If you like cold temperatures and snow, my hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was the place to be last winter.
We had storm after storm. Schools closed. The airport shut down. County buses and hundreds of motorists got stuck in snowdrifts. And a few times, we were treated to the rare spectacle of a windy sky filled with swirling, fat snowflakes lit by flashes of lightning – thundersnow.
Almost 100 inches fell in all, more than Cream City meteorologists had recorded in over a century, and little of it melted between storms. This made clearing the front walk progressively more challenging as the season wore on, since we manual shovelers soon ran out of places to pile our snow.
The chickadees and nuthatches toughed it out, as usual, but other birds were few and far between. It’s true, I listened to an intrepid Northern Cardinal singing in early February, a sign that the gods of winter would relax their icy grip eventually. But snowflakes continued to fall through March, accompanied by freezing rain.
By the time April rolled around, I had had enough. To the consternation of my wife, I put down my shovel and grabbed my binoculars. Somewhere, I knew, birds were migrating. I would go find them.
Anxious to see not just a few species, but many, and to treat my snow-blind eyes to lots of each, I set out not for the edges of our continent, but for its warm breadbasket center.
Hoping to position myself in one of the few special regions that offer opportunities to find migrants from both eastern and western North America, I boarded a plane and flew south and west, but not too far in either direction.
My intention was to see not only flocks of shovelers, teal, and other waterfowl winging their way north but also godwits, yellowlegs, and other shorebirds making their annual epic migration over the interior plains of the continent.
What’s more, I wanted to see Pied-billed, Horned, Eared, Western, and Clark’s Grebe; both Black- and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons; American White Pelicans; and American Avocets and Wilson’s Phalaropes in breeding plumage. And I wanted to go to a place where I knew wildlife watchers, and especially birdwatchers, were welcome.
I went to Great Bend, Kansas.
The town sits not only in the center of the country and at the middle of the Central Flyway but between the pair of wetlands known as the state’s “great oasis”: Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and state-owned Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Area.
‘A remarkable place’
Much has been written over the years about each location, and deservedly so. Both are on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, and both have been recognized by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network for their importance to shorebirds. Indeed, the Bottoms was the first non-federal area to be designated a WHSRN Wetland of International Importance.
According to the Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages more than 7,300 acres of critical wetlands and grasslands within the 41,000-acre Cheyenne Bottoms complex, up to a quarter million waterfowl and nearly a half of all North American shorebirds migrating east of the Rocky Mountains stop at the Bottoms to rest and refuel during their seasonal movements. In years when water conditions are favorable (that is, when rainfall is low enough to expose the mud that wading birds prefer), the migrants include at least 90 percent of the total population of White-rumped Sandpipers, Baird’s Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Wilson’s Phalaropes.
“In terms of variety of species and numbers of birds,” wrote one well-traveled birder in the New York Times, “this is a remarkable place. Some of the finest birding on the continent is to be had in these impressive wetlands, especially during the spring migration.”
Of the 468 bird species known to Kansas, 311 have been observed at Quivira and 330 have been recorded at the Bottoms, and the list of birds that nest at the two wetlands is long. It includes showy Snowy, Cattle, and Great Egrets; retiring Virginia and Black Rails; and state-threatened Snowy Plovers and White-faced Ibis. A colony of endangered interior Least Terns uses the salt flats at Quivira’s north end. Black-necked Stilts breed at Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira and nowhere else in Kansas. No wonder both sites were designated Globally Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy.
Proud of its wetlands and their birds, the city of Great Bend hosts a festival every other spring known as the Wings ‘n’ Wetlands Weekend. This year’s event, scheduled to take place April 24-26, promises to be especially fun since it will coincide with the opening of a new visitor’s and education center overlooking Cheyenne Bottoms. Offering interpretive exhibits, an auditorium, a dramatic observation platform, and expert answers to questions as well as restrooms and a wetlands store, the 11,246-square-foot Kansas Wetlands Education Center is sure to become a popular stop along the 76-mile Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway that now links the Bottoms with its sister refuge to the south.
For the most part, the byway runs parallel to north-south-running U.S. Highway 281 and starts and ends at it — and appropriately so. Fifteen hundred miles long, the highway not only passes straight through the heart of Great Bend but traces on the ground the path flown by many of the birds that appear at the Bottoms and Quivira each spring.
Get in your car at Great Bend and turn one way, and the highway will carry you straight past Quivira through Oklahoma to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, winter refuge for warblers from the north and spring destination for migrants from the Neotropics. Head out of town the other way, and you will soon reach not only the Platte River in Nebraska, annual gathering place for thousands of Sandhill Cranes, but also North Dakota’s famous prairie pothole country and, farther north, the U.S.-Canada border.
Workers were still putting the finishing touches on the wetlands center when I began my spring migrant search last April. Back in Milwaukee, the temperatures were in the low, slushy 40s. Here the mercury was pushing 80.
My guides were two of Kansas’s best birders: Rob Penner, Cheyenne Bottoms and avian programs manager with the Kansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and Mike Rader, a wildlife education specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Mike was a key member of teams that twice set records for the number of bird species counted in the state in a single day — 210 in 2000 and 225 in 2002. Both efforts were led by Mark Robbins, collections manager at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and another of the state’s best birders.
It’s true, the totals stand in the shadow of big day records from California and Texas (a week or so before I went to Kansas, a team in Texas sponsored by Nikon counted 260 species, a record for the ABA Area), but they speak volumes not only about the birdiness of Kansas, a state that lacks coastlines and mountains, but also about Mike’s birding skills. An April day spent with him left me with a long list of sightings and more than enough warm memories to tide me over until the last of the snow melted back home in Wisconsin.
A few of my favorites: Discovering an Eastern Screech-Owl the color of gray bark in a cavity in a tree covered with gray bark. Watching a Virginia Rail tip-toe so close that I thought it might peck at my shoelaces. Spotting a tiny Bell’s Vireo in a roadside thicket moments after Mike heard its chatty cheedle-cheedle-chew song. And pausing, with the engine off and windows open, to enjoy the buzzing of Clay-colored Sparrows.
Peak breeding plumage
We drove down a dike road, and Cliff Swallows swirled in the air, rocketing out seemingly from beneath our vehicle and tracing wide, arcing paths over the wetlands before darting back to their starting point. In ponds to my left and right, I saw birds at the peak of breeding plumage: Heavily barred Stilt Sandpipers, each with white eyebrows and chestnut patches on its cheeks. Blue-gray-crowned female Wilson’s Phalaropes with peach-colored throats, dark stripes on their long necks, and cabernet-colored scapulars. And a single, remarkable Franklin’s Gull.
The last time I had seen the so-called Prairie Dove was July 2007, and it was far from a prairie. I was in Glacier Bay, Alaska, watching a huge, whirling flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and other white-headed gulls when a lone black-headed bird caught my eye, a Franklin’s. Its head was covered with a breeding bird’s full hood, but the color of its underparts – snow white – told me that its breeding time had already passed.
The Franklin’s Gull Mike, Rob, and I discovered couldn’t have looked more different. Its black hood was full, too, but its chest and belly were washed with luminous rosy pink. The color, I know, is temporary; it would fade two to four weeks after arrival on the breeding grounds. But for now, the bird glowed as if it were lit from within.
A slow drive along a dirt road in the North Unit of Quivira turned up another welcome sign of the changing seasons: a Killdeer, one of the earliest-returning migrants, running ahead of us while holding its wings as if it were injured, a distraction display. Figuring that the nest had to be nearby, we pulled to a stop and slowly, carefully, backed up until we found it. Leaning out my passenger’s-seat window, I looked down on the center of the bird’s universe: a scratch in the surface of the road lined with pebbles containing four eggs.
They weren’t the only eggs I saw.
Mike later drove to the eastern edge of the refuge, in Stafford County a mile or so south of the Rice County-Reno County line, and parked by an old woodlot filled with still-leafless northern catalpa trees. He had been visiting it for over a decade because a small number of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons – a species best known as a resident of the southeastern United States and one considered rare back home in Wisconsin – had made it the location of their colony. Each year, he usually finds 8-10 nests.
The three of us hiked to the far edge of the woodlot, spaced ourselves out, and then walked slowly back toward the road, ducking branches, stepping over fallen limbs, and scanning the branches above for Yellow-crowneds and the prickly-looking masses of heavy and fine twigs that make up their nests. By the time we reached our starting point, we had tallied about a dozen birds and several nests.
A single egg
And arching my back as I peered up from the foot of one tree into the daylight streaming through a stick nest high above, I had spied something more: the outline of a single elliptical egg. The night-herons are known to nest locally in Kansas in eight counties, not just here, but they typically arrive about the time I did, in late April, so I considered myself fortunate to have seen the egg.
The possibility of making such discoveries – the surprise of the unpredictable to spice up the calendrical turning of the seasons – is the main reason why birding at Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira is always so enjoyable, I believe. And I bet Michael Andersen would agree with me.
He and two other Kansas birdwatchers were at Quivira, not too far from the Yellow-crowneds’ woodlot, on a clear day a month before I visited Great Bend. They were watching Sandhill Cranes, several hundred of them, soaring high over the Big Salt Marsh as the sun set, when they noticed one that looked larger than the others. Curious, the birders tracked the crane as the flock circled lower and caught a glimpse of slate-gray flight feathers and a black throat that contrasted with a bright white cheek.
After a while, the cranes settled inside the wildlife drive loop about half a mile away from Andersen. Through his spotting scope, he was able to make out a black throat and upper neck, and a white cheek bordered by black at the gape, chin, and crown.
There could be no mistake. He was birding in the heart of Kansas, at the midpoint on the Central Flyway and the center of the continent, but he was looking at a bird from Asia. It was a Common Crane, the first Kansas record.
I should have stopped shoveling sooner.
Chuck Hagner is the editor of BirdWatching magazine.
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