Black Mesa

Black Mesa rises above the plains of western Oklahoma. On it, one can hike to the highest point in the state. I’m not really a “summit” kind of guy; I prefer the cozy feeling of canyons. But this mesa was calling to me when I was planning my trip. It just sounded so… different. Wisconsinites do not have topography like this in our own state, so this was my chance to try something different. Plus, I thought, the birding wouldn’t be half bad.

The last few miles of my drive to get to the mesa were different from the rest of the panhandle; smaller mesas and buttes dotted the landscape, turning a formerly flat and straight route into a winding roller coaster. On the drive in, I saw my first Bluebirds of the day: both Mountain and Eastern. I would go on to see more Mountain Bluebirds in this small section of Oklahoma than I ever had in my whole life. Getting up close to the mesa, I felt nervous. I knew, even before leaving Wisconsin, that this would be a longer hike. I knew I’d be exposed to the elements. There are few trees to protect you from the sun and wind. This knowledge did not make me feel any more prepared. Black Mesa is a long, winding feature. It looked much more intimidating in person.

Black Mesa, from near the trailhead

I set out on the hike. I’m not seeking to collect every state’s highest peak. Many of them are out of my skill level. But I have to admit I feel called to do these more moderate ones, the ones that aren’t just a point on a highway but also aren’t way up in the alpine zone of a jagged mountain. Since this one was on the way to Santa Fe, I did not want to pass it up. Starting off though, I had to keep my head in the game. It was over four miles each way, not a huge problem for me, but longer than what I usually hike alone. I wasn’t worried about my safety so much as my motivation. It’s easier to take a longer hike with friends. The conversation is a bit of a distraction, and the hike is a bonding experience. Alone, you’re getting by on just your own determination. I decided I would plow through the first few miles and by then I’d be too far to get lazy and turn around.

This plan worked, at least partially because the day’s bird highlight showed itself about two and a half miles in. I saw something perched on a small cedar. Scale is useless in such an empty landscape, but the bird appeared to be medium-sized. I set my binoculars on it and was pleasantly surprised to see a Prairie Falcon. This bird, found in the western half of the continent, is a pale tan but keeps the stereotypical falcon mustache pattern. It was a very keen-looking bird. I felt buoyed by the sight of it to keep moving.

Shortly after, I began to scale the mesa. Most of the 700+ foot elevation gain happens over the course of three quarters of a mile or so. It’s not a particularly steep ascent. To reference some Wisconsin trails, I’d compare it more to the Ferry Bluff trail than, say, the Balanced Rock trail at Devil’s Lake. Near the top of the trail, I saw up close the band of dark volcanic rock that gives the mesa its name. Hiking on, I got to the flat, windswept top of Black Mesa.

Big happy rocks

I didn’t know what to expect when I got up there, other than that it would be flat like much of the panhandle, but much higher. There were few trees up there, and the ones that were there were either stunted or dead. I looked around, trying to find the obelisk that marks the surveyed high point of the state. I could not. I pressed on, constantly scanning up the trail for it. Thing is, the mesa isn’t completely flat on top. There are small, barely-perceptible curves to its surface. They hide various parts of the flat top from each other. Eventually I saw the marker. I walked slowly toward it, feeling the weight of the wind and my backpack in my calves.

I took some time to look around. It was indeed an impressive view. As flat as the eye can see looking east and south, with more variation looking west and north. The view west into New Mexico was captivating. The mountain known as Sierra Grande stood above everything else on the horizon, like a distant giant. I had a hard time not gazing at it every few minutes. It was calling me onward toward the next state on my trip.

Sierra Grande

Thing is, I was decently close to New Mexico already. The border was only a quarter mile away, and I wasn’t even at the tallest spot on the mesa- the Land of Enchantment claimed that.

I sat, then laid, down on the ground. I was in a state of calm. A beautiful setting and a big, blue sky have that effect on me.

I still had four hours of driving ahead of me, and I wanted to get to Santa Fe before it got too dark. Besides, I knew I’d probably stop along the road somewhere to check out some birds (I did). My desire to keep time did some negotiating with my enjoyment of the moment and I stood up and headed back down the mesa toward my car.


Southwest Kansas

I am on my third road trip of the pandemic, as usual doing my best to stay safe. Between the distance I’m keeping from other people (yay outdoors!), my recent booster shot, and the two packets of masks I bought before heading out of town, I feel pretty good about things. The trip is off to a good start. I left Madison yesterday, and I’m already at Elkhart, the most southwestern town in Kansas, right on the Oklahoma border. I could walk to the Sooner State right now if I wasn’t winding down for the day.

They say Kansas is boring. I disagree. I drove diagonally through the entire state today and I was mesmerized. Flat? Definitely not the eastern half, with its rolling hills covered in bluestem. Central Kansas was a pancake, and the western half is close to being one, but it’s not boring if you’re looking for birds. Every fence post and wire along the highway had an American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, or Rough-legged Hawk. Northern Harriers floated low across the fields. Looking for raptors along the road is my favorite pastime when driving through open country.

The towns in the last few hours of the drive were variations on a theme: grain elevators right along the highway with small settlements built around them. The one bird that dominated these towns was the Eurasian Collared-Dove. These invasive birds love the Great Plains for the plentiful grain that’s here. I am sure they outnumber human residents in at least a few of the towns I drove through.

If Kudzu is the vine that ate the South, these are the birds that ate the Plains.
Eurasian Collared-dove habitat

In one of the towns, Sublette, I found a flock of 300 or so Great-tailed Grackles. I hadn’t seen any since I went to Texas in 2017, and I was pleasantly surprised to see them. I know they’re a plains bird, but I didn’t know I’d find them in quite those numbers. They are larger, longer-legged, and longer-tailed than Common Grackles. They sometimes hold their tails up in the air when perched on the ground, giving them an athletic and “ready” look. It is comparable to the stereotypical roadrunner stance.

The farther west I got, the more it looked like, well, the West. The yuccas and small hills of Cimarron National Grassland reminded me of eastern Colorado, which I am also not that far from at the moment. I enjoyed the sunset at the grassland’s Point of Rocks before settling down for the night. I have my longest hike of the trip ahead of me tomorrow, so I’d better rest up.

From below Point of Rocks
Cimarron National Grassland from Point of Rocks