Dick Malnory squinted through his binoculars toward a distant bird at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Friday. An avid birdwatcher and president of Friends of Hagerman, Malnory has been looking forward to seeing migrating shorebirds stop at Lake Texoma on their way north.

Dick Malnory squinted through his binoculars toward a distant bird at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Friday. An avid birdwatcher and president of Friends of Hagerman, Malnory has been looking forward to seeing migrating shorebirds stop at Lake Texoma on their way north.


The problem? There is now almost a mile of newly formed mud flats between Malnory and the greater yellowlegs bobbing in the lake, thanks to the ongoing drought.


Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge lies in the middle of what scientists call the Central Flyway, a swath of North America running from Mexico through the Great Plains into Central Canada. With ample food and few geographical obstacles, the Central Flyway serves as a sort of superhighway for birds as they migrate south for the winter and north for the summer. Hundreds of types of birds have been following this route for thousands of years.


Every superhighway needs a few rest stops along the way, though, and that’s where Lake Texoma comes in. Traveling birds will often stop for a day or so to rest up and grab a bite to eat before they move on. The lake is particularly important to shorebirds – gulls, sandpipers, plovers, and other birds that live and hunt along the shore.


Some 55 to 60 species of shorebird will be passing through Hagerman in the next two months. This includes rare, threatened birds like the piping plover and the interior least tern.


"They are still going to stop here," said Kathy Whaley, refuge manager at Hagerman. "People just aren’t going to be able to see them as well."


Whaley said she expects there will be plenty of room and food for the hundreds of thousands of shorebirds that will soon pass through. Common areas to watch those birds, however, are now hundreds of yards away from the retreating shore.


Whaley said Hagerman receives about 150,000 visitors a year from all over the nation. Many of these come to see the birds. As spring approaches, Whaley expects an increase in visitors, with what she calls "true birders" driving long distances to catch a glimpse of the migration.


"There’s just almost no shoreline left in the refuge," Malnory said. "You can still see the birds, but they are way out there." Malnory estimates that the arm of Lake Texoma that reaches into Hagerman is almost 75 percent dry.


Even if the drought continues, there will still be a few places to see shorebirds at Hagerman. Near Wildlife Road, a series of dykes separates off several small bodies of water, each about the size of a basketball court. These impoundments, said Whaley, are man-made reservoirs that can be emptied and filled by refuge staff. They are usually used to provide feeding grounds for ducks and other waterfowl, but may serve extra duty in the drought-stricken area.


"At the very least, we can still pump in those (impoundments) and there will be water around for the birds, as well as for the people to see the birds," Whaley said.


Whaley hopes visitors will be able to see shorebirds as they migrate through, but isn’t too worried that a poor showing from those birds will create a drop in attendance. After all, she noted, the spring migration means more than just those few species. Many types of songbirds, wading birds, birds of prey and more share the Central Flyway with the waterfowl, and they will be arriving soon, too. Birdwatchers who visit Hagerman will still have plenty to see.


"We’ll continue to have activities, because we’ll continue to have birds," Malnory noted, putting his binoculars away. "And people always want to look at birds."