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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Mallards take flight from a wetland in mid-December at Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oklahoma. Some 5,000 to 10,000 ducks were seen on the wetland during a drive along the refuge tour road.

The curtain rises quickly when wildlife puts on a show at the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oklahoma.

Soon as a trio of visitors crossed into the refuge, binoculars and cameras focused on a pair of bald eagles tending to a nest not far from the gravel tour road. A flock of white pelicans soared silently in the morning sky above the eagle pair.

Visit Sequoyah refuge

As NWA Outdoors was completed late last week, the partial federal government shutdown was in effect. Limited entry into the refuge is allowed.

A notice on the refuge website reads: Where public access to refuge lands does not require the presence of a federal employee or contractor, activities on refuge lands will be allowed to continue on the same terms as before the appropriations lapse. Any entry onto refuge system property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor’s own risk.

Information: 918-773-5251, www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/oklahoma/sequoyah/

"That's pretty good. Two bald eagles and pelicans and we've only been here five minutes," said Joe Neal of Fayetteville.

His friend Terry Stanfill gathered photo after stunning photo of the adult eagles sprucing up their nest of long sticks and soft grass high in a tree at the edge of a clearing.

Wildlife, wetlands and wide open spaces treat visitors on a drive through Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge, 35 miles west of Fort Smith near Vian, Okla. The tract is a nature and exploration haven situated where the Canadian River meets the Arkansas River.

The friendly staff at the small visitor center revealed some amazing facts when the three stopped in. First, the refuge is huge, massive. At 20,800 acres, it's home to furry and feathered wildlife, critters that walk on four legs and two. Hunting of deer, ducks and small game is allowed on parts of the refuge.

Eagles we'd seen nest-prepping at the entrance will lay eggs in February, the ranger said, then guided us to a rack of free refuge maps and pamphlets.

Six miles of gravel tour road lead visitors through meadows and forest, past wetlands and along the shore of the Arkansas River and Kerr Reservoir. Robert S. Kerr Reservoir is a pool of the Arkansas River, backed up by a lock and dam downstream.

During winter, windshield explorers might come upon thousands upon thousands of ducks and geese. That proved true on this trip to the refuge on Dec. 12. From the visitor center, the trio headed south to look at herons and song birds along a creek. It was sound, not sight, that caught Stanfill's attention farther down the gravel road.

"That's either a bunch of mallards or 200 hunters blowing their duck calls," said Stanfill of Decatur.

Tires crunched upon loose gravel until a vast wetland unfolded beside the tour road. Two hundred ducks? Try 20 times that many, all spread out or huddled in tight groups across the shallow water.

"There could be 5,000 mallards. There could be 10,000," Neal hollered, giddy at the sight. "There's layers and layers of them."

Neal has been around the block when it comes to birds. He's written books and articles on birds and has spent his life watching their every move.

"I've never, ever seen so many ducks in one place anywhere. Mostly their numbers are in the hundreds," he said.

The wondrous scene played out less than 50 yards from the tour road. Waves of mallards leaped from the water and clawed for altitude. The scene resembled the famous photograph, "Claypool Reservoir," taken near Stuttgart in 1956. The picture shows 300,000 mallards on the water and in the sky. Mention Arkansas duck hunting and waterfowlers around the world imagine the photograph.

Another wonder is the group hadn't yet driven a mile of the tour road. While they marveled at the ducks, commotion caught their attention as uncountable numbers of snow geese rose from a nearby clearing in a symphony of wild goose music.

Midway through the drive, a spur off the tour road led to a boat ramp where three rangers readied a boat to launch in an Arkansas River backwater. It was duck season in Oklahoma, and the rangers said the refuge is a big-time duck hunting destination. Special regulations apply.

"We get a lot of hunters from Fayetteville and a lot from Missouri," one ranger said. That wetland with the 10,000 mallards? Obviously not open for hunting, he added. Deer hunting by permit is allowed on parts of the refuge.

"There's good squirrel and rabbit hunting," the ranger said, wearing a uniform of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This area is way underutilized for that."

Quiet backwater sloughs around the refuge beckon to be explored in canoes or kayaks. Boat ramps at some sloughs make for easy launching.

Three active bald eagle nests and a couple of abandoned nests were icing on the sightseeing cake before the tour road looped back to the visitor center and refuge entrance.

Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge delivered way more than expected. Neal summed it up: "A remarkable, over-the-top kind of day."

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fputthoff@nwadg.com

Sports on 01/08/2019

Print Headline: Drive on the wild side

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