One of America’s top wildlife-watching events is happening now in central Kansas, as huge clouds of sandhill cranes, with a few endangered whooping cranes, rest from their annual southward migration.
Saturday, Nov. 3, the public is invited to witness it with the help of expert guides at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. “Celebration of Cranes,”,is sponsored by Audubon of Kansas.
“Basically, we’re wanting to draw attention to Quivira at this very special time of the year,” said Ron Klataske, Audubon of Kansas director. “It’s a time when one can rely on there being thousands of sandhill cranes at Quivira. It’s also one of the very few places where one has a reasonably good chance of being able to see whooping cranes. It may be at a distance, but it’s always such a special event when you get to see one.”
As they have for centuries, sandhill cranes are currently migrating from nesting grounds in Alaska and northern Canada. Tens of thousands pause for several weeks in central Kansas, at the world-class marshes at Quivira and the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. Whooping cranes, which number less than 400 in the wild, are doing the same. A large percentage of those birds will stop in Kansas sometime along their migrational way.
Every year some of America’s top wildlife photographers and bird-watchers make long treks to enjoy both species at the refuge. Still, Klataske said it’s rare to see a dozen vehicles on Quivira when the birds are in.
He is hoping guided van tours will make a wildlife-watching trip to Quivira easier for the general public. Experienced guides will take guests to pre-scouted spots to show them the birds, and give valuable advice on how the general public can come back and enjoy such wildlife shows on their own at Quivira.
“These days we have so many families and kids that just don’t get out and experience nature,” said Klataske. “That’s a shame because we have some very, very fine places where people can go enjoy watching wildlife in Kansas. It’s free and it’s actually very easy once you learn where and when. If we’re going to keep these places, like Quivira, it’s important that people learn to cherish them, and to support them.”
Saturday’s tours begin at 8 a.m., from the Quivira Headquarters/Visitors Center. The refuge is about 30 miles west of Hutchinson, a few miles north of Highway 50, with signage pointing the way. Klataske requests people RSVP at email@example.com, so enough tour vans can be available. All is free.
Tours are scheduled for two hours. Late in the day Saturday Klataske, and others, will gather on the refuge’s Wildlife Drive, by the Big Salt Marsh, to watch the sandhills return in sizable flocks silhouetted against the sunset. When it’s dark, he’ll stay a bit longer to listen to the loud sounds of thousands of calling sandhill cranes and geese in the darkness.
“It’s such a wonderful experience, it really is, that usually only a very few serious birders ever get to enjoy,” he said. “We’re really hoping we can change that by sharing. Ideally this will become an annual event. There’s no question it’s more than special enough for that.”