Friday, January 13, 2006

Kansas and Oklahoma CBC Trip Day 4

It was cold and windy and dark when I got up. I was hoping that daylight would bring some warmth, but it was canceled out by the wind. It was a morning when your hands hurt from the cold, even with decent gloves, which make using the binocs difficult. So I'd take them off if something interesting showed up, but not for long. I walked north from the main part of the campground, called Thompson Grove, to another patch of tall old cottonwoods. The two groves must have been the remains of a ranch-site, fences and corrals remained since they were useful to the grazers on the Grassland, but the only building was the new pit toilet, much better than the one that was there on the first visit several years ago.

I found Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Loggerhead Shrike, two kinds of Raven, requiring careful study of tail shapes. Turned out to be easy since they both kept flying around taking turns harassing a Great Horned Owl. The owl could only fly from one grove to the other; besides them there was zero cover and few perches. I was surprised to find the woodpecker that far north, I'd always associated them with the Rio Grande Valley. I looked for them hard on the CBCs, other folks found them,but not me. The best bird was an American Tree Sparrow found along the roads driving toward Oklahoma. I thought it might be there and was watching the fences and brush. Another new TX species.

Once in Oklahoma I drove directly for Black Mesa State Park, figuring on scouting it out before the count. The official count for OK was Jan 1, so officially new species that day wouldn't count toward my 2005 list. It's a game we play. It turned out to be a good move, since my CBC area didn't include the park. On that Friday I found a Townsend's Solitaire, a Northern Shrike, a Loggerhead Shrike while driving, and some other critters I'd seen before in OK. The Northern Shrike was an immature,and a species I'd only seen briefly on the owl trip to Minnesota the previous winter. What caught my attention was that the hook on the bill was visible, which it isn't in a Loggerhead. Then field guide work matched some other features. I felt very good about getting that ID, and thought it might be a great bird for the count (it was count week), but Sebastian said they were seen many years, and on count day folks found two of them.

I drove into Kenton, talked to the folks in the mercantile for awhile, bought some very expensive gas with my last folding money, and followed the road west into a brief piece of Colorado, then off on a north-bound, more or less, dirt road called Sheep Pen, over forty miles of curvy climbing and diving sometimes bone rattling ecstasy. Serious back country. Passed maybe four ranch compounds, very little fencing, and thousands and thousands of Mountain Bluebirds. The Mountain Bluebird capital of the world. On the count Sunday we were the highest in the country for that species, something that had happened before once or twice. Why? Maybe lots of Cedar berries. Or ???

Several other species were new for Colorado, including Rough-legged Hawk. It's always good for state listing to get to the extreme corners during extreme seasons, which accounts mostly for the excellent results I got for the trip. But by the time I reached another paved Hiway, to take back east to Elkhart, KS I was getting the low fuel panic again. When I had lived in the west for several years I always carried an extra 5 gallons of gas, and would end up resorting to it two or three times a year. I had lost that precautionary thinking after years in the over-inhabited east. the pavement takes a turn somewhere in there, and then you're on the widest flattest straightest dirt road imaginable. 50 mph dirt roads where the oncoming vehicle's dust cloud is visible 3 miles away. Intoxicating, until you touch the brakes and realize that your basically driving on marbles. Not much stopping power, and less control.

Over the Kansas border I found pavement again, there was still a little daylight, and a right turn took me south into Elkhart. There was a motel there that the birders were meeting up at, with a pretty good restaurant. I finally met Sebastian and a dozen other folks, some familiar from meetings I'd attended in OK. We ate and lied and planned the strategy and teams for the next day, then I headed off for the campground ten miles north in Cimmeron National Grassland. One of those mixed blessing/curses of age is the growing prostate. The blessing comes when you get outside several times in the depths of the night, with totally dark adapted eyes, and look up at every star in the universe, or so it seems.


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