By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Kansas has some big surprises in store for visiting birders. For one, this state known for swaying wheat fields and tornados is home to two of the most important stopover sites for migrating shorebirds in the world—Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. For another, Kansas has recorded 460 bird species within its borders, making it the sixteenth birdiest state in the country.
Here it’s still possible to see substantial populations of both Greater Prairie-Chicken and Lesser Prairie-Chicken, the former declining in much of its range and the latter listed as threatened. The state also has several large reservoirs that attract waterbirds and gulls in migration and winter.
One reason for Kansas’s bird diversity is the east-meets-west character of its geography. The southeastern corner of the state lies in the Ozark Plateau, a relatively high-precipitation region of hardwood forest, while much of western Kansas is part of the High Plains, with sparse rainfall. Eastern Kingbird and Western Kingbird are nesters, as are Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Black-headed Grosbeak, and Eastern Meadowlark and Western Meadowlark.
From the forested parkland around Kansas City to the wide-open grassland in the west, Kansas’s varied landscapes and the birds hidden within are bound to test your assumptions about the Sunflower State.
Kansas Birding Hotspots
One of the most important bird habitats in North America, Quivira provides a resting and feeding haven for tens of thousands of migrant and wintering waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds, as well as nesting grounds for an array of waterbirds and land birds. Among the migrants is the critically endangered Whooping Crane, which stops on its passage from Canda to Texas and back. A wetland oasis in the prairie, the refuge encompasses saline marshes, ponds, and grassland in its 22,135 acres.
Quivira makes visitation easy, with a five-mile auto tour that passes some of the best bird-viewing areas, including an observation tower, photo blinds, and roadside parking areas at productive spots. Many other roads in and around the refuge offer good roadside birding. Among the walking paths is the Migrants Mile Trail, which passes through marsh, prairie, grassland, and woodland.
Just a few highlights of Quivira birds: spring and fall flocks of geese, ducks, and Sandhill Crane (with Whooping Crane most likely in early April and late October through mid-November); abundant migrant shorebirds of up to 40 species; large flocks of American White Pelican from spring through fall; herons, egrets, and ibises of a dozen species in summer.
Nesting birds of marshes and ponds include several species of ducks including Redhead, Neotropic Cormorant (a recent arrival), American Bittern, Least Bittern, four species of rail including Black Rail, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Snowy Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope, Least Tern, Black Tern, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. In grassland and woodland, breeding birds include Wild Turkey, Mississippi Kite, Upland Sandpiper, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Bobolink, and Painted Bunting.
Renowned as one of the most important migratory stopovers for shorebirds in North America, this 20,000-acre state-owned expanse of marsh (with another 8,000 acres owned by the Nature Conservancy) is a bucket-list experience for many birders. Up to 90 percent of the entire population of some species such as Stilt Sandpiper and Baird’s Sandpiper rest here on migration.
To get the most from a visit, stop at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center on Highway 156 just southeast of Cheyenne Bottoms. Here you can learn about the area and get advice on touring it.
From fall through spring there are flocks of geese and ducks; ten or so species remain to nest. Nesting waders include American Bittern, Least Bittern, both species of night-herons, and White-faced Ibis. Neotropic Cormorant is regular from spring to fall. Flocks of Sandhill Cranes pass through in spring and fall, with an occasional small group of Whooping Cranes.
Shorebird numbers generally peak in early May and late August-September, but the migration period stretches well beyond that. Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Snowy Plover nest, as do Least Tern, Black Tern, and Forster’s Tern. Look over prairie-dog towns in the area to find Burrowing Owl. Where there are waterfowl and shorebirds there will be Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon; look for the former in winter and the latter in spring and fall migration.
Located in eastern Kansas near the Missouri border are a state wildlife area and a national wildlife refuge, both named Marais des Cygnes. The river for which they’re named is the French term for “marsh of the swans,” dating from the days when the Trumpeter Swan was a more common bird than it is now.
Today these two areas comprise one of the state’s top birding locations, a rewarding mix of bottomland hardwood forest along the Marais des Cygnes River, grassland, and impoundments that attract waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds. The combined bird list for these areas tops 260.
The wildlife area office is located just west of Highway 69, while the refuge headquarters office is two miles east on Highway 52. Either can provide a map of areas open to birding. Many birders drive the unpaved roads and levees, but most roads closed to traffic can serve as hiking trails. Hunting is allowed on both areas.
On the wildlife area, ducks are abundant from fall through spring, and American White Pelican and Bald Eagle are present in spring and fall. Franklin’s Gull can be common in November. Combining both areas, nesting birds include Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Red-shouldered Hawk, seven species of woodpeckers, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Fish Crow, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Dickcissel.
This 1,600-acre park in suburban Kansas City contains many features of a typical urban park, including playgrounds, a dog park, picnic areas, and a swimming beach. It also boasts a bird list of more than 260 species, making it a local hot spot.
The best birding seasons here are fall through spring, when ther are fewer humans and birds are on the move. Newcomers should stop at the John Barkley Visitor Center for a trail map.
One reason for the park’s birdiness is its mix of forest, grassland, and lake. Nesting-season birds include Wild Turkey, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Red-tailed Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, House Wren, Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Lark Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Dickcissel, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.
The park’s lake attracts a good variety of waterfowl from fall through spring, and species such as Horned Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Osprey, and Bald Eagle are seen regularly. Many rarities have been spotted over the years, including Cinnamon Teal, Surf Scoter, Red-necked Grebe, and Northern Goshawk.
Located just south of Lawrence, this 927-acre preserve has a colorful history. Part of the Wakarusa River floodplain, it encompasses wetlands that were largely destroyed, then partly restored, then threatened by a large highway project, and are now undergoing more restoration. Already the site is an outstanding natural resource for Lawrence, and one of the top birding spots in Kansas.
In 2015 a new Wetlands Discovery Center opened, to help visitors enjoy the marsh and prairie environment. Eventually, ten miles of trails will crisscross the area.
Geese and dabbling ducks can be abundant here in fall, and the list of more than a dozen wading birds includes American Bittern, Least Bittern (nests here), and both night-herons. Yellow Rail and Black Rail have been found here, and Virginia Rail and Sora breed. Shorebirds are a highlight, with migration peaks in May and August. Bald Eagle is seen throughout much of the year.
Some of the nesting birds are Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Bobwhite, Northern Harrier, Red-headed Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Sedge Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Dickcissel.
With a bird list of more than 250, it’s no surprise that this reservoir west of Lawrence ranks among the top sites in Kansas. Not only does the lake host waterfowl, loons, grebes, and gulls, several parks and recreation areas along the shoreline provide habitat for an array of land birds.
In the dam area, Clinton State Park provides one lookout point, and has breeding birds such as Red-headed Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Prothonotary Warbler, and (occasionally) Painted Bunting. Partway across the dam is a pull-off on the water side that allows scanning the lake. Check the marshy area below the dam on N 1200 Road for wetland birds and hawks.
The lake can have abundant ducks in early spring, and American White Pelican and Bald Eagle are present for much of the year. Osprey frequents the lake in spring and fall. Fourteen species of gulls have been recorded, with Franklin’s Gull common in fall.
On the south side of the lake, Bloomington Park is another good site from which to scan the lake. At the western end, Wakarusa Causeway can be productive for migrant shorebirds.
Set in rolling grassland about 15 miles northeast of Topeka, Perry Lake comprises an expanse of water that attracts waterfowl and gulls, as well as wooded public areas along the shoreline with a variety of land birds. More than 250 species have been seen in the vicinity.
The best times for waterbirds on the lake itself is fall through spring, when geese, ducks, loons, grebes, and gulls are present in greatest numbers, along with Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Osprey, and Bald Eagle. Franklin’s Gull passes through in great numbers in spring and especially in fall. Over the years Perry has hosted Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, all three scoters, all three mergansers, Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, and Western Grebe.
Perry State Park on the western shore of the lake is one of several recreation areas offering views of the lake as well as forest birds. Below the dam is a restored wetland called Delaware Marsh, which attracts dabbling ducks, rails, and wetland songbirds such as Common Yellowthroat and migrant Marsh Wren.
Along the Delaware River above the lake are several units of Perry Wildlife Area with extensive swampy and marshy areas. These sites can be good for wading birds and shorebirds when low water exposes mudflats.
This reservoir near Russell is known for waterbirds as well as open-country species. Greater Prairie-Chicken is sometimes seen in this vicinity, though it’s not to be expected.
From fall through spring, Wilson Lake hosts waterfowl, loons, grebes, and gulls. Its location as a somewhat isolated body of water in the prairie region seems to make it a magnet for rarities. Surf Scoter, Pacific Loon, Clark’s Grebe, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Glaucous Gull are a few of the odd birds that have been seen here.
Wilson State Park and several recreation areas around the lake are good places from which to scan the water and shoreline for migrant Osprey and wintering Bald Eagle. Some uncommon birds that appear in migration include Say’s Phoebe, Rock Wren, and Townsend’s Solitaire.
In winter (when rare gulls tend to appear), a driving tour of grasslands around the lake could turn up Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, Mountain Bluebird, American Tree Sparrow, Harris’s Sparrow, or Spotted Towhee.
An oasis of water and trees in the great rolling grassland of western Kansas, 1,020-acre Scott State Park comprises a large spring-fed lake, riparian cottonwoods, and rocky bluffs. Its bird list tops 220.
Nesting birds here are a mix of eastern and western species, including Wild Turkey, Mississippi Kite, Eastern Screech-Owl, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Rock Wren, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Meadowlark, Bullock’s Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.
Townsend’s Solitaire is regular in winter, and Prairie Falcon and Northern Shrike are seen occasionally.
Although not as attractive to waterfowl as some larger Kansas reservoirs, Lake Scott hosts a good variety of ducks from fall through spring, and even has a list of more than a dozen shorebirds, though most are rare.
Scott State Park’s habitats, isolated on the plains, have attracted some notable rarities over the years, such as Greater Scaup and Wood Stork.
At nearly 170 square miles, Cimarron National Grassland is the largest area of public land in Kansas. It’s an excellent birding destination, with a mix of eastern and western species and, of course, a big emphasis on prairie birds.
Like many national grasslands, Cimarron can be daunting to visitors trying to find their way. If possible, stop by the Forest Service office in Elkhart and pick up the Sea of Grass brochure, or download it from the website, as a driving-tour guide. Quite a number of interesting birds can be seen simply by wandering the vast open spaces.
Be sure to stop at the Cimarron River campground on Highway 27 about nine miles north of Elkhart. Then cross the river and turn left, checking the ponds south of the road and continuing another two miles to the landmark called Point of Rocks. Among the special birds of the area are Scaled Quail, Mississippi Kite, Mountain Plover (rare), Long-billed Curlew (rare), Burrowing Owl (scan around the prairie-dog towns), Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-billed Magpie, Horned Lark, Rock Wren, Cassin’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and Bullock’s Oriole. In winter, look for Rough-legged Hawk and flocks of longspurs.
The most famous bird of the area is Lesser Prairie-Chicken, a threatened grassland species. The best time to see this bird is when the males gather to do their mating rituals in spring, but its vital to minimize disturbance to this species in nesting season. Check with the Forest Service office to ask about visiting a blind near a lek.
Trees in the town of Elkhart, an island of green in the grassland, beckon migrant songbirds in spring and fall. The Elkhart Cemetery and any other trees in town are worth visiting at those seasons because nearly anything could show up.
Mountains and canyons are fine for picture postcards, but the prairies’ subtle beauty and variety must be experienced to be understood. In the Flint Hills’ magnificent tallgrass prairies, breathy whistles of upland sandpipers float down from on high, while chunky little dickcissels sing choppy buzzes from the roadsides. Farther west, in sandsage flats near the Colorado border, you may find regal ferruginous hawks and some of the rare lesser prairie-chicken’s last remaining populations. The central part of the state’s vast wetlands serve as a stopover for tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds, especially in spring, when colorful Hudsonian godwits, American golden-plovers, and others pause here en route to the Arctic. The woods and thickets of southeastern Kansas are brightened in summer by the spectacular colors of painted buntings, indigo buntings, and blue grosbeaks, while these same thickets in winter hold throngs of big, boldly patterned Harris’s sparrows. —Kenn Kaufman