7 Rarely Seen Birds in Oklahoma

Bird Watchers in woods

Are you an Oklahoma birdwatcher or nature lover looking for some interesting birds to check out? Well, you’re in luck as there are believed to be around 500 species that reside here at some point throughout the year! Some of these birds are quite rare and spotting one can be quite a treat. Below we’ve highlighted several hard to spot birds that hide in our state parks.

Whooping Crane

1. Whooping Crane

The whooping crane stands out as the tallest bird in North America, almost reaching 5 feet tall and boasting a wingspan of about 90 inches. It’s quite big with red marks on its face and top of its head, plus it has black feathers at each wing tip. Younger birds show different levels of reddish-cinnamon colors on their necks and backs.

Whooping cranes are seen in Oklahoma mainly when they’re migrating, which happens around April and October. Unlike their close relatives, the sandhill cranes, that can gather in groups of 50 or more, whooping cranes seldom travel in groups bigger than eight. The ones spotted within this state belong to the biggest wild population that is able to sustain itself, with a little over 350 birds. This group’s known as the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock; it breeds mostly in Canada’s Wood-Buffalo National Park and spends winters at Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. While on migration these cranes often stop on farm fields next to water sources where they eat bugs grains and small critters

While moving from one place to another, cranes usually stop in farm fields close to water to eat bugs, grains and little critters. Like many birds that migrate, whooping cranes often only stay at a resting spot for about one to three days.

After years of unchecked hunting and the loss of their natural habitats, the worldwide count of whooping cranes had dwindled down to just 15 by around the mid-1940s. A dedicated captive-breeding effort along with careful observation of those in the wild has gradually boosted their numbers. Now, counting both those living in captivity and in the wild, there are about 600 whooping cranes out there.

Black Capped Vireo

2. Black-capped Vireo

The black-capped vireo features a back, wings, and sides with a greenish hue. Grown male birds showcase an almost entire head-covering distinctive black cap excluding the areas around their eye lore and throat; females display a head that’s more of a muted gray shade. Their breast and belly area is white.

Black-capped vireos need low bushes and patches of leafy trees, like blackjack oak, to live and look for food. This kind of place is usually seen in the state’s southwest part, kept up before by fire and not much rain. Now, there are just two groups of these birds known in Oklahoma. The bigger group lives in the Wichita Mountains across Comanche and Kiowa areas. Another small group, not more than 25 birds, is found in canyon lands up north Blaine County past Watonga.

Adult black-capped vireos and their young mainly search for bugs and spiders, picking them off plants. They eat a lot of small creatures, like caterpillars from butterflies and moths, but sometimes they’ll munch on seeds and random bits of plants too. When it comes to the little ones in the nest, both mom and dad feed them tiny bug larvae.

The comeback of the black-capped vireo is largely thanks to active efforts, especially seen at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and Ft. Sill Army Base. The folks at USFWS Refuge have kicked off an intense fire management program and yearly catch-and-release of brown-headed cowbirds. Since the late 80s, they’ve been working with University of Central Oklahoma through ESA Section 6 funds to get a clearer picture of where these birds are and how many there are in the state. Now, we have a big stable group living in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge but still some small groups hanging on private lands in Blaine and Kiowa counties. Going forward, the Wildlife Diversity Program’s planning to keep helping out with managing the black-capped vireo on those private spots.

Lesser Prairie Chicken

3. Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Both the greater and lesser prairie-chicken are chunky, hen-like creatures with tiny heads, short tails that are rounded and they have flashy rituals for mating. On average the males of GPCs weigh about 36 ounces and their length is around 17 inches with wingspans of 28 inches. The females are a little bit smaller than the males. These birds have a distinguishable pattern all over them with dark brown stripes going sideways on top of white-and-buff colors; both genders got these longish ear feathers or “ear” feathers but the males have longer ones.

The greater prairie-chicken lives in the tallgrass regions of northeastern Oklahoma. On the other hand, you’ll find the rarer lesser prairie-chicken in the northwest part of Oklahoma including the panhandle area. Lesser prairie-chickens or LPCs are seen in places with shortgrass and mixed grass prairies also they’re found in sand shinnery grasslands along with sagebrush grasslands.

Lesser prairie-chickens munch on leaves, seeds, buds, catkins, fruits and stuff like acorns and wild buckwheat. They also dig into farmed grains like sunflower soy and sorghum not to forget insect galls plus bugs like grasshoppers crickets and beetles. They peck at the dirt picking up insects kinda how a farm chicken does moving slowly through their home looking for eats with their eyes. They look for food more in the early morning or late afternoon mostly sticking to the ground but sometimes they head up trees especially when there’s lots of snow on the ground.

Programs aim to help boost the habitat for lesser prairie chickens while also offering benefits to farmers and ranchers who wanna get involved, They offer support with expenses linked to specific activities, Managing brush, controlled grazing, managing wildlife habitats in upland areas, planting on rangelands, doing prescribed burns setting up firebreaks and switching to solar-powered watering systems are among the practices that these programs say yes to for sharing costs.

Red Cockaded Woodpecker

4. Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are on the smaller side, about 8 to 9 inches long as adults, but bigger than downy woodpeckers and about the same size as yellow-bellied sapsuckers; they’re tinier compared to other southeastern types. Their sizes can change depending on where they are, with a trend of larger birds being found more up north.

The name red-cockaded woodpecker, which we all use now, was given by Alexander Wilson because of the few red feathers males have between their black head top and white face patch that pop up mainly when they’re showing off. Back in Wilson’s days, “cockade” meant a fancy ribbon or badge you’d wear on your hat. The thing is this cockade isn’t easy to spot normally but it does help tell apart male from female birds when you’ve got them right there with you.

Historically, red-cockaded woodpeckers were found across forests dominated by shortleaf pine in counties like McCurtain Pushmataha LeFlore and Latimer. It’s possible they even lived in parts of the Ozarks in northeastern Oklahoma, The last group still living in the state is found in McCurtain County Wilderness Area along with the neighboring Ouachita National Forest; this group has less than 50 birds.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers mainly feed on bugs like ants, beetles and various larvae. They sometimes eat fruits and seeds too. Their eating habits don’t change much over the year since they can find their food all the time; however, what they eat most can vary based on where they are. For instance in South Carolina, wood roaches are what adult birds and their young mostly munch on. In the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida, though? Ants take the top spot as their primary grub, especially those that live in trees.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are extremely rare in our state. There’s fewer than a hundred of them in Oklahoma and they only hang out at the McCurtain County Wilderness Area and right next to it, the Ouachita National Forest, Clay Barnes who works as a biologist for the Wildlife Department reports. He’s hoping these 10 birds from Louisiana will stick around in Oklahoma and give our population a boost not just in numbers but also make them genetically healthier.

Red Piping Plover

5. Piping Plover

Little round Piping Plovers use their size to blend in pretty well with their surroundings on sandy beaches, by the ocean, or lakes thanks to their sandy gray backs. You probably won’t notice them until they start moving quickly down the beach on their orange legs, which is when most people spot these shorebirds with big eyes, a sharp black collar and an orange bill. 

Several reservoirs across the state have hosted piping plovers temporarily, with individual birds typically noted at resting sites. Similar to other plover species, piping plovers commonly seek out mudflats and sandbars to search for invertebrates. Those observed in Oklahoma belong to the Northern Great Plains population, generally appearing in the state between March to May and July to September.

Piping Plovers eat insects that are both living and dead like ants, spiders, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. Piping Plovers that live on coastlines also consume insect babies such as those of flies when they’re looking for food at places where the tide comes in and out. They’ll also come across sea worms, small shellfish, and tiny crustaceans.

Red Spragues Pipit

6. Sprague’s Pipit

Males and female Sprague’s both have a camouflage color scheme and look pretty much alike; they sport a buffy brown hue with darker lines, thin beaks, and legs that can range from pink to yellow.

Sprague’s pipits are found in the mixed or short grass prairies across the central northern Great Plains in North America. In Canada, these birds can be seen breeding in places like southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and southwest Manitoba. Here in the United States, their breeding grounds include northeastern and central Montana; western and central North Dakota; southern Oklahoma; northwest South Dakota, along with Minnesota’s Red River Valley.

Sprague’s pipits consume a range of insects, spiders, and at times seeds. In the breeding season; the adult birds mostly eat insects and also give their young ones insects to eat.

Mountain Plover

7. Mountain Plover

The mountain plover measures from 8 to 9.5 inches in length and tips the scale at around 3.7 ounces, Its wingspan stretches from about 17.5 to 19.5 inches. There’s no difference in size between males and females. Looking at it, you’d find it similar to other Charadrius plovers but what sets it apart is its lack of a chest band that most others have. The top of the bird’s body is a sandy brown while the belly and face sport a lighter whitish color. You’ll notice black feathers on the forecrown and there’s also this black line running from each eye towards the bill; though come winter, this stripe turns brown and might not stand out much. Apart from that; its feathers don’t really show off any specific pattern.

Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico are at the southern tip of where this short-grass prairie bird breeds. Most of their breeding happens in Colorado and Wyoming. This is what the North American Breeding Bird Survey says (Sauer et al 2007). In winter, these birds head to places that aren’t so high up like places where lots of animals graze. They go from northern California down to northern Baja California and then east over Arizona and northern Mexico all the way to south Texas.
Grazing on the arid plains and prairies, the mountain plover mainly eats insects. Grasshoppers are what it likes to eat most but it doesn’t say no to crickets, beetles, and flies if they’re on the menu.


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