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Vireo Quest

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Black-capped vireo, Vireo atricapilla. The vireo is the only bird whose name is a sentence. In Latin, Vireo means "I am green." This photo lifted in desperation from Wikipedia. I didn't get a photo of my own, despite grandiose dreams. For truly spectacular photos, see Greg Lasley's web site at the hotlink below.

Debby, Tim and I had come to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge for many reasons, but chief among them was a small vireo, the black-capped vireo. This Federally endangered bird now occurs on a small patch of the planet from Oklahoma, south through Texas and just into northern Mexico. Its range keeps shrinking, for it suffers greatly from twin threats. Black-capped vireos, like endangered Kirtland's warblers, prefer vegetation that is at a certain stage of early succession. Smoky Bear's extravagantly successful campaign to eradicate forest fires also nearly eradicated a bunch of species that depend on fire to replenish the new growth they need. Brown-headed cowbirds like that early successional stuff, too, and they plague black-capped vireos and Kirtland's warblers alike by laying their eggs in the endangered birds' nests, usurping food and care from baby vireos and warblers. Drat those cowbirds, how they target the vanishing ones.

Debby Kaspari led us through rock and pine, cactus and wildflowers to a riparian zone beneath a glowering canyon wall that surprise! rang with the chattering, noodly song of black-capped vireos. It was a stretch to believe that song emanated from a vireo. Hearing them was one thing, seeing them was quite another. The oaks were thick; the habitat was dense, and the vireos were cagey. The "shinnery," a tangle of oaks and sumac where the vegetation reaches to ground level, that the birds prefer is nearly impenetrable.
No wonder these little birds make themselves known with constant song, only vaguely vireolike. It has so many syllables it sounds more like a whispery purple finch to me.

This has to be wild verbena. It looks just like what I plant in my hanging baskets every spring.

Blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) bloomed among the rocks of our trail.
Deb identified it, and sent me this iPhone photo she took:

At one point in our quest we heard cracking sticks and heavy, stentorian breathing, which could have been either a bison or a longhorn. It is a spine-tingling feeling to hear a very large something breathing, and not be able to see so much as a hair of it. We freshened our pace and moved along.

There was a lot of wildlife here. A wild turkey hen pecks cagily about. I imagine she had a nest hidden nearby.
There were beautiful rootscapes. I could see Debby just sitting down with a pencil and sketchpad and getting lost in these roots for a day or two. We pulled her along.

We listened and watched, listened and watched.

There were mosscapes in the tumbling stream.

There was a small grasshopper nymph who perfectly matched the granite he sat on.

Finally, several hundred yards distant, we caught the motion of a singing black-capped vireo as he rocketed amongst the branches of small oaks. We all got on it, all saw its ebony cap and white spectacles, and it was gone. Ahh, birding with birders--it was so nice not to have to painstakingly point out where the thing was, as I've been doing all spring!

But it had been enough, really, to be in its home, to hear it and six other singing males, to know it was here.

And so were we, on a perfect day in April.

Julie and Debby Kaspari, April 19, 2010, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tim Ryan

Texas Longhorns in Oklahoma

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Having eaten them, we wanted very much to see the "wild" Texas longhorns that roam Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Like the wild horses on the Theodore Roosevelt NWR in North Dakota, these cattle are introduced, and they're being maintained there to "save the breed." Cattle resembling longhorns were probably introduced to North America from Spain in 1493. By the 1600's, domestic breeds from the British Isles and Europe supplanted the longhorn. In 1927, as the Texas longhorn faced extinction as a breed, cattle enthusiasts from the U.S. Forest Service brought a herd to the Wichita Mountains NWR, where the animals thrived. Longhorns have a number of desirable traits, primary among them being intelligence, adaptability, great beauty, and low birth weight, which means they are easy calvers. Whether having a bunch of domestic cattle using rangeland that once belonged to the now-extinct Merriam's elk and the once-extirpated but now-replaced American bison is the thing to do is a bit of a question.
The Merriam's elk has been replaced on the 59,000-acre refuge by introduced Rocky Mountain elk, and the bison have been reintroduced as well.

Note the fenceline behind the bison. It was hard to get a photo without fencing here. A surpassingly beautiful place, but what's with all the fencing?

So all the hoofed stock here has the hand of man in its presence and its management. Maybe the whitetails have always been here. Or maybe they were reintroduced, too.

What to say about it all? That nothing's as it once was, that nothing's pristine? That cattle aren't wildlife and don't belong on a wildlife refuge? That all our wildlife refuges have been twiddled with and tweaked and manipulated in some way?

Yes, that's a fenceline behind the doe.

I was filled with conflicting feelings as I gazed on these undeniably beautiful cattle. Looking at them, I see something ancient, something that goes back to drawings on cave walls. This is a superbly adapted bovid, probably three times smarter than your average Angus: a survival machine. Tim Ryan told me they're even more dangerous than the bison. We stayed in the car.

Gorgeous things. Their colors and patterns enchanted me.

However you feel about longhorns as wildlife, however you split the hairs of what belongs and what doesn't on public land, the longhorns don't care. They're breeding and sparring and bossing each other around and they are beautiful.

This old blue bull saw us pull up next to one of his many wives and her calf, and decided to do something about it.

What are you doing so close to those tourists?

Move along, and take your little girl with you.

Mama, Daddy, and Baby makes pee.

What's wild? What's native? How long do you have to be here to be a native? Is nearly six centuries long enough?

Or should a wildlife refuge belong to wildlife?

Eating Oklahoma

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Debby Kaspari walks toward a novel gustatory experience at Meer's Store, Meers, Oklahoma.

I could have done without the feral cats climbing all over the dumpster and waiting for handouts outside the door (not usually an indicator of fine dining within) but wading through them would be worth it in the end.

Thanks to Tim and Debby's guidance and considerable culinary skills, I had several memorable meals in Oklahoma. One for which I fervently wished I'd brought my camera was a meal of fried chicken and okra at Eischen's Bar near Duck, OK, alleged to be the state's oldest bar. Dark as a cave and set in its ways, Eischen's serves a huge basket of exquisite fried chicken with sides of fried okra (burp!) and pickles (there's your vegetable.) With this repast comes nothing but napkins and a sheet of waxed paper. No utensils, no plates, just cave man style.

I quickly got the idea that mine was not to question the wisdom of such primitive service, perhaps thanks to our waitress' T-shirt, which read, "It takes 49 muscles for me to frown at you, but only two for me to DOPE SLAP you." She looked like she was ready to do it, too. Oh, for a hidden Instamatic. But it was so dark in there, all the shades drawn on a rainy day, that she'd have been a gray-haired blur.

I thought I'd had OK's finest meal, for Eischen's chicken was truly divine, until we went to Meer's Store near the Wichita Mountains NWR. Meer's is famous for its longhorn burgers. Now, I can't imagine offing an animal this magnificent just for steaks and burgers, but Meer's raises them just for that.
Here's the proprietor, probably some years ago.

I loved this restaurant right away because it had a cranky menu, full of proclamations about the "only way" to eat or serve a hamburger, about the vastly superior nutritional value of longhorn meat versus any other beef; about the history of the place and how you should hang your head if you want your burger cooked any other way than the way it should be cooked.

It was full of signs and little weirdnesses.

Please, can I have a burger, sir?

Wild turkey sez nuh-uh.

Reminders that Oklahoma's history is still being played out are everywhere.

I watched and read enough Westerns in my childhood to have an involuntary shiver ripple down my spine just seeing the word. The Comanches took their violent objection to manifest destiny to creative new levels.

I was so glad to see a hot tamale vending machine. I didn't even know they still made them.

Not to mention a gumball machine shaped like a saguaro. I mean, where would you get one of those if you wanted one? And oh, I do want one. I'd put it in our foyer and fill it with healthy snacks, feathers, galls, seeds and animal droppings in capsules, just waiting to be identified. No, I wouldn't. I just said that for effect.

We amused ourselves with the signage for a long time.

I have been looking for a cure for hog mange and sheep scab. And let's not even talk about screw worms! Thank goodness for Cooper-Tox. That's what you want to spray on your livestock.

But at last, our appetites thus whetted, it was time to eat.

We chose a table on the upper level, the better to survey the clientele and the decor.

Drinks were served in Mason jars. I had a tantalizing peek into the kitchen from my chair, which nearly tipped over backward thanks to the off-kilter flooring. You could roll a bowling ball from one end of this place to the other without a push.

We all ordered Meersburgers, and Debby added an inspired order of a basket of fried green tomatoes.

The food was simply spectacular. The fried tomatoes came with a ranchy dip that set them off perfectly. Almost forgot the cheesy chili fries, which I avoided. The fried green tomatoes would be plenty enough, and I still hadn't fully processed the Eischen's chicken and okra. Mmmmf. I come from the land of salads. Oklahoma cuisine would eventually kill me stone daid. But I'd die with a smile on my face.

Groaning with effort, we cleaned up our meals and ordered peach cobbler for three. We were not disappointed. Whatever cinnamon Meer's uses, it is much the finest cinnamon I've ever tasted.

The waitress said they order the finest spices available from a special spice house. The ice cream was homemade.

I now have to excuse myself and go gorge on something. I'm afraid it will not be fried green tomatoes, a Meersburger, or spicy peach cobbler, but I guess I'll survive.

His arms creaked and swung in the wind. Reeka reeka reeka.

Oklahoma Cave Bats

Sunday, May 23, 2010


The Cimarron River, Oklahoma. I felt I'd been dropped in the middle of a Clint Eastwood Western, the landscape was so different and so grand.

What lies beneath this foreboding landscape? A beautiful cavern.

I can't describe how wonderful it was to be shown around Oklahoma by people who love her. Debby Kaspari and Tim Ryan know Oklahoma in all her moods (boy, do they!). They've got the birds and wildlife and landscapes down cold. They've got all her quirks and peculiarities filed away, ready to pull them out at a moment's notice. So as soon as the Lesser Prairie-chicken Festival was over and my last workshop had been given, we took off on a little expotition.

First stop was Alabaster Caverns. I hadn't been in a real cave since I was a girl, dazzled by the colored lights in Luray Caverns in Virginia. What a treat it was to descend into this wonderland--a gypsum cavern, peopled by fantastic mineral formations and my new favorite mammal, bats!

Originally mined for gypsum, which is used in wallboard among other things, the cavern's owner realized he was sitting on a natural wonder, and he opened it to the public. You can still see the miners' graffiti on the wall. The lead in Orlando's pencil inscribed the soft gypsum, and halted any further deposition, so his signature remains perfectly clear since around the turn of the 20th century, while the other graffiti have grown over with minerals. I had the notion that this cave was alive.
Being a bit of a claustrophobic, I was happy to see the cavern pretty well-lit.

The idea of going into the bowels of the earth, straight back and down, gave me the wilhelms. But the lighted banister, which was pleasantly warm to the touch in the dank cavey air, helped immensely. I didn't let go of it except to take photos. Some passages were pleasantly large and high-ceilinged, while others were a bit narrower. But all were surpassingly beautiful.
There were some truly gorgeous formations and crystals.

The little visitor's center had the most extraordinary skellington of a Mexican free-tailed bat. I looked at those straw-fine wingbones and marveled that my Dee Dee hadn't broken every bone in her body blundering around in our basement. (Still haven't heard how the flight tests went, by the way. Still waiting to know if she'll be releasable, since the distal tips of her first three fingers on each wing got broken, so her wings curve under.) UPDATE--11:04 pm, May 23--Dee Dee is off meds and doing well in flight tests, finally extending her wings all the way and getting more lift. Lisa Fosco, Director of Animal Care at Ohio Wildlife Center, hopes for quicker progress now. Cross your fingers for Dee Dee's fingers!

Isn't that the most exquisite little flying DaVinci machine? Look at those shoulders! and the hair-fine spurs on the heels, which support the flight membranes. It was so very tiny, a miracle.

I was all in a lather to see some bats, and finally we spotted a lovely pair of cave myotis, a life bat for me!
I think our guide was pleasantly surprised by the ecstasy with which I greeted this sighting, having inured herself to the fearful reactions of so many thousands of cave tourists.

I angled around until I could shoot into their little squinched up faces.
You have to love that, all cuddled up in the cool cave for the winter.

I have to take an interlude here, much as I want to stay in the light.

Bat Conservation International announced on May 12, 2010, that white nose fungus has been found on a western Oklahoma cave myotis, a species which commonly winters with Mexican freetail bats. Each new species affected by this deadly disease, which has killed at least a million bats in the East, increases the potential range and devastation of this horrible epizootic. A leap from Tennesse and Missouri all the way to Oklahoma?? This is what happens when flying animals are attached by an epizootic. Infection in Mexican freetails could spread white nose syndrome from coast to coast and well into Mexico. Bats desperately need our help, as scientists race to learn more about this dreadful disease, which is leaping like wildfire into Tennessee, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and now Oklahoma. It also spread northward into Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Bats across the continent are at imminent risk.

I didn't treat white nose syndrome in my series of bat posts last winter. My heart couldn't face it. Still can't, really, but it's what's happening. As we look at the possible extinction of entire bat species, I feel the planet wobbling.

We spotted an eastern pipistrelle, a truly teeny weeny little animal, delicate as a fairy.
It was about the size of a silver dollar. Here, I'll flip it around so you can see its face and its charmingly pointed eartips.

It was so very good to see my friends again. I knew when I saw them and my heart started singing again that bats will always be in my life. How I wish I could throw a shield over them and protect them.
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