By Patti Muzny
After 2016’s bonechilling, eye-watering, overpowering north wind and generally totally disagreeable weather conditions that descended upon participants in the Oklahoma City Audubon Society’s 2016 Christmas Bird Count (CBC), Mother Nature took pity on us and blessed us with perfect birding conditions on December 16, 2017. The morning was just a little chilly, but the afternoon found us shedding a layer or two.
For many years, Brian Muzny and I counted birds in far Northwest Oklahoma City. Each year we would arrive on our territory to find more and more land that had been scraped clean of vegetation and more new homes were being built. Grassland birds and birds of prey became more and more scarce and the traffic increased in this area. Still, we persevered, but enjoyed it less.
House Sparrows don’t even choose to live in new, sterile neighborhoods.
We reside in south OKC, closer to the North Canadian River than the Northwest Expressway, so we opted to change territory for 2016. We now count around Crystal Lake (SW 15th and MacArthur) and the new and wonderful biking/hiking trail along the river. We skulk around a mountain of trash near the dump and a large auto salvage yard. We also cover a bit of downtown Oklahoma City and points in between.
Crystal Lake usually hosts large flocks of gulls and the usual Coots and a few ducks. This year there were only a few gulls and no Coots or ducks. We began hiking along the edges of the lake, where there are cattails, weeds, cedars and various trees and shrubs. Anywhere there were weeds with seed heads, we would find Song and Harris’s sparrows, along with Goldfinches, House Finches and a Spotted Towhee or two. We also flushed a Great-horned Owl and found a Winter Wren. We picked up the bike trail at the NW corner of the lake and hiked there for about ½ mile. The great thing about the bike trail is the access it provides to areas previously off limits to pedestrians and bike riders. It’s currently smooth in this area and allows wandering around and looking for birds without watching your boots so closely. Although, one must pay attention to the fast moving “serious” bicycle riders, especially on a beautiful winter day!
We finished hiking around Crystal Lake and picked up the bike trail on the south side of SW 15th Street, along the east side of Riverside Salvage. This is a great area with trees, bushes, and tangles that borders the north side of the river. Hikers are able to leave the paved trail and walk along the banks of the river. This year we didn’t find large numbers of birds here because the weather was good and the wind wasn’t strong enough to make birds seek shelter against the high banks of the river, but we did find a few Kingfishers, a few ducks and a Greater Yellowlegs and some Double-crested Cormorants. But the most amazing find was an immature Northern Goshawk! We had seen a Northern Harrier, a Red-tailed Hawk and a Red-shouldered Hawk in the area, but this guy was certainly none of the above. Its powerful flight was awesome to watch during the brief look we had when it left its perch in a tall tree along the river.
From here we drove to SW 15th and Council Road and drove east where the road ends and there is a small lake on the north side of 15th Street. There is no bike trail here, but we could park and walk to the south edge of the lake. As we approached a weedy ditch that fed into the lake, it would be difficult to determine whether this absolutely unexpected American Bittern or the two
humans would have been the most startled! I jumped and the bird jumped and we received a comprehensivedressing-down as the bittern flew out of the cattails. Bitterns are not easy to find in the warmer months, but to find one on a CBC is bizarre!
After hiking nearly the entire bike trail from west of MacArthur to Portland, we had logged 6.75 miles and were ready for a few more car miles, so we drove to the Boathouse District and through downtown to near the OKC Police Department and Devon Tower. Someone had told us a “hawk” had been seen chasing pigeons around OKCPD offices. The “hawk” word got our attention, because in the past Peregrine Falcons have been seen in the downtown area. Hal Yokum had spent around 3 hours downtown and he did not see any falcon chasing anything. Brian and I drove past the OKCPD offices, turned east and I looked up – w-a-y up – and spotted a bird of prey chasing a little flock of pigeons! Both of us got it in our binoculars and to our delight, the bird of prey turned out to be a Peregrine Falcon!!
Felt pretty good about our day of birding, but we weren’t done yet. We went back to Crystal Lake, where we parked along SW 15th Street to watch hundreds of Robins and various blackbirds fly into the dense cedars on the south side of the street.