The Prairie at Night
Becky Emerson Carlberg
August 23rd 2014. Saturday evening.
The time for traveling into the prairie to see wildlife up close and personal came during our intense hot spell in August. The drive past the Frederick Army Air Base and between flat cotton fields stopped at the Hackberry Flat Center (with the ever important restrooms!). Our group of observers waited until the sun was low on the horizon. We loaded into an open trailer with two long benches positioned in the center and found places to sit. The trailer looked like it held an enormous, but short stubby centipede with furry topped knobs on its back and legs sticking out on both sides. The white heavy duty truck pulled our human centipede deep into Hackberry Flats.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, with biologist Mel Hickman at the helm, sponsored the prairie trip. Hackberry Flats (one hundred years ago) tended to flood, and could “swallow a tractor in just a heavy fog”. Large numbers of waterfowl frequented the area year-round, but the pioneer settlers had other plans for the wetlands. A huge ditch 4 miles long, 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide was dug by locals using shovels and mule teams. It was converted into farmland. Bye birds.
In the 1990s the Wildlife Department began purchasing land and eventually formed the Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area (WMA) composed of 7,120 acres. Levees and ditches were constructed to form several sections of wetland with a 17 mile aqueduct to Tom Steed Reservoir connecting to Hackberry Flat. There is a developing problem with available water. Tom Steed could be completely dry by November 2016 if there are no inflows, or by August of 2021 if rain events and their inflows continue as they have the past 3 years. Hackberry Flats has taken no water from Tom Steed since 2013. It is VERY dry in the wetlands. The region is short 40 to 50 inches of rain the past few years.
The National Weather Service has just released their drought outlook August 21-November 30, 2014. Based on latest trends and outlooks, the drought remains in southwest Oklahoma, but improves. This could be good news.
Back to our tour of the prairie. Nighthawks and juvenile scissor-tailed flycatchers perched on wires or flittered away as we rode past them. The truck tires kicked up soil and enveloped us in dust. I felt like we were all relatives of Pig-Pen in the Peanuts Comic Strip. Yes, it was a natural disguise to foil the wildlife into not seeing or smelling us.
Our first stop was at the barn and owl nest area edged on two sides by a shallow creek.
The north end of Hackberry Flats has woodlands, but is considered more a savanna since the many mesquite trees are interspersed with grasses and mosquitoes. Two Turkey vultures flew out and around our group. They were now rearing their second set of offspring, but literature states turkey vultures raise one brood per year. They were also using the nest platform designed for the Great Horned owls. The Great Horned owls had taken over the Barn Owl house. Not one bird had read Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds.
To draw out an owl, Toni, another biologist, engaged in a form of entertainment known as Predator Calling. Clasping her hands together in a ball, she blew into her fingers and emitted squeaks. From woods across the clearing came a series of screeches. The hidden owl issued lengthy territorial warnings and Toni responded in kind. A shrike joined in from the side, and it became a bit noisy. As darkness settled, the birds quietened and we left.
It was now time to sniff spiders. Small LED flashlights were handed out. Spider sniffing is a delicate art, and one must handle their LED light carefully when lightly perching it on the bridge of their nose. Head down, fingers securing the flashlight on nose, eyes follow the light to the ground as the odor is funneled back up the light rays into the nose. Bend and look closer to the ground. Reflective little white dots verify the spider. It works!
The fireflies did not cooperate tonight. No one showed up, but keep your LED flashlight handy when in firefly zones. The male firefly flashes its brilliance as a J-shape in the air. It is to attract the ground-dwelling female. She answers by flashing him back. Come frustrate the male by entering into his little love dance. Wait for the male to make his J shape. Count one-one thousandth, two one-thousandth and then rapidly blink your light 3 times on the ground. He’ll come closer and make another J shape. You count, and again flash 3 times. Eventually he will be right there, agitated and annoyed, wondering where in the world this allusive alluring female is.
After all the merriment, if you see glowing, not blinking, green dots on the ground, they are probably the firefly larvae known as glow worms. Glow worms love snails. They take tiny bites of the snail during which time the snail is injected with glow worm enzymes. The toxins slowly paralyze and liquefy the snail allowing the glow worm to slurp it up. Yum.
We continued on to a grove of soapberry trees. A bucket of Monarch Butterfly attractant had been made days before. An odiferous mixture of sugar, beer, molasses, mashed bananas and other goodies fermented in Mel’s truck for days. The attractant was slathered onto soapberry branches. Monarchs did not come, but Cicada Killers did!
These large wasps tend not to bother you. The female is intent on chasing the cicada, then stinging, paralyzing, picking up and flying the unresponsive cicada back to her burrow. Here she installs the living cicada and lays an egg with it. The burrow is closed up and as the cicada killer baby grows, it eats the cicada. Isn’t nature grand!
Time for s’mores around the campfire. We were driven back in the darkness. As the group gathered around the thick metal container glowing with red-hot charcoal, we were issued our s’more kits. The marshmallows were soon roasted and put between graham crackers with pieces of Hershey chocolate tucked inside. Sitting in a circle around the fire and licking our fingers, we heard one conversation drift to what had gone on at work the week before. A reminder was issued that at a s’more campfire, there would be no discussing work. No matter, one person looked up and saw a shooting star. We all aimed our eyes skyward and transitioned into the amateur astronomy (quarter) hour. Mel with her laser pointed out various stars and planets. There was red Mars with Saturn above it, the constellation Scorpio, the teapot and the stars of the Summer Triangle.
Getting too close to midnight meant the time had come to adjourn. The chairs were collected, goodbyes were said, and we all agreed it was a great night on the Hackberry Flats prairie.