Still providing a refuge: Salt Plains area is dry, but there's a bright side … – Enid News & Eagle


Abundant sunshine. High around 80F. Winds NNE at 10 to 15 mph..
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Updated: September 11, 2022 @ 9:33 am
Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge shared a photo on social media of a dry Sand Creek Bay at the photo blind on the Eagle Roost Trail on Sept. 1, 2022.
Birds rest on the water of Sand Creek Bay at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in November 2021.
A sign at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge explains how the water levels at the refuge are controlled by staff to provide a smorgasbord for the different species that live in or pass through the area.
{p class=”p1”}According to the Seasonal Precipitation Outlook provided by the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service, the chances for rain through November are “leaning below” average. Temperatures are leaning above average, according to the center.{/p}
A flock of sandhill cranes takes flight in 2015 at the Great Salt Plains Wildlife Refuge near Jet. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)
Pelicans stand on the spillway at Salt Plains State Park in this file photo. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge shared a photo on social media of a dry Sand Creek Bay at the photo blind on the Eagle Roost Trail on Sept. 1, 2022.
Birds rest on the water of Sand Creek Bay at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in November 2021.
A sign at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge explains how the water levels at the refuge are controlled by staff to provide a smorgasbord for the different species that live in or pass through the area.
A flock of sandhill cranes takes flight in 2015 at the Great Salt Plains Wildlife Refuge near Jet. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)
Pelicans stand on the spillway at Salt Plains State Park in this file photo. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)
JET, Okla. — Visitors arriving at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge used to seeing sunlight glinting off bays and wetlands of water are finding dried-up patches of dirt and mud. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing … as of right now.
The refuge currently is ushering in its shorebird migration, said Shane Kasson, refuge manager.
“Those birds need mud flats,” he said, adding the drier conditions actually are good for them, as the bug-eaters walk along the sparse vegetation and find their meals.
In fact, normally refuge staff would be drawing in less water from Sand Creek and other waterways controlled for optimum wetlands management.
It was a lesson learned after the last extended drought period in 2011-13, the likes of which haven’t even hinted at a real comeback … until now.
“We are terribly dry, of course,” Kasson said.
During normal wetlands management, the drier ecosystem managed for the current shorebird migration would give way to a wetter region for the coming waterfowl migration, he said.
But the prospect of bringing in more water is not a reality at the moment, as the main feeder to the refuge — Sand Creek — and other waterways in the area are not flowing.
“There’s no water coming,” Kasson said.
The refuge released a photo of Sand Creek Bay, a popular place for bird viewing along the main refuge walking trail — Eagle Roost Trail — on Sept. 1, 2022, that shows a dry bed where shallow water usually flows for acres.
“Last year we saw conditions like this was 2011 to 2013,” Kasson said.
He wasn’t at the refuge at the time — he arrived as things were starting to improve in 2014 — but he heard from his staff, saw the outcomes and said they all learned from it.
Things have changed at the wetlands since then, he said. Visitors who have been coming for years, have seen it. Things may seem drier, even in wetter years, but Kasson said most of the time it’s by design.
They learned that dry periods help the refuge by promoting growth of native plant life and attraction of bugs that provide good forage for the birds that migrate.
So water levels are managed through the flowing and restriction of waterways during certain migration periods to provide an optimum ecosystem for different species that depend on the area.
“Unless we’re just in a really wet period,” he said, adding the refuge had drought in 2011-13 and then record flooding in 2019. “It’s up and down.”
Ideally, refuge officials would like to start seeing some steady, long-lasting rain, a real ground-soaker, to not only recharge the refuge and surrounding waterways but to replenish groundwater supplies as well.
According to the Seasonal Precipitation Outlook provided by the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service, the chances for rain through November are “leaning below” average. Temperatures are leaning above average, according to the center.
{p class=”p1”}According to the Seasonal Precipitation Outlook provided by the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service, the chances for rain through November are “leaning below” average. Temperatures are leaning above average, according to the center.{/p}
For now, if one wants to find a bright spot, Kasson said the bug-eating shorebirds are happy.
Currently there are a lot of birds to see at the refuge, including more than 300 species of resident woodland and grassland birds, in addition to different species of heron, egret and ibis. Kasson said it’s a good time to see pelicans, as they are a “sea of white” on the Salt Plains Lake.
Snowy plover, American avocets and least terns can be found mainly on the salt flats on the north and western parts of the refuge. Hawks, eagles and owls can be spotted.
Kasson said should the area stay dry into October and November, it is hard to say how it will affect the migration of the waterfowl.
Already the refuge is seeing some early comers, such as blue-winged teal, that seek layover in the area. Thousands of sandhill cranes — a favorite of the refuge staff, Kasson said — sometimes with some endangered whooping cranes mixed in their flocks — will begin to arrive, along with other species that linger at the refuge, resting and eating before moving farther south.
Kasson said the bugle call of the cranes is “the sound of fall” to the staff.
Looking back at the 2011-13 drought, the numbers of waterfowl actually rose at the refuge.
“They typically get more concentrated,” he said. “All the area ponds and rivers and waterways are dry. The nearby Salt Plains Lake attracts them.
“That’s the only surface water in the area.”
But concentrated numbers mean more disease. Kasson said they prefer it when the birds can really spread out in the area.
Still, Salt Plains provides an oasis in the middle of a dry region, he said, and they are there for that purpose.
“At least in drought, we still provide a refuge,” Kasson said.
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Hassler is the digital content coordinator for the Enid News & Eagle.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for Violet? Send an email to violeth@enidnews.com.

Coming to Enid in 1993, weeks before the Land Run of 1893 centennial, I fell in love with the heritage. I started as Enid News & Eagle education, legislative and business reporter, was promoted to news editor in 1999 and currently am digital coordinator.
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