Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Deep Fork NWR Cussetah Bottoms Boardwalk Trail Trip Report

Play these bird sounds I recorded along the boardwalk as you read my poetic conveyance of The Deep Fork.



We visited the Cussetah Bottoms Boardwalk Trail at the Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, February 22, 2009. It was so cool I went twice in the same day. I think the area is the most densely populated, well maintained, easily accessible park I have been to yet. For Tulsans, it's 45 minutes even from Brookside, with zero turns. It's maybe a mile or less off of Hwy 75. For me, that means I don't have to make huge plans or deal with the wrath of my wife when I tell her I'm going hiking and gets a case of the redass. She rattles on about babies and diapers and I just tune her out. Just kidding. Actually, she has supported my new outdoor addiction pretty heroically.

Anyway, my entire time at the Deep Fork in the morning was as loud as a zoo. There were hundreds of birds calling at once. At no point could I ever not see a woodpecker nearby and there were always a number of other birds passing back and forth. For birders, this has to be one of the best spots around. I am hardly a birder, however. I took pics of 18 bird species, and heard or saw at least 5-10 others, not counting the rooster that belongs to the resident on the far side of the property's pond.

The boardwalk is very short (1/4 mile or so), but as my wife put it, it feels "strangely intimate" along the watch points. The swamp overlook is particularly amazing. Completely covered in Wood Ducks, Gadwall, and Green-Wing Teal when I visited, the swamp is a rare sight in Oklahoma and truly breathtaking. View the panoramic shot here to see the view from the trail after I scared off all the birds. It felt like I should be looking out for crocodiles. The grass in that picture is all in standing water. I have to think that snakes must be really thick out here when it warms up.

The boardwalk is very close to the parking area. I was afraid that with just a tiny trail advertised, the place would be a waste of time. You always hope a place like this gives you an opportunity to go a little further. I want to get as deep into the woods as I can within an hour or two, away from car noises, beer cans, and people in general. I like the idea of going where plants and animals are not bothered, fully aware of how hypocritical it is to think I should go to such a place.

The Cussetah Bottoms area definitely has room to roam. The bottomland scrub here is short and thus easy to walk through, even when there is no path. I think you could follow deer paths for miles, only being stopped by the property boundaries. The Deep Fork is divided into numerous decent sized, but not enormous plots of land, broken up by private pastures and houses. Be aware of hunting seasons as well, as many of the areas (not the Cussetah) allow hunting. I have a strange and unreasonable fear of being mistaken for a beautiful buck and getting shot by a hunter, since I never wear anything orange. I don't even have antlers though, or a tail.

There is a short, marked trail loop shooting off the boardwalk, but it won't keep you busy very long. One route is about 1/2 a mile, another seemed to be about 1/4 mile. If you are a bird watcher or photographer though, the short trails could keep you busy all day. You don't have to go far to be in pretty thick woods.

I only got about 100 yards off the boardwalk before I spotted two deer. I decided to just sit down and listen, as I could hear waterfowl calling from the pond and all sorts of birds that were moving around in the woods. I shot pictures of 3 woodpecker species after 10-15 minutes. My favorites were the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and the Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers. Be aware that not everyone is a modern day Native American St. Francis like me, so your experiences may vary. I'm unusually peaceful and grounded and animals are often drawn to me, like that deer that turned it's butt toward us a couple weeks ago and took a big pee. We then shot that deer for sport and spite, not for food.

The boardwalk and paved trail leading up to it were strollable enough that I went back in the afternoon with my wife and son. The noise level had dropped to near silence, but there was still a lot of life fluttering around. My son, being a typical self absorbed 4 month old, was no help, making loud bird calls of his own as he became hungry. We took our stroller around the boardwalk, parked it, and hiked into the woods coming upon a couple armadillo and zero mountain lions to my sadness. I saw a website that has a bunch of Okmulgee/Deep Fork area sightings. It is embarrassing to me, for whatever reason, that I have never seen a Pileated Woodpecker, Black Bear, or Mountain Lion in the Oklahoma wild. They're all here and they won't let me see them and it sucks. I want to see a Barn Owl as well.

Overall, I'd rate the Deep Fork about as high as possible for wildlife viewing. It's the type of place that you can go to for 30 minutes and have a nice experience, but you could easily make a full day, at least, by walking around and just watching the wildlife. If you are as antsy as me, you would probably have time to visit several of the parking areas where you hike into the Refuge.

For hiking, I'd rate this area somewhere in the middle. It's flat, there are few short trails, but there is definitely the opportunity to immerse yourself in a nice, unbothered, natural ecosystem that makes you feel far from home. I love home, but it's nice to be able to take a short drive with your family and feel like you went much further. But, it is not the type of place where you take a lunch and set out on foot to hike a great distance. At least, the Cussetah Bottoms isn't that way. I'm going back in the next few weeks to look at the other areas of the Refuge.

GO HERE for a printable and GPS downloadable trail map and trip report


Getting There . . .
The refuge is located in Okmulgee County, 35 miles south of Tulsa and approximately 100 miles east of Oklahoma City.
Telephone: (918) 756-0815


To reach the Headquarters Office:
Take Highway 75 to Okmulgee, then 6th Street west to Grand. On Grand, travel to 4th Street. The Headquarters Office is located in the Post Office at 111 West 4th Street, Room 318.

To reach the Cussetah Bottoms Boardwalk Trail: Follow Hwy 75 about 5 miles south of Okmulgee and turn east on Cedar Road, follow the gravel road to the T, and turn left. The parking area will be a little ways down on your right.

Official Website

Deep Fork Bird Species List

Audobon Site

Trip reviews


Another set I found on Flickr from another user:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Martin Park Nature Center


Stats:
Location: Oklahoma City
Size: 140 acres
Length of Trails: 3.5 miles
Terrain: Very mild, grassland and bottom forest, split by creek
Trails: Hiking only, gravel


I won't be as wordy as the last post since The Audobon Society’s Website has all the info and maps in one place.

Martin Park is cut from the same mold as Oxley Nature Center in Tulsa. It’s easy to get to, densely populated with wildlife (due to feeders and enhanced habitats), has well maintained and strollable trails, and it is really clean. It’s a great alternative to visiting a preserve or refuge, when you just have a couple hours.

The park has a surprisingly diverse list of residents. We saw a number of birds, such as a Spotted Towhee and several uncommon sparrows that I had never come across. We also got very close to two Downy Woodpeckers interacting and unusually comfortable with people. There is a Bird Species List here that has 75+ species that have been spotted in the park.
Lots and lots of deer tracks throughout, especially near the creek that cuts through the property.


Notes

-Really cool bird blind with feeders and brush that is very active
-There are no prairie dogs anymore. I have a source, although known to be unreliable, that says they were eaten by badgers. I want to see a badger! The prairie dog blind is now a composting info booth... slightly less cute than a prairie dog.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

J.T. Nickel Wildlife Preserve

Click here for full sized images on Flickr


My father-in-law and I visited the J।T. Nickel Family Nature And Wildlife Preserve on Saturday, February 7, 2009. The Preserve is located about 10 minutes north of Tahlequah, Oklahoma along Highway 10. Very little info is publicly available about the place, save for a few bland details on the Nature Conservancy website, such as:

"The J. T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve is the largest privately protected conservation area in the Ozarks. The preserve was formed in 2000 as the result of a land gift from the John Nickel Family. This 17,000-acre landscape rests in eastern Oklahoma's rolling Cookson Hills and overlooks the Illinois River. Spring-fed creeks meander amid a rugged topography of steep slopes and narrow valleys harboring a mosaic of oak-hickory forest, lofty pine woodland, and a diverse mix of savanna, shrubland, and prairie. The preserve provides optimal habitat for a suite of uncommon breeding bird species, including some whose survival requires large blocks of intact habitat."

There are no trail maps or really even good reviews online. (There won't be a need for other reviews though, because this one is going to be awesome.) Anyhow, I figured the preserve probably doesn't get much traffic if it isn't publicized and I was right. We arrived around sunrise and saw a total of zero cars inside the Preserve throughout the day. The weather was overcast, but unseasonably warm (70+), so if there was a day to get out, this was it.

The park has one main road that runs east to west through the middle. Just as we turned in, 40-50 white-tailed deer were grazing in a pasture 150 yards to the North. That's the most deer I have ever seen together and a great start to the day. The deer were unafraid of the car, but the minute we opened the door to take a picture, they spooked. So, these weren't park deer accustomed to people gawking at them. That's a good thing as far as natural surroundings go, but bad for wildlife sighting.

As we drove into the park along the gravel road, we crossed through a steep, wooded area seeing about 20 more deer. We then pulled into an open tall grass savanna and immediately began seeing some big birds. Bald eagles, in February, are all over the Illinois River. Though the Preserve doesn't quite touch the river, it comes very close. We saw 4-5 eagles throughout the morning. We saw a couple that looked more like Golden Eagles than immature Bald Eagles, but there's no way to confirm. Tons of hawks and buzzards as usual. We also so a Norther Flicker and some other small woodpeckers along the main road.

We drove the 5 mile diameter of the Preserve to get to the trail heads at the Visitor Center I'd read about in a birding trip review. I'll never understand why a Visitor Center for a place like this is closed on the weekends. We had another deer encounter with three less weary doe that were so comfortable that one took a leak as we parked the road. I know that's crude, but it's uncommon to see deer that relaxed. It's rare to even see them without their white tails showing. I could have left this detail out of my review.

The closed Visitors Center did at least have a map on a board outside. That is still the only full map I have found, so I'm including a picture of it below.




We took the woodland and savanna trails, which adjoin. It took about an hour to do both. The park has 3 official hiking trails, none more than a mile or so and all located far from the places where we saw wildlife. While well maintained, these are definitely family friendly and thus very short and easy. I get the sense that the Nature Conservancy has a policy of including trails on their property, but is more concerned about maintaining large tracts of man-free habitat. Fair enough. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the same way... tons of acreage and a tiny trail over in the corner. I think that's a good policy, but like everyone else, I think we are the exception, as we don't pollute, hunt, or do anything else harmful. We take only bad pictures and leave only when our wives call and make us.

So, we looked at the map and figured we would just drive closer to the river from the outside of the preserve, find a place to park, and hike along a creek bed or road from the south back into the preserve. We drove the road that surrounds the park from the east going south. The road didn't offer a good place to park and walk in. Well, it did, but we didn't have the balls. They have some really threatening signs about trespassing and I don't like getting into trouble in the country. We did find where the road crosses a creek and has a pretty weird formation that they call the Bathtub Rocks. My car was barely high enough off the ground to cross the creek, as in up to the door. I hate my car, so it felt good, but you may consider taking a truck if you have the option and do not hate your car.

The Bathtub Rocks themselves, along with a small waterfall are beautiful. The formation is made up of a radioactive martian element. I'd have better info if the Preserve had a better website. I don't know what the rocks are, probably limestone. They were black rocks that have formed 1-2 feet wide and deep pits that water flows through on its way to the river. The problem is that they put a public road over it. Naturally, it's completely covered with trash and gunk. Why is this road here and this land not protected? Because this is Oklahoma. Still, the rocks are worth going to see and it's fun to hold your camera at the perfect angle to keep all the beer bottles and Skoal cans out of the frame. To be fair, "dirt-roadin'" is a primitive form of entertainment that consists of an old pick-up and a 12 pack of something cold and cheap, and it predates clean flowing rivers and wildlife, so the local drunk drivers here have their right to clean floorboards too.

We drove back into the Preserve and decided to hike along one of many of the roads that were cut when the property was J5 Ranch. It's cleaner in there. In fact, there is virtually no trash at all. There are cattle guards at the front gates of the property that probably knock the beers out of drivers' hands and shake up all the others. That explains the conditions. Cattle guards may be the ultimate "dirt-roadin'" deterrent. Or maybe not.

We picked a road that seemed to be shown on the map, leading to Tully Hollow. That should have gotten us closer to the river, but we picked wrong. We went south, but chose to veer to the west each time the road forked. This took us nowhere near any signs of water and only fecal signs of life. We saw tons of poop. From what I looked up, it was all elk, deer, raccoon, and a surprising amount of bobcat. I think we saw some black bear poop as well, but who knows what it was. There's a picture of it in the gallery.

We also came across a very dense collection of large woodpecker holes. We probably saw 5-10 holes in the bases of trees, both dead and alive. Most of the holes were oval shaped, at least 4-6 inches across, and just as deep. Holes like this are characteristic of Pileated Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers... and Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. Seems like as good a place for them to hide out as any.

The road we took had not been traveled in awhile. A bad ice storm occurred a week earlier and trees were everywhere. We went 3-4 miles south before we decided to turn back and then learn that we had been going downhill most of the way. By the time we got back, I was exhausted. But it was a long, quiet hike in the most pristine, unbothered forest I've been in in a long time. While the wildlife was sparse, the terrain was incredible. Our road was along the top of a really steep ridge. 30 yards on either side dropped off at sharp angles into valleys with dry creek beds below.



The hike of 6-8 miles took a few hours and made us feel like we hadn't yet seen the best of the Preserve. We never came across the elk that were introduced there a few years ago. We saw more signs of wildlife than actual wildlife. We never saw water inside the property. I know that the Visitors Center offers to take you around the property in a truck and show you the good stuff. That's probably a better option than blindly choosing a road and walking down it, but not nearly as fun as immersing yourself in a natural environment. But, the area is steep all over, with the exception of the prairie along the road, so it would take days to see it by foot... months for someone in my shape.

The J.T. Nickel Preserve is definitely a hidden, promising spot for serious hikers and families alike. This is the largest protected area of Ozark Forest in the region, and certainly in Oklahoma. For whatever reason, nobody goes there, and that's great news. Expect to see an unbelievable amount of open and wooded space and few people, making this a great retreat to enjoy the world as it was before us. I'd like to hear back from the staff here and go back with a better idea of how to get to the lower parts of the property. I may have to break down and use the phone like real people do. Even unguided though, we saw some incredible sights and I look forward to seeing more of the Preserve in the near future.