Even in summer’s heat, wildlife can be seen in a day’s final hour
El Dorado State Park can offer viewing for prairie, woodland wildlife
To the driver of the little brown Honda with Butler County tags, who honked his horn and gave me a wave minus four fingers as he passed, I apologize for delaying your drive Thursday evening.
But I really did need to slow to an automotive crawl, and eventually pull to the side, to watch the single whitetail doe and seven wild turkeys you didn’t see. I desperately needed that wildlife fix.
When I’d left the office earlier, the heat felt just a tad below blow-dry, with the 99-degree air pushed by a south wind across scalding pavement as I walked to my pickup. It felt even hotter inside the rig.
Such heat is physically uncomfortable for me. When it’s so bad it limits my time outdoors, I find it unbearable. By Thursday I needed an outdoors, and wildlife, fix.
I feel the same way about state parks Will Rodgers did about men. I’ve never met one I didn’t like. El Dorado State Park is probably my local favorite when I need a quick shot of nature.
It’s huge, about 4,300 acres with a variety of wildlife habitats. Barred owls and pileated woodpeckers are key woodland species in the timber below the lake’s dam.
I prefer the wide open, native prairie within the Bluestem Point and Shady Creek areas. It’s where I often find favorites like scissor-tailed and great crested fly catchers, western kingbirds, and bluebirds, plus deer, turkeys and possibly bobwhite quail with tiny, buzz-ball chicks.
It’s a 90-minute round-trip drive from home, and most of the wildlife is active only the last hour of decent camera light. It’s time, and gasoline, well spent to sooth a summer-stressed soul.
Not much was moving when I arrived at about 6:30. Heat-tolerant doves were sitting in the open. Robins and starlings mingled in the shadows.
The countryside started to liven a half-hour later, as the shadows lengthened and the air cooled. It was time to drive slowly, telephoto lens angled out an open window, Royals game barely loud enough to hear. (Sometimes a guy has to multi-task.)
One of my first good finds was a dandy scissortail, a bird with a rear feathers that looked long enough to belong to a rooster pheasant. On a perch surrounded by acres of native grass, he was sitting pretty for when swarms of flying insects appeared.
About the time the light started to mellow, groups of Canada geese moved from the shaded side of willows into the lake’s shallows. For probably the umpteenth day in a row, family groups honked loudly at others nearby. I think geese have more trouble getting along with their own kind than any other animal. Humans might be the only exception.
Three times, I did a slow drive by the park’s sure-thing area for wildlife watching — the field of prairie grasses and wildflowers south of state park headquarters.
On all three passes, I saw the hen turkey and her six chicks scampering about, feeding on grasshoppers and other insects. Even though there were surely plenty to go around, it seemed like there was always some chick racing yards to grab a bug only inches away from a sibling. I guess the desire to infuriate a sibling is as strong in young turkeys as it is within young children.
I’m not a gambler, but it would have been a safe bet I’d have found the big doe, one ear tipped forward and the other back, in the same field where she’s been for several years. I assume her quick glances at taller grass to the south were probably toward where she had a spotted fawn or two sheltered from traffic and humans.
Speaking of the latter, people became more evident around the campsites the more the sun sank. I waved and laughed when I saw a toddler, gnawing on an ear of corn that looked as long as his leg, drop his food. Bending to pick it up he accidentally gave the ear a further boot through the grass.
Probably a seasoned camper, his mother brushed it off a bit and handed it back while his father laughed as he flipped burgers on a small grill nearby.
In the last hour of light, fishermen began casting from shore. Boats moved back and forth across the lake. Even over the sound of the motor, I heard a laughing voice yell, “I’d give it a 9.2” toward a friend who’d skimmed across the water, like a skipped flat rock, as he did an unplanned exit from a knee board. The comment brought laughter from several campsites.
I’ll park in the timber below the dam on another evening and listen for calling barred owls or maybe howling coyotes. Thursday, I headed down the highway, listening to the final innings of the Royals’ comeback win.
I probably got home three hours later than the hurried man in the brown Honda. But I’m sure I slept much better that night.