By Randy C. Anderson
Oklahoma is best known for football, the oil industry, bountiful wheat harvests and our rich Native American history. Until recently, the “birding” world (no longer bird watching) has long overlooked Oklahoma. Today, however, Oklahoma is quietly becoming known as one of the top birding areas in the nation, and rightfully so. Not only are our native species bountiful, the Mississippi Flyway brings numerous migrating species through the state each fall and spring. Over 400 species of birds either visit Oklahoma during migration, or call Oklahoma home year-round.
Our state bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, is plentiful throughout the state. While common to all of us, I have watched birders from as far away as Germany stare in awe and amazement as a pair of scissor-tails danced through the air, snatching insects in mid-flight.
The Black-capped Vireo’s summer range is limited to Oklahoma and Texas. We have a large number of nesting pairs of Black Caps in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Each summer, serious birders from all over the country visit the area in hopes of seeing one.
While some people may consider it silly, birding has become big business throughout the country. Texas lists birding as one of its viable eco-tourism industries, and I believe Oklahoma should also. Considering what people spend on birding – it brings untold thousands to the state each year in sales taxes alone.
Birders buy bird seed and other bird foods, bird houses, bird baths, bird books, binoculars, spotting scopes, 35mm cameras, video cameras, food, gas, lodging, smart phone birding apps, clothing, sunscreen … You can see how this can all add up from an economic standpoint.
You could even say birding has become a sport of sorts. In the birding world, there are life lists, season lists, backyard lists, travel lists, rare bird alerts and many more. Every species of bird that a birder sees (or hears) goes on his or her “life list.” Birds identified in your backyard go on your backyard list, and so on. Rare bird alerts are posted via the Internet, so other birders can go and see them. Sign up to receive Oklahoma rare bird alerts by sending an email to email@example.com.
This past winter, several Snowy Owls visited Oklahoma. My wife and I were lucky enough to see one – and added it to our life list. There is a friendly competition among some birders to see who gets a “first-of-season” bird, who has the longest backyard list, and who has the most birds on their life list. There are even national competitions held to see which team can find the most species of birds in a given area in a specified time. How many birds can you correctly identify by sight? By their call?
I have always birded. My wife and I have five feeders, two bird baths and a couple of nesting boxes in the backyard year-round. We keep our binoculars nearby, just in case something “interesting” shows up – and something usually does. To date, we have over 40 species of birds on our “backyard” list. The most notable visitors – Lazuli Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Yellow-headed Blackbird and a Red Crossbill. Very impressive, considering we live in the middle of Oklahoma City.
Being a wildlife photographer, I naturally “shoot” birds with a camera. While it is not easy to capture good bird images, it is very satisfying when you do. They can be extremely difficult to capture in the wild without the correct equipment. A 35mm digital SLR camera, along with a minimum focal length lens of 300mm, is a good place to start. A 400mm lens is better, and a 600mm lens is ideal. A sturdy tripod is another must-have.
If you want to photograph birds, start by shooting birds in your own backyard. Fill a bird feeder with some black-oil sunflower seeds, get comfortable, and wait for them to show up. Move very slowly, stay quiet, and be patient. Patience and perseverance are the keys when it comes to bird photography. Birds are everywhere, from your own backyard to your favorite Oklahoma vacation spot.
But where should you go to find birds not found in your own backyard? Here are some of my favorite areas:
- The Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Lawton
- Oxley Nature Center, Tulsa
- Great Salt Plains, Cherokee
- Lake Fort Gibson, Wagoner
- Lake Hefner, Oklahoma City
- Lake Overholser, Oklahoma City
- Rose Lake, Yukon
- Red Slough, Idabel
- Hackberry Flat, Frederick
- Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, Pawhuska
- Any state park in Oklahoma
Let me say a few words about birding. Be respectful of other birders while you are out in the field. Do not trespass on private property – respect a landowner’s right to control access to their land. Do not litter. And most importantly, do not put undue stress on birds or other wildlife. Give them their distance, and know when to just walk away.
As a footnote, be aware that if you want to go birding (or any other non-hunting or fishing activity) on Oklahoma Department of Wildlife lands, or game management areas, you need to have a valid Wildlife Conservation Passport to do so, unless you have a valid hunting or fishing license. If you already hold one of those, you do not need the Wildlife Conservation Passport.
Grab your binoculars, a bird guide and start looking for the birds in your area. Oh, and don’t forget to start your list!
To see more of Randy Anderson’s work, visit his website at: www.wildeyesimages.com. Randy has published two books of photographs – “The Way I See It … Wildlife in Oklahoma” and “Dancing With Butterflies” – photographs of Oklahoma’s butterflies taken over a span of five years.