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Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Cheyenne Bottoms, Fall, 2018

October 5, 2018


Returning to Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Reserve

We came a little earlier this year than last. The migratory birds are arriving from the north,  feeding up a storm, waiting a few days until the winds die down and then heading to points south, the south Texas coast, Central America and even further. But the height of the migratory season at Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira is still a couple of weeks away. Managed by the state of Kansas, Cheyenne Bottoms is just north of Great Bend, Kansas, Quivira, a national wildlife preserve, lies some 25 miles south of town.

Taken together the two wetlands are among the world’s most crowded migratory bird stop overs. The data from 143 weather stations gleaned from satellite radar predicts that some four billion – you read correctly – will fly from Canada over the United States during the fall migration this year. They will be met by another 700,000,000 avian residents of the lower 48 states and together the two groups, numbering 4,700,000,000 birds will head to points south this time of year. The birds passing  through Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira in Kansas are a part of a migration through what is called “the central flyover.”

The time to visit is at the height of either the fall migrations when the birds are headed south for the winter, or in the spring when they are headed north. Some stay as briefly as six to eight hours, others a couple of days. Although there are some year-round residents, most are in transit and in large groups. Looking out from the south end of the Little Salt Marsh, near the ranger headquarters at Quivira we saw what appeared to be several thousand gulls, a mix of different species. Off in the distance to the north, well away from the road was a group of (what I believed to be) several hundred American pelicans huddled together to fight the strong winds coming from the south. Elsewhere just south of the edge of the preserve a group of at least fifty hawks.

2018 - 10 - 02 - Kansas - 128 - Quivera - Hawks

Part of a group of fifty hawks circling a recently plowed field looking for exposed rodents and insectspart of a group of fifty hawks circling a recently plowed field looking for exposed rodents and insects, fifty hawks, many circling above, others on the ground were hunting rodents and insects whose hiding places had been exposed by a tractor clearing the fields. One was obviously a red tailed, but there were other species too, Swainsons, Harris’s, and Ferriginous from what we could tell.

Add to the picture tens of thousands of shore birds – sandpipers, yellow legs, dowagers and even more ducks, all concentrating on feeding, to gain the calories needed for the next leg of their journey. In the mud, on the shoreline at Quivira what I believe to be the semi-palmated sandpiper. A small shore bird weighing no more than 22 grams, some of its fellow species-mates fly nonstop 3300 miles from Canada to South America.

Overwhelmingly they were engaged in what can only be called a feeding frenzy, done with such concentration that, excepting the ducks, extremely skiddish creatures, although it is not to difficult to imagine why.

Quivira., a wetland of international importance, under pressure.

Some years ago, Kansas environmentalists organized to save the water sources of Cheyenne Bottoms, being drained off the feeder creeks that fill the bottom lands with the water necessary to sustain life. Intensive farming and ranching was draining the main sources of the wetland wonder-wilderness there, Walnut Creek, the Arkansas River and the Ogallala Aquifer severely reducing the size of wetlands area.

The Kansas Fish and Game Department which manages Cheyenne Bottoms did little to nothing to reverse the shrinkage until Jan Garton and company came along and essentially forced the agency out of its lethargy. In a major campaign led by  Garton, a

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Semi-palmated sandpipers. Some members of this species fly 3300 miles nonstop from Canada to S. America

Kansas UPS employee,  spearheaded an effort to save one of the country’s dying wetlands areas – Cheyenne Bottoms, just north of Great Bend, Kansas where it is estimated that something close to half of all migrating birds in the Americas pass through on their journeys north in the spring and south in the winter.

Thirty years on, the Quivira National Wildlife Reserve, some 30-40 miles south of Cheyenne Bottoms, finds itself in a similar pickle with the waters necessary to sustain avian (and other) life being increasingly drained off for agricultural purposes. Once again, as with Cheyenne Bottoms, it is the Audubon Society of Kansas that is spearheading the effort to preserve the reserve and pressing both state and federal authorities to come up with a plan – based on federal regulations – to help maintain Quivira in tact.

The campaign is featured in Kansas’ Audubon’s annual publication, “Prairie Wings,” in a article by Dick Seaton entitled “Audubon of Kansas is working to Restore Quivira Wildlife Refuge’s Water Rights.” Seaton’s article begins by setting the stage for what is at stake:

Quivira National Wildlife Preserve attracts hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese, shorebirds, wading birds and water birds annually. Located in the middle of the Central Flyway, it is the primary path of many species of migrating birds. Three hundred and forty species have been recorded on its 22,135 acres.

Quivira is one of the jewels of North American wetlands.

Poorly appreciated by many, in Kansas and elsewhere, Quivira enjoys important

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Quivira – a greater yellowlegs

international status. It is one of thirty “Wetlands of International Importance” so determined by a 1971 international treaty. Then in 1994 it became a part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. In 2001 it was designated as a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy.

Each year tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop by as do the endangered Whooping Cranes, once reduced to a total population of sixteen, but now slowly but surely on the rebound. Other endangered species that make Quivira either a temporary stop over or a more permanent home include Least Terns (also endangered) and Snowy Plovers (threatened in Kansas).

As Seaton notes:

“Many, many other species of conservation concern depend on Quivira  and its water, including Piper Plovers, Black Rails, Black Terns, Eastern and Western Hognose Snakes, Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, Long-billed Curlews, Short-eared  Owls and Southern Bog Lemmings.”

Quivira is currently plagued by the fact that the water flowing into the wetlands is being diverted and “increasingly sucked up” by agricultural irrigation upstream in Rattlesnake Creek Basin. Although, formally, Quivira owns 95% of the water rights, the Refuge has suffered “severe and frequent violations of its rights by what are referred to as junior users. As a result, the groundwater in the 7000 acres of wetlands has been “regularly and substantially” lowered, this according to the state agency monitoring water rights, the Kansas Division of Water Resources.

Audubon of Kansas steps up pressure

Despite an unambiguous legal framework protecting Quivira’s water sources, the water shortage crisis has continued to intensify.  But now Audubon of Kansas, a statewide organization fully independent of the national Audubon Society, as stepped in to pressure the federal and state authorities to address the situation. In a letter addressed to the Kansas Division of Water Resources singed by the chair of its Board of Trustees, Margy Stewart and its Executive Director, Ron Klataske, Audubon of Kansas demanded that steps be taken to restore the refuge’s water supply. It cites federal and state law which prohibits reductions of the Refuge’s water rights and bars the drilling and pumping of subsurface water to compensate for the violations.

2018 - 10 - 01 - Kansas - 42 - Cheyenne Bottoms - Yellow Headed Blackbirds

Yellowheaded blackbirds sitting on the Cheyenne Bottom observation tower towards dusk. October 1, 2018






One Comment leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    October 5, 2018 10:38 am

    I had no idea there was such an amazing experience waiting in Kansas. I need to do it!

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