Entry Birding in Kansas
Lakes, parks, fields or even you own backyard! Just about anywhere you are outside watching birds can bring added pleasure, relaxation, and satisfaction to your experience. They are already present in most all outdoor places, going about their business unnoticed by many and enjoyed by few. Perhaps just about everyone can remember a time watching an American Robin one summer strutting through the grass then stopping abruptly to jerk an earthworm from the ground. But who can recall having watched that same bird pluck berries from a frosted tree in the winter? How many are aware that those same Robins are even found throughout the state in the colder months? Conspicuous birds are often well known and remembered to most – even those who don't pay particular attention to them – but they are simply just the tipping edge into a world of wonder that can add secondhand excitement to just about any outing or become the sole purpose for taking one. The goal, and my hopes for this article, is to offer a little direction and inspiration to those who have just made the jump into birding. I will outline a broad view about some areas of where to start once you're out the door and a little of what to expect when you get there. Perhaps also it may just make some thinking about making the dive into the hobby take that crucial step – getting outside and looking.
Although the main focus here is going to be about getting out, to help those getting started I would like to very briefly touch on equipment. Getting equipped to go out birding doesn't have to cost an arm and leg. All one needs to go out and enjoy them is a decent pair of binoculars and a quality field guide. I personally would recommend getting a reputable paper field guide with illustrations and field notes by the author. There are several different guides to choose from with different formats, styles and areas of focus, so just try to find one that fits your specific wants and learning needs.
Several “electronic” guides are available in app form for both Android and iPhone now as well which can be pretty handy in the field, but I personally feel everyone should own at least one printed field guide.
Wildlife Refuges and other protected nature preserves
Whether it be a national wildlife refuge, or a simple nature preserve, these areas are very important sanctuaries that help ensure the continuation and healthy survival of many species. These protected areas are scattered throughout our state, some of which are hot spots for species that can't reliably be found anywhere else. Most of the more popular ones for birding are well known to seasoned birders who can attest that someone looking for specific or diverse birds populations, can likely have their desires fulfilled by one of these areas.
For those out West, Baker Wetlands and KCPL Wetlands have been highly recommended to me by several very experienced birders who frequent the areas with great success. Having never had the pleasure to journey that way myself I am not able to personally attest by first hand experience, but eBird species counts and testimonies from those who have say both places are well worth the time and trip.
My first real birding trip was to a wildlife refuge out near Great Bend, that was taken upon purchasing my first field guide. I was not quite sure if my interest in birds would be one to stick with and grow, or one I would shelf as with so many others until my experience at Quivira NWR. It was the most life changing (and mildly frustrating) experience of my life.
My first visit to Quivira was during a Global Big Day that started from entrance into the south side. Being still very new to bird identification the shear number of different species I found in such a short time was a bit frustrating at first. While I rapidly flipped the pages of my field guide trying to remember as many details about a bird as I could only to look up and see a different one that was not immediately recognizable to me. Overwhelming at first, but the more I was able to identify the greater my confidence and excitement grew.
I was greeted with Great Blue Herons flushing from their hidden cover in the tall marsh grass gently rising up and over our slow moving vehicle off in the distance about 100 yards before gently settling back down and disappearing back into the foliage. American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes scooted along the shallow waters that ran along the roads with Black Terns skimming just over their heads snatching swarming insects from the air. Flocks of Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds scattered the tops of the aquatic plants, their calls filling the air and breaking the silence of the gentle howl of the wind gentle lapping of the waves against the shoreline.
Moving more into the native prairie section, various blackbird species sat in flocks throughout the trees with several migrating flycatchers whom had gathered there to take advantage of the abundance of insects. Barn Swallows filled the sky with their more active approach, darting swiftly in all angles as they worked low and high across the open fields. For sure those gentle rolling grasslands are also home to many lizards, frogs, rodents and other small animals that can draw in the attention of various raptor species. Northern Harriers commanded the low grass with several (as many as I've seen in one location) spread throughout, gently gliding through till they were just out of view on the other side of the low hill occasionally banking back up for another short glimpse.
Several loosely scattered trees throughout make ideal perch choices where one may find a Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged, and Swainson's Hawks as well as American Kestrels. Even the occasional Peregrine Falcons can be found stalking some of the various and vast numbers of waterfowl that also make the marshes home for the winter.
I could go on for pages about the experience I had that day or the shear number and volume of species both common and rare that you may find out there, but I will save that for another article. To make this long story somewhat short if you're going to go birding in Kansas, Quivira should be among the top of the list for places you should visit being perhaps the most important migrations stop for birds in the state.
Local parks that are properly maintained to cater to more than just urban actives can be a nice little slice of undisturbed nature attractive to many species of birds. There are various types of parks with various layouts and habitats. Typically speaking the greater the size, the variation in habitats within to host the most diverse and greatest number of species. One can usually expect to find a number of our more well known suburban dwelling species such as American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, American Crows, etc., year round. A closer inspection in the right places will show that quite a few parks have a lot more to show.
I will use a small yet personal favorite of mine for an example, O.J Watson Park located in South Wichita. Its not the largest or smallest park being 119 acres located along side the Arkansas River and a large sand pit excavation area. The park has a 40 acre fishing lake that entraps a central island (off limits for most purposes) with wrapping access roads along the parameter. It has a few trees scattered throughout, but in terms of habitat diversity is not really anything special.
During the spring/summer months the trees are alive with migrating warblers darting branch to branch, sparrows scratching around below the tress and along the river, and flycatchers darting from there perches to catch passing insects. Great Blue and Little Blue Herons can be found slowly strutting the shallows. Belted Kingfishers give rattling calls as they move along the lakeside trees. Recently an ever growing colony of Double-crested Cormorants have been taking advantage of the well stocked fish supply in the water as well, nesting on the small center island in numbers reaching over 200.
The winter months bring in the usual migrating Canada Geese that join the domestic geese that can be found in the park year round. Various species of ducks including Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, many species of teal, and so on.
A small lake was also the destination of one of the rarest species to the state that I ever chased. A Pyrrhuloxia that traveled far out of normal range cam all the way to settle down off a side road at a city lake in Anthony for about two weeks. Most of its time was spent picking burrs out of the ditch near the fence lines where many came from hours around for chance to view and photograph it.
To wrap this section up, local lakes and parks have their own appeal. Whether you enjoy going to have a swim, to take some time to fish, cook some barbecue, or just hang out with friends, birding can be an added exciting addition. Most maintained park and lakes can support habitat that is host to various species throughout both the breeding and non-breeding seasons that can be very rewarding areas to bird.
Country/Rural Dirt Roads
You don't always have to have a set destination go birding. Kansas has a number of beautiful scenic highways and back road that can be good opportunity for quick less personal interactions with various species, or new spots to set as destinations. Agricultural fields typically aren't to far a drive - or even a bike ride or walk - away from just anywhere in our state. After a good rain or artificial flooding, many fields become an attractive foraging ground for various shorebird species that would otherwise be localized to more specific and suitable areas. Driving slowly (and respectively) down rural roads along side open fields and grassland can yield numbers of different perching birds species throughout the year.
Scanning the the edges of those roads during migration or winter months, you may find a number of small flocks of sparrow flushing up and taking a short flight before dropping back into the cover the grass forcing the on looker to keep a sharp eye out for the slightest movement. Large flocks of various species of blackbird numbering well into the thousands flock to the fields moving systematically along in a steady flow, working across the field searching for any food left behind from previous harvests.
In numbers close the same you may also find flocks of various species of geese flocking to those same fields throughout winter as well. Close scrutiny of these flocks of geese can often reveal quite a larger diversity than the most expected Canada Goose. Often mixed in you may spot a couple of contrasting white Snow Geese. Or you may find flocks of Cackling Geese with a couple of Ross's Geese or perhaps Greater-white Fronted geese mixed in on a little side road field.
The telephone lines and scattered tree rows over good perch points for numerous Red-tailed Hawks.
During the winter months various subspeices and color morphs come down to the state throughout the winter. Thicker tree rows can offer enough cover for wintering Sharp-shinned and resident/wintering Cooper's Hawks.
During the Spring and Summer months the sides of the roads come back alive with song. The missing migratory species return to breed and the residents start laying claim to territory and mates. Driving with the window down one can here a number of species just off the road. The bubbly songs of Horned Larks can be heard from short growth fields in the right areas if one is lucky and quiet enough. The raspy harsh short songs of the male Red-winged Blackbird carry long and far from their perch often upon growing stocks or low branches. Meadowlarks sing their trademark songs from trees, lines and fence posts. Male Dickcissels belt their short namesake song from low areas as the females inconspicuously dart throughout well hidden.
The habitats and areas you can discover on your way to a destination are vast. These interactions are just thee typical, but you truly never know what you may come across. Taking a little longer of route to get a more scenic experience when you're not in a hurry can offer some rewarding experiences before you even get to your birding destination!
Throughout Kansas over 470 species have been recorded. Some areas that are open for one to visit offer the opportunity for one so see a good number of these species, and one of said areas may not be that far from you. Or perhaps, you may prefer a smaller more specialized location with less diversity but more consistency. Casual bird watcher or extreme bird enthusiast, whatever you may find your personal tastes to be there is very likely a place to suit them here within our state lines.