its long tail to its famous sky dance, no other Oklahoma bird is
more striking and identifiable than the scissortail flycatcher,
One of only seven states where it nests, the Scissortail users
in springtime in Oklahoma, In the warmer months they can be seen
in the open prairies and on roadside fences. With a diet largely
composed of agriculturally harmful insects, they are
economically beneficial. So it is no wonder that the State
Legislature adopted the scissortail as the state bird in 1951.
The males scissortail begins his famous sky dance soon after arriving in early May. This elaborate courtship display is performed to attract the attention of potential mates. Having witnessed this behavior on a half-dozen occasions, I was determined to photograph the ritual this spring. (I spent no less than six days in the field during the spring of 1999 and failed to get images of the display.) This year, scouting an area near Stanley Draper Lake, south of Oklahoma City. I noticed several scissortail's along the roadside. The birds were perched in large isolated trees, where they prefer to nest. I set up my Nikon F5/600f4 on a Gitzo 1548 tripod about 30 feet from one of the largest trees and waited. AS the sun peeked over the horizon, the birds began catching insects. The pair continued feeding for most of the day but showed no interest in courtship. After a six-hour wait, I gave up. Hoping my luck would change, I returned to the same spot the next morning. I waited only 15 minutes when, as if by the queue of a motion picture director, the male commences his courtship display.
Climbing to heights of 100 feet, the male scissortail made a series of V-shaped flights, plunging down in an erratic, zipzag course, while uttering a rolling, cackling call. AS a finale, he hovered about three feet above the ground for 15-20 seconds, exposing his magnificent forked tail, salmon colored flanks and crimson-tipped shoulders. From her balcony perch in the tree, the female beheld this aerial ballet of unparalleled grace. She cheered him on calling out "cah-key...cah-key....CAH-KEY." While the male was too far away to photograph during most of the spectacle, I was able to shoot the finale, and the female as she observed his display. The female scissortail was impressed, as soon after she began constructing a nest. When I stopped by again a week later, she was sitting on it, with the male nearby. I was fulfilled at last! I had captured one of nature's most beautiful courtship rituals; one that is rarely photographed and seldom witnessed.
To think that at the turn of the 20th century this wonder of nature was almost annihilated is disheartening. Throughout the dust bowl and Great Depression years. the scissortail was poached to dangerously low levels. Driven by the European hat market, poachers killed the birds by the thousands solely for their tails which sold for two cents apiece. Strict laws and a staunch conservation effort saved the scissortail from possible extinction. Observing the nesting pair, I wished them Godspeed to proliferate their species, thus ensuring future generations could long enjoy the spectacle of the sky dance.