Last Saturday was a great day. It started in semi-darkness as the Deep Fork Audubon Society assembled at St. Gregory’s University. We caravanned to The Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge to meet Visitor Services Specialist Angela Myers.

Last Saturday was a great day. It started in semi-darkness as the Deep Fork Audubon Society assembled at St. Gregory’s University. We caravanned to The Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge to meet Visitor Services Specialist Angela Myers. Two other people, including a Student Conservation Corp intern, had volunteered to help guide our group along the paths in Deep Fork Refuge.

The Deep Fork Refuge is relatively new to the world of protected wetlands. This 9,000 acre tract in Okmulgee County was established 24 years ago. The refuge borders 20 miles along both sides of the Deep Fork River, a tributary of the North Canadian River. The 230 mile long Deep Fork River has its less than stellar origin from the storm sewers of northern Oklahoma City. It is fed by Spring Creek outside Edmond. As the water flows through sandstone hills eastward, the river was trapped to create Lake Arcadia for flood control. The river continues, meandering through several counties, before ending in Lake Eufaula. Because Deep Fork River is subject to periodic floods, it has created perfect sites for wetlands, oxbow lakes cut off from the river as it changes course, and bottomland forests.

At last count, 51 species of mammals and 254 species of birds have been identified at the refuge, either as permanent residents or seasonal visitors. Swamp rabbits live there. The large cottontails have small ears and occupy only a small region in the south central US. The 59 species of Ichthyofauna…I love this word that means fish in the region… include several species of catfish, crappie, bass and gar. Gars descend from an ancient family of bony, ray-finned fish that originated over 100 million years ago. The tough fish with thick diamond shaped scales and long jaws lined with teeth are found only in North and Central America and the Caribbean. We watched small gar jump out of shallow water from the elevated boardwalk over Cussetah Bottoms. At the observation point, Angela spotted a yellow crowned night heron. The bird could have been a statue. It remained motionless while we zoomed in with our binoculars for a better look. The adult bird has an exotic appearance, with a face covered in a black and white mask, long feather plumes that extend back from the top of the head, and elongated yellow legs to hold high the mottled grey body. These small herons live along the South and Central American coasts but spend summers in the southern part of the US.

The cool thing about walking the boardwalk is you can observe nature from various vantage points, but are not in in intimate contact with the poison ivy, chiggers and ticks. I admired the Rose Mallow as it grew near water. This beautiful swamp Hibiscus is a wetland native that can form multiple colonies. The large showy flowers were light pink with deep red-purple centers. I watched turtles as they came to the surface, looked around and then dove out of sight. I listened to the vireos, buntings, yellow-billed cuckoos, Carolina wrens and chickadees, the cardinals and one crow. Why is it that a crow caw can be so dominating? I heard woodpeckers busy pummeling trees in the distance. The cicadas were crying for rain. The black snake was quietly undulating through the water. Apparently water moccasins (cottonmouths) are in abundance at Deep Fork Refuge. This makes sense. They are the world’s only semi-aquatic viper. Young snakes have contrasting crossbands, but older snakes can be totally black, so the black snake swimming away might have been an OAC (old age cottonmouth.)

Once the boardwalk was conquered, we left the permanent path and directed our attention to the somewhat overgrown trail below the highline wires that led to the river. The chigger path. A red-shouldered hawk, turkey vulture and blue heron were identified as they flew to the beyond. We returned to headquarters for a water break. On the wall was a female Dobson fly. The lady was at least 2 inches in length. She had small mandibles compared to a male that sports long curving appendages designed to attract females. The long mandibles are too awkward for males to use for biting, but the female can deliver a nasty punch with her short strong mouthpieces. Dobson fly larvae live on stream bottoms, but attack their prey in riffles, the fast moving bubbly parts of streams. The adults, after metamorphosis, often stay near water for the one week they are alive.

In the corner of the porch had been an Eastern Phoebe nest. Just before the baby birds fledged, a black snake wound its way up the rock columns and ….you can guess what happened. The helpless parents were beside themselves and their frantic actions alerted the staff to the pending disaster. Babies had already been eaten. One was found near death on the ground. But….one baby found the courage to fly and got away. Lucky fledge.

Our last hike was the ½ mile long Coalton Bottoms railroad trail to the Deep Fork River overlook. The Kansas, Oklahoma and Gulf railway had been abandoned by 1972 and the track was removed. We parked our cars and walked down the tree-shaded railroad bed. Although the sun was hot, the tree canopy dropped the temperature at least 15 degrees. Midday was fast approaching and most birds had retreated to cooler places for their afternoon siestas. We got to the overlook to discover it had been personalized by someone who had not only used a stencil to messily spray the outline of a fat ninja in red on one rail, but also randomly decorated the wooden deck and a few rocks. The terrible artist has been identified and on the next supervised visit will get to scrub off the paint using toothbrushes and turpentine.

Barring the graffiti incident, our field trip was a fine experience. We encountered birds, bees, butterflies, fish, flowers, fungi, raccoon tracks, snakes, turtles, towering trees, wetland plants and actual water at the end of July in Oklahoma. Yes!