Birdwatching at national wildlife refuges: Central US

By | August 10, 2017

This is the second of three posts about birdwatching in national wildlife refuges. The first post covered the eastern US; the third will cover the western US. More than 200 national wildlife refuges in the US were founded to provide brief stopover spots or winter habitat for migratory birds; I’m writing about a few that are known for their opportunities to see wild birds. These NWRs in the central US are great destinations for bird-watchers.

After the glaciers retreated in North America, they left behind the Great Black Swamp, which used to stretch from far northeastern Indiana well into northwestern Ohio; it consisted of swamps, marshes, and patches of woodland. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, on the shore of Lake Erie in northwestern Ohio, is a remnant of this much larger area, most of which was drained and cleared beginning in the 19th century. The wetlands there are a good place to see bald eagles year-round. The refuge also provides a home to migrating shorebirds and waterfowl and many species of warblers. (Northwestern Ohio, where Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge is also located, is known as the warbler capital of the world.) Ottawa NWR has a wildlife drive and 10 miles of hiking trails; you can borrow binoculars and field guides at the Visitor Center. Members of the Friends of Ottawa NWR can participate in educational events and field trips at both refuges.

Photograph of an owl at Reelfoot NWR.

Injured owl under the care of staff at Reelfoot NWR, 2014. Photograph by Paul Roberts; shared under a Creative Commons license.

Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, in northwestern Tennessee, was created to protect the upper third of Reelfoot Lake as a refuge for waterfowl who winter there. It’s also home to many other types of birds, including songbirds, raptors, and owls, as well as other wildlife, that you can see during the rest of the year (check out the refuge’s Seasons of Wildlife page). The lake appeared in the wake of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 as ground subsided; as you might expect, it’s fairly shallow and swampy. Trails (including two interpretive trails, one for hiking and one for canoeing) and an observation deck give you good views of the birds, plants, and animals of this lake.

The central portion of the United States was once covered by a shallow sea. The salt flats at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, in north-central Oklahoma, are part of what’s left of that long-ago inland sea. The refuge protects the salt flats, as well as prairie, woodlands, and wetlands, as breeding grounds and a refuge for birds. Sandhill cranes winter here, for example, and the refuge is designated as critical whooping crane habitat. The range of ecosystems supports a variety of other interesting wildlife, including reptiles, amphibians, and butterflies. Explore the trails and overlooks, and, if you like, from April 1 through October 15, you can dig in designated areas for the region’s distinctive selenite crystals.

Photograph of a northern mockingbird at Hagerman NWR

Northern mockingbird at Hagerman NWR. Photograph by Kevin Vance; shared under a Creative Commons license.

Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, in the Red River Basin in northern Texas, lies in a transition zone between prairie and woodland habitats. It includes a number of different habitats (including prairie, forest, wetlands, and the open water of Lake Texoma) and protects their biodiversity. The refuge was established to protect migratory birds and native plants and wildlife. Lots of geese pass through, arriving in late fall and departing in the spring. Other birds summer in the refuge and head for warmer regions in fall, and many migratory birds stop by in spring on their way north. (See Seasons of Wildlife.) The Visitor Center offers interpretive exhibits, and you can explore the refuge on several nature trails and the four-mile Wildlife Drive. In addition, the Friends of Hagerman present various programs and events in the refuge.

Although Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the far southern Texas coast, provides breeding grounds for many migratory birds, including waterfowl and songbirds, the whooping crane is especially important here. This refuge was crucial to the attempt to bring the species back from the edge of extinction, and it provides winter habitat for the only wild flock of whooping cranes. The key to the excellent biodiversity here is the different types of habitat, which include both saltwater and freshwater marshes, as well as prairie, savannah, and woodlands. Hiking trails, overlooks, and an observation tower give you many opportunities to see birds and other wildlife, such as javelina, alligators, and butterflies; there’s also a paved tour route for automobiles and bicycles. The Visitor Center offers exhibits and programs, and the refuge hosts various special events. For example, volunteers can contribute to an annual Christmas bird count.

Photograph of hooded oriole at Santa Ana NWR. Shared by US Fish & Wildlife Service Headquarters under a Creative Commons license.

Hooded oriole at Santa Ana NWR. Photographed by Lesly Torres/USFWS. Shared by US Fish & Wildlife Service Headquarters under a Creative Commons license.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, along the Rio Grande in southern Texas, shelters an area of great biological richness. Here four types of habitat meet: Chihuahan Desert, Great Plains, Gulf coast, and tropical wetlands. Furthermore, birds that migrate along two of the four flyways in the continental US are funneled through this region, and it’s near the northern end of the range for some Central and South American birds. Consequently, although it’s not especially large, it’s very biodiverse, and it’s known as one of the best birding spots worldwide. Nearly 400 species of birds have been documented here. The plant, animal, and insect life also represents the great biodiversity of this location (for example, nearly half of all the butterfly species of North America can be found here). Twelve miles of nature trails offer a range of experiences and views. In addition, you can take a nature tram ride with an interpretive guide. Various spots throughout the refuge are suitable for photography of birds and other wildlife.

Unfortunately, current plans for the border wall with Mexico call for the wall to cross through the Santa Ana NWR, at incalculable cost to the living things that call it home. Preparation for the construction of the wall is already underway. If you object to this, please consider contacting your senators and expressing your support for the NWRs, in particular for Santa Ana NWR.

To learn more about birdwatching in the NWRs, visit the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Birding in the Refuge system, which has tons of information on birding in National Wildlife Refuges, including a list of birding festivals and events in or near refuges and information for kids and families. You may not have to travel far to find a refuge near you to explore.

To learn more about bird migration, see The Migration of Birds: Seasons on the Wing by Janice Hughes (find in a library) or Atlas of Bird Migration: Tracing the Great Journeys of the World’s Birds by Jonathan Elphick (find in a library).