Salt Plains NWR

Driving across the semi-arid, sun-drenched plains of northwest Oklahoma, one would not expect to find many water birds. But, some 25 miles northwest of Enid, one suddenly finds clouds of gulls in the sky, flocks of cattle egrets in the fields, various waders in roadside sloughs and squadrons of white pelicans or sandhill cranes soaring overhead. Here, on the largest expanse of salt flats in central North America, is a watery oasis that provides a welcome rest stop for avian migrants.

Drained by the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River and its meandering tributaries, this sparsely vegetated plain and its seasonal shallows attract migrant cranes and shorebirds and offers choice nesting habitat for American avocets, black-neck stilts and least terns. Wooded marshlands along the northeast edge of the plain teem with migrant and nesting waterfowl, herons, egrets, rails, riparian songbirds and raptors such as barred owls, red-shouldered hawks and Mississippi kites. Open waters of the Great Salt Plains Lake, created by a dam in 1941, attract cormorants, American white pelicans and a wide variety of gulls and terns.

The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing over 32,000 acres, protects the wooded marshlands and most of the plain north of the Lake; an auto tour road snakes through the wetlands and a trail and overlook provide access to the backwater salt flats, where migrant cranes and shorebirds often congregate. Nesting birds of note include white-faced ibis, least bitterns, little blue herons, snowy egrets, hooded mergansers, greater roadrunners, black rails, least terns, blue grosbeaks, painted buntings and prothonotary warblers. Access to the Refuge is off Route 38, which runs north from the town of Jet (on US 64) to Route 11 or directly from the latter highway which runs across the north edge of the preserve; the auto tour road begins at the refuge headquarters while the salt flats trail (for shorebird viewing) is from a lot off Route 11, a couple of miles west of the main refuge entrance. Birders should also check the Salt Fork, just below the dam, where large concentrations of gulls, ibis and other migrants often gather to feed in the shallows.