners, and other things. On each of the three days, one group of birders went to see the Lesser Prairie-Chickens at their lek (breeding grounds). The other birders did field trips or something else.

The weather in NW Oklahoma wasn't the best (windy with some snow on the ground when we arrived), and the migrating birds were a little late, but we did see several Lesser Prairie-Chickens.

salt plains nwr
Birders at a pond in Salt Plains NWR

Watching Prairie-Chickens is quite an ordeal. Males arrive at the lek before the first hint of dawn, and at first light (literally as the stars begin to fade from the night sky), they begin dancing to attract females who seem to sleep in a bit. As the males dance, females size them up as potential mates.

To see the males dancing, birders need to be in place at the lek before the males arrive; otherwise they will be frightened away. Did I mention the lek was an hour from the hotel? The van departed the hotel at 3:15 AM!

On the first day of the festival, we choose to go with birders to Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. We had a good day, and our group leaders worked hard and overtime at finding birds, but the birding was a bit slow and the travel distances were great. We did see some old friends: Carolina Chickadee, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and lots of Blue-winged Teal and Eastern Meadowlarks.

Alabaster Caverns State Park
Alabaster Caverns State Park

That evening we went out to a research station for a walk through shortgrass prairie with a botanist, and then stayed for BBQed dogs and burgers. After dark, we moved to Alabaster Caverns State Park where the park manager put on a bat-trapping demonstration. They strung a mist net across the mouth of the cave, then we spent an hour or more watching a few bats fly over and around then net. We did catch one Mexican Free-tailed Bat, but the bulk of the migrant bats had not yet arrived, and the hibernating bats were still snug in their beds.

The second day of the festival was quite long. We started out birding sites north of Woodward. As on day one, we saw some good birds, but few spring migrants had arrived. We did see a Franklin's Gull, Tufted Titmouse, Cedar Waxwings, and even a Greater Roadrunner. After the field trip, we attended lectures about the habitat and ecology of prairie-chickens, then enjoyed the banquet dinner.

lesser prairie-chickens
From the van, a long view to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek (just left of the blinds)

On the third day, we got up around 2 AM, checked out of the hotel (no late departure policy), and hopped on the van at 3:15 AM. By 4:15, we were in position to watch the prairie-chickens. We elected to watch from the van, while most others hiked out to blinds just off the edge of the lek. In hind-sight, we probably should have done the blinds, but we were much more warm and comfortable, as those in the blinds couldn't leave the blind for any reason before the birds left, which was about 9 AM. The morning was cold and the wind raged at about 30 mph, but we could get out of the van to stretch our legs. With binoculars and spotting scopes, we got good views of the dancing prairie-chickens (see banner photo), plus singing Western Meadowlarks, Lark Sparrows, and even a flock of McCown's Longspurs.

After the birds left, we departed for a ranch breakfast (at the home of the land owner on which the lek was located). I was the last one to breakfast because the bird feeder was full of Harris' Sparrows and other interesting things. After breakfast, Liz and I headed south about 3 hours to Lawton, OK, for the two-day add on.

Birding Wichita Mountains NWR

In Lawton, we met three other birders and a local birder who really knew his home turf. We spent the day at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge where we got good views of Black-capped Vireos, a regional specialty. Being farther south, the migrants were in, and we recorded 50 species, including Summer Tanagers, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and Broad-winged Hawk. We also caught a Ring-necked Snake!

The area was surprisingly mountainous and rugged with American Bison roaming free in the broad valley areas. We stopped at the Meers Store and Restaurant for lunch, and finished the day atop Mt. Scott with Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures soaring at eye-level, and Canyon Wrens singing in the background.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron
Yellow-crowned Night-heron

The next day, Liz and I met our guide at his house where we spent a delightful hour on the back porch watching his feeders and the creek beyond his yard. We saw old friends from home (Inca Dove, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Belted Kingfisher), and eastern species (Carolina Chickadee); probably about 20 species total.

We then headed west across the prairie looking for sparrows and other interesting things. We found Clay-colored Sparrows, Le Conte's Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Yellow-crowned Night-heron, and lots of other species, including more Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and Burrowing Owls.

DFWCatherine and her orchestra

Later in the afternoon than we should have, we departed south about 3 hours to the Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX, area to visit my brother and his family. Bill and Maria are well, and we attended a high-school orchestra competition where Catherine's school scored a perfect 1-1-1, and we had a good chat with Billy about going off to college next year.

We mostly slept late, relaxed around the house and yard visiting, Bill slow-cooked a brisket, and we feasted on real Texas BBQ for dinner. Bill didn't like our insect collection, so everyone pitched in to wash the car before we left (a big thunderstorm in the night helped loosen them up).

Liz, Cathy, and "The Hulk"

We continued south another 3 hours to Austin, TX, to visit my sister. Cathy and Peter were busy as ever. We missed Joshua, who is away in his sophomore year of college, and we had a good visit with Sander and his girlfriend who were getting ready for Senior Prom. Sander heads off to college next year.

While everyone was busy during the day, Liz and I headed for the local hills (Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge) looking for the fabled Golden-cheeked Warbler, an endangered species that breeds only in central Texas. After hiking about for a few hours and getting fleeting glimpses of the bird, we drove up to another area, got out of the car, and photographed the bird in less than 1 minute.

The next day, we-all took a nice morning hike around Town Lake, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, and turned the car west heading for home

lark bunting
A flock of Lark Buntings in west Texas

We drove too far that day and ended up spending the night in Fort Stockton. It turns out that gas exploration in central Texas has brought in so many workers to the area that room rates in low-end hotels are about $120 per night.

That did set us up for a shorter drive the next day. We headed for Carlsbad Caverns, stopping along a roadside pond to look at birds on the way (lots of Lark Buntings and Red-necked Phalaropes, and even a Long-billed Curlew). A guy came by in an old pickup to "chat" (we were across the road from a stockyard), and he ended up saying that if we wanted to see birds, we should climb over a barbed-wire fence, hike across a field, and check a different pond. I protested that trespassers would get shot out here, and he assured me that he would have been the one to do the shooting, but that he would refrain. We drove onto his ranch to look for Bronzed Cowbirds (saw none), but didn't visit the pond.

carlsbad caverns national park
Looking for birds inside Carlsbad Caverns?

We arrived at Carlsbad Caverns and made lunch under one of the only trees in the area, and we were joined by Wilson's Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, and a Green-tailed Towhee, while ever-hopeful Turkey Vultures soared overhead. We hiked into the caverns and saw Cave Swallows and a Canyon Wren at the entrance. We stayed underground all afternoon and were among the last few people to leave.

We hoped to stay and watch bats emerge from the cave at sunset, but they hadn't migrated back yet (the night before they had only seen 12 bats), so we moved on and camped at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (100 miles east of El Paso, TX). We saw a few birds in the evening, but the highlight of the stay was waking up during the early morning hours and watching the Lyrid Meteor Shower.

Sunny Flat Campground
Sunny Flat Campground

We stretched our legs for a few minutes before leaving Guadalupe Mountains (Canyon Towhees were gathering nesting material and a lady Desert Mule Deer wandered by), then headed west and departed Texas.

We stopped in Las Cruces to visit Liz's Aunt and cousin for lunch. Although a short visit, it was nice to see that Auntie B is doing well. We'll plan more time here on our next visit.

We continued across New Mexico and arrived in Cave Creek Canyon (near Portal, AZ) in the evening. Cave Creek Canyon is "mecca" for birders and we had high hopes even though we were a bit early for the migrant specialties. We were not disappointed. An Elf Owl called from the tree above our camp, and the morning was filled with Magnificent Hummingbirds, Blue-throated Hummingbirds, and Scott's Orioles.

Crescent-chested Warbler
Crescent-chested Warbler - once in a lifetime view!

We drove up South Fork Road and encountered a huge crowd of birders. Typical for us, we passed by looking for some quiet birding at the end of the road. We were greeted by Bridled Titmice, Bullock's Oriole, and Mexican Jays.

It turns out that a Crescent-chested Warbler had flown up from Mexico, and everyone in the area was in a tizzy to see the bird. Returning down the road, we saw the bird, but the Elegant Trogon eluded us. Surprisingly, among the crowd was someone who knows our birder friend in Alaska (whom we'll visit in July) and Jackie Lewis, an excellent birder and owner of the George Walker House B&B just over the hill in Paradise, AZ.

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper's Hawk bathing in the cement beaver pond

After birding South Fork and enjoying the fine dining in Portal Town (we sat outside with the birds and used the new wifi!), we drove to Paradise to visit Jackie. Jackie is too nice, and we birded her yard so late that she offered us dinner. It was hard to pass up, but we departed for Tucson, AZ.

We spent the next day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, our favorite botanical garden and zoo. We arrived early enough to participate in the bird walk, and then spent the rest of the day walking the grounds and birding the area. The grounds of the ASDM are good for birding (lots of wild birds come in, especially Cactus Wren, White-winged Dove, and Curve-billed Thrasher), and the walk-in aviaries are good for seeing rare species (Rufous-backed Robin) and getting close-ups of shy species (Black-bellied Whistling Ducks). We even watched a lady Broad-tailed Hummingbird lay an egg!

Sunset over Gilbert Ray Campground

After spending a quiet night in Gilbert Ray Campground, we awoke to the calls of Verdin, Rufous-wings Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia, and Northern Cardinal. We headed back to the museum for coffee (free to members!) on the patio overlooking the museum grounds, then departed for home.

We stopped in Phoenix for a business lunch, then stopped at our favorite roadside rest area (Hassayampa) where the Vermillion Flycatchers were already raising a family.

We arrived home just before dark. It was nice to get home and nice to find that all was well and the cat was as happy as ever to see us (that is, the ungrateful cuss ran off to hide).

petrified forest national park
Petrified Forest National Park
petrified forest national park
Petroglyphs at Petrified Forest (prehistoric evidence of aliens?)
El Morro National Monument
El Morro National Monument
El Morro National Monument
Liz observing etchings at El Morro
El Morro National Monument
Petroglyphs at El Morro
El Morro National Monument
Early Spanish soldiers at El Morro (1709)
El Morro National Monument
First wagon train through the area (July 8, 1858)
El Morro National Monument
The US Army passed by here (1866)
Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon hunting along El Morro cliffs
Gunnison Prairie Dog along the road near Grants, NM
Salt Plains NWR
Salt Plains NWR
Mexican Free-tailed Bat
Mexican Free-tailed Bat
shortgrass prairie
Shortgrass prairie
eastern collared lizard
Eastern Collared Lizard
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge
Wichita Mountains NWR: Black-capped Vireo habitat
ring-necked snake
Wichita Mountains NWR: adult Ring-necked Snake
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge
Wichita Mountains NWR: American Bison along the road
Balcones Canyonlands NWR
Balcones Canyonlands NWR
balcones canyonlands NWR
Balcones Canyonlands: Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat
Balcones Canyonlands NWR
Balcones Canyonlands: Birding at Doeskin Unit
Balcones Canyonlands NWR
Balcones Canyonlands: Road hazard - Texas Longhorn Cow
west texas
West Texas roadside flowers
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns: going down with the Cave Swallows
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns: underground
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns: this cave is huge!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns: delicate formations
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains: early morning in campground
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains: trail behind visitor center
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountain
cave creek
Cave Creek: view from Sunny Flat Campground
portal town
Portal Town: feeders in yard
Portal Town: feeders in yard
paradise, az
Paradise Town: feeders in Jackie's yard
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Desert Museum: Hard to photograph species - Gila Monster
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Desert Museum: Hard to photograph species - Apache Trout
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Desert Museum: Hard to photograph species - Garden Eels
gilbert ray
Gilbert Ray Campground
gilbert ray
Gilbert Ray Campground

Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 130501

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