While Southwest Oklahoma isn’t exactly a desert, it is far from the wettest part of the state.

And when people think of great wetland habitat, the area may not come to mind. However, the subject of this week’s RNW column is an unexpected oasis in Southwestern Oklahoma.

Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area is about a three-hour drive (160 miles or so) from the Ada area, but it is worth a visit for those interested in seeing birds and insects such as monarch butterflies.

It was created in 1995, and is located near Frederick.

The WMA is a paradise for birders, and other nature enthusiasts as well. Hackberry Flat covers 7,120 acres of southwestern Tillman County. Located southeast of Frederick, Hackberry Flat is a combination of wetland and upland habitats.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, there is a 3,700 acre wetland development unit which consists of a variety of plants such as millet, sedges, and smartweed, along with some agriculture fields. Upland habitat consists of agriculture fields, native grasses, improved grasses and forbs, interspersed with mesquite, hackberry, Osage orange, black locust and sand plum.

Those are some statistics, but to put it in layman’s terms, it is an excellent place to see all sorts of wildlife and other nature. The wetland habitat often hosts many species of waterbirds and shorebirds.

Sandhill cranes even visit during fall migration.

And, while hiking is an option, visitors can stay in vehicles and still see plenty of wildlife. In fact, a vehicle makes an excellent blind.

Monarchs

As well as plenty of birds, Hackberry Flat is a great place to see monarch butterflies, the migration of which peaks in October.

On Oct. 13, 2020, I visited Hackberry Flat and witnessed something amazing. I got out of my car to do a little hiking and discovered thousands of monarchs among islands of western soapberry trees. It was almost as if there were as many monarchs in the trees as there were leaves.

I was fascinated, and took many photos, and quite a bit of video as well. I was curious as to why the butterflies were attracted to these trees, so I questioned an expert.

Melynda Hickman, a wildlife biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said the butterflies that day were just “hanging out.”

“The area around the trees had lots of annual sunflowers in bloom at the time, so the monarchs will drift between a nectar source and a ‘resting’ location,” she said. “Additionally, if the wind is blowing, the trees offer wind protection during the day.”

It sure was fascinating seeing trees alive with so many orange butterflies.

Since the WMA is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, people are free to visit and either drive around or hike around whenever they want.

However, there are scheduled events which are worth checking into.

One particular event -- which spans several days -- is the “Monarch Butterfly Watch.” The free event takes place this year from Oct. 2-9. Organizers ask that

those interested in attending check the status of monarch migration prior to attending by visiting “Friends of Hackberry Flat” on Facebook -- https://www.facebook.com/Friends-of-Hackberry-Flat-209302429171557.

There will be morning and evening activities, which includes seeing the butterflies and watching biologists tag and release some as well.

While the WMA doesn’t close, there is a visitor’s center of sorts there, but it is only open at certain times. The “Hackberry Flat Center” is open for scheduled events, and on the second Saturday of each month, excluding July.

The facility offers public restrooms, interpretive information and a message board for visitors to report their sightings and experiences. It also provides wetland classroom experiences for school groups, programs on wildlife and wildlife-related activities, as well as meeting facilities for resource-oriented programs and workshops.

Odds and ends

- According to the ODWC, early morning and late evening are the best times to visit Hackberry Flat. The best way to view birds there is by driving the gravel roads that run along the dikes. There are two observation towers which provide viewing over the flat terrain. With its close access to a large variety and number of species, the area has developed a reputation as a birdwatcher’s paradise. And I can certainly attest to that.

- There is a camping area at Hackberry Flat, but it is quite primitive, and there are no hook-ups. It appears as an open (mowed) field off of a county road.

- The average annual precipitation for the area is about 27 inches. However, most water in the wetland units comes from rainfall runoff, and, rainfall amounts in the region fluctuate greatly between years, so the number of wetland units flooded at any given time is highly variable.

- A variety of hunting is available at Hackberry Flat as well. For more, visit https://www.wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/wma/southwest/hackberry-flat.

(Editor’s Note: Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.)

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