BIRDS AND BEYOND

Birding the rolling plains

By Claire Curry | Published Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In mid-March I took a birding trip around Texas, inland in the Rolling Plains ecoregion with two of my friends.

I started from Oklahoma and drove south through a misty, rainy morning. It was supposed to get clear as I went south, and sure enough around Wichita Falls it stopped raining. Good thing, since that was my first planned stop. At Lucy Park in Wichita Falls, there were still several winter birds around such as Yellow-rumped Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Cedar Waxwings are winter birds too but are more visible in the spring as they gather to nibble on budding leaves.

We also saw several resident birds, including Carolina Chickadees, Great-tailed Grackles, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, Carolina Wrens and American Robins. A Great Blue Heron flew over. The wind was chilly and the air was damp, but the sun started to peek out in the wet, green spring as we left. Just as we were about to leave we found a pair of titmice.

Next we drove out of Wichita Falls to Lake Arrowhead State Park. We arrived in late afternoon and set up our tents to the sound of Common Grackles singing in the trees. A few birds hopped around in the bushes around the campsite. We eventually saw that they were White-crowned Sparrows. Several doves flew out of the mesquites and hackberries around the campsite or were singing in the background. We identified both Mourning and White-winged Doves. Lots of meadowlarks were singing out in a field down by the lake. All of them were the bubbling song of Western Meadowlarks.

After setting up camp, we drove to a nature trail in the park. We didn’t see or hear that many birds. The highlights were a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, a Bewick’s Wren and cardinals. We also continued to hear Western Meadowlarks singing. There were lots of butterflies in the fresh green grass among the flowers (including toadflax, spring beauty and stork’s bill), though, in the newly sunny afternoon. Orange Sulphurs were the most common. We saw the spring-only Falcate Orangetip, too. It is in the same family as the sulphurs but are bright white. Males have orange-tipped wings. Females are all-white, similar to the more common Checkered Whites and Cabbage Whites that fly all summer. Other butterflies out were Variegated Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes and Dainty Sulphurs. We saw our first Monarch of the season, too.

In the late evening after sitting around the campfire, we heard two owls – Great Horned Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl. Otherwise it was quiet, and we rested for another day of looking at nature.

The next day we walked down to the lake. The Common Grackles were still a-singin’ and so were some Red-winged Blackbirds. We also heard cardinals, Bewick’s Wrens and saw a pair of House Finches. There is a prairie dog town near the lake and picnic area, and we saw several near their holes.

We drove over to Lake Arrowhead dam and walked up and down the road. Several Savannah Sparrows flew into the mesquite trees along the road. We saw a Red-tailed Hawk and multiple turkey vultures flying over. Out on the lake swam some American Coots, and Cliff Swallows flew over us. We heard another Ladder-backed Woodpecker and also a Greater Yellowlegs (a shorebird with a distinctive call of “tew-tew-tew.”) Back by the car we saw a flycatcher in a tree. It looked like an Eastern Phoebe, sort of, but something seemed off. We watched as it flew out for its fly-catching business and landed in a few different spots. We finally realized it was a Say’s Phoebe! This is a more western species that is rare in North Central Texas. It has a salmon-pink wash on the belly and a different call (“teeee-ew”) from our regular phoebe (whose song is “FREE-bee” and call is a high “cheep.”)

We drove west, stopping at one of the (many) forks of the Brazos River in the afternoon to see what we would hear or see. Mostly it was the usual suspects: an Eastern Phoebe, Bewick’s Wren, cardinals, House Sparrows and Cliff Swallows. A roadrunner called in the distance. We walked on the shoulder over the bridge and saw a Belted Kingfisher fly over. I heard a titmouse singing, and we finally saw them (again on the way back to the car.) It was a pair of Black-crested Titmice, with the male singing as he followed the foraging female around.

In late afternoon, the sun right on the horizon and blinding us, we arrived at Copper Breaks State Park outside Quanah. We heard wild turkeys gobbling as we set up camp. As it got dark, we were excited to see a tiny owl fly into a tree and then heard it sing – an Eastern Screech-Owl up close! Then we heard something even more exciting for us – Common Poorwill. There were at least two calling back and forth. This is a southwestern species that is related to our common Chuck-will’s-Widow. It has a plaintive two-note call of (no surprise): “poor will.”

On our last morning out we explored Copper Breaks. We heard a mystery bird singing along the road that sounded so familiar. We never did see it but thought it sounded sparrow-like. Eventually we listened to some tapes and realized it was a Spotted Towhee (which is really just a big, colorful sparrow.) No wonder it sounded familiar! We just don’t hear them sing very often. Usually we hear the distinctive, whining “greee?” calls of this common winter resident.

We walked down to the lake and saw a small raft of ducks that included Gadwalls and American Wigeons. We saw one lone Eared Grebe, too, and a pair of Bufflehead. There was a Greater Yellowlegs and a Killdeer along the shore, and we heard a Belted Kingfisher. From the lake, we hiked along one of the cliffs. The sandy and rocky break had layers of coppery blue-green in it. We didn’t see many birds there, but the one we saw was cool. A Rock Wren was singing from a cedar above the rocks! Once again, a titmouse was one of the last birds we saw. It was a Black-crested (the more southwestern of the two titmouse species) singing near the campground.

Whether you are exploring at home or on the road (or on the way back to the car), spring is a great season to find new birds and butterflies and other critters and plants. Keep your eyes peeled for the surprises nature has in store!

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The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be June 6 and July 11 (note the date; it is the second Wednesday due to the first Wednesday being Fourth of July). We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, please contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office, (940) 627-5475.

Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. If you would like to contact them, please email them at larksparrow@eeclaire.com.

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