September 24-26, 2015

GRASS GONE TO FEATHERS September 24, 2015

Grasshopper Sparrow near Foraker Tallgrass September 24, 2015-10s

The Harley motorcycle roar called Bikes, Blues and Barbecue(BBB) migrated into Fayetteville yesterday, the start of a four day rally with 400,000 people plus their motorcycles crammed into northwest Arkansas. Constant, day and night low overhead flights by helicopters, many closed streets, all night parties – this treasured money-maker for the hospitality industry requires an escape for some —

Therefore, David Chapman and I begin our migration west, at 4 AM, to a different BBBB, starring Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies. We’re escaping to The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Oklahoma. Flint Hills because there is so much surface rock the area was never plowed and as a result, retains many of its original ecological characteristics – native flowers, birds, lizards, and a corridor for southbound Monarch Butterflies.

By 7 AM we’re three hours northeast of Fayetteville, with nary a Harley. And, as it turns out, were not the only migrants. At day break we have driven about 160 miles to just west of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, then turned north on Osage County Road 4551. This passes through ranch lands toward Foraker, a community much shrunken since its heyday in the oil boom that crashed with onset of the 1930s Great Depression. Foraker is immediately west of Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

First birds: flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds in roadside thickets formed by Common Sunflowers. From sunflowers they’re flying down to splash in the creek bed. With nesting behind them, there’s only an occasional flash of the male’s summer red. They wheel from sunflowers to creek, Mother Earth on the move.

Eastern Meadowlarks are singing in the fields, but these are mainly in winter season flocks, some with 20-30 birds. We watch them in fields of Indian Grass, its tall thick seed heads forming a horizon. Below, a wild member of the parsley family that looks like a small purple pineapple, Eryngium Leavenworthii. It’s in fresh flower, with purple stamens visited by busy, tiny, metallic-green pollinators, the Halictid bees.

Driving slowly along the road, we stop for Sedge Wrens (2) singing in dense grass. We walk up some additional arrivals including Lincoln’s Sparrow (1), Swamp Sparrow (1), then Savannah Sparrows (~8). We pick up a few Grasshopper Sparrows, too. These probably nested in the fields. The first one perches briefly on a rusty wire, on a stage set by Big Bluestem Grass. There’s buffy wash on its breast, play of light and dark on its head and back, the prairie’s tall grass gone to feathers.

Something of the same can be said about all: come from the 200 million acres of grass called the Great Plains, whose grass says feathers, too.

Prairie Merlin Foraker near Tallgrass September 24, 2015-4s

Perched in a snag, in the oil boom ghost town Foraker, surrounded by the Flint Hills Prairies, a pale blue, adult male Merlin, animated denizen of wide spaces and broad sky.

By noon Chapman and I are heading a few miles east towards the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve of the former Chapman-Barnard Ranch. A field across from the restored ranch house is covered with ripe thistles and American Goldfinches.

Along the road, a twig on the petals of a pink Four O’Clock turns into yet another pollinator — a plume moth. Up close, I finally see wings, small eyes and legs. It’s their world, too.


Melyssa St. Michael with camera, Ann Gordon Talllgrass PP Sept 26, 2015-rs

Bright, calm, and sunny. That’s the weather from The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma. By afternoon, temps have climbed to near 90. Our trip is about Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies, BUT right now we’re looking for shade on the prairie section of the trail above Sand Creek.

From the prairie, the trail passes down into the deep shady forest along Sand Creek, among bur oaks. We’re seeing Monarchs settling on leaves, in the shade. Where did these come from? Maybe they too are sheltering from heat and desiccation? Maybe waiting for better winds? We see at least 50. In the shade of a wide ranging Sand Creek, there must be many Monarchs waiting for better sailing.

Fortunately, clouds develop and a sudden breeze rises in the northeast. I guess Blue Jays have been waiting, too. Here come 55 in a tight mass, all heading south. With breeze, with the bold migrating jays — in terms of migration business, we feel wealthy.

We’ve also found Bison Birds: Brown-headed Cowbirds. Twenty or so cowbirds following a bull bison.

We’ve also picked up an unexpected Barn Owl. We’re walking toward a bridge over Sand Creek when a Barn Out flies out. We’re trying to absorb this singularity when out flies a second. But tail feathers are mostly what we’ve seen, plus a single white flight feather floating artistically in dark water.

Jim Nieting has the happy thought to circle around the direction of Owl #1. It flies back towards us, providing “The” look, then disappears.

We’ve seen a few Northern Flickers, including one red-shafted. One perched atop a fence post on the Bison Loop road looks for sure like red-shafted, the western form we rarely see in Arkansas – so it’s a big deal. Then in the bright noon sun, as it flies, gold feather shafts. But Michael Linz and Jim Nieting have flight photos. We can see yellow AND red in the flight feathers.

halictid bees on Eryngium Tallgrass PP September 25, 2015-2-rs

Eastern Tailed Blue butterflies crowd fresh, yellow goldenrod flowers. Edging up on the goldenrod is what Mitchell Pruitt IDs as a true bug in the Hemiptera — small head, large abdomen, sucking mouth parts — seemingly with hungry interest in the blues … Hmmm … we’re on the move down the trail, so I don’t know how this unfolds.

David Oakley and I are up on a hillside and notice a tallish plant with a reddish stalk, surmounted by apparent star-shaped flowers, white and pink-tinged. From this bulges large dark seeds, wrinkled like raisins. Already ripe seeds? A botanist would find remarkable such seeds with apparently fresh flowers. David and I are mainly concerned with a good picture and the name of the plant. Strangers in a strange land, we engage the discussion.

Later, when we return to Arkansas, we are going to get help from Joan Reynolds, who will identify this as a wild Four O’clock. She explains apparent petals are actually sepals. Real petals, bright pinks, have already fallen off. Then based on leaf shapes in one of my fuzzy, out-of-focus images, David figures out this must be Narrow-leaf Four-O’clock, Mirabilis linearis.

Which, if you have been willing to follow along here, explains some of the “Why make a trip like this? Why Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies?” The answer, such as it is, is in mystery.


We started today by launching a coordinated birditary operation on Little Sand Creek. Never heard of the birditary? (If you are still reading, it could be YOU!). That’s us, in the Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterfly Brigade, on The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma.

This day opens with Operation Barn Owl. We saw them yesterday, but briefly, so we’re back. We hope to catch ‘em while they’re napping and thus maximize chances for “The” photograph. Captain Mitchell Pruitt leads his team including David Oakley and Michael Linz in a pincer movement through the woods and on under the bridge. The rest of us foot soldiers perform a frontal assault; that is, we walk slowly toward the bridge.

Accompanied by rapid fire, 10-frames-a-second cameras, our owls silently exit from a roost under the bridge. It reminds Sarah Caulk, not so much of machine guns, but a clacking car starter on a dead battery. Aftermath: Owls 2, BBBB team 0 in term of the much desired sharp photograph. But we do get to see them again.

The morning is decidedly cool, so it comes as no surprise to us BBBB vets that we are greeted by a refreshing north breeze, with Monarch migration, as we arrive on the prairie.

The lower level Monarchs transit Tallgrass Prairie Preserve among those prickly purple “pineapples,” Eryngium Leavenworthii. They briefly circle the Blue Sage. They flutter in fields of gold — generous abundance of goldenrods, that golden-flowered Prairie Broomweed. And in addition, and way out in the land of deep sky, Monarchs are drifting south, with a backdrop of clouds.

In a vast prairie sky, I find watching Turkey Vultures helps me locate more distant Monarchs. First, get TVs in focus. Second, scan the sky. High above the flowered, blessedly unplowed Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma, Monarchs are many. Here’s one, there’s three, drifting, hopeful, wings of orange and black, like cathedral glass.

Blue Jays have been overhead, too. Between 9:45 and 10:30, we have counted 11 flocks low overhead, going south, biggest flock 69 birds. We have at least 215 birds in 45 minutes. Also moving, but in lower numbers, Northern Flickers (12; 2 red-shafted) and Red-headed Woodpeckers (10).

sulphur butterfly on blazing star Tallgrass PP September 25, 2015s

A herd of maybe 200 bison make their own leisurely movement, from one field with Big Bluestem Grass and Maxmillian Sunflower and rag weed to the next, filling the road. It’s true enough we are at the End of Nature – there is a fence around the Preserve’s 40,000 acres — but within that enclosure roams bison, grows prairie, flies the butterfly. It’s available to the rest of us, too, if desired.

Stopping for lunch at the old, now restored ranch headquarters, we have a fine view of American Goldfinches working thistle patches, masses of released, and sometimes seedless thistle down drifting in brilliant light. Near where we’re sitting in porch shade, there are little birds in a mature elm. Unmistakable: a male Summer Tanager. Then a Nashville Warbler that’s caught a small butterfly, and wrestling it down, pauses long enough for our view.

In the leaves, on a limb, then out in side view: longish tail, plain breast with slight tan wash, small bill, dark eye path – Clay-colored Sparrow. It’s a life bird for some. A slow chase ensues and within a few minutes, several BBBBers return with trophy-quality images. In addition, all this close looking turns up a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, first of the season.

A tall plant with white flowers standing out above the grass, and at the right angle of view, rising above the prairie: Stenosiphon linifolius, False Gaura. Past its prime in terms of flowers, it reminds me of myself.

BBBB crew September 26, 2015 at Tallgrass PP-rs

I keep glancing up, watching Monarchs through my binoculars. They remind me of an escape from a bleak time in graduate school many years ago. I was on campus during a class break, laying down on my back looking up into a blue early fall sky. I was then father of a lovely, trusting brown-eyed daughter, separated from her mother, and I was getting up at 4 AM to solve statistics problems I did not understand. So many murky feelings …

… Slowly, and through my misery, I saw Monarchs. One, three, drifting, drifting over campus, drifting over me, and misery … insects, with direction … drifting like now, over the Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma …

After a while, and with a decent wind, a little hope began to creep in. I began to think I might be able to manage life, too.

Joe Neal

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