Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and the adjacent land held by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), in central Kansas, comprise a globally critical area for migrating shorebirds (sandpipers, plovers, etc.). In some years, an estimated 40% of the shorebirds breeding in North America pass through the Bottoms during spring migration. The Bottoms is a natural wet area created by a geological sink and relatively impermeable soils, and they have exceptionally high concentrations of midges and other insect life that provide food for the migrating shorebirds. It is also a generally excellent birding location, especially in spring. For about 20 years John Parmeter and I held the record for the most species of birds seen in one day in inland North America (209 species in southern California), but in the last decade birders here have beaten our total by up to nearly 10%.
About an hour south of Cheyenne Bottoms is another outstanding wetland area, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. It is especially notable for its salt marshes, which are formed when ground water, which has been in contact with subterranean salt, is forced to the surface by very shallow bedrock.
We spent two days at each location. Although about three weeks ahead of the average peak date (when we’ll pass through the area again), we still saw a nice assortment of shorebirds, with numbers in the low thousands. Of particular interest to us were species that are local and uncommon inland, such as Snowy and Piping Plovers; and species that I had previously only seen in fall, when small numbers reach the Atlantic Coast, such as Hudsonian Godwit and Baird’s Sandpiper. We counted 56 Snowy Plovers from one spot, and saw around 30 Hudsonian Godwits in total, some in full breeding plumage, a real treat!
One night we stayed out late at Quivera, trying to hear a Black Rail, one of North America’s most mysterious birds. Although we were unsuccessful, perhaps due to strong winds, right at dusk a Western Massasauga Rattlesnake emerged from the marshes and we had leisurely looks when it stopped in the road. Most North American rattlesnakes are in the genus Crotalus, which we have seen many times, but Eastern and Western Massasauga and Pygmy Rattlesnake are placed in a separate genus, Sistrurus. This was a new genus for us, and one we had long hoped to see, as we never found one in five years of censusing a very isolated occurrence of Small White Lady’s-Slipper orchids in western New York state, at a location with a similarly isolated population Eastern Massasauga.
Other nice birds we saw or heard in Quivira and/or Cheyenne Bottoms were King Rail, Stilt and White-rumped Sandpipers, Franklin’s Gull (which nests in northern prairies), Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes, American Bittern, and Bank Swallows. The latter were in a flock of about 200 birds that rested on a dike, perhaps not wanting to waste energy flying on a windy day when their prey, flying insects, were scarce. Harris’ Sparrows were also pretty common, and some were singing, the first time I have heard this species.
When a projected day-long rain started, we headed off, preferring to use bad weather days for longer drives. Our next stop was to the southeast, just over the border in Oklahoma: the TNC Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. As background, the North American prairies are usually classified into one of three categories: short-grass, in the west; tall-grass, in the east; and mixed-grass, in the middle. Mixed-grass prairie contains species from both the short-grass and tall-grass habitats. The short-grass and mixed-grass prairies are together often called the Great Plains. Elevation decreases and rainfall increases from west to east, supporting the taller grasses farther east. The tall-grass prairies have been nearly entirely eliminated by agriculture, with only 1% to 4% remaining, mostly in rockier areas that were harder to plow.
So far on the trip we had visited a number of examples of short-grass prairie (Rita Blanca, Kiowa, Comanche, and Cimarron National Grasslands (NGs)) and mixed-grass prairie (Lyndon B. Johnson and Black Kettle NGs). But in our lives we had only ever seen one small remnant patch of tall-grass prairie, in southern Canada, so we were especially looking forward to seeing this habitat! Though it would be even better to visit in the fall, when the grasses can reach eight feet high, seeing them in spring would at least be a start.
As we drove to the TNC preserve we were excited by the variety of native wildflowers in bloom, despite the early date. We identified an impressive 9 new plants that day, clear evidence of our not having sampled this habitat before. The scenery was lovely, with rolling prairie interrupted by cross-timbers habitat. The latter are upland wooded areas dominated by relatively short oaks (maybe 30 to 50 feet tall). Unlike riparian woodlands, which need considerable moisture and so run along watercourses, the cross-timbers are tolerant of fairly dry soil, so their wooded bands are somewhat randomly arranged relative to watercourses, often crossing them, hence their name. We camped in cross-timbers at Osage Hills State Park, where we had Red-headed Woodpecker, Summer Tanager, Prothonotary and Kentucky Warblers, and Eastern Collared Lizard.
This TNC preserve is a grand experiment to create a fully functioning tall-grass prairie, like those of a century ago. Two critical components for achieving this are fire and Bison, both of which are actively managed by the TNC. They have reintroduced Bison to the preserve, and currently about 2700 of them roam around 24,000 acres of the 40,000-acre preserve (this is the largest protected tract of tall-grass prairie in the world). Controlled burns are arranged somewhat randomly, like fires caused by lightning, so there is always a mosaic of grasslands having different ages since the last burn. The Bison particularly seek out recent burns, as the returning foliage is especially lush. Although we have seen Bison too many times to count, watching them drift across the tall-grass prairie landscape was a unique and memorable experience.