When most people think of Kansas, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t birds. Kansas is often viewed as a state that should be passed through as swiftly as possible. However, for those willing to leave the road, Kansas has an abundance of birdlife. It is ideal for western birders who want to see eastern species without having to fly across the country.
Kansas is located in the geographic middle of North America and the Central Flyway. Because of its central position, Kansas attracts birds from all across the continent, with vagrants coming from all directions.
Another explanation for Kansas’ diverse avifauna is the state’s diverse environments. Birders may explore sand/sage prairie, salt marshes, mixed-grass grassland, tallgrass prairie, and eastern forest from west to east, with each zone providing its own bird specialities.
While most Kansas birders travel the western Kansas steppes in search of birds of the western United States, the western birder may construct an outstanding list of eastern species in this location. Eastern warblers, for example, are significantly more common in western Kansas than in the state’s centre. Because trees are so rare in western Kansas, all of the eastern vagrants end up in the same little cemeteries and windbreaks, along with a few western peculiarities. As a result, the same windbreak that supports a Hooded, Worm-eating, Mourning, or Black-throated Blue Warbler may also support a Townsend’s, Virginia’s, MacGillivray’s, or Black-throated Gray Warbler.
Central Kansas is made up of a combination of agriculture fields and mixed-grass grassland. Many grassland species, including Eastern and Western Meadowlarks and Eastern and Western Kingbirds, are abundant. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers seem much too exotic to be perched on power wires and barbed wire fences. During migration, it is normal to witness thousands of Franklin’s Gulls in a single day.
Swainson’s Hawks are widespread in rural locations, whereas Mississippi Kites nest in city and town trees. These summer raptors are replaced in the winter months by an inflow of Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and Northern Harriers.
Small breeding populations of Painted Buntings, Greater Roadrunners, and Lesser Prairie-chickens may be found in south-central Kansas.
Despite the variety of grassland species, central Kansas is most known for two wetland habitats, Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, both of which are detailed in detail below.
The Flint Hills area, about two-thirds of the way across the state, features some of the world’s greatest stretches of tallgrass prairie. Because of the Flint Hills’ thin soils and rocky outcrops, the prairie ecology has been able to persist largely intact. The Flint Hills are home to a thriving population of Greater Prairie chickens. Upland Sandpiper, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, Lark Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark are other grassland nesting species. Smith’s Longspurs and Savannah, Clay-colored, and Harris’ Sparrows cluster together during migration.
The birdlife of Kansas’s eastern fourth is characteristic of the eastern United States, with eastern songbirds in river bottoms and mixed forests and a vast diversity of ducks and gulls at the several major reservoirs. A Western Kingbird may be the sole sign that the birder is west of the Mississippi.
Cimarron National Grassland, with over 108,000 acres encompassing the state’s southwest region, is the birding destination of western Kansas. This is Kansas’ biggest stretch of public property, and it, along with the surrounding town of Elkhart, is the most probable location to discover numerous western species. The Cimarron National Grassland is one of the final strongholds of the Lesser Prairie chicken, albeit these birds are rare and declining. Cassin’s and Brewer’s Sparrows, Curve-billed Thrasher, Rock Wren, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Chihuahuan Raven, and Long-billed Curlew are among the Western species reported to nest here. In recent years, a few Mountain Plover couples have nested on the grassland.
The grassland attracts an inflow of birds from both the west and the north throughout the winter. Expect to see Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, Merlins, Northern Shrikes, and Mountain Bluebirds. Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs abound in milo fields, with lower numbers of Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs.
The following are only a handful of the more popular places in Cimarron National Grassland. The grassland office in Elkhart has detailed maps and information. Anyone planning a trip to this region can get a free copy of the Forest Service’s Birds of Cimarron National Grassland, General Technical Report RM-GTR-281 (addresses below). This book contains thorough species accounts as well as other information on grasslands.
The Elkhart Cemetery should be included in any visit to Cimarron National Grassland. The big trees at this location attract migratory songbirds. A windbreak, also on public property, is located across the road from the cemetery. This small tree planting is one of Kansas’ top birding spots, drawing warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows from both east and west. Barn Owls are often seen roosting here.
The Elkhart sewage ponds, the area’s biggest permanent bodies of water, are located about northwest of the windbreak. During migration, these ponds are home to a great number of shorebirds and ducks.
The Forest Service’s maintenance headquarters is located two and a half miles north of Elkhart on state route 27. This site’s dense conifer planting provides cover for both songbirds and raptors, particularly during the winter. Birders are allowed to wander through this area, however they must take care not to obstruct the gate while exiting the roadway.
Continue north on 27 until you reach the Cimarron River. A picnic spot on the right side of the road south of the river allows birders to park and explore the riparian ecosystem. The Cimarron River’s trees offer an east-west migratory corridor as well as nesting habitat for several species.
A dirt path leads to Middle Spring just north of the river on the left side of the roadway. In the midst of vast shortgrass prairie, this little damp patch serves as an excellent migratory trap. Point of Rocks is a massive rock outcrop one mile west of Middle Spring that constantly affords a spectacular view of the grasslands and sometimes yields western vagrants on the brushy foothills.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in rural Kansas is one of the greatest and most underappreciated birding destinations in North America. Quivira is a key stopover on the Central Flyway for shorebirds, waders, and ducks, as well as a home to a variety of upland species, including salt marshes, alkali flats, tiny ponds, scattered woodlots, and mixed-grass prairie.
While other locations in North America attract more birds, few can compete with Quivira in terms of species variety and birder accessibility. The lakes and mudflats of Quivira’s Big Salt Marsh reach all the way to the road’s edge. Snowy Plovers dart in front of the automobile, as Least Terns soar above. Because the salinity of the water prevents cattails and other flora from colonising the mudflats, ordinarily shy species like American Bitterns and King Rails may be observed standing in the open.
Quivira’s major draw is its shorebirds. The most frequent migrants, in addition to breeding SnowyPlovers, American Avocets, and Black-necked Stilts, are Baird’s, White-rumped, Least, Semipalmated, Pectoral, and Stilt Sandpipers, both Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Wilson’sPhalaropes. Buff-breasted and Western Sandpipers, Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits, Sanderlings, Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, American Golden Plovers, and Piping Plovers may all be found with a little effort.
The arrival of Whooping Cranes in late October and early November is one of the highlights of autumn migration. Whooping Cranes are sometimes seen in the spring, although they seldom stay for more than a day. In both spring and autumn, tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes congregate.
Quivira receives birds from the southern United States on occasion. The many Little Blue Herons are sometimes joined by a small number of Tricolored Herons. Mottled Ducks are uncommon nesters in the area. Abundant Moorhens reproduce seldom, although Great-tailed Grackles have grown more common in recent years.
The Little Salt Marsh near Quivira’s southern end lacks the Big Salt Marsh’s huge mudflats. The deeper waterways and heavier vegetation of the Little Salt Marsh, on the other hand, attract a large number of waterfowl, waders, and raptors. The refuge office and visitors centre are also situated on the refuge’s southern edge. Maps and updated information are available at the visitors centre.
While the marshes get the most attention, the highland ecosystems of Quivira are home to a variety of species. Northern Bobwhites, Ring-necked Pheasants, and Wild Turkeys may be found in plenty. Summer inhabitants include Dickcissels and Grasshopper Sparrows, two species that are declining in most of the nation.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge has excellent birdwatching from the automobile, but visitors are urged to explore the property on foot. A birder may spend a whole day walking along the edge of a marsh or across a tract of grassland, getting up up and personal with birds and other species.
Cheyenne Bottoms Waterfowl Management Area, a state-owned wetland near Great Bend, is Kansas’ most well-known birding destination. Cheyenne Bottoms, located 25 miles north of Quivira, was regarded as one of the most significant wetlands in the Western Hemisphere. During spring migration, it is estimated that 45% of shorebirds east of the Rockies, and up to 90% of the population of many species, paused at this marsh.
Unfortunately, circumstances in The Bottoms have deteriorated dramatically over the last decade. The enormous mudflats that once brought shorebirds to one of the country’s biggest interior marshes have all but disappeared due to a significant invasion of cattails, water supply issues, and management rules that promote waterfowl hunting.
The location still draws geese and cranes, but birders will have much better success at Quivira for up-close observation. On a more positive note, The Nature Conservancy recently bought land along Cheyenne Bottoms’ northwest boundary and is managing it to encourage shorebirds.
There are numerous state-owned facilities available to the public in this area, but wonderful birdwatching may be experienced just by driving on some of the smaller state highways and county roads. Cassoday, located along Interstate 35 in Butler County, promotes itself as “the Prairie-chicken capital of the world” and draws both birders and hunters in the spring and autumn. In the spring, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks office in Emporia (phone 316-342-0658) has blinds for observing Greater Prairie-chickens.
Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge is located southeast of Emporia, near the small community of Hartford. The majority of this refuge is dominated by waterfowl habitat, since it is located inside the flood pool of John Redmond Reservoir, however several grassland species may also be found. The spillway at the lake’s southern end is often useful for ducks and gulls.
Lyon State Fishing Lake, northeast of Emporia, is the best place in Kansas to observe Smith’s Longspurs. On late autumn and early spring, these birds may be seen in the mowed hayfields south of the lake.
Linn County’s Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area is a popular birding destination in eastern Kansas. This area’s numerous shallow lakes and marshes attract enormous numbers of migratory ducks and shorebirds. Many eastern songbirds, like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, live in the forests and brushy areas. Red-shouldered Hawks with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Both Chuck-wills-widows and Whip-poor-wills may be heard on spring evenings. In an attempt to protect and restore the riparian forests along the Marais des Cygnes River, the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge is now being established near this location.
Fort Leavenworth, located just north of Kansas City, provides public access and superb birdwatching possibilities along the Missouri River. This is a great site to watch eastern warblers and one of the few places in Kansas where Cerulean and Yellow-throated Warblers nest. The Ozark Plateau encompasses the farthest southeastern corner of Kansas. The bird life and landscape in this region are as eastern as Kansas gets. This is the only spot in Kansas where you can see Fish Crows. Schermerhorn Park, located one mile south of Galena on K-26, is a popular birding destination in this area of the state.
Birding in Kansas allows western birders to see eastern birds with typical western species. Where else can you see Western Grebes and Cinnamon Teals with Mottled Ducks and Tricolored Herons? Grassland species abound, while eastern forest birds may be found across the state. The birder in Kansas may not see the sheer quantity of birds that may be seen in some of the continent’s more recognised locations on a regular basis. But there are few areas in North America where a birder may view a greater mix of species and habitats in a single day, from the Ozark woodland in the east to the desert sagebrush in the west.
RARE BIRD ALERTS
Kansas City 913-342-2373
For maps, checklists, and current conditions contact:
NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGES
Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 128
Hartford, KS 66854
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
Route 3, Box 48A
Stafford, KS 67578
Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge
Route 1, Box 103
Kirwin, KS 67644
Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks
Route 2, Box 54A
Pratt, KS 67124
Cimarron National Grassland
242 Hwy 56 East
P.O. Box J
Elkhart, KS 67950
For a free copy of Birds of Cimarron National Grassland, (General
Technical Report RM-GTR-281) write to:
Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station
240 W. Prospect Rd.
Fort Collins, CO 80526
Watching Kansas Wildlife: A Guide to 101 Sites by Bob Gress and George Potts. A current and concise guide to the best public access sites for watching birds and other wildlife in the state.
A Guide to Bird Finding in Kansas and Western Missouri by John Zimmerman and Sebastian Patti. Some of the material in this book is out of date, but it is still the most comprehensive guide to birding in Kansas.
Formerly an avid flyfisher from Indiana, John Rakestraw took up birding and herping when he moved to western Kansas and found no water. He currently lives in Ohio, where he is a naturalist for the Greene County Park District.