Leave a comment

Winter eagle watching

IMG_6635 adobeMajestic Bald Eagles begin arriving in Oklahoma in November and December to spend the winter. Although we have a few breeding pairs in the state, most are here only in winter around the larger lakes and head back north by March.  Good numbers are being reported now.  I’ve seen a lone eagle several times at Lake Thunderbird recently and eagles on my last two trips to the Wichita Mountains.

Photo by Lindell Dillon.

Sometimes eagles will feed and roost communally during winter.  One of the most awesome sights I’ve witnessed in nature was a gathering of over 200 eagles at a temporary food source last December in eastern Oklahoma.  They normally feed on fish early in the morning.  The photo was taken at a distance because the birds wouldn’t allow me close, but 70 eagles can be see in and around this one tree. Eagles may fly as far as 50 miles from roost to feed and if they gorge themselves may not feed the next day.  They are also scavengers and will feed on carrion.

Depending on the weather and water conditions at Oklahoma lakes, wildlife experts estimate we have between 800-2,000 eagles in the winter.  Lakes and their spillways are generally reliable Oklahoma bald eagle viewing areas. Lakes with the highest concentration of eagles are Kaw, Keystone, Texoma, Tenkiller, IMG_6589 adobeFt. Gibson, Grand, Canton, Great Salt Plains, Tishomingo and Spavinaw.  The Christmas holidays are an excellent time to get outdoors and do some eagle viewing. About all that is needed is a good pair of binoculars.

Photo by Lindell Dillon.  Click to enlarge.

The resident eagles are already beginning to nest. The Sutton Avian Research Center has two live eagle cams trained on nests at Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge and Sooner Lake.  The birds at Sequoyah have an egg in the nest already.  The birds at Sooner are visiting the nest they have used in previous years, but have not produced an egg yet.  It’s not possible to tell eagle sexes at a distance except for their size.  The female will be the larger one if you see two together.  The eagle cams can be viewed at http://suttoncenter.org/pages/live_eagle_camera

Eagle watching is a fun activity for kids and old kids.  If you can’t make it to a good eagle viewing area, you can watch them from your favorite chair at home.

Leave a comment

Whoopers on Lake Hefner

If you’ve never seen America’s largest endangered bird and live in Oklahoma, today is your chance.  Two migrating Whooping Cranes are on Lake Hefner.  Oklahoma birding boards are alive with chatter about such a rare bird right in metro OKC.  Unfortunately I’m in the Dallas area for Thanksgiving or I’d be out there with my scope and camera.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

As of 7:40 Thanksgiving morning the two birds are along the south shoreline with some Canada Geese. They seem to be hanging around the shoreline in the southwest corner of the lake near Prairie Dog Point.  I suspect one would have to only look for a jam of parked cars and gaggling birders with large scopes and lenses.  It’s great that so many can enjoy a glimpse of these magnificent birds.  Just remember that migration is hard enough on birds without additional pressure from crane watchers.  If you get close enough to make an endangered species change its behavior, you’re too close.

Leave a comment

ODWC approves prairie chicken plan

The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission has approved a final Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Plan with a goal to keep the iconic prairie bird off of the Endangered Species list and ultimately increase its presence in Oklahoma.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The plan was presented for approval to the Commission at its November meeting by Russ Horton, wildlife research supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The lesser prairie chicken population trend in Oklahoma began to drastically decline in the late 1980s and has remained low, believed to be in part due to land use changes and habitat fragmentation that are not suitable for the birds. The current population estimate of lesser prairie chickens in Oklahoma is about 37,000 birds.

A proposed listing of the lesser prairie chicken as either “endangered,” “threatened” or “not warranted” is expected from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by late November, after which a final ruling would be offered by Sept. 2013.

According to Horton, the plan that was approved by the Commission will help achieve the recovery of lesser prairie chickens needed to either avoid an endangered listing or, in the event that the bird is listed, move more quickly toward de-listing.

Although the Department has continuously been working to conserve and benefit lesser prairie chickens for years through a range of approaches centered on habitat acquisition, restoration and enhancement, the official action plan was completed in October. Under the plan, the Wildlife Department will continue protect, enhance and restore prairie chicken habitat while addressing other factors leading to their decline.

The plan will focus on 15 “core areas” in western and northwest Oklahoma averaging 50,000 acres each. The Department will identify research needs and management actions to support responsible development as well as develop incentives for landowners to improve and restore suitable habitat in those core areas.

“In summary, we’re looking at 15 core areas-approximately 750,000 acres,” Horton said.

The short-term goal is to stabilize lesser prairie chicken populations in Oklahoma and reverse the decline by targeting a population goal of 5,000 birds in the 15 core areas.

“Ultimately, we expect that we have potential for possibly up to 10,000 lesser prairie chickens in Oklahoma over the long-term,” Horton said.

1 Comment

Quail numbers at all-time low

Photo by L. Dillon

Each year the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation conducts roadside quail surveys in August and October to measure population indices and make a season forecast. The results of the August survey are now available. Rather than lead you down the road with a lot of numbers and statistics, we’ll just give you the the bottom line first.  Bobwhite quail numbers in Oklahoma are at an all-time low.

The 2012 August roadside quail survey show that the statewide quail index is down 78 percent from the 22 year average and the statewide index is down 7% from the abysmally low 2011 August index.  The number of broods observed during the August survey decreased from 14 in 2011 to 11 in 2012. Of the broods observed during the August survey, nearly 100% were either full or ¾ grown compared to 64% during last year’s survey.

For most of my life my passion was quail hunting.  I was involved in quail conservation and kept up with the research for years as well as spending a lot of time in the field and visiting with landowners.  I’m familiar with all the dogma and research and I’m the first to admit, I don’t have a clue what has happened to bobwhites in Oklahoma.  The general thought was that habitat controlled populations in the long term and weather in the short term.  I used to hunt a hundred-thousand acre spread that is as close to native Oklahoma prairie as you’ll find and just ten years ago it held good numbers of quail, but almost none now. So much for habitat theory.

It hasn’t been that many years ago that I would peruse the ODWC surveys and those in the Rolling Plains of Texas to select an area to concentrate on for the coming season.  My benchmark was a county or area that had 20+ birds per route, and that was usually possible.  This latest statewide survey indicates a paltry 1.4 birds per 20-mile route.  I hate to be a pessimist, but from the perspective of a guy who hunted bobwhites for over 50 years, it seems that the bobwhite is going the way of the prairie chicken and most Oklahomans are unaware and don’t give a damn anyway.  After all bobwhites are just a secretive little bird that almost no one hunts anymore.

Most wildlife conservation is driven by hunters and the dollars they and hunting generate.  Therein lies a problem with quail and their downward spiral.  As quail numbers diminish, so does the number of hunters and conservation efforts.  I’m afraid we are in the final chapters of a prairie tragedy.

About the saddest thing I can imagine is an Oklahoma morning without a bobwhite’s whistle.

To see the complete ODWC 2012 August Roadside Survey http://www.wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/quail/2012AugustRoadsideQuail.pdf

1 Comment

The season is a changing …

We may not have a lot of fall color yet in the Oklahoma Cross Timbers, but the days are shorter and the cool fronts are beginning to visit us every 7-10 days.  The whitetails are noticing the cooler weather, too.  I generally attempt to photo deer this time of year when a cool front hits because they are more active.  Yesterday’s northern breezes had the

Photos by L. Dillon.  Click to enlarge.

bucks thinking of things that haven’t been on their minds for awhile.  The bucks were more visible than they have been in months because they want to get familiar with the does before November’s breeding period.

The shortened days trigger the does to enter estrus or ‘the rut’ as the deer hunters say.  When the smell of estrus is in the air, the bucks are crazy.  They are also much easier to photograph, shoot, or just watch.  And more of them collide with cars.  Early morning and evening this time of the year see a lot of auto/deer collisions.

I find deer behavior interesting.  I saw a nice mature buck on one of my favorite viewing fields yesterday.  I haven’t seen a big buck out in the open like that since last fall.  He was grazing with about a dozen does and had established his dominance over four younger bucks that were banished to a corner at the rear of the field. Only the strongest, most determined bucks breed and pass on their genes.  The young bucks were interested in the does, too, but knew better than to approach the dominant buck.

After a few photographs, I moved on to another area and found 14 does and one small buck that was already intoxicated  by the smell of the does.  He was chasing one after another and was exhausted.  He got to the point he would stand and pant just to get his breath.  It’s too early for the does to breed and none of them wanted anything to do with this would-be Romeo.  This guy is most likely wasting his time and energy.  When the does become acceptable to breeding,  a bigger, stronger buck will probably move in and send him packing. That’s just the way whitetail life goes.

The next month is a great time to be outdoors and absolutely the best time of the year to see bucks.  See more of my deer photos and post yours at Oklahoma Nature Pics http://www.flickr.com/groups/1941297@N20/pool/

Leave a comment

Norman’s Sutton Wilderness

Norman is blessed with a jewel of a little nature park that is easily accessed by all. Located at the corner of Rock Creek Road and 12 Ave. NE, Sutton Wilderness is operated as a city park by the City of Norman, on a long-term lease from the State of Oklahoma.  The property was once a part of the vast grounds of Central State Hospital.  Some older Normanites  still call the place “Hospital Lake”.  It’s named after University of Oklahoma zoology professor George Miksch Sutton.  Sutton was a renowned ornithologist, bird artist, author and educator. The old hospital grounds were one of his local haunts, so it’s appropriate to be named for him.

Sutton is a great place to take a walk. It’s shaded when the weather is hot and sheltered when the cold north wind blows.  A soft trail winds clockwise around the lake and is about 1.3 miles in length.  We generally take a few forays off the trail, so it’s a great place to get in a morning walk and enjoy nature.

There are a lot of native plant species to be enjoyed and at times some good birding.  I generally don’t find the place extremely birdy, but at times during migration it can be.  A walk this morning provided a new bird for me in Sutton, a Spotted Towhee.  We also saw a couple of Orange-crowned Warblers as well as the regulars.  More than 200 species have been recorded here. My rare Sutton bird is a Harris’s Hawk a few years ago. I wouldn’t consider it a destination birding spot unless there are recent reports of some migrants, but it’s always a pleasant visit.

Spring and fall provide lots of wildflowers.  This morning a yellow  sea of blooming broomweed covered the open spots in the timber.  Mixed in were wild asters, gay feather, milkweed and lots of brilliant gold Stiff Sunflowers.  The Bois ‘d arc trees have a bumper crop of Osage Oranges.  The trees are full and the ground is littered with them. Brilliant red berries decorated many of the trees and provide food for the birds.

If you live nearby, you should walk the Sutton trail a few times a year.  If you’re visiting Norman, it’s a great escape from a business meeting or family function.  Someone recently asked me my favorite location for nature photography and I responded “Where I am.”  Nature is always nearby for those who take time to notice.  I bet most every town in Oklahoma has something a little like Sutton Wilderness.

Leave a comment

Seedlings available online

Fall is a great time to plant trees.  There is probably nothing better an individual can do for the environment than plant a tree.  Aside from their beauty, trees are the lungs of our planet and native species are a vital strand in the web of life, providing habitat for native insects, birds and wildlife.  Tree planting is a great project for Scouts, 4-H and other youth groups as well as civic clubs and neighborhood associations.

The Oklahoma Forestry Service makes obtaining seedlings adapted to Oklahoma about as easy as it can be.  They just opened their online store for the fall and are taking orders to be shipped or picked up in January.   For more information visit the Forestry Service website at http://www.forestry.ok.gov/order-seedlings