May 28, 29 and 30, 2021 – This is the last of five posts covering our continuing 3500-mile trip through Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma. We were determined to fit some new experiences into our long journey home to Houston, so we planned three stops.
Johnson Mesa is a little-known mesa in the long band of flat-topped bluffs that stretch for about 20 miles north and east of Raton, New Mexico. We drove across the mesa twice, both headed north, and returning south. It was cold; when we crossed it on our way north, it was 42F at mid-day, while temps in the valley floor 2000 feet below had been in the high 70’s.
In this image you can see where the land falls away at the edges of the mesa, revealing the ancient sandstone cliffs. (Apologies for the fuzzy specs in the sky – two elongated ones are buzzards, and those in the upper left are raindrops.) The short tight growth of the plants in the alpine tundra landscape reflects the very short growing season at this elevation. We had come in search of the wild iris which was reported to bloom profusely across the flat alpine landscape.
We saw no iris on our trip north; on our trip south, we found a few stands of the slender foot-tall plants in bloom. The soil conditions, moisture, and temperatures must be just right to bring the blooms, and we assumed (because we didn’t even see any leaves inside the fenced pastures) that the plants may have been cleared from the pasture lands, perhaps because they will make cattle ill. The stories of the iris-covered mesa top may have passed into legend.
Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge on the north side of Lake Texoma, at the Oklahoma-Texas border was our next stop. I have learned to look for lakes with natural convoluted or fractal shorelines, and long driving tours with pullouts. Lake Texoma fills these requirements beautifully. It hosts two different National Wildlife Refuges, Tishomingo in Oklahoma, and Hagerman in Texas.
At Tishomingo NWR, a short set of paths wound along the wild northern edge of Lake Texoma, where we found some small open fields filled with little birds. We saw Kingbirds, male and female Indigo Buntings, and this handsome Dickcissel (say duhk-si-sl), a member of the bunting family, and another new bird for me. I had to search Google Images for “finch with yellow eyebrows” to identify it. I wonder how many times I’ve misidentified Dickcissels as Meadowlarks.
We also got to observe a pair of Red-tailed Hawks, sitting companionably on a bare tree on a narrow spit of wooded land that reached out into the shallow lake edge. The female is typically about 20% larger than the male; when seen singly, this fact doesn’t help much with identification, but when seen together, as in this shot, it is clear that the female is on the right.
The female did a fly-over, while the male snuck off into the trees. The slanting sun highlighted the bird’s protruding craw – hunting must be good!
This is an adult Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family. I found him in the high wide-open dead branches, darting out to catch bugs in the air, then returning to his branch.
And at the edge of the shady woods, I found this juvenile Eastern Phoebe. I struggled with the identification, at first not thinking of the possibility that I was seeing both the mature and immature birds of a single species. I researched Eastern Wood-peewee, Willow Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher (out of range), Dusky Flycatcher (out of range), and finally decided on the Eastern Phoebe juvenile, which has this dark brown body with very tan wing bars. I should have twigged to his juvenile status: note how his head seems just a little bit large for his body.
We doubled back through Ardmore, Oklahoma, to get to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge on the south end of Lake Texoma. We managed to add an hour to our trip by following Google Map’s “shortest distance”… which included a low road entering the Refuge that was flooded due to the spring rains.
But without that detour, we never would have seen this… a Roadrunner! He did indeed run across the road in front of us, then dodged behind the juniper tree at the edge of this green pasture. This is a phone photo (and, to add insult to injury, it’s cropped to about half its original size), but it is proof we saw the bird.
One of the auto tours at Hagerman has long gravel roads stretching through a series of shut down oil pumping pads. The fingers of land ending in pads stretch through the shallow fresh-water lake creating an extensive riparian habitat of marshes, low weeds and willows surrounding fish-laden shallows. Birdwatching near old oil wells sounds nasty, but the wells were properly sealed, so the land and water are clean. This is an area where a birdwatcher could spend a LOT of productive time.
Through the truck window, I spotted a dark bird perched on a swaying stick. I’m so glad I took some shots of him. This is an adult male Tree Swallow, showing the blue iridescent back and shoulders, and sharply defined white chin. I’ve been trying to capture an in-focus image for a year – there’s something to be said for bird-on-a-stick photos. We also saw Swallow-tailed Flycatchers, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a distant Great Egret pulling something verrrry long and tasty from the marsh water.
As we drove down the pad road, almost on level with the water, we spotted something new. It was difficult to determine the scale and color of the bird in the rising mid-day haze (lesson to self: shoot in the morning or evening, not mid-day). It was not a wading bird, and not a gull. Its broad tail and short bill seemed to say “hawk”… but there was a flock of these birds, swirling above the distant shallows, and hawks are generally solitary hunters.
Finally, one swooped close enough we could capture an image, and rush to identify it. This is an immature Mississippi Kite, a small gray raptor with white head and black eye shadows. The adults are solid black, gray and white, while the immature birds are brownish gray on top, and have mottled under-wings and a plaid tail (“heavily barred tail”, in bird parlance). These birds breed along the Red River on the Texas-Oklahoma border, and along the Mississippi River.
And they do, indeed, hunt in small flocks. We watched as they stooped and dove into the marshes, and as they were harried by the red-winged blackbirds.
With that last exciting discovery, we declared our explorations officially over. Worn out and happy, we piled into the truck for the remaining miles home. We had, indeed, seen new birds, new landscapes, and several birding areas worthy of a return visit in the future. Arriving home after 3 weeks away was a joy – nothing feels so good as your own bed after a long adventure.
You guys have been troopers to stick with me through this extended series of posts. Many thanks for your observations, comments and visits. We are now officially into the stifling heat and humidity of the Texas Gulf Coast summer, so, of necessity, my next posts should be shorter and more focused 😊