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Black Mesa Area

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By Jack Tyler from the 1986 edition of A Guide to Birding in Oklahoma published by the Tulsa Audubon Society. This account last updated May, 2010.

Mere mention of "the Black Mesa country" brings to the eye of the serious Oklahoma bird student a peculiar twinkle that evokes remembrances of exciting western birds encountered in some dry, rocky canyon lined by scrubby oaks; on a rugged, flat-topped mesa studded with junipers and pinyon pines; or perhaps among the great cottonwoods along the Cimarron River. The mesa country represents a microcosm of vast open spaces, rough topography, and arid land vegetation typical of the Old West. A spirit of natural wildness permeates this land, where the passage of time is noticed hardly at all.

Since this special place lies in the very shadow of the Rocky Mountains, there is a decidedly western influence in its biota. However, the price paid for being so near the Rockies is high, as he knows who has experienced one of the protracted, bone-chilling winters here, or a summer in which dry dusty winds vie with searing heat for every drop of moisture. The local mean precipitation amounts to only about 17 inches per annum and the average growing season persists for only about 180 days. However, no single year seems to be quite "average". Old timers say that you can always count on the unexpected in these parts, an aphorism no less true of the birdlife--a wonderfully unpredictable intermingling of eastern and western species.

Softer sedimentary rock composing the mesas has eroded more rapidly than the overlying igneous layers. As a result, flat-topped buttes, wandering ridges, and isolated peaks have been formed that jut skyward from their buttresses of accumulated soil. These slopes are littered with angular stone slabs and boulders that have broken away from the higher rock faces.

Boise City sewage ponds

photo by John Kennington

Sewage Ponds Update

You will now find "Posted" signs along the fence which we normally cross to access the sewage ponds. I visited Rod Avery, City Manager of Boise City, and explained the problem to him, advising him that many birders visit the town to bird these ponds. I asked if it would be possible for birders to step over the fence and bird from the levees. He said that it would be no problem and he would notify the Police Chief, with whom I had visited on Sunday (both are very accommodating folks). He said that we might be checked by the police while in there, and I told him that would be fine with us. So now you can legally go past those posted signs.

Berlin Heck, Aug. 2003

Boise City Sewage Lagoons

The only permanent source of water for many miles about, these small lakes may be reached by driving north of the Townsman Motel in eastern Boise City less than 0.5 mile to an east-west blacktop road; turn east and drive another 0.5 mile until you see the ponds south of the road. Two (sometimes three) settling pools, a pond to the east of them, and one north of the road nearly always contain water and are fringed with cattails in several places, mud flats in a few others. Adjacent roadside ditches are frequently flooded as well. Mixed flocks of shorebirds are abundant in season and all should be closely scrutinized for rarities. During migration, look for Black-bellied Plovers, Wilson's Phalaropes, American Avocets, Black and Forster's terns. Some rarities include Red Knot, Red-necked and Red phalaropes, and Black-necked Stilt. Flying about and skimming over the water in company with the more common swallows might be a few Tree Swallows, an occasional Chimney Swift, or even a Violet-green Swallow. An infrequent wader and a few gulls (watch for California Gull) may be observed. Waterfowl are numerous and diverse, several species having bred here including Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Pintail, Redhead, and Ruddy Duck. Two species that might eventually be found to nest around these ponds are the Eared Grebe and Yellow-headed Blackbird.


Road from Boise City to Black Mesa State Park

Sandsage on road to Black Mesa

photos by John Kennington

Open Yucca-Sandsage Grasslands

To reach Black Mesa State Park, drive 16 miles west from Boise City on SH 325; bear north for slightly more than 4 miles to the large state park sign and head west. This blacktop road continues more-or-less northwestward for 5 miles, then turns abruptly to the north for another mile at a dead end. Cross a cattle guard; turn west and follow the blacktop across a low-water bridge, past camping and picnic areas to the supervisor's home. West of Boise City, you will have traversed spacious, low-lying grasslands typically dotted with yucca and sandsage, but much of which is now under cultivation. The following birds may be expected in season: Swainson's (S), Ferruginous and Rough-legged (W) hawks, Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Ring-necked Pheasant, Mountain Plover (S), Long-billed Curlew (listen for its wild, plaintive cry) (M,S), Burrowing Owl, Horned Lark, Chihuahuan Raven (S), Cassin's Sparrow (S), Lark Bunting (M,S), and Western Meadowlark.


Entrance to state park

"Lake" Carl Etling

photo by John Kennington

Black Mesa State Park and Lake Carl Etling

Black Mesa State Park actually lies 8 miles southeast of Black Mesa and approximately 22 miles northwest of Boise City (see above section for directions). It has been established around Lake Carl Etling which normally holds about 160 surface-acres. This is by far the largest body of water in Cimarron County (which is not saying much) and serves as an important waterfowl refuge in winter. (As of 2007, the lake is almost empty.) Particularly during migration, considerable numbers of water-loving birds are attracted to this oasis, which is fed by South Carrizo Creek, a not-very-large stream flowing northward toward the Cimarron. Species normally found here in season include Western Grebe (M), Bald Eagle (W), Osprey (M), nearly every type of waterfowl known from the Central Flyway (Barrow's Goldeneye is a possibility in winter; Wood Duck has been seen a few times), shorebirds, Common Raven, all swallows (except Purple Martin; look carefully for Violet greens), and numerous other species. Watch for nesting American Coots and Spotted Sandpipers; Eared Grebes and Yellow-headed Blackbirds may breed here as well. Numerous small land birds can be found in the adjacent canyons, on grasslands above the lake, and in the riparian vegetation (willows, elms, and buttonbushes) at the south end. The latter spot attracts warblers especially well and 34 species have been recorded in the county, many of them typically eastern. Cliff Swallows usually plaster their gourdlike mud nests onto the high vertical cliffs above the west shore. A trip to the cattails below the dam may prove fruitful; the Virginia Rail has been found there.

Black Mesa

photo by John Kennington

Black Mesa

On a clear day it looms up suddenly across the horizon 20 miles away; low, dark, razor-flat on top. It is the long-awaited landmark for those approaching from the east across hundreds of miles of monotonous Panhandle plains. Black Mesa, at 4,973 feet above sea level easily the highest point in Oklahoma, juts abruptly into northwestern Cimarron County from New Mexico. Capped with dark lava belched forth by a volcano long-dead, it towers nearly 600 feet above the valley floor. The magnificent panoramic view from the top is well worth the time and effort spent to climb up. White-throated Swifts have been seen from the top, but few birds live there.

Entrance to trail to top of Black Mesa

photo by John Kennington

Marker at summit



Kenton Mercantile

photo by John Kennington

Glancing southward, one sees the village of Kenton languishing two miles away. It is the only truly "montane" town in Oklahoma, for Kenton alone abides by Mountain Time rather than Central. A small grocery store fronted by two creaky gas pumps (66), the minuscule post office a block away, and two or three churches among the 30 or 40 deserted ramshackle houses are the pitiful remnants of a once respectable town. In its heyday Kenton was known far and wide as the "Cowboy Capital" and boasted a population of several thousand to prove it. But that time is long since past. Today a meager handful of old-timers is all that keeps this sleepy little village from being just another ghost town.

Road from State Park to Kenton

photo by John Kennington

Intermesa Pastureland

Open valleys separating the mesas are carpeted with pallid short grasses that are variously punctuated with yucca, prickly-pear, and cholla cactus. In some, open stands of mesquite prevail. A drive following the dirt road north from Black Mesa State Park toward Kenton (the "Kenton cut-off") is often productive of birds. This is preferred habitat of Scaled Quail, Black-throated, Lark (S), Cassin's (S), and Brewer's (M) sparrows, Say's Phoebe (S), Cassin's (W) and House finches, Sage (S) and Curve-billed thrashers, Lark Bunting (M,S), Greater Roadrunner, and others. The numerous small creeks and arroyos dissecting the wide valley floors frequently are lined with shrubs and small trees. Depending on the season, weather, and time of day, any of numerous woodpeckers, warblers, orioles, blackbirds, finches, flycatchers, and other passerines may be turned up here. Watch for Lazuli Bun

Rocky Canyons

The dry, rock-strewn canyons at higher elevations are places where Townsend's Solitaire, Mountain Bluebird, and the several smaller corvids (Clark's Nutcracker, Black-billed Magpie, Scrub, Pinyon and Stellar's jay) might be found in winter. Green-tailed and Brown towhees, siskins, goldfinches, and warblers also spend a good deal of time among these scrub oaks, junipers, and pinyon pines. On the rocky slopes, look and listen for Rock and Canyon wrens and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. The American Kestrel, Common Raven, Great Horned Owl, Golden Eagle, and Prairie Falcon nest on the ledges and in crevices along the rimrock faces. Listen for the low, two-noted "pur-wheel" of the Common Poorwill after dark. Atop the higher mesas where the few big ponderosa pines join the smaller evergreens is where the Plain Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee, and flocks of Bushtits live.

Easter Pageant site

photo by John Kennington


The Easter Pageant site, 1.5 miles east of Kenton, is an easily accessible canyon area and lies just north of SH 325.

Road to Hoot Owl ranch canyon

photo by John Kennington

Riparian Woods

Their size depending on availability of water, fringing woodlands composed of cottonwood, willow, hackberry, and dense growths of salt cedar accompany the Cimarron River and lesser streams that augment its flow from north and south. In addition to the more common birds, the following may be sought along this riparian habitat: Western Screech-Owl, Williamson's Sapsucker (very rare), Lewis's Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker (a large, dark western race), Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, various flycatchers--look for Western Wood-Pewee, Cassin's Kingbird, Ash-throated, Vermilion, and Olive-sided flycatchers; Empidonax spp. (6, possibly 7, species in this genus occur here at various times of the year); Northern (Bullock's) Oriole, and Lesser Goldfinch. Watson's Crossing, 5 miles northeast of Black Mesa State Park and 8 miles east of Kenton, is representative of this habitat. Another important place on the Cimarron River where much ornithological work has been done is east of the US 287 highway bridge 13 miles north of Boise City. Still another popular and readily accessible riverine site is reached by driving eastward off the blacktop on a little dirt road north of the Cimarron and due east of the eastern end of Black Mesa.

Hoot Owl ranch

photo by John Kennington

Hoot Owl Ranch
by John Shackford

Hoot Owl Ranch recently began operations in early 2007. Take Hy 325 from Boise City (if coming from the east) to about 5.5 miles east of Kenton. From the dinosaur bone monument continue on Hy 325 about 2.5 miles. If you come from Kenton the ranch cutoff is about 5.5 miles east, and about 1 mile east of the north end of the Lake Etling road, where it rejoins Hwy 325. The Hoot Owl Ranch sign and cutoff will be on the north side of road

The owners are George and Terry Collins; PO Box 27; Kenton, OK 73946. Their phone number is 1-580-261-7789 and their Email is hootowl@ptsi.net. They can cater to parties and company meetings up to 80 people at one of the ranch buildings, and make and use (also bottle and sell) their own bar-b-que sauce, which is excellent. Two new cabins are also available. See details below.

The area is a lovely ravine that is fed by 8 upstream springs, a real gem. We found 2 pairs, and one nest, of Lewis' Woodpeckers on the ranch where it reaches the Cimarron River. The Collins are making a relatively small footprint on the area and obviously realize the importance of doing so. They are very hospitable and seem to enjoy sharing their ranch with others. They are willing to accommodate birders visiting the ranch, and charge $5 a person for people who want to bird the property but arenít renting a cabin with them. They are attempting to plant vegetation that will attract many different species of birds and wildlife. I predict many happy hours of birdwatching on the ranch!


Accommodations in Area

There are just a few options for accommodations in the immediate Black Mesa area.

Kenton Kabins

Three cabins will give you a comfortable place to hang your hat. With the Look of rustic mountain homes but with all the modern comforts: microwave oven, TV, showers, indoor running water, and AC/Heat, you will feel right at home in your mountain retreat. Three Cabins in Kenton with Black mesa at your front door and just walking distance to the Cimarron River. Contact at Kenton_merc@hotmail.com or 580-261-7447

Black Mesa Bread & Breakfast

Comfortable bed and breakfast at the foot of the Black Mesa in Kenton. Home-cooked, country style breakfast is included with room. Owners are Monte or Vicki Roberts   Located two miles north of Kenton, near the base of magnificent Black Mesa, this 1910 native rock ranch house boast the best in the country hospitality. The Roberts Ranch, a working cattle ranch, originates at the eastern point of Black Mesa and spreads to the south and east along the Cimarron River Monty Joe and Vicki Roberts serve as your host. Accommodations include a ground level double occupancy room, a second story suite that sleeps 8, a bunkhouse with two separate rooms that sleep 4 each, and an upper room that may sleep 2 making Black Mesa Bed & Breakfast an ideal headquarters for small groups. Children are welcome. Contact at BMBB1@juno.com or 800-821-7204

Hoot Owl Ranch

As mentioned above, this is a new area opened in 2007. The owners George and Terry Collins can be reached at hootowl@ptsi.net or 580-261-7789.

They have two new cabins with a queen bed, full bath and small kitchen for overnight accommodation. Breakfast is at 8:00 a.m. (MST) for those who stay in our cabins. Dinner, by reservations only, is served on Friday and Saturday nights from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. (MST).

Hitching Post B&B and Guest Ranch

Restored stagecoach, horseback options, cowboy poetry, hunting guides, historical tours of Black Mesa area, ranch family who have several options for staying in Kenton or on the ranch. Historic 101 Ranch house bed and breakfast, 2 bedrooms on the ranch; 2 bedroom log house; mobile home that sleeps 6. In Kenton, a rock house with 5 beds. Contact at cowboy@ptsi.net, 580-261-7413

Boise City Motels

Townsman Motel - 580.544.2506

Longhorn Motel - 580.544.2596

Other Points of Interest

Santa Fe Trail marker

photo by John Kennington

Santa Fe Trail - 5 to 6 miles south of Black Mesa State Park. See marker south of park sign on SH 325. Fort Nichols - established in 1865 by Kit Carson and located a few miles south of the park. Fossil dinosaur tracks - near North Carrizo Creek at east end of Black Mesa. Tri-state marker - about 3.5 miles north and 1.5 miles west of the eastern end of Black Mesa, in a pasture. Dinosaur fossil marker - about 7 miles east of Kenton on SH 325. From a pit near here, archeologists have extracted more than 18 tons of fossil dinosaur bones. Pleistocene fossils of several large mammals have been unearthed locally as well, including those of giant mastodons, wooly mammoths, and giant sloths. The Wedding Party - a concentration of rounded, columnar buttes stretching eastward, the "preacher" and "nuptial couple" at the west end. It is located just east of the Kenton cut-off road leading northward from the park to SH 325, not far south of their junction. Old Lady's Head - profile, facing west, of a woman's face. North of SH 325, it lies east of Kenton 5 or 6 miles, not far east of where SH 325 intersects the Kenton cut-off road.

Editor's note: Please treat this fragile country with respect. Collecting of birds is strictly prohibited. Leave everything as you found it. The danger of fire is almost always present.

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Last modified: September 21, 2009




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