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Great Salt Plains

Alfalfa County

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From the 1986 edition of A Guide to Birding in Oklahoma published by the Tulsa Audubon Society. This account was last updated in 2010.

Additional Info

Corps Lake Web Site

Corps Project Web Site

Map of Public Hunting Areas

Great Salt Plains NWR

Refuge Brochures

Refuge Bird List

Great Salt Plains State Park

Bill Horn's Salt Plains Photo Tips

Trip Report by Mary Beth Stowe

Trip Report by Cyndie Browning

See Also

Byron Fish Hatchery

Whooping Cranes

When looking for whoopers in the Salt Plains area, there is always a CHANCE that you will get lucky and see one on a wheat field within about a 15 mile radius of the refuge. This will probably allow a closer look but the possibility of finding a WC on a wheat field is VERY SLIM. The most reliable place that gives you the best chance of a sighting is from the tower at the Selenite Crystal Digging area at the SW corner of the lake. If you are there in the evening, be there [at the latest] about 30 minutes before sundown. They may be there then, but may also land after sundown and spend the night. The VERY BEST chance to see them is in the morning from sunup to about 10 am also from the tower. In all my years of checking for whoopers, they have often NOT been there in the evening, but the next morning there are birds on the lake. Sometimes the birds will leave early am but very often they wait until the sun is up and the thermals start before they leave. Keep in mind that from the tower you are looking east and the light can be a problem at sunrise. That is why I wait for about 30 minutes before going to look.

Another important fact is, you will NOT be able to get close to the birds, even though the tower is the closest area to see them. They will still be 1-2 miles away so a scope is almost imperative. Another problem with evening viewing can be heat waves shimmering off the salt flats that make viewing difficult. Something else to consider, there are also pelicans on the lake. Don't laugh and say that anyone knows the difference between a whooping crane and a pelican but when the birds are so far away and there are heat waves, sometimes all you can see is a white blob sitting on the edge of the lake. I don't want to discourage anyone, just tell you what to expect. But by all means, go and look. For me there is no more of a thrill than being up on the tower on a beautiful fall morning [or evening] and finding whoopers on the lake. The time I found 32 at one time still remains one of my all time top birding experiences.....and it happened at exactly this time of year. Good luck. Chances should be excellent this weekend.

- Anne Wilber-Farrell

Cherokee Nature Park

A White-winged Dove is at the Cherokee Nature Park. The park has 2 water features, one is a 'leaky faucet' where water accumulates on the ground, and the other is a pond with sloped concrete and gravel sides. Both places are very attractive to the birds.

- Anne Wilber-Farrell

Crystal Digging Update

In June 2007 a vial of a liquid of unknown origin was found buried in the crystal digging area, and as a result the area has been temporarily closed for safety reasons. Please check the refuge web site or for updates on the situation.

The most unusual feature of this refuge is the vast stretch of salt flats extending westward from the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River. The barren wasteland belies the presence of any life, yet the Snowy Plover and the American Avocet are abundant nesters. The Least Tern sometimes shares nesting areas with the plover. Upwards of 50,000 geese and ducks find shelter on the Great Salt Plains Reservoir and feed on surrounding grain fields or on fresh water ponds. Flocks of migrating Sandhill Cranes have included Whooping Cranes as they rest enroute to Aransas Refuge. A sight to remember is hundreds of White Pelicans circling over the Sand Creek Bay before settling on the water.

Although it is designed as a refuge for migratory birds, primarily waterfowl, the area has also become a haven for non-game wildlife. In the eastern sections of the refuge are riparian woodlands and brush, ponds and small marshes. Both the Eagle Roost Nature Trail and the Salt Plains State Park offer good birding opportunities through a variety of habitats. A convenient starting point is the intersection of SH 11 and SH 38 (0.0). Drive south 2 miles along SH 38 to reach the road to the refuge headquarters. Note the location but continue south to the North Spillway Park road (6.3). Turn right and continue along the downstream face of the dam to the spillway where birds can be observed above the spillway and along the river below the dam. Depending on the season, look for waders, shorebirds, ducks, gulls and terns.

After birding this area retrace the route to the east entrance of the Salt Plains State Park along SH 38. Enter the park and drive directly to the lake. From this point near the dam a large portion of the downstream end of the lake is visible. Ducks, grebes, pelicans and perhaps a few cormorants may be seen. Continue west through the park, checking the shore and the wooded area between the park road and the shore. In season shorebirds, warblers, thrushes, sparrows and common permanent residents may be expected. All accesses to the lake should be scanned for waterfowl. After leaving the park, turn south to Cottonwood Point where the lake shore is just outside the refuge. If the lake is down as much as six inches, the shoreline and sandbars will attract good numbers of shorebirds and waders. In summer search the trees for perching Mississippi Kites.

Return north on SH 38 to the refuge entrance road, turning west toward the refuge headquarters. The first half-mile of this road goes through private property. Carefully check the pasture just outside the refuge for Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant and Long-billed Curlew during migration. At the refuge headquarters (1.0) stop, register, and get a bird checklist. Signs will lead to the nature trail (0.1) and the parking lot. The Eagle Roost Trail is 1.25 miles long and is easy walking. Sand Creek Bay is 0.25 mile from the parking through a wooded area with ponds on both sides of the trail where woodland birds, teal, and Wood Ducks are sometimes found. At Sand Creek Bay a telescope will be needed to see birds on the lake but shorebirds may be discovered on the sandbars east along the lake shore and across Sand Creek. Walk north 0.5 mile along the trail to Puderbaugh Pond and check shrubbery along both sides of the trail as well as the lake and pond. Look for Marsh Wrens, Swamp and Song sparrows; Wilson's and Orange-crowned warblers; rails and bitterns around the shore edges. At the 0.5 mile point the trail turns east. From the corner look west and northwest to the shallow areas across Sand Creek for ducks, shorebirds (including American Avocets) and waders, depending on lake level and season. Pied-billed Grebes are frequently found on these ponds. In spring American Bitterns are observed occasionally in the swamp north of the trail. This section of the trail ends at a small pond which should be approached cautiously if birds are to be seen. The trail back to the parking lot is mostly on high, dry ground where Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, sparrows, Brown Thrashers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and thrushes should be found during the proper season.

Return to the intersection of SH 11 and 38. A short distance east along SH 11 are several ponds that may hold ducks, geese and waders. Turn back and head west to check more ponds at miles 0.3 and 0.7 south of the road. The back road to the refuge headquarters is at mile 1, short but rough and sometimes impassable. There are numerous water crossings in the next 4.7 miles on SH 11. Each has the potential for ducks, waders, shorebirds, and swallows in the swampy places near the highway, also gulls, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and hawks in the trees and flying over the refuge. Be sure to notice a marshy area on the north side of the road between miles 2.5 and 2.7.

At mile 7.9 turn south on a county road. This road is passable except in very wet weather. Driving south, watch for Long-billed Curlews, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Vesper and Savannah sparrows, all in migration. Continue 6 miles south and turn east to the selenite crystal digging area. The observation tower here, at the entrance to the digging area, is the most reliable place that gives you the best chance of a sighting is from the. Snowy Plovers may be seen on the white salt sand near the tower from April well into October. During the winter Western Meadowlarks may be found along US 64 from Cherokee north to SH 11.

The last area to work is reached by returning to the junction of SH 38 and SH 11. Drive 2 miles north and 1 mile west on paved roads to the Byron Fish Hatchery. Now turn south on an unpaved county road between hatchery ponds. Look for ducks, shorebirds, and waders in and around the ponds. Listen for Marsh Wrens in spring if there are cattails around the edges. Both Marbled and Hudsonian godwits have been seen in the spring as well as Cinnamon Teal.

Spring, summer, and fall are all good times to visit the Salt Plains. In late November thousands of geese feed on the wheat fields along SH 11 within the refuge boundaries. In mid-March dozens of gulls accumulate on the spillway and the river below the dam. A careful search may turn up a Glaucous Gull or a White-winged Scoter. The very best time for the largest number of migrants and singing resident birds is late April through early May.

Occasionally special permission may be obtained from headquarters to take groups farther into the refuge, but most birds can be seen in the public areas. Accommodations may be found in Cherokee west of the refuge.



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Last modified: September 21, 2009




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