We returned to central Kansas to revisit Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge at what is usually the peak of the shorebird migration. Unfortunately, all the recent rain had flooded the mudflats, sandy areas, and very shallow water preferred by most shorebirds, so the numbers were about the same as two weeks ago, but it was still fun. One night at Cheyenne Bottoms, I used an ultrasonic microphone to record bat echolocation calls, and was surprised to detect Evening Bat, a species we had previously found only in Kentucky.
After picking up our mail at a small local post office, where it had been sent to “general delivery” by our mail forwarding service, we headed for Quivira, where we made another attempt to hear Black Rail. This is a rare, tiny, mostly black, principally nocturnal bird that lives in dense, usually tall marsh vegetation. As you might guess, it is extremely difficult to see, but at least it has a very distinctive primary vocalization, usually rendered “kee-kee-doo”. It is hard to find anywhere but especially inland, where it breeds only in extreme southeast California (where we heard it in 1985) and central Kansas. We last heard Black Rail in Maryland in 2004, where in my college years I saw them twice.
One had been heard several times in the last three weeks at Quivira, so we parked in the general area and made dinner, waiting for it to get dark (they call mostly late at night). To our surprise, an hour before sunset, one started calling sporadically, and we eventually were able to get within 15 feet and listen to it call almost continuously for about 20 minutes! It was a stunning experience to hear it so well (as well as a second bird farther away. We certainly could have seen the bird by flushing it, as it was calling from a very narrow strip of bulrushes and cattails, but we did not wish to disturb the bird, nor spoil the chances of other birders.
Recording we made of Black Rail (with Sedge Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Mourning Dove in the background), Quivira NWR, KS:
One day we spent canoeing on the Pawnee River near Larned, KS. This river normally cannot be paddled as it has too little water, but swollen with the recent rains, it looked possible, though we would have to overcome a substantial current going upstream. But this proved feasible and we paddled seven miles round trip, seeing a Common Watersnake, observing several huge Snapping Turtles climbing the steep banks, and enjoying the lovely native trees lining the river (American Elm, Box-Elder, and Green Ash predominated).
After visiting a site where you can see the ruts left by wagons traveling on the Santa Fe Trail, we made one final pass through Quivira on our way east to more tallgrass prairie. We had nice studies of Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers in breeding plumage, and added Black and Least Terns to the trip list. The latter is very localized in interior North America, as it is dependent on sandbars and sandflats for nesting.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, in east-central Kansas, is managed by the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). It is located in the northern Flint Hills, and it was the shallow bedrock (limestone and shale) that prevented it from being plowed. Recall in an earlier post that we visited a different TNC tallgrass preserve in Oklahoma, at the south end of the Flint Hills (also known as the Osage Hills). Somewhat under 4% of the original tallgrass prairie persists, and most of that is in the Flint Hills. Wildflowers here overlapped with what we saw in the Osage Hills but a seven-mile loop hike on our first day still netted six new plants and a new butterfly, the Southern Cloudywing. The hike provided the best rolling prairie vistas of the trip. We also enjoyed a lovely paddle at our campsite at Chase State Fishing Lake near Cottonwood Falls, and at night the Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs serenaded us constantly.
After a full day of rain keeping us in camp, we hiked about four miles the following day in partial rain, finding six more new species. The highlight of the day was on the way home when we passed a limestone outcrop by the road and I noticed a large species of Penstemon in flower. This turned out to be P. cobaea, with two-inch white flowers having purple veins, a magnificent species! I felt we had done a decent job sampling the preserve, and it was time to move on. But the forecast was absolutely perfect, so we decided to stay one more day and did another seven miles of hiking – without finding a single new species! Fortunately a shut-out was avoided when Eileen was able to get diagnostic photos of a Yellow-bellied Kingsnake in the camping area. We also got nice photos of Killdeer chicks, and a Common Nighthawk (which perches along a branch, rather than across it like other birds), and I recorded Eastern Red Bat at the campsite.
After a day of transit and town activities (laundry, food shopping, filling propane, and church) in Manhattan, KS, we were ready to visit the TNC Konza Prairie Preserve, which is managed primarily by Kansas State University. We hiked the six miles of trails on a warm, windy day, seeing mostly the same species in flower as at the previous location, though adding another spectacular Penstemon, this one P. grandiflorus. At the campsite that evening, Eileen was sitting outside when she looked down to see a three-foot snake gliding under her, almost touching the heels of her sneakers. After checking that it was not poisonous she called to me, and I photographed it. About ten minutes later a second snake came through, along almost the same path. These proved to be Western Ratsnake, another new snake for us.
We left Kansas yesterday, making a quick stop at TNC’s Rulo Bluff Preserve, in southeast Nebraska, and today we will visit another TNC preserve, Folsom Point, in southwest Iowa. Then we make the longest transit of our prairie itinerary, to northeast Colorado and shortgrass prairie again.