Birds of the Lewis and Clark Journals

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.

Virginia Holmgren wrote a regular column on birds for The Sunday Oregonian for 22 years. This article, in slightly different form, originally appeared in We Proceeded On, the official publication of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc.


1Reuben G. Thwaites (editor), Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806, Dodd Mead & Co., N.Y., 1904. Reprint editions, Antiquarian Press, N.Y., 1959; Arno Press, N.Y., 1969. (Seven Volumes and Atlas). VI: 209.

2Ibid., II:255.

3Ibid., VI:128.

4Ibid., III: 140.

5Ibid., I: 38-39.

6Ibid., V:111, “virginia nitingale [sic].

7Ibid., I: 151. Thwaites (I:11) says: “Works reproduced by us in Italics enclosed by parentheses, are corrections in red ink, presumably by Biddle—e.g. (Moses B. Read); . . . . words in Italics, unenclosed, were underlined by the author [the original journalist] himself; . . .”

8Ibid., VI: 130-131.

9Locations cited: Fort Mandan, McClean County (near present-day Washburn) North Dakota; “Traveler’s Rest”, the name the Captains gave to their campsite near today’s Lolo, Montana (11 miles south of Missoula); Beacon Rock, a geologic landmark named by Lewis and Clark, in present-day Skamania County, Washington (on the Columbia River about 35 miles east of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington); Sauvie (the Expedition’s “Wapato”) Island, in Oregon just below the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers (the campsite was on the east or Washington State side of the river opposite the island near Ridgefield, Washington); For the location of Fort Clatsop, see Fn. 12, post.

10Op. cit., Thwaites, III:199.

11The Expedition’s winter establishment in Clatsop County, Oregon, about four and one-half miles southwest of present-day Astoria, Oregon.

12A more usable recapitulation than the Thwaites journal entries is the listing paraphrased by Elliott Coues (Editor), History of the Expedition Under the Command of Lewis and Clark . . . , Francis P. Harper, N.Y., 1893, reprint edition, Dover Publishers, N.Y., 1965 and later. See volume III, pages 867 to 890.

13Thwaites, op. cit., II:252.

14Ibid., III:15-16.

15Ibid., V:75-76, 82-83.

16Ibid., V:111-112.

17Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology, Bradsford & Inskeep, Philadelphia, 1808-1814, nine volumes. Several subsequent editions. The 1840 edition, reprint edition, Arno Press, N.Y., 1970, page 210. See also pages 7, 207-209, 262, 316-318, 586, for citings and comments about Lewis and Clark.

18Charles Willson Peale’s letter to a John Hawkins, May 5, 1807, is transcribed in: Donald Jackson (Editor), Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1962, 2nd edition 1978, pp. 410-411; see also Jackson’s note 1, p. 490.

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), was the first of a family of talented American artists. An officer in the American Revolution, following the war he founded the first popular museum of natural science and art in Philadelphia. He is best known for his museum and for the many paintings of the patriots and distinguished individuals of his time.

19Jackson, op. cit., Letter 377, pp. 607-608; Letter 389, p. 623.

20Peale’s sons undertook the operation of the museum following their father’s death. The collections were moved to several locations, and fraught with financial difficulties, Edmund Peale struggled to raise financing in 1845. Failing this, the museum contents were sold at a sheriff’s sale to Phineas Taylor Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame) in 1848. Probably the well-traveled bird skins from the Lewis and Clark Expedition were included in the collections purchased. Moses Kimball, a partner of Barnum took part of the collection to New York City, to the American Museum. Barnum’s Philadelphia museum burned in 1851, and a fire in 1865 destroyed much of the American Museum in New York.

21David Douglas (1798-1834). naturalist, botanist, world traveler, was born in Perthshire, Scotland. From 1825 to 1833 Douglas made several trips form England to the Pacific Coast (Oregon Territory, British Columbia, Saskatchewan), Hudson Bay, Mexico, present-day California, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Douglas discovered more than 50 species of trees, including the fir tree that bears his name and the sugar pine, and more than 100 species of shrubs, ferns and other plants.

22Thwaites, op. cit., III:171.

23Ibid., IV: 148. Concerning the Italics see footnote 8, ante.

24Editor’s note: At the Foundation’s August 1983 annual meeting, at the suggestion of Virginia Holmgren to the Foundation’s Planning and Development Committee, a motion was passed appointing and authorizing Foundation member Paul R. Cutright, Jenkintown, PA, to act as spokesman for the Foundation is support of the resolution at the September 1983 meeting of the American Ornithologists Union in New York City.

25John James Audubon (1785-1851), American ornithologist and artist, was born in Haiti. Settled in Philadelphia in 1803, and in 1808 moved to Kentucky and opened a general store in Louisville. Following bankruptcy, he began painting birds from life in 1819. He traveled extensively observing and painting birds. His Birds of America (1827-1838) and his Ornithological Biography (1839) established his reputation. He wrote: “My journey to the mouth of the Columbia is ever in my minds.” Maria Audubon (Editor), Audubon and his Journals, Scribner, 1897. Reprint: Dover Publications, Inc., N.Y., 1970, page 302. unfortunately he was never able to travel to the Pacific Coast or to the mouth of the Columbia River.

26Thwaites, op. cit., II:180.

27Ibid., I:197.

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