Birding Oklahoma's Black Mesa State Park
Updated: Apr 14
At the far west end of the Oklahoma Panhandle lies a unique landscape for that state: volcanic rock-topped mesas and hoodoos rise out of dusty shortgrass prairie. Oklahoma's highest point, at 4973 feet, is atop Black Mesa, within the boundaries of a nature preserve and near Black Mesa State Park. It is the coldest and driest place in Oklahoma, yet spring-fed creeks run between tall cottonwoods in the state park. Many varieties of prairie and mountain birds that don't show up in the rest of the state thrive in this isolated and sometimes harsh environment, which is why birders often speak of Black Mesa in reverential terms.
Rohn and I spent Easter weekend 2023 camping in the very well-kept and updated RV campground in Black Mesa State Park. The campground sits along Carrizo Creek, where the birds sounds started before dawn and called us to grab binoculars and cameras to investigate just after sunrise each day. On the first day, we were rewarded with the screech of Woodhouse Scrub Jays mobbing a Great Horned Owl along the creek.
As we watched the owl, a beaver swam up the creek, through the swimming beach area in the campground and then right in front of us. The very friendly park ranger, Polly Kiker, explained that beavers were once common, but one had not made an appearance for several years until just recently. The park staff had seen evidence of the beaver building dams over the winter, but I believe Rohn and I were the first to see the actual beaver this year.
The trees echoed with the sound of woodpecker drumming throughout our stay. We saw Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, and numerous Northern Flickers. At one point, I watched a Northern Flicker actually drum a metal awning protecting a picnic table. It is a good thing these birds are equipped with brains that can handle their pounding. A surprise for me was the volume of the Hairy Woodpecker drilling into a tree. I quickly realized that the bird was so loud because he was almost right next to me. So I was able to take the best close up shots of a Hairy Woodpecker that I've been able to ever get.
Because it was spring when we visited Black Mesa, the resident Wild Turkeys were displaying frequently and photogenically. The spectacle of a Wild Turkey tom showing off for a hen and the whoosh sound when his wings hit the ground are some of my favorite annual birding experiences.
Lake Carl Etling is contained within the state park boundaries, within walking or driving distance of the RV campground. After enduring three years of severe drought, the lake was extremely low during our visit. But that didn't stop it from attracting wildlife. We saw mule deer, pronghorns, Red-tailed Hawks, American Avocets, Baird's Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Coots, Northern Shovelers, a single American White Pelican, Killdeer, Great Blue Herons, Wilson's Snipes, Green-winged Teals, Belted Kingfishers, Eastern Phoebes, Say's Phoebes, American Goldfinches, Spotted Towhee, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and others during our morning trip around the lake. It was just a bit early for migrant warblers, but I imagine that some will show up later in April.
One day, we saw a Bald Eagle perched on a snag on the lake. Knowing that it is pretty late for a winter visiting Bald Eagle to still be spotted there, I asked Polly Kiker about nesting eagles. She told us that Bald Eagles do nest nearby (a few miles north of the park) and last year, she frequently saw the fledgling eagles at the lake.
Since I am always fascinated with raptors, I asked her about the more elusive Golden Eagles. Do they nest in this area? She said there was a Golden Eagle nest "nearby" and she believed it was active. That was enough for me. So my brother, sister-in-law, Rohn and I spent several hours on Saturday searching for the Golden Eagle nest, which typically will be built far away from roads or other human activity and are therefore difficult to locate. Relying on Google Earth and Polly's recollection from her one trip there, we headed north of Boise City in our (thankfully) 4-wheel drive truck, just past the Cimmaron River and west on a gravel county road to an old quarry. After a couple of wrong turns and a lot of speculation that we were not going to find it, we spotted an occupied Golden Eagle nest up on a cliff face overlooking the inactive quarry. Even though we tried not to disturb her, the eagle on the nest soon flew, so we didn't get great photos of her, but just seeing the huge nest, which was at least seven-feet wide, was a thrill. We also found a small rattlesnake, stickers, a very rough road and lots of reasons for people to think twice about coming near.
Of course, there are other things to do besides birding in that area. The town of Boise City has a rich history, including being near the remains of the Santa Fe Trail, where wagon ruts are still visible from that dangerous and arduous trip that many settlers made before the railroad was completed in that area in 1880. This area was also the epicenter of the Dust Bowl in the 1930's, brilliantly described in Timothy Egan's National Book Award-winning nonfiction masterpiece, The Worst Hard Time. Despite the interesting history, there is not much entertainment in Boise City these days.
Visitors instead spend their time at the state park, and also at the Black Mesa Nature Preserve, where you can hike up to Oklahoma's highest point, seeing Big Horn Sheep and other mammals (possibly black bears and mountain lions, but not likely) along the way. You are allowed to go onto private property across the road from the trailhead to see some of the largest and best preserved therapod tracks I have ever seen. These dinosaur tracks were just discovered in the 1980's and are as wide as 16 inches. There are supposed to be 47 of them, but as far as we could tell, the lack of rain has allowed dirt and dust to cover all but about ten. There are also some small dinosaur tracks in the state park itself. Since 1935, more than eighteen tons of camptosaurus, stegosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus, and edmontosaurus bones have been quarried at Black Mesa. Sadly, other than the dinosaur tracks, the only local rememberance of all of these palentological riches is a concrete replica of a dinosaur femur bone randomly stuck on the side of the road north of the state park.
The small mountain town of Kenton is located near Black Mesa Nature Preserve and only comprises several churches and one general store, but no gas pumps, so be prepared to drive back into Boise City if you need fuel. With no towns of any size nearby and almost empty roads all around, we felt pretty far from civilization on this trip (but fortunately we had AT&T cell service and wifi in the campground).
My husband, the earth and space science teacher, found the geology of the area (volcanic dust remains give the mesa its black top color and hoodoos are abundant), the dark skies designation for stargazing, and the archaeology (there is a trail accessible from the group camp area of the state park that leads past several early rock sheep herder fences and Native American sites) fascinating. So there are plenty of diversions to entice us back to Black Mesa again. April seems to be a great time to visit because center pivot irrigation nearby will not yet have drained the water table feeding the springs that early in the year. By summer, it will be hot and Carrizo Creek may be dry, cutting down on the quality of the birding. On our Easter weekend visit, we had one night below freezing and some irritating wind that prevented us from sitting outside in the campsite, but the persistent drought and burn bans in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles have made enjoying a night around the campfire a thing of the past anyway. Since Black Mesa State Park is only 2.5 hours from Amarillo, I'm sure we will return.