September 2011 – The Fire

A l-o-n-g, hot and dry summer does very little to inspire me, but in spite of the oppressive heat, Mother Nature did her best to provide inspiration.  As the heat continued to scorch our state, I thought many times of the long-term effects the lack of moisture and lack of natural feel the drought would have on our wildlife, especially the resident birds and those who would migrate to and through Oklahoma, hoping to find food.

Our Oklahoma City front yard Eastern Bluebird pair nested a couple of times and successfully fledged at least one offspring.  Every morning when I left for work, I drove down the drive with a smile on my face.  One of the bluebirds nearly always had his/her head peeking out of the nest box.  Most of the time it flew out of the box and escorted me out into the street with a flash of blue.  That’s most definitely smile material.

Because of the acute heat, the Muznys only visited our Byars habitat a couple of times during the entire summer.  A July visit found a dry pasture and a rapidly shrinking pond.  Our little creek has been completely dry for quite some time.  The hardy oaks seemed to have survived well and I found few that looked extremely drought-stressed.  Very few birds were found, although at nearly 100 degrees, hiking up and down our hills did not appeal to me at all.  When the afternoon temperature reached 108 in the shade, we bailed for home!

The cracks in our pasture were large enough to hold the Troll, Billy Goat Gruff and all of their relatives, friends and neighbors.  Should I be inclined to frighten small children, I could threaten to toss them into the cracks!  I had to watch where I put my feet or I’d trip.

Our most recent visit was during the Labor Day weekend when the much-anticipated cool front arrived.  My excitement at being cool was dampened somewhat because of a wildfire that burned along the south and west edges of our property.  The neighbor west of us was bailing hay on Friday and something stuck a piece of metal in the field, causing a spark that rapidly ignited the meadow and a wildfire roared through the pasture and into our woods before the volunteer fire department extinguished it.  I have a new respect for the hard work and dedication of these men and women who fight wildfires in over 100 degree temperatures.  Their diligence prevented the blaze from burning a few hundred yards farther to engulf our little cabin.

We had arrived late on Saturday night and I went out early on Sunday to see what was damaged.  The scene reminded me a little of Mt. St. Helen’s with all of the blackness and ash.  As I hiked through the field and woods that had burned, I found a couple of hotspots that had begun to smolder again with an increase in the wind.  Sam and I managed to dip some water from the shrinking pond, shovel some sand, saw down a couple of smoking stumps and eventually extinguish the threat of more fire.

The good news is…the area that burned really needed a controlled burn.  And…while walking around on top of the burned hill, I spotted a Prairie Falcon hunting in the neighbor’s burned pasture.  It flew down and grabbed something small and ate it on the wing.  Then it perched in a tree and allowed me to observe it much better.  Was this the same Prairie Falcon that we found on our OKCAS Woodcock Watch trip?  One of our neighbors told me he has seen a pair of these birds near his pond.  I also got a brief glimpse of another smaller falcon – possibly a Merlin??  It was too high and going too fast into the sun for me to identify.

There were casualties – I found two armadillos that had been unable to escape the flames.  The gophers fared the best – we saw fresh piles of dirt and tracks.

During the night on Saturday, the only bird I heard was a Barred Owl.  During the day, there were no cicada’s calling and in the evenings, no katydids, which are usually screaming in the oaks that surround our cabin.  The Chickadees and Titmice didn’t call early in the morning and I never head a Cardinal, although Brian saw one.  The absence of bird song was disturbing.

Solitary Sandpiper. © Brian Muzny

Another species that we haven’t found at the pond in quite some time was Solitary Sandpiper.  During the day on Sunday and Monday, a pair of them patrolled the muddy edges of the pond.  With Sam mowing the pond dam and Tim working to remove the sand that had filled in the shallow area of what was once the pond, the busy little birds continued to eat.  When I saw two, I thought perhaps their name was misleading, but although there were two, one fed on one side of the pond and the other stayed on the other.  If one flew too close to its counterpart, a disagreement ensued and they quickly separated.  “Solitarily” they each claimed their little section of shoreline.

Mississippi Kites must have nested on our property, because we’ve seen and heard them each time we’ve been there.  Brian found an Orange-crowned Warbler, Summer Tanager and a few Indigo Buntings.  We also heard Gnatcatchers, a Nuthatch and the usual resident birds.  I think our total species was around 25, which is very low.  We saw or heard no sparrows or meadowlarks.

Here’s hoping the coming weeks will be blessed with a lot of liquid sunshine!