Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Kansas: Wings N Wetlands Birding Festival

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Last week I attended the biennial Wings ‘N Wetlands festival, right in the heart of Kansas. The Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area are the heart and soul of the festival, highlighting the wetlands considered by many to be the most important in the Western Hemisphere for shorebird migration. Indeed, it’s estimated that in normal years, a full 45 percent of the North American shorebird population stops here during spring migration.

As a national wildlife refuge, Quivira is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service; the land was purchased in large part thanks to Duck Stamp revenues contributed by birders, Duck Stamp collectors, and hunters, all specifically to protect waterfowl habitat. Cheyenne Bottoms is managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, with a large swath of adjacent habitat owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.

The drought in 2013 was so devastating that the birding festival had to be cancelled. I still came, and got to see quite a few ducks and shorebirds despite the dearth of water. Now rains have recharged the wetlands fairly well, and it was teeming with shorebirds and lingering waterfowl, especially shovelers and Blue-winged Teal.

The riches of this part of Kansas are not limited to water birds—it’s still early in migration, but I saw at least a dozen exquisite Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the trip, mostly en route from the Wichita Airport, but one pair at Quivira. The festival field trips were almost entirely limited to Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms, and we had to race through much of the Friday afternoon field trip with a menacing thunderstorm on the horizon and tornadoes touching down not all that far away, yet between that and Saturday’s trips, I saw 111 species, and added two more on a bonus field trip Sunday morning.

Massasauga Rattlesnake
Massasauga
  Plus I got a lifer! Not a bird, but a Massasauga rattlesnake. That's one I've badly wanted to see since I took herpetology in 1975 at Michigan State: we took a field trip to the one area in Michigan where these rattlesnakes still could be found, and our professor said that if anyone could find one for the class, that person would get an automatic A for the entire course. But no luck. So I was thrilled, 40 years later, to finally get to see one.

All the festival’s field trips combined yielded 149 bird species. The only disappointment with the whole trip is that I got to see so many species without my puppy—Pip missed a lot of lifers!
Wilson's Phalarope
Wilson's Phalarope
American Avocet
American Avocet

Franklin's Gull
Franklin's Gull

 As wonderful as it was to see thousands of Wilson’s Phalaropes and Baird’s Sandpipers, and hundreds of American Avocets, with large flocks of glowing Yellow-headed Blackbirds and some scattered Franklin’s Gulls in their rosy-hued breeding plumage and adorable Snowy Plovers, I saved the very best for last.

Greater Prairie-Chicken
Greater Prairie-Chicken
My final field trip started out at 5:15 Sunday morning, when we went to a Greater Prairie-Chicken observation blind. This was at the exact same lek I’d watched in 2013, when one lone prairie chicken displayed his heart out, no other prairie chickens to join him. Devastating droughts have all kinds of repercussions, and they took a huge toll on prairie chickens. Fortunately, these birds have high reproduction rates when things do go right, and this year at the height of their breeding season 18 males displayed to more than ten females. It’s late in the season now, and females are off on their nests incubating their eggs, but if one’s nest failed, she could still show up on the lek and mate again as long as at least a few males are still in breeding readiness.



 Watching and listening to prairie chickens in action is one of my favorite thrills. I took most of my photos and videos of one particular male closest to the blind. He only chased other males who came onto his little defended space. The others in the flock were usually facing off with one another a bit further away. I think this bird was the dominant one, because any time another male approached anywhere near his little dancing ground, he chased it off immediately.

The bird I focused on this year was much closer to the blind than the one two years ago, and there’s little chance that that bird is still alive—Prairie chickens are a relatively short-lived game species, devoured by Golden Eagles and coyotes as well as by human hunters, and are also killed in large numbers in collisions with fences—but I like to think that plucky 2013 bird did make it and was among the birds I watched dancing. It was deeply overcast, so the light was exceptionally poor for photography, but nevertheless I took bazillions of photos and some videos. For me, any look at a Greater Prairie-Chicken is a glimpse into heaven.

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