It is about 175 miles from Wichita, Kansas to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Excluding stops and with speed limits as high as 75 mph for much of the trip, my journey on the morning of March 6 would take something over 2.5 hours. My official day of birding was to be the following day with Zach Poland, but the stars had aligned in an interesting way and there were some exciting developments that would affect that and provide an opportunity for some fun on the 6th as well. There was also a possible weather complication with showers predicted for much of March 7th. When possible in my 50/50/50 quests, I had followed a pattern of a birding day in one state followed by a travel day to the next state and then repeating that as I moved along.
The travel day was also an insurance day. If I had failed to reach the 50 species on the designated birding day, I could try the first state again on the travel day sacrificing sleep if that meant a late arrival at the next destination. In Kansas as had been the case in every other of the 47 states completed, the bird gods, weather gods and excellent local birding companions collaborated to allow me to find 50 species on the designated day. So I left Kansas very early on the morning of the 6th thinking I would do some casual birding in Oklahoma along the way and maybe push for 50 that day if possible – a pre-insurance approach just in case the weather gods turned against me.
I had been successful finding 50 species on my own in several states on travel days before, using Ebird research to find good spots along my route to try for the magical number. Zach Poland had been so thorough in his preparations for my joining him and so persuasive that finding the 50 species would be “a cinch”, that I had not done any research on my own for Oklahoma. BUT…I had an ace up my sleeve – actually two aces. In a convoluted path that started with super birder Ken Knittle in my home state of Washington and went through a number of other great birders in a number of states including Oklahoma, I was contacted by Floyd Murdoch who was interested in joining me in Oklahoma. This was after I had found Zach Poland and arranged to bird with him, but as will soon become clear to those of you who do not already know Floyd’s story and place in birding lore, this was an opportunity not to be missed and one that would add immensely not just to my birding in Oklahoma but to the story of my 50 state adventure as a whole. And better yet, a good friend of Floyd’s, Bob Holbrook, would be joining us. They were available on the afternoon of the 6th and all day on the 7th. I was thrilled and so was Zach. First a bit about birding on my own in the morning and then an explanation and continuance of the story that will explain the “why” of our excitement.
The plan was to meet Floyd and Bob in Tulsa in the afternoon which left me time to bird on my own earlier. I had no hotspots in mind which in some ways made it more fun as I simply pulled off the highway almost as soon as I crossed into Oklahoma and just picked a likely road and explored. It was only 7:30 in the morning (love those high speed limits) when I exited Interstate 35 onto U.S. Highway 177 and then turned onto N. 60th Street in Braman, Oklahoma. This took me through rural farmland with scattered brush and a few trees. I checked the fields, the wires, the copses of trees and the brush (and a small pond) and in a half hour had 15 species including an unexpected Red Headed Woodpecker, a fairly rare Raven, 2 Harris’s Sparrows and both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks – hearing both distinctive songs. I really had no idea what was around so I was happy with the results. Back on the Interstate, I added House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons and Red Winged Blackbirds at a rest stop and then turned east on Highway 412, the Cimarron Turnpike, and quickly added Mallard, Northern Harrier and Hooded Merganser.
Feeling that I was way ahead of schedule, I again got off the highway and added some more species including an American Kestrel and a Red Shouldered Hawk among others and found myself with 30 species by around 10 a.m. I was something over an hour away from Tulsa where I would meet Floyd and Bob so I decided to forego further birding and head to that rendezvous.
Red Shouldered Hawk
Where to start about Floyd Murdoch? And once started where to end? There could be many separate blog posts on Floyd and also his buddy Bob Holbrook. I will start with that it was a blast birding with these two guys and it was like taking a ride through the history of birding in the U.S. I started birding in 1971 while still in law school at Stanford. That was a very different world without the internet, Google Maps, GPS systems, Ebird, cellphones, email, personal computers and digital cameras. I had a very inexpensive pair of binoculars and no spotting scope. You contacted people face to face, by letters or by telephone. At most phone trees were sources of information about what was seen or being seen when and where. It was 40 years before the release of the movie, “The Big Year” .
It was two years after Jim Tucker, Stuart Keith and others founded the American Birdwatcher’s Association, which soon was renamed the American Birding Association (the ABA). I had never heard of that group and my attention was on another much older ABA – the American Bar Association which I soon hoped to join. Benton Basham became membership chairman in 1971 and he was responsible for much of the organization’s growth in the next decade. The current membership of the birding ABA is almost 50,000 strong. For comparison there are almost 4 times as many dues paying members in the lawyer ABA. Might the world be better off if the number was higher in one and lower in the other? Readers can decide for themselves.
Unlike the Audubon Society (Societies) which were mostly involved with conservation and research, the ABA was focused on the sport/hobby of birding with listing being a driving force and Big Year’s were a Big Deal. In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson traveled the U.S. and set the Big Year record at 572 species. Building on that experience, the Keith brothers added another 27 species coming all so close to the then magical 600 mark. In 1971 Ted Parker, a college freshman took the Big Year lead with 626 species. As Scott Weidensaul says in his wonderful history of birding, Of a Feather, “Lists that had once taken a lifetime to accumulate were now the work of a single frenzied, year”. (Page 290).
Enter Floyd Murdoch, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and Kansas teenager Kenn Kaufman. Floyd took a year off from his research and set out with a goal of seeing 600 species. Kaufman from the start was out to break Parker’s record and despite very little funds, he did so ending 1973 with 663 species, his story recounted in his popular book Kingbird Highway. What many people do not know is that it was Floyd Murdoch who set the new record that year with 669 species. I heard many stories about that year and could easily write a blog about them. But equally of interest were the many stories Floyd shared about his birding all over the world, his work on the boards of many charitable organizations, his development work in poor countries around the globe and his time as President of the National Audubon Society. He is a devout Seventh Day Adventist and a life long Republican (forgive him but only because he does not support Donald Trump).
Floyd’s perspective on birding is best summed up by an intro to an article in College and University DIALOGUE : “Spend an hour with Floyd Murdoch and you’ll walk away a convert—to the joys of bird watching. Even if you’ve never ever looked for a bird, he’ll have you convinced it’s the most exciting thing in the world. For Floyd, bird watching goes beyond a mere hobby. It’s a passion that opens up doors to bigger issues: creation, camaraderie, conservation, a God of love who creates beauty.” My personal take would omit the reference to a God of love although I would not argue about that for him or anyone else who views the world through that lens, but it is otherwise exactly in sync with my view of birding and especially my experiences with, the purpose behind and the lessons from my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure believing birding to be a passion that opens up doors to bigger issues – especially ones of shared values, shared experiences and shared appreciation of birds and nature and those that love them and finding beauty in that – despite our differences in other areas.
Floyd Murdoch and Bob Holbrook
Bob Holbrook was another Adventist birder and although not as famous as Floyd, his credentials (and skills) were very impressive. He is not a lister (or at least an admitted or publishing one) but has birded since his youth and has traveled to 95 countries and birded in most of them. The size of his Life List never came up but I got the sense it was well past half of the birds of the world and I think he has well more than 100 species in each of the 50 states. He was also a fun companion with great eyes and was often the first to find a bird during our time together. The photo above was taken at a famous roadside attraction off the famous “Route 66” in Foyil, Oklahoma. I will include more about it in the next blog about the second day in Oklahoma, because we did return with Zach. Hint: it is in front of the World’s Largest Concrete Totem Pole a creation of Ed Galloway. More later.
We birded primarily in Rogers County northeast of Tulsa starting at the Rogers State University Conservation Reserve. Eleven of the 19 species we found there were new for the day and it began to look like 50 species would be reachable. Two species that were often heard on this trip but not always seen were Red Bellied Woodpecker and Northern Cardinal. Here I had nice photo chances for both.
Red Bellied Woodpecker
I also took advantage of a great photo opportunity for Northern Bobwhite. Unfortunately these birds were in a pen, so not “countable” in the wild, but I include the photo anyhow.
We continued birding in the Claremore, Oklahoma area and found an Eastern Phoebe and a Turkey Vulture and then Bob spied a gray and white bird on a small roadside tree. Was it another Northern Mockingbird or a Loggerhead Shrike? It allowed us to get close and the picture is proof that it was the latter, my 45th species for the day.
Species 46 was a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in the same area.
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker
When I had spoken to both Zach and Floyd before arriving in Oklahoma, they had both emphasized how the timing was working out well since waterfowl were beginning to arrive and would guarantee getting fifty species. So far on this day the only water birds were a Pied Billed Grebe, an American Coot and a Mallard. Our next stop took care of that and raced us past 50 species. At a pond on South Oak Street, still in Claremore, we added 8 new duck species bringing my total to 54. So the insurance policy was in place and state number 49 was unofficially complete. If the weather turned against us the following day, there was money in the ban so to speak. The weather did not turn bad and we did not have to draw on these reserves, but that will be a story for the next blog post. And there would be more this day as well.
Floyd was familiar with every nook and cranny in Rogers County where the family had a home and in neighboring Mayes County. It was in Mayes that we had one of my favorite stops and with a favorite story. When we arrived at the Pryor Sewage Ponds, Floyd was surprised to find that the gate was open. We had found gates open twice before earlier and counted that up as good luck. Here was better than good as it gave us access to two ponds filled with good birds. We found 16 species, half of which were new for the day and included our only shorebirds: Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs and a Wilson’s Snipe. We also added two gulls: Franklin’s and Bonaparte’s and better yet, two waders: Great Egret and White Faced Ibis. The latter was quite a surprise, not just in being there but in how we found it. Bob and I walked up to the edge of the first pond and the Ibis must have been no more than a few feet away but down along the bank invisible to us. Fortunately it just flew across the pond and we were able to get good views and an ok photo.
White Faced Ibis
As we were about to leave an official looking pick up truck drove up to the gate. Were we in trouble? Not at all. He was indeed an official and was there to close and lock the gate but was happy that we were having a good visit and invited us back anytime. He enjoyed learning about some of the birds we were seeing and was interested in my 50 state Adventure which Floyd explained to him. So what could have been a down moment proved to be an up one with yet another person giving his best when given the chance. There have been so many of these moments during my trips. We left the ponds with 62 species. There would be 4 more species ahead of us including one good and controversial one.
Not far away still in Pryor we found several birds foraging in the leaf litter along the road and in the nearby brush and small trees. We added House Finch, American Goldfinch and Swamp Sparrow to our day list and then all of us focused on a “different” small bird bobbing its tail as it foraged on the ground. We noted its distinct and large supercilium and its drab yellow brown color. We all immediately thought Palm Warbler from all of those details and the behavior. Ebird noted it as a rarity at this time but we did not give it a second thought. Later I was contacted by the Ebird reviewer who asked for a photo. Mine was not great, but I felt it supported the identification, and forwarded it to him. He wondered if it might instead be a juvenile Orange Crowned Warbler. The ID was not important to me but I recalled the Palm Warbler was a new County Bird for Floyd so hoped we had been correct It turned out that the Orange Crowned would have been a new County Species for him as well so it did not matter, but we were correct that it was a Palm Warbler.
We called Zach Poland and told him the good news that we had surpassed 50 species for the day and arranged to meet for dinner. On the way we found a small flock of Canada Geese, our 66th species for the day. Dinner was at a fish market/restaurant and I overdid it with too much fried food, my first in quite a while and I hoped the weight I had lost in several weeks of dieting before the trip was not returning. But it was a celebratory meal and having Zach Poland added to the group was great. Lots of stories at dinner and it was clear that we would have lots of fun the next day. Zach was pleased that we had more than the benchmark 50 species, but I was pretty sure he was determined to beat our mark for the day and was confident we would do so. You will have to read the next bog post to find out if the confidence was well placed and what our total was despite a change in the weather with dropping temperatures, heavier winds and those predicted showers.