More than half of North America’s 800-plus bird species have been recorded in Oklahoma.
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According to Stan Tekiela’s book, Birds of Oklahoma, bird watching is the most popular spectator sport in America. Tekiela explains that this is due, in part, to the sheer number of birds. And more than half of North America’s 800-plus bird species have been recorded right here in Oklahoma at one time or another.
Birding is a rewarding pursuit that can be combined with hiking, boating, fishing or almost any other outdoor activity. I delight at seeing bald eagles during winter trips to the state’s larger lakes, while the northern cardinal’s “Whatta-cheer-cheer-cheer” call is one of my favorite sounds of spring.
The 40-acre Byron Hatchery Watchable Wildlife Area, located in northwestern Oklahoma near Cherokee, includes three habitats and a half-mile, self-guided trail through marsh, swamp and mid-grass prairie habitats. Melynda Hickman, wildlife diversity biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, says visitors can expect to see such species as warblers, hooded mergansers, red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens, among others.
“Byron WWA is special because many eastern bird species can be found here, right along with the western species,” says Hickman. “This is due to the area’s spring-fed creeks and deciduous trees, which are reminiscent of an eastern landscape.”
Located near Frederick, in southwest Oklahoma, Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area & Center contains 3,700 acres of former cropland that have been restored to a wetland habitat. This basin is surrounded by mixed-grass prairie and croplands, making it one of the best locations in the state for viewing waterfowl and shorebirds. Bird watchers have identified more than 200 species here, including the rare black-necked stilt, stilt sandpiper and snowy plover.
Biologist Melynda Hickman says winter is a great time to visit because the migrating waterfowl are here, but adds that, most years, the first two weeks of May are even better. “You can see all the waterfowl and shorebird species that migrate here,” she says.
There is even an established auto tour route you can drive to experience this vast wetland. Hickman says that at Hackberry Flat, birding from your car is every bit as effective as getting out on foot, and it’s so easy to do.
Oxley Nature Center, located inside Tulsa’s Mohawk Park, is a birder’s paradise. A network of walking trails crisscross a variety of habitats, ranging from open prairie and marsh to deciduous woodlands and floodplain forest, which Oxley’s senior staff naturalist, Donna Horton, says is rare in Oklahoma because most of the state’s rivers have been dammed.
I like bird watching at Oxley because the habitat diversity here attracts a wide array of bird species, including everything from sparrows, cardinals and wrens, to owls and woodpeckers. Walking the Bird Creek Trail, I’ve often spotted my favorite bird, the tufted titmouse.
The Tallgrass Prairie of Osage County, with its open fields and scattered ponds and marshes, provides an excellent opportunity for viewing prairie chickens, as well as hawks, falcons and other birds of prey.
Kay Krebbs, secretary at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, says prairie chickens are often visible from the preserve’s scenic turnouts. She notes that the turnout two miles north of the preserve headquarters is a good bet.
During the winter months, the prairie chickens attract many raptor species, such as the red-tailed and Cooper’s hawk, kestrels, harriers, falcons and both golden and bald eagles. In the fall and winter, ducks frequent the Tallgrass Prairie’s many ponds and marshes.
The Red Slough Wildlife Management Area, in southeast Oklahoma near Idabel, has become one of the state’s most popular birding and wildlife-viewing sites. Managed cooperatively by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and Ducks Unlimited, Red Slough has more than 7,800 acres of mudflats, marshes, riparian zones, hardwoods, wet prairie and shrub thickets.
Several elevated platforms throughout Red Slough aid in the observation of such species as the roseate spoonbill, black-necked stilt and the golden eagle, along with a stunning array of other birds.
Great Salt Plains Lake is an 8,700-acre saltwater reservoir located east of Cherokee, Oklahoma. Bordered by barren-looking salt flats, the landscape doesn’t seem inviting for wildlife at first glance – but bring your binoculars and you’ll spy some of the area’s abundant winged wonders. Some 300 species of birds have been identified here, including snowy plover and the American avocet. According to the Tulsa Audubon Society, about 50,000 geese and ducks find safe harbor and ample food on and around the Great Salt Plains Reservoir. Migrating sandhill cranes and whooping cranes sometimes pass by on their way to Aransas Refuge, and white pelicans can often be seen circling Sand Creek Bay.
The scenic, fascinating salt flats offer a memorable experience for bird lovers and nature lovers of all kinds. Those who want to extend their visit can camp overnight on the lake and take advantage of the wide range of outdoor activities nearby.