I had the rare opportunity this past week to do some birding with my bright young nephews (14 and 11) (plus their mom and grandfather) who are really coming into their own as serious birders. They arrived with lists in hand of potential life birds they might want to see with me, and I was happy to oblige. As these boys live in Michigan, Barred Owl is a much rarer find there than here in Stillwater, so my first thought was to take them around to a few spots to call in a Barred Owl for them. The only problem with that plan is that I’m much better at calling them in when I’m by myself and can really take my time: I struck out at four different spots, though I bet there was an owl at each spot if we had come back in the evening!
I next set my sights on Barn Owl, a species for which I had a barn staked out in advance so it should have been really easy to walk right up and show them the owl during the daytime. The site I had in mind is about 40 miles north of Stillwater west of Marland, OK, so I knew I could keep the boys entertained on the drive up by passing through the Sooner Lake area and plenty of fields with Red-tailed Hawks to count and the potential to hit a field with Smith’s Longspurs. Our route from Stillwater took us north on 177, west on Rt. 156 (Badlands Rd.), and up a bit to Dakota Rd. On the way back, we went west on Badlands Rd. to Route 77 and headed south toward Perry and, ultimately, Rt. 51 (6th St. in Stillwater). We spent most of our time in Noble County on this trip with just the southern portion in Payne County, and ended up traveling about 90 miles [146 km], counting all raptors (and some other things) along the way.
We ultimately dipped out on the Barn Owl (curses!) but just a 1/4 miles from that spot we found a flock of at least 200 Lapland Longspurs from which we picked out a handful of Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Not only was that a lifer for them, it was a lifer for me! Missing the owl was bittersweet because it led us to another lifer we hadn’t even planned on. Other great birds on the journey included Prairie Falcon, a very cooperative Loggerhead Shrike, and multiple Bald Eagles – seen well and photographed!
I decided that we needed to loop back to Stillwater rather than re-trace our path, so we took Rt. 77 toward Perry. We kept our eyes out for abandoned barns or other structures that might harbor a Barn Owl and just south of the turnpike (Rt. 412) at Pioneer Rd. we found a likely looking pile of a dilapidated structure and the boys and I walked up to check it out. We were first distracted by a Western Coachwhip snake that was about 90% out of its burrow and basking in the sun on a day with a decent wind and temperatures struggling to hit 40F. After a few seconds with us, the snake slid off into the leaf litter and we let it go. The remains of the building proved even more interesting, however, because it contained a Barn Owl sitting out in plain view! The boys got great looks at the owl (as did their mom and grandfather), and I think they were overjoyed to have encountered a lifer with nearly unrivaled panache, and one that was harder to get than originally planned.
The best story of the day, however, might be the abundance of raptors. All told, we found 41 Red-tailed Hawks, 13 Northern Harriers, 7 Bald Eagles, 5 American Kestrels, and 2 Prairie Falcons on that 90 mile loop. As a contrived “average per mile”, that’s about 1 Redtail every two miles, or 1.3 raptors/mile including all species. It was a great afternoon of birding with two lifers seen well, plus great looks at some other really cool birds!