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Washita National Wildlife Refuge
Custer 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 partially reviewed and updated in 2007.

This 8,200 acre refuge is positioned on the northern portion of Foss Reservoir and has one of the largest waterfowl concentrations in Oklahoma. The diverse habitats that make up the refuge attract over 250 species of birds and other wildlife including coyotes, white-tailed deer, raccoons, and black-tail prairie dogs. Also found on the refuge are three endangered species: the American bald eagle, the whooping crane, and the interior least tern.

To reach the refuge traveling from the east on I 40, take the Foss Exit to SH 44 west of Clinton. Drive north 10 miles across the dam and proceed into Butler. Turn left on SH 33 and drive 5 miles to the flying goose refuge sign, north 1 mile, and west 0.5 mile to the refuge headquarters. Approaching from the west on I 40, exit on SH 34 and drive 15 miles north to Hammon. Turn right on SH 33 for 6 miles to the refuge sign and proceed as above.

The primary objective of the Washita National Wildlife Refuge is to provide food and protection for the migratory waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes. The refuge lies at the upper end of Foss Reservoir and along the Washita River which empties into the reservoir. It is situated on the rolling, mixed-grass plains of western Oklahoma and is an important link in the Central Flyway. The Bureau of Reclamation's Foss Reservoir covers about 2,000 acres of gently rolling bottomlands laced with narrow, winding, intermittent creeks and bordered by grassed, treeless uplands. Much of the upland and suitable portions of bottomland are farmed to provide food for ducks, geese and Sandhill Cranes.

At the refuge headquarters there are personnel to help, maps, and bird lists. Office hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Literature is available outside in a rack when the office is closed. Certain areas are closed to the public in order to protect the migrating waterfowl and other wildlife, but organized groups may make arrangements to tour the refuge during the closed season (October 14 through April 1) by writing in advance to P.O. Box 68, Butler, Oklahoma 73625, or by calling (405) 473-2205.

Washita National Wildlife Refuge maintains six access areas on the north shore. These are not for overnight camping, although there are toilet facilities at four of these locations. At Owl Cove is an observation tower which gives an excellent view of a portion of the water used by the waterfowl.

Foss State Park maintains two excellent campsite areas on the north shore which have hook-ups and excellent restroom facilities with showers. One of these may be closed from October 15 until April 1, but one is open all winter. These are closer to the refuge area and cost less than those on the south shore. On the south shore are two large campgrounds with hookups, restrooms, and showers. These can be approached from the west as well as from the State Park headquarters on SH 44, just south of the dam.

When approaching from the south on SH 34, turn east at the 9-mile corner on SH 73, then go 12 miles to the headquarters. From the north (Hammon), turn east on SH 73. The nearest motel accommodations are in Elk City, 25 miles, or Clinton, 28 miles.

Fall and winter are the best seasons to , visit the refuge which has become known for the opportunity to see large numbers of Sandhill Cranes. Usual numbers are ten to fifteen thousand from late October to late December. Large numbers of Canada Geese, thirty to forty thousand, are present from October through February. Also 'seen in lesser numbers are Snow Geese and White-fronted Geese. Some Ross's Geese can be found if the large concentrations of geese are scanned carefully. Pelicans are common migrants. All species of ducks that migrate through Oklahoma are to be seen, and many thousands spend the winter. The best time to see the birds is early morning and late evening as they move out to feed on the nearby fields and come back to the safety of the refuge water for night.

All entrances and roads around the refuge end of the reservoir and the Washita River provide opportunities to see the geese and cranes in fields adjoining the water or flying over. A number of Bald Eagles winter at the refuge and can often be seen from the tower at Owl Cove. Golden Eagles are sometimes seen as well. Ospreys stop on their way south, as do loons in October and November. Occasionally the latter linger until the Christmas Count. Gulls and terns are to be seen in varying numbers.

Common Barn-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl are resident species, but fall brings an influx of Short-eared and Long-eared owls in lesser numbers. There are Wild Turkeys on the refuge. A small prairie dog town is located in the closed area but when on a guided trip these may be seen. Some winters longspurs are seen on wheat fields and short grass pastures around the refuge. Lark Buntings are present some winters and there are always flocks of Horned Larks.

Roadside thickets and shelter belts provide ample opportunity to see all the wintering sparrows, Harris's and White-crowned predominantly. Hawks are plentiful in winter. Ferruginous Hawks, Kreider's Redtails some years, as well as Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk are to be seen. Rough-legged Hawks winter regularly and Sharp-shinned Hawks join the resident Cooper's Hawks, Northern Harriers, and Red-tailed Hawks. Prairie Falcons are regulars, as are Kestrels, but their numbers increase in winter.

The roads around the refuge are largely all-weather; the balance usually pose no problem even in wet weather, as many are sandy and all are well maintained. There are some walking trails and the habitat around the public access areas is a good place to see birds. Boats are not allowed in the refuge end of the reservoir after October 14. Shore fishing is permitted at the access areas. Hunting is permitted in certain areas and certain seasons. A brochure gives this information or a call to the headquarters will give the information needed. A driving trip, staying as close to the water as possible, is about 38 miles, circling the reservoir and the wildlife refuge.

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Click here or on map for full PDF version


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Last modified: September 21, 2009




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