While it is certainly true that many species of birds in North America fly to warmer climates when the temperatures begin to drop, there are still many more that stay at their homes year-round! This February, I was lucky enough to join three Zoo employees and three employees from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) on a conservation journey to Robbers Cave State Park and James Collins Wildlife Management Area in Eastern Oklahoma to conduct a survey of the animals, mostly birds, continuing to call the woodlands and prairies home despite Oklahoma’s erratic winter weather.
Each morning, we would grab our snacks, split into two groups, and head out in the ODWC’s trucks to see what we could spot from the roads winding through the Park and the WMA. Using a pair of binoculars, our handy field guides, and the knowledge of our more experienced ODWC friends, we identified and counted what birds we saw in which habitats (typically riparian woodland, pine/oak woodland, or tallgrass prairie) and tracked the amount of time we spent looking in a particular area. We would mark if the birds appeared to be “fly overs,” meaning they were likely just passing through and not actual residents, and make a note of any mammals tracks seen or frog calls heard during the survey. Oklahoma being Oklahoma, the weather decided to be beautiful for the trip, typically starting in the 40s or 50s in the morning and getting as high as nearly 70 some afternoons (hey, the weather has to work for us sometimes, right?). Because of this, we saw birds left and right and were frequently serenaded by Cajun chorus frogs.
Oh and one of our members was greeted by a friendly, neighborhood timber rattlesnake. In February. Welcome to Oklahoma.
When the survey was complete and the sightings tallied, we realized we had spotted over 60 different species including five species of greatest conservation need: bald eagle, LeConte’s sparrow, loggerhead shrike, northern bobwhite quail, and the Ouachita map turtle. The ODWC will use the data collected this year and prior years to determine if species in the area are declining, increasing, or even moving their home ranges.
The Winter Bird Survey is definitely a trip I will sign up for again. Good company, great scenery and a chance to hone my bird watching skills - what could be better?
-Andrea Brenner, lead education animal caretaker
Photos by Jena Donnel, ODWC, and Sandra Erickson, OKC Zoo