Spring and early summer are excellent times to find birds in Oklahoma City—the newly hip capital of the southern plains. From shorebirds to the region’s famed Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the city’s avians pair nicely with its frontier culture. The only caveat to a great trip is meteorological: They don’t call it “Tornado Alley” for nothing.
The colder seasons serve up great finds as well, and less cyclonic weather. Fall brings a bevy of sparrows, wrens, and another wave of migrating shorebirds. American Golden-Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Piping Plovers run about during September and October. Meanwhile, winter delivers plenty of sunshine and streams of gulls and ducks on Lake Hefner—once the sailboats have cleared out.
Regardless of the time of year, Oklahoma City is an under-sung hotspot for urban birding. Once the weather heats up and the days grow longer, try the following itinerary for some Sooner-style discoveries.
Donuts and Dowitchers; 8 a.m.
As you hit the west edge of town, pull off of Route 66 for two pressing needs: donuts and a weather check. If you’re smartphone-less, ask anyone in Route 66 Donut (8368 NW 39th Expy., aka Route 66) about the day’s forecast. Don’t worry, millions of people survive tornado season every year, is a joke you might hear in reply. Grab a glazed twist and head for your first stop, less than a mile away.
Lake Overholser is a big, shallow lake that attracts scores of birds around its periphery. Large trees on its northern edge host Western Kingbirds, Baltimore Orioles, and perhaps a Bell’s Vireo. Scan the marsh and mudflats in the northeast corner of the lake for wading birds, too.
For a noisy lesson in egret and heron breeding, visit a rookery southeast of the lake (just west of Council and 10th). Great, Snowy, and Cattle egrets mingle with Little Blue Herons and Black-crowned Night-Herons by the hundreds.
Your next stop is three miles to the west. A mile north of Route 66 (on Sara Road) is one of the best shorebird spots in the region: a field that locals call Rose Lake since it’s often naturally flooded. Pull to the side of this quiet county road and—depending on the water levels—behold ibises, avocets, sandpipers, dowitchers, phalaropes, terns, and even possible godwits. Stick to the asphalt, since the field is private property. Spots like these are vital habitat for birds traversing the Central Flyway from the Arctic to South America and back again.
Cowboy Culture Lives; 12 p.m.
If it’s lunchtime and you haven’t had meat for three or more hours, you might be in breach of local ordinances. Consider heading to the historic stockyards for the city’s most famous restaurant, Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. This authentic eatery is a carnivore’s delight, and its floorboards have been trod by cowboys for more than 100 years.
Oklahoma only achieved statehood in 1907, and the state still retains a frontier air. That air is also perfumed by the stockyard behind Cattlemen’s, an active operation that holds cattle auctions twice a week. For another authentic cowboy experience, cross the street to visit Langston’s Western Wear for a primer on boots and enormous hats.
Best State Bird Ever; 2 p.m.
Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge is an area of marsh and hardwood forest that caps Lake Overholser. Begin at the east edge of the refuge and walk the gated road—labeled River Road on maps. Painted Buntings might appear atop the oaks and sycamores, while Red-eyed, White-eyed, and Warbling vireos sing from the deeper brush.
Not far away is yet another urban reservoir, Lake Hefner. On the way there, check the western sky for any towering storm clouds, which could force an ice cream stop at Braum’s—an Oklahoma favorite.
The west side of the lake features a park called Prairie Dog Point or Lakeshore Park, depending on whom you ask. With the sun at your back, check the mudflats for shorebirds and the lake for American White Pelicans. The nearby prairie will likely offer up Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flashing their salmon-colored flanks and 10-inch-long tails. Oklahoma makes up a major portion of this species’ narrow breeding grounds. It was chosen as the official state bird in 1951.
Dinner might call for a trip to the Asian District, a thriving part of town transformed by Vietnamese immigrants in the ‘70s. Try Pho Lien Hoa (for Vietnamese pho), Grand House (for Chinese), or Lido (for Vietnamese vermicelli bowls).
Birding Anew; 9 a.m.
Begin day two by exploring the downtown renaissance—a revival spurred by tax-funded construction, an oil-and-gas boom, and the arrival of a killer NBA team. Hit Kitchen 324 for a gourmet breakfast in a beautifully renovated building. Check the weather.
One of the most famous downtown landmarks is relatively new: The Oklahoma City National Memorial honors victims of the 1995 bombing. The memorial’s design is sublime. Its maturing trees are slowly attracting birds—kingbirds, waxwings, and more—further enriching the memorial as a place to celebrate life.
Another downtown destination is the Myriad Botanical Gardens. Tour the conservatory, housed in a gargantuan glass cylinder, or stroll the park to practice photographing a Great-tailed Grackle.
Buntings and Kites; 12 p.m.
Head north about 17 miles to Arcadia Lake, another great spot on Route 66. Along the way are the Oklahoma City Zoo and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, two of the city’s most visited destinations.
Arcadia Lake Central State Park might offer Mississippi Kites, Blue Grosbeaks, and several vireo species. More Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers could also cross your path as you head off to dinner.
Backdoor BBQ—perched between a wig store and your after-dinner bar in an up-and-coming area—offers beefy barbecue and several sauces. Afterward, retire to Granddad’s Bar next door and raise a glass to new birds and new frontiers.