A WETLAND OASIS: In arid southwest Oklahoma, Hackberry Flat is a bird mecca
FREDERICK — At Hackberry Flat, you never know what you might see.
Last spring, a masked duck, a tropical bird rarely seen in this part of the world, showed up at the wetland. Bird watchers from as far away as Michigan were flocking to southwest Oklahoma for a glimpse of it.
“They were lining up to see it,” said Kelvin Schoonover, wildlife biologist at the Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area near Frederick. “You just never say never at Hackberry. We have had some neat birds over the 23 years I have been here.”
It's been 25 years since the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation first started buying land in Hackberry Flat, named for the forest surrounding the marsh.
It's always been a natural wetland, but the farmers who once owned it wanted it dry so they could grow crops. They would drain the land when it flooded.
State wildlife officials and conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited had a different vision for the land. They wanted to make it wetter.
"They knew it would be just a huge magnet for waterfowl, cranes, wading birds and all that,” Schoonover said of Hackberry Flat's visionaries. “It's proved itself many, many times. It's done exactly what we thought it would do.”
The Wildlife Department bought more than 7,000 acres from more than two dozen willing landowners to create the Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area and gave rebirth to the wetland.
Ducks Unlimited engineered a series of water control structures so water can be captured and distributed over Hackberry Flat where and when the biologists want it.
There are nearly 40 miles of levees and ditches that form a honeycomb of wetland units that can be flooded to meet the needs of migrating birds.
Within Hackberry Flat, there are 35 individual wetland units ranging in size from four acres to 715 acres, each with its own water control system, Schoonover said.
"A diversity of habitat is key to this place,” he said.
From shallow mud flats to flooded vegetation to dry areas, biologists can manipulate the water supply to create a variety of habitats on Hackberry Flat all at the same time. The deepest any area gets is 4 feet, Schoonover said.
Over the years, more and more migratory birds were enticed to Hackberry Flat. To date, 264 bird species have been documented on wildlife management area.
In the fall, it's a popular duck hunting destination. Waterfowl hunters from across the southeastern United States frequently travel to Hackberry Flat, Schoonover said.
The opening day of dove season is the single busiest day of the year at Hackberry Flat. A dove hunt at Hackberry Flat is an opening day tradition for many Oklahoma wingshooters.
In the spring, Hackberry Flat becomes a premier spot for bird watchers. From mid-March into May, it is a major stopover for migrating birds.
“It's pretty significant how they show up here,” Schoonover said.
It begins in March with the migration of shorebirds.
“We are already starting to see a few species, but bigger numbers will start picking up and usually peak about the third week of April until the first week of May,” Schoonover said.
As many as 27 different species of shorebirds have been seen on the same day at Hackberry Flat, he said.
“Shorebirds are a big draw,” Schoonover said. “This is one of the few places that actually allows you to view shorebirds from your vehicle. May is a good time for the warbler birds and the song bird group that comes through.”
Hackberry Flat also is one of the state's best outdoor classrooms. The Hackberry Flat Center was dedicated in 2008, and a nature trail was added.
Schoolchildren from all over southwest Oklahoma have explored the wetland. High school students even help state wildlife officials take surveys.
The Hackberry Flat Foundation, through the Friends of Hackberry Flat, can provide scholarships to schools to help cover the cost of field trips.
Twenty-one public tours are offered each year, including a Prairie and Wetland Tour on Saturday. Bird migration tours are scheduled in April and May.
In October, Hackberry Flat offers a popular monarch butterfly watch.
“The management for doves on the area provides nectaring plants, particularly annual sunflower, during the period of the monarch's fall migration through Oklahoma,” said Melynda Hickman, wildlife diversity biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
There are tours to watch the butterflies in the evenings and opportunities to help tag the monarchs in the mornings.
Being a wetland, Hackberry Flat also has its share of critters like turtles, snakes and crawfish. The diversity of life at Hackberry Flat never ceases to surprise Schoonover.
“It's always something new every day. You never know what you are going to find here,” he said. “It's a lot of challenges, a lot of sweat, but I'm glad to be a part of it.”
HACKBERRY FLAT WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
Where: Near Frederick in Tillman County
Directions: To get to the Hackberry Flat Center from Frederick, take U.S. 183 south for one mile, then go east on Airport Road for three miles. Follow the blacktop road south and continue six miles. Watch for signs to the center.
TOURS: For information, email email@example.com or visit wildlifedepartment.com.