Cheyenne Bottoms Kansas


I stopped at Cheyanne Bottoms in central Kansas on my way through the plains states.

I would not have planned a special trip to Cheyenne Bottoms Kansas in mid-June--spring, fall and even winter would be more interesting times to visit this iconic birding spot. But since there was no avoiding a drive through central Kansas on my route from Auburn to Nevada via Idaho, I took the opportunity to stop by one of the most important wetland complexes in North America.

Cheyenne Bottoms is a low spot in the monotony of central Kansas that sits near the geographic center of the lower 48 states. It collects water from the surrounding region creating a huge complex of shallow lakes and vegetated wetlands. These wetlands presents a critical stopover site for millions of shore and wading birds migrating through the interior of the continent. These flocks of shorebirds include most of the Hudsonian Godwits in the world each spring as well as vast numbers of peeps including a large proportion of the entire populations of Baird's and White-rumped sandpipers. In the fall a few years ago, I had the opportunity to see tens of thousands of Franklin's Gulls staging at Cheyenne Bottoms in October. Birding in June, however, is much more subtle. Compared to the far west wetlands I would visit in a few days (Bear River and Ruby Lake), relatively few ducks and other waterbirds breed at Cheyenne bottom. Nevertheless, I was excited to get a chance to see the central prairie in June.

The free campground at Cheyenne Bottoms Refuge was very nice--except for the eerie middle-of-the-night drive-bys by locals.

I arrived in the evening after driving from Arkansas via SW Missouri and eastern Kansas. Throughout this Pandemic Nevada trip I was actively working on my state lists for all of the states that I passed through. That morning I had taken Missouri from single digits to over 50 species and I pushed my Kansas life list to over 100 species. I'll write an entire blog about state listing at the end of this series. I drove straight to the Cheyenne Bottom campground, which is a free campground along a dirt road on the south side of refuge. It looked better than I had hoped, and with the campground checked out and an hour of daylight left, I drove to a crossroads NE of the campground (NE Road 80 and NE Road 10) where Burrowing Owl had been reported numerous times over the past decade.

I had a great evening of birding in the tallgrass prairie on the edge of Cheyanne Bottoms refuge in central Kansas.

It ended up being one of the best birding hours of the trip. These are very low-traffic dirt roads. No cars came by while I was there. There is a huge prairie dog town right at the intersection, and after a bit of searching with my scope, I spotted a Burrowing Owl standing by one of the burrows. It was a long view, but it ended up being the only Burrowing Owl I spotted on the trip. The beautiful backdrop to this warm and calm evening was the singing of Dickcissels, Eastern Meadowlarks (the last I would hear for a week as I moved to WEME country), and Grasshopper Sparrows. Eastern and Western Kingbirds chased insects and each other. I heard a distant pheasant and then a couple of Common Nighthawks cruised by. But, the stars of the show that evening, without a doubt, were the Upland Sandpipers. I first detected the birds by their surreal rising yodel calls and then, as I looked about, I started seeing them all around me. I think I conservatively put 3 birds on my eBird checklist but there ware probably at least half a dozen birds right around me. They strutted in the fields, called from all directions, lifted into flight displays, and chased each other. As I watched, one flew to a fencepost just a dozen yards away giving its display call. I watched the sandpipers until it was almost too dark to see birds in the grass and then headed for my campground.

Upland Sandpipers were displaying all around me in the last hour of daylight on the tallgrass prairie near Cheyanne Bottoms refuge.

I was hoping for my state-lister Kansas Eastern Screech-Owl in the cottonwoods that lined the campground and the birds did not disappoint. I played a screech-owl tape once and went to set up my tent and about 3 minutes later a screech-owl started to call. He went on for the next 40 minutes and in the distance, a Great-horned Owl joined in. Coyotes seemed to call from every direction. I was exhausted from a long day of driving and birding and fell asleep soon after it was fully dark. I was the only one camping in the campground.

About midnight was was woken up by the rumbling of a big truck engine. When I woke up the truck was probably a quarter of a mile away and coming down the road toward me. Instead of just driving past, however, it pulled into the campground and slowly drove down the short access road slowing almost to a stop by my tent, which was only 10 feet from the road, before noisily moving back out to the road and then gunning the loud engine as it sped off. Needless to say, it was unnerving to be harassed by what were probably local teenagers. It was a Thursday night though--so this was not simply weekend fun. I could hear the truck for what seemed like forever as it moved away. It got quiet once the truck moved away and I was just about to fall asleep again when the truck came back. It did the same thing again, slowly cruising the campground road before roaring off. With the second drive by, I was really unnerved being alone, unarmed, and completely vulnerable in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas. I got up around 4, made my coffee, packed up my stuff, and headed for the wetland part of the refuge. I can't recommend that anyone use that campground for fear of being harassed by whoever drives around in that truck in the middle of the night.

Starting well before sunrise, I drove the dike roads that for an auto-tour around the main Cheyenne Botton wetland complex. Least Bitterns were calling early in the morning. I had good numbers of Snowy and Great Egrets, a handful of breeding shorebirds including Snowy Plovers, but only a handful of ducks. It was pretty much what I expected for June in central Kansas. I spent about two hours on the auto-tour and headed for Wyoming.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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