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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
The Easter Pageant site,
1.5 miles east of Kenton, is an easily accessible canyon area and
lies just north of SH 325.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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
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
As mentioned above, this is a new area opened in 2007. The owners George and Terry Collins can be reached at email@example.com 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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 580-261-7413
Boise City Motels
Townsman Motel - 580.544.2506
Longhorn Motel - 580.544.2596
Other Points of Interest
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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