Violent storms and violet skies on the Oklahoma prairie

Though it’s not easy to orchestrate given my other commitments, a singular joy of mine is to head west each June for a whirlwind investment of about 24 hours in conducting the Lookout, OK Breeding Bird Survey route.


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Have you been to Lookout? Most people will answer “no” to this question.


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A Google image search turned up this photo of “Cheyenne and Arapaho men at Lookout, OK”.


Lookout is a 3–4 hour drive for me. Considering that the bird surveys need to begin 30 minutes before sunrise it’s not feasible for me to drive up from here the morning of. Instead, I head out the day before, pitch my tent at the Cimarron Hills Wildlife Management Area, and try to grab a few hours’ sleep out on the open prairie. I’ll go a good 16 hours or so without speaking to (and barely seeing) another human when I do this and, no offense, but it’s magical.


Setting up this year was a bit of a challenge, though. First, I was delayed this week by a powerful storm system moving though the state. I needed two clear days to get there and back, both because heavy rains aren’t conducive to listening for birds and I try to avoid tent camping in electrical storms. I found those days (at least I thought I had) last Wednesday and Thursday, but my consolation prize was high heat and light wind. That doesn’t bother me too much, except that the strings attached to that prize are hungry horseflies and clouds of biting gnats. So in the blazing sun and stifling heat I worked to get that tent up as quickly as possible, and without letting any of those flying demons inside the tent or the truck!


With my tent in place, it was time to do some scouting of the morning’s route. Though I had checked  – and rechecked – the forecast and was sure I had chosen a good 24 hours for my count, I was growing leery about the thunderhead building to my southeast. It was far away, well to the south, and it should weaken and break up, I told myself. I returned to camp and settled in for the night, with the melodious gurgles of Western Meadowlark and fitful chattering of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers ultimately giving way to yipping barks of coyotes and cuckoo-clock toots of a Common Poorwill.

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It’s been building for hours and I’m hoping it dissipates by morning.

An occasional jet flies over this “flyover state” in western Oklahoma, and the roar of its engines is clearly audible 35,000 feet below. Other than that, my campsite features biological sounds almost exclusively: stridulating insects hypnotize with a constant thrum, punctuated by coyotes and the occasional distant barks of some farm dog. Birds also sing through the night out here in June. I expect that from mockingbirds, but scissortails, meadowlarks, and others kept right on singing through the night with the calling nighthawks and the poorwill. More than anything, however, it was the rumbling of distant thunder that had me sleeping with one eye open.

By 0-dark-thirty I was up and at ’em, and so were pretty much all the birds.

Of course I’m about to share the species list with you and a few other photos from the day, but the big story in the pre-dawn dark was that the storm did not dissipate overnight. The rumbling grew more frequent as I tossed and turned and when I looked out in the morning there was a spectacular light show on my southern horizon. Lightning flashed in the clouds, multiple bolts struck the ground – and about 10 seconds later the slow rumble would become audible. I even saw my first sprite! It looked like a giant, scarlet letter U moving upward from the center of a cloud. Not that I needed any greater sense of urgency to get moving, but my pace quickened further after that.

Though my first two points were so dark I needed a flashlight to see my datasheet, the sky began to brighten to the east and north while the distant storm raged to the south. As if the breaking dawn on the prairie isn’t sublime enough, here’s a taste of the skies that greeted me over the next hour or so:


Here’s a bit more magic from that morning: Flight display dive of Common Nighthawk and the sound of Cassin’s Sparrow greeting the dawn:

Well, the storm did catch me eventually, and it took two rain delays for me to complete the count.


That storm system would end up stalling and dumping at least 7″ of rain on some places in central Oklahoma for the next few days. Though it took me ’til about 1:30 to complete the route, complete it I did. Here’s the species list:

Species Number
Cliff Swallow 132
Mourning Dove 85
Northern Bobwhite 61
Dickcissel 52
Eastern Meadowlark 47
Lark Sparrow 32
Common Nighthawk 26
Grasshopper Sparrow 24
Western Meadowlark 22
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 19
Turkey Vulture 18
Northern Cardinal 18
Painted Bunting 16
Horned Lark 15
American Crow 13
Northern Mockingbird 13
Cassin’s Sparrow 12
Field Sparrow 12
Red-winged Blackbird 12
Blue Grosbeak 10
Brown-headed Cowbird 9
Eurasian Collared-Dove 8
Barn Swallow 8
Killdeer 7
Baltimore Oriole 7
Great Crested Flycatcher 7
Wild Turkey 6
Red-bellied Woodpecker 6
Eastern Bluebird 6
Red-headed Woodpecker 5
Red-tailed Hawk 4
Downy Woodpecker 4
American Robin 4
Yellow-billed Cuckoo 3
Eastern Phoebe 3
Eastern Kingbird 3
Warbling Vireo 3
Blue Jay 3
Great Horned Owl 2
Northern Flicker 2
Bewick’s Wren 2
Brown Thrasher 2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 1
Carolina Chickadee 1










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