I visited family in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the New Year weekend. Any time I’m out of Arkansas, I seek out species that I can’t normally get in my home state. East-central Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas have almost identical bird diversity. However, there are a few species that are more common in Oklahoma than in Arkansas. My two target species were sparrows: Harris’s and American Tree.
We started January 1st off by driving through some pastures and fields. Oklahoma is mostly fields and grasslands, so this was our primary habitat for the day. The first birds we came across were a mixed flock of Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and a couple Carolina Chickadees. I always wonder how arboreal species, that persist in the Great Plains, adapt to treeless habitats. These chickadees were flying about among tall grasses and the scattered, woody shrubs. I suppose they do ok. We picked up more common species in yards and fields. We got gobs of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows. Blue Jays and European Starlings were out in droves as well. We kept our eyes on groups of the White-crowneds, because the Harris’s liked to hang out with them. The Harris’s, White-throated, and White-crowned are all in the same genus, Zonotrichia (as is the Golden-crowned Sparrow which is not in our area). They are large, somewhat long-tailed sparrows. Where the White-throated prefer more wooded habitats, the Harris’s and White-crowned like fields and find cover in overgrown fencerows. We drove past a wooded creek and disturbed a large mixed flock of all kinds of birds in someone’s yard. I scanned through White-crowneds, White-throateds, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, and others. One bird caught my eye. It landed in a defoliated crape myrtle. We put our binoculars on it and could just make out its identity before it flew off. This was one of our targets: the Harris’s Sparrow. This is one of our largest sparrows and was a lifer for me. I was a little sore that we didn’t get a great look or a picture. However, my joy of finding a new bird eclipsed these woes. We scoured more open areas and found more open country birds. American Kestrel waited patiently on power lines for unsuspecting prey. A Loggerhead Shrike did its impression of an American Kestrel, though it lacked the patience and flew off at our arrival. A flock of 19 Horned Larks gathered around a cattle pond. We flushed them up, unknowingly, and waited for a couple of minutes for them to realize that danger was not so eminent. They finally sat back down and we could gaze upon their glory. A few Eastern Meadowlarks wandered among their namesakes and gave a nice juxtaposition. We stopped at a gas station and picked up some coffee. Outside was a flock of Great-tailed Grackles.
These are super common birds in Oklahoma and Texas. They are not common in most of Arkansas. I usually have to get my year Great-taileds in Oklahoma, Texas, or the gulf coast. We got good looks at a Barred Owl sitting in the morning sun. It posed for us only minute or so before heading off to less crowded haunts.
Before leaving the pastures for more aquatic habitats, we made one last drive through a rural neighborhood. We had not traveled a mile when we found a group of White-crowneds and Harris’s Sparrows foraging in someone’s gravel driveway.
I got some poor photos and we moved on, as to not frighten the residents.
Our next stop was the local sewage ponds. Sewage ponds seem to be good birding hotspots. Maybe they know how repulsive humans find them. These were small ponds, but they held a lot of birds. There was a stratification of ducks based on feeding guilds. The diving ducks were on one pond and the dabblers where on another and in a nearby marsh. Of the divers, we found mostly Lesser Scaup. Among these Scaup we found Ring-necked Ducks, Common Goldeneye, and Redheads.
Northern Shovelers were our most common dabblers. A small group of Mallards were found on a nearby marsh. Killdeer ran about on the banks, in and out of Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s Gulls. We also added a Great Blue Heron which flew over.
We ended our birding excursion at Mohawk Park and Lake Yahola. We found tons of Canada Geese throughout. We picked up a rather large flock of about 15 House Finches that were feeding on the roadside. Our one and only Common Grackle flew by us near the Disc Golf Course. We were able to pick up a Winter Wren in the understory of a wooded stream. There were no ducks on the ponds, but only geese and gulls.
There were still a few species we were missing on our New Year Big Day. We hoped to pick some of these up at Lake Yahola, a source of drinking water for Tulsa and surrounding communities. Last year, I picked up my lifer Common Merganser, so I was hoping for some more of that magic. We got the scope set up and began scanning. The magic was still there. While scoping out a group of American White Pelicans, I noticed a pelican that was very brown. The immature White Pelican is a little less white than the adults but never this brown. We decided that this was a Brown Pelican, aptly named.
Brown Pelicans are rare away from the Gulf Coast. I checked eBird real quick and discovered that this bird had been reported since December 26th and had many come to chase it. Needless to say, we were very excited. A Bald Eagle flyover added to the excitement. Beyond the pelicans, we scoped out two Horned Grebes doing a courtship display. This was definitely a first, as the grebes only winter in this part of the country. These grebes danced at the edge of a large raft of Red-breasted Mergansers, which was loosely associated with a large raft of Common Goldeneyes. The lake was very birdy, to say the least. We got to another, more western vantage point to scope out another section of the lake. Here, we found a handful of Buffleheads and a pair of Common Mergansers. This is quite a man-made, birding gem, just north of Tulsa. I highly recommend this locale to any birders visiting central Oklahoma.
We got a pretty good tally over the weekend. hauling in 65 species. Getting a surprise state rarity and a lifer makes any trip a beauty. If we had known about and chased that record of the Brown Pelican I doubt that we would have been as successful. It was definitely a good end to 2016 and a wonderful start to 2017.