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Great Salt Plains refuge hosts water birds during migration

By John David Sutter Modified: September 18, 2008 at 12:36 am •  Published: September 18, 2008
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GREAT SALT PLAINS LAKE — For Becky Wolff and other binocular-toting bird watchers, the American white pelicans are like crotchety old men you can't help but love.

The drama of the squawking, irritable birds' dangerous migration from the northern Great Plains to Mexico is unfolding this week in northwest Oklahoma at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, where Wolff is the outdoor recreation planner.

"I think it takes a lot of courage to do the migration,” she said. "They travel at night sometimes, and they only use the stars.”

The birds, which weigh about 20 pounds each, began arriving late last week and will continue coming in over the next week or two.

Average stay at the refuge is about two weeks before they resume their trek south.

Conservation is success
For bird watchers — or "birders” — everywhere, the American white pelican is a conservation success story. After being hunted to near extinction, their populations have been on the rise since the 1960s, leading groups such as the Audubon Society to list them in good standing.

The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, north of Jet, makes a good stop-off point on the migratory routes of many birds that travel down the Great Plains each fall to winter in warmer climates. They return north in the spring.

About 300 species of birds come through the area each year, and Wolff, a perky 26-year-old, finds most of them to be hilarious.

The American White pelican is among her favorites, and she's come up with analogies to describe the bird and its long voyage.

The Great Salt Plains Lake is "kind of like McDonald's for them,” she says, noting that it is a stop on their long road trip south. The pelicans' drooping bill pouches — which they expand for carrying fish to their young — acts "like a eyelid,” she says: it's visible sometimes, but usually hidden. Slideshow: Pelicans at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge

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If you go
Salt Plains pelican tours
The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge is offering pelican tours at 5 p.m. today and Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday. Call the refuge at (580) 626-4794 for more information.

The federal refuge surrounds Great Salt Plains Lake and is off of State Highway 11 in northwest Oklahoma. Heading west on State Highway 11, go past State Highway 38 and turn south at a sign for the refuge. Continue about two miles to the refuge headquarters.

About the refuge
The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge is home to a field of salt that looks like a gleaming white mirror on the otherwise yellow prairie.

The salt was deposited by an inland sea that covered western Oklahoma about 250 million years ago.

Rock enthusiasts once dug for gypsum crystals formed in the plains that exist nowhere else in the world.

The plains have been closed for digging since August 2007, when tools of chemical warfare were found buried in the area, which once was used as a military testing ground.

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