Golden City of Birds
At the heart of the Great Plains, a meandering, seasonally dry Arkansas River cuts lazily across the landscape. This upper section of the river is nothing like the wide, flood-prone reaches I have grown up with in Arkansas. In central Kansas, the river’s centuries of meandering has created magnificent sand dunes; dunes—active in recent human history—that are now covered with prairie. Given it’s unique central location, a mixture of eastern tallgrass and western shortgrass prairie communities rule equally.
Along with prairie, the land is marked with great marshes and potholed with smaller pools; a much more common characteristic of the northern Great Plains. Here, though, the region’s groundwater seeps to the surface through saline soils, forming rare inland salt marshes. You can smell it in the air and almost taste the funk when a stiff wind guides the scent to the nose. Salt marsh is obviously uncommon so far from the coast, resulting in an array of interesting species, from salt-tolerant plants and fish, to wetland-loving birds and herps (reptiles and amphibians).
Though the Great Plains has become a sea of agriculture, a huge chunk of the region is preserved in Quivira National Wildlife Refuge; one of the most famous conservation spaces in a refuge system spanning the globe. Its namesake is a fabled golden city purported to exist in the area and one of the main reasons for the Coronado Expedition to Kansas in 1540. As was the case with most myths of gold driving lustful Spanish conquistadors, the Quivira of legend was never found, but in its place a verdant oasis in a larger grass “desert” exists. Many birds are attracted by the oasis, leaving some species disjunct from the rest of their range.
As I mentioned, Quivira is famous for hosting breeding populations of many species unconnected to other parts of their breeding range. Among them are waterfowl like Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, and others not typically found breeding south of the “prairie pothole” region of the Canadian Great Plains, or east of the playas of the Rockies. Too, the refuge hosts a variety of wading birds and shorebirds often not found so far inland. Some of the most famous are Black Rail, Snowy Plover, and Least Tern. Black Rail is an elusive and, perhaps, mythical bird that did not make an appearance during my visit. Even the largest rails are difficult to see in dense marsh vegetation, but the Black Rail is sparrow-sized. So you do the math. Nevertheless, the nearest breeding populations to Quivira are on the Gulf Coast! Well…probably. The species is so secretive and understudied, that it could be supported limitedly elsewhere.
????????BLACK RAIL, WHERE ARE YOU????????
Out from the vegetation and onto the reflective sandflats, Snowy Plovers raced about their lives, foraging for invertebrates. Like other plovers, these tiny white and tan birds build scrape nests almost anywhere there are pebbles and rocks that can be moved aside to create a divot. At Quivira, their divots are commonly found on refuge roads. Very obliging, the plovers didn’t at all mind me lying in the road or along the mirrored flats, photographing them as they went about their business.
Snowy Plovers are widespread in North America and found year-round along the Gulf and West Coasts, with some populations breeding inland in west Texas, Kansas, and playas of the arid west. Though widespread, the species is not terribly abundant with coastal populations suffering disturbance from beach recreation. Gulf and West Coast populations are listed as threatened or endangered by state management entities. Rest assured, they appeared to be doing just fine at Quivira, where they were a common sight and sound. I don’t recall ever having heard one before; a sweet little whirring call.
Several larger shorebirds, uncommon breeders in the central Great Plains, also call the flats and marshes home. One species, Black-necked Stilt, towers over its neighbors and walks awkwardly both on the flats with the plovers and in deeper water. The stilt’s long, pink legs stand in stark contrast to a stately black and white body, with foreboding red eyes. I’m definitely familiar with this species—a limited breeder in wet former bottomland and prairie along the Arkansas River valley in my home state—but could watch them all day.
Black-necked Stilts are semi-colonial and Quivira hosts many breeding pairs. While they could be found intermingling to forage, once done there were clearly limits placed on how close a stilt could get to another’s breeding territory. This came to fruition as a pair escorted another stilt out of their territory after flying too close. The pair landed in the road near our car and seemed to guard the area from this vantage point above the adjacent marsh, in case the intruder decided to strafe them again. I experienced this as the intruder, when I must have come too close to a nest with either eggs or young, eliciting a defensive stooping behavior from one adult.
While watching the stilts from close range, my mind harkened back to Hawaii, where I had the pleasure of seeing a different subspecies. At some point, our continental Black-necked Stilt ended up far out in the Pacific and, by now, look different than their conspecifics back on the mainland. Several other quite distinct subspecies exist throughout the Americas and may someday result in a split into multiple species!
Another leggy cousin to both stilts and plovers breeds limitedly in the potholed marshes of the region. The American Avocet is a looker. Long gray legs lead into a white body with sharply accented black wings. Moving up the neck, white turns to blushing rust, ending in an unusually upturned bill; a feature more prominent in females. Drastic loss of wetland has resulted in declines of this species since settlement, but today populations are largely stable, with incredible breeding numbers centered on Great Salt Lake in Utah. It is always a thrill to see this species. Like stilts, their legs allow them to enter deeper water than smaller shorebirds. In fact, avocets can often be found swimming, ducklike, atop the water.
A common sight in the region and, in my opinion one of the greatest of shorebirds, is Wilson’s Phalarope. All 3 of the world’s phalaropes occur in North America; 2 in the Old World as well. However, Wilson’s is strictly found in the Americas, wintering in southern South America and breeding in western North America; specializing in saline wetlands and playas all the way.
The greatest experiences at the refuge were centered around these medium-sized multicolored shorebirds. Their behaviors are so fascinating! For starters, the genus is one of the finest examples of female-biased sexual dimorphism in the avian world. That’s a mouthful. As many know, in birds that exhibit sexual dimorphism, males are usually more colorful. In most cases, this is due to sexual selection in a battle to be the best looking mate; whatever that may mean for a certain species. In phalaropes, the tables are turned. Females are the more vibrant sex, while males are dull and ready to carry on the duties of raising young away from the hungry eyes of predators.
Waking up from a mid-afternoon car nap, I gazed out the window to see a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes foraging in a small puddle among the marsh vegetation. After a few minutes, the female began to vocalize, a sound so low in pitch that it would hardly have been detectable at a distance. As she vocalized, the male hopped into the air and landed on top of her to mate. Once done, he stood effortlessly balanced on her back in an odd stacked behavior. Simply enthralling.
As afternoon turned to evening, the sun hung low over the salt marshes of Quivira. We returned to the same spot to find the phalarope pair was still foraging nearly four hours later. I crept low through the vegetation as they pecked invertebrates from the shallow water. I had a spiritual moment with these birds, even through the cloud of mosquitoes. I lost track of time watching and photographing them. They not seeming to mind the large human close by in the marsh.
Next morning, we arrived in time to see the sun rise over the marshes. A captivating pink hue was cast across the landscape, transforming everything we thought we had our fill of the day before. Snowy Plovers turned blush pink, Black-necked Stilt reflected on the still water, and an entire flock of phalaropes paddling in a puddle. Just when I thought I was done with phalaropes after the previous evening’s encounter, I spotted this wad foraging in a marsh puddle. In the mix were not only Wilson’s Phalaropes, but a second species altogether: Red-necked Phalarope. This species is a migrant through the region, on its way to breeding grounds in the tundra. At this time of year, Red-necked Phalaropes are fresh in from months at sea, where they spend winter foraging on the rolling ocean waves.
Smaller than Wilson’s, I didn’t even have to raise my binoculars to know what they were. Riding the high of the cooperative Wilson’s Phalarope pair from the night before, I decided to sneak closer. This time it was less simple than crawling through marsh grass, but there’s nothing like a sunrise wade across a cold ditch to wake you up! The ditch was crystal clear from sandy soil, which was comforting after seeing a monster snapping turtle the day before. Once across, I had a clean crawl to the edge of Phalarope Pond. They obliged splendidly.
Two species, apart for much of the year, were brought together by the marshes of Quivira. While the Wilson’s Phalaropes foraged by swimming back and forth or wading nearby, Red-necked Phalaropes swam in tight circles. This behavior is typical and creates a vortex, lifting aquatic invertebrates into reach. Like their cousins, Red-necked Phalaropes’ most striking combination of steel-gray and rufous plumage is awarded to females, while the males are less vibrant. The difference is not quite as dramatic as in Wilson’s.
Shorebirds are a great lesson in the varied niches birds can occupy in a single ecosystem. The diets of most species are centered around aquatic invertebrates. While plovers consume invertebrates on drying mudflats, taller shorebirds like stilts and avocets can be found in deeper water. Further, the medium-sized phalaropes can be found either on the flats or twirling around in deeper water. The constant flux of water and varied terrain means all of these species and more may be foraging quite near each other. So too, drastic differences in bill length—from avocet to plover, for example—means that even if feeding together, one must focus on the surface while the other can probe deep into the mud. While I didn’t observe it at Quivira, phalaropes will often aggregate around larger shorebirds, feeding on prey stirred up from sediment below. Much like egrets following cattle.
Out in the deeper water of Big Salt Marsh, fish specialists abound. One of them is Least Tern. The Quivira birds are part of the likely threatened inland population. They are much more common in coastal North America, but can be found breeding on sandbars and marshes along the Mississippi, Arkansas, Ohio, and Missouri River valleys. Light and airy, Least Terns are the merengue of the bird world. These dainty aerial acrobats have had it tough. During the peak of the 19th-century millinery trade, they were hunted aggressively for snowy plumes, a stylish accent for ladies’ hats. After rebounding in the early 20th century, declines again occurred as damming of major rivers and use of pesticides became more common in major river valleys. Thanks to conservation efforts in some areas, they are again on the rebound.
They aren’t the only terns at Quivira, however. Swallow-like, Black Terns are more erratic fliers than their cousins and often take insects on the wing, rather than fish. The inky black and gray plumage of adults is enough to make you take a moment to reflect on the wonder of the world. No less thought-provoking is the white plumage of immature birds that becomes mottled as patches slowly molt to black. On a marshland levee, we entered into a large flock of this highly social species buzzing around capturing insects from the water. It was one of several magical moments on the vast Great Plains.
High above the Black Terns, flocks of American White Pelicans winged over Quivira. The potholed landscape is merely a stopping point along their migration to breeding grounds in the northern Great Plains. While most associate pelicans with the coast, American White Pelicans are largely an inland species. It’s the coastal Brown Pelican that pairs with a fine seaside view. During their travels, white pelicans congregate in flocks hundreds-strong, evoking a Snow Goose-esque sight with their black and white coloration.
Back at water level, a non-waterbird uses vegetation in the deeper marsh. An anomaly among North America’s “typical” blackbirds, the Yellow-headed Blackbird is a looker. Males don a golden hood, in perfect balance with a black cloak encircling the rest of their body, save for white epaulets. Their electric, almost mechanical, song gave away their presence: kok-a-wee-wee-waaaaaa. The waaaaaa at the end is given in slow vibrato. Somewhat uncommon in the bird world, there is strong evidence the vocalizations of this species are learned! We spent the better part of an hour chasing around a feeding flock below the roiling mass of Black Terns. One male in the group remained elusive, but hardly less striking was an adult female that perched for a sacred few seconds.
While not the primary focus of the trip, grassland birds were abundant in adjacent prairie. Bell’s Vireos burbled alongside both Eastern and Western Kingbirds, all keeping a close eye on terrestrial insect populations. The diminutive vireo is a sought after breeding resident in American prairie country. The first specimen was shot near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas by John Bell, accompanying John James Audubon on his 1843 Missouri River expedition. It’s his name the species now bears.
As the small vireo hover gleaned insects from bushy vegetation, the kingbirds—large flycatchers—foraged more in the open. Though present, Western Kingbirds were not common. It was their “eastern” cousins that dominated the landscape. A bit of a misnomer is their name, as they can be found clear through the central Great Plains, nearly to the Pacific Coast. With a strong bill, Eastern Kingbirds make quick work of large insects, often beating them against a branch to stun their prey.
While it’s true eyes were to the sky much of the time, I can’t end the Quivira story without including something about herpetofauna. As with the birdlife, two worlds collide here: prairie and marsh. Much desired Western Massassauga (Sistrurus catenatus) and bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer) were primary targets that, like Black Rail, remained a mystery. That didn’t stop us from racking up quite the diversity of herps, though! Here are some of the highlights.
A gorgeous young racer of the yellow-bellied subspecies (Coluber constrictor flaviventris). Racers cause headaches for herpetologists and taxonomists across North America. This single species comes in at least 11 subspecies, all ranging from slightly to drastically different in appearance.
Plains Garter Snakes (Thamnophis radix) put on quite the show and should be designated most abundant. By far most of the snakes we encountered were this species. While they commonly occur in a red color morph in the area, we only found one such snake and at quite a distance. Stretched out on warm roads, these snakes were ever at the ready to bolt upon the opening of a car door.
A prairie specialist, Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata) were also common. Hardly an hour passed that we didn’t find one crossing one of the refuge roads, moving from one prairie patch to another. Ornates are something special back home, so I always find pleasure in seeing them, even in great abundance as was the case at Quivira. Dark shells adorned with yellow and orange markings, like a delicate prairie fire, are easy on the eyes. Maybe this is where the legend of Quivira’s lost city of gold originated.
In the marsh, a Graham’s Crayfish Snake (Regina grahamii) ventured out into the road. Clearly used to their presence, it didn’t seem to cause alarm in a nearby Snowy Plover pair. Perhaps they are aware the primary prey of this species is…surprise…crayfish!
Somewhere at the nexus of prairie and marsh, young Common Sliders (Trachemys scripta) had just emerged from a burrow in the grass. Newly hatched, these tiny turtles were covered in dust. Beneath it, delicate plastrons showed vibrant green and yellow markings that would inspire those with an eye for the abstract. Tiny emerald eyes, half the size of a pencil eraser, looking on curiously. We caught them maneuvering, vulnerably, to the edge of the water. Before helping them on their way, I had to line up five for a playful photoshoot.
At the marsh’s edge, we came across a lonely and grumpy Woodhouse’s Toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii). Distributed throughout the arid west in a shocking range of habitats, this species seems to defy the damp life of an amphibian. It should come as no surprise this individual was found out in the open following a night of rain.
An even more ephemeral species, and the holy grail of the trip’s herps, was a small and unusual toad moving by the hundreds following a night of wet weather. After putting in more than twelve hours at the remote refuge, I was all too happy to stop in the middle of a dark highway for a closer look. This was the Plains Spadefoot Toad (Spea bombrifrons). I’ve dreamed of seeing spadefoots for years and was shocked at how small they actually were! This individual could easily have fit on the end of my thumb. For much of the year, this unusual toad remains underground, burrowing vertically into the substrate with namesake “spade”—a hard protuberance—on their hind feet. During periods of ideal spring rains, they emerge to quickly feed and breed. If those rains never come, they may wait years for successful breeding. As is the case throughout its range, Plains Spadefoots are commonly found crossing roads, resulting in high mortality rates.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge is a magical place. Part of its splendor is that it is at least 40 minutes to the nearest town in any direction. Note, “nearest town” is relative to Kansas standards :-D Nevertheless, I highly recommend a trip here. Make sure you’re gassed up, take plenty of food and water, maybe some toilet paper, and you should be all set!
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