two birds in the water of wetlands

Two neighboring wildlife areas in central Kansas offer some of the nation’s best viewing for migratory birds

Timothy Barksdale has seen most of the best wildlife viewing locations in the world. He’s worked in more than 20 nations and nearly every state and province in North America. His cinematography work from such places has led to major wildlife projects for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and PBS.

Still, Barksdale rates a special area in central Kansas as good as any other he’s experienced. The sprawling wetland, Barksdale says, draws him back as surely as it does the millions of birds that stop there during migrations.

He calls Kansas’ Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, “the Serengeti of the Sky,” meaning it ranks with the experience of watching millions of African animals migrate across the legendary savanna—it’s one of the best displays of avian migration in the world.


two images, left image shows a photographer taking a photo. Second image is of two shorebirds


“You can be standing there, and there are 10,000 sandhill cranes flying and several hundred thousand white-fronted and other kinds of geese, and they’re all calling loudly. Then you may have 60,000 ducks hanging around. There will probably be bald eagles and, if you’re lucky, whooping cranes,” says Barksdale, who also mentioned mile-long, twisting and diving clouds of black birds that can number into the millions per flock.

As much Barksdale appreciates Quivira, he’s also always ready to sing similar praises about the nearby Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area.

“Here you have these two, truly world-class marshes maybe 30 miles apart,” he notes. “They complement each other because they’re so similar, yet in some ways totally different. That’s a special part of the world.”


World-renowned, two times over

Kansas was originally home to over 800,000 acres of natural wetlands. Spanish explorers mentioned these vast stretches of wetlands. Later, ducks and geese from these waters were shipped to eastern markets by the wagon load.

Many have been drained. Many remain. Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira are our best, and two of the best in the world.

Cheyenne Bottoms is America’s largest inland wetland complex. Its 41,000 acres are largely split between the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and the Nature Conservancy.

Quivira sprawls over 22,000 acres. Like Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira has repeatedly been ranked as one of the top-ten wetlands in the world in terms of importance to wildlife by the international science community. The two great marshlands differ in terms of the wildlife they attract and the viewing they offer to the public.

Cheyenne Bottoms is managed largely for waterfowl hunting. User fees paid by hunters have long been the main funding source for the wildlife area and the habitat it provides. A large marsh in the middle of the area ensures there are places where waterfowl and dozens of other species of wildlife can rest and be easily spotted.

The state’s portion of the wetlands complex basically sits like a large lake, with dikes dividing it into assorted pools, with a graveled road circling through the middle of the area.


After sunset, a blue sky over water


Often, staff set these management pools at different depths depending on how they might be encouraging native plant growth, removing invasive plants and repairing water control structures.

Quivira is a broad system of wetlands that range from fractions of acres to the legendary Big Salt Marsh, which covers several square miles. The soil’s and water’s high salinity benefits a variety of plants and can attract different wildlife in comparison to the wildlife attracted by the lower salinity of Cheyenne Bottoms.

The wetlands are scattered over several miles, with some large chunks of dry sandhills and prairie grasses between them. Cruising the sand roads that connect those wetlands can give good looks at a variety of prairie wildlife, including some grassland birds hard to find in other places. Quivira is one of America’s top areas for photographing whitetail deer during their November mating season.

Both Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms are open to the public from roughly a half-hour before sunrise until dark. 

Admission is free. Both have public viewing towers, but the best up-close viewing and photography usually happen from inside a vehicle.

Quivira has a visitors’ center that is open during normal business hours. The Kansas Wetlands Education Center, at Cheyenne Bottoms, has more liberal hours and offers educational displays and programs.


Timing matters

There is no bad time of year to take a slow tour of Cheyenne Bottoms or Quivira. Both are home to nesting birds ranging from fist-sized sparrows and shorebirds to bald eagles. There’s no doubt, though, the best time to visit is during periods of major migrations.

Fall migrations are like a homecoming as dozens of bird species gather to rest and add calories from both marsh-grown natural foods and agricultural crops. If the weather is fair, and food available, many will linger several weeks before heading south. Many stay all winter.

Fall migrations begin late-summer, with some shorebirds that nested in the Arctic passing through on their way to southern part of South America or Antarctica. In late September, white pelicans gather at both marshes. It’s not uncommon for each of the wetlands to have more than 1,000 of the giant white birds paddling along, scooping up fish in their giant bills.


A group of birds standing in shallow water


Late October into mid-December, weather permitting, is prime time for the huge flocks of geese, sandhill cranes and ducks that congregate at both wetlands. Bald eagles, which rely heavily on waterfowl for food, will usually be at their highest numbers when waterfowl concentrations are best.

Spring, or northward migration, starts with the first warm days of late winter, as birds begin to move to northern breeding grounds to begin the process of producing new generations. Many travel as mating pairs, and the males will be at the peak of their brilliant mating plumage. Some of the shorebird displays are amazing and easily viewed from a few yards off the edge of roads.

The first and last hours of daylight generally provide the most wildlife activity. Nature controls the show. Drought years mean fewer migrating waterfowl and shorebirds may stop in Kansas. Some days and years are simply better than others.

One constant, however, is that even when the wetlands are at their best, there is always room for quality viewing. Barksdale has spent some of his best fall days at Quivira, seeing no more than a handful of cars, even though he was an hour from two major interstate highways.

On one November afternoon on Quivira’s legendary Wildlife Drive, Barksdale stood below squadrons of trilling sandhill cranes as huge blackbird flocks played crack the whip across a brilliant orange sunset. The combined honking of hundreds of thousands of geese sounded as loud as the nearby interstate.

Barksdale had seen just two vehicles in several hours’ time at one of the premier wildlife viewing locations on the planet. One visitor was a woman born, raised and living within 20 miles of the marsh, making her first trip to Quivira. The other was a Kansas wildlife watcher/photographer as drawn to the Wildlife Drive as Barksdale.

“It’s just amazing,” Barksdale says of such privacy. “If there was someplace this special near either coast, it would be bumper to bumper.”

Then again, he quickly adds, such solitude helps to make the “the Serengeti of the Sky,” special.


Whooping Cranes


two banded whooping cranes walk through shallow water


Seeing a whooping crane may be one of the most memorable sightings in American wildlife watching. Our tallest bird, adult “whoopers” stand nearly five feet tall and can look many people in the eye. The plumage of adult whoopers is a brilliant, neon-like white. Few species have come as close to extinction.

An early November event in central Kansas is helping people see the legendary birds in person. The annual Celebration of Cranes is held on and around the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge by Audubon of Kansas. Some of the best birders in Kansas guide groups. If migrations are on time, the odds of seeing whooping cranes are good.

“I’ve been here three years, and all three years all of our tours have seen whooping cranes,” says Jackie Augustine, Audubon of Kansas executive director. “They’re an amazing bird. After coming so close to extinction, now their numbers are increasing exponentially. They’re quite the conservation success story.

In 1941, the North American population of whooping cranes was estimated at 22, which included just 16 birds in the main western migrational flock that has migrated through Kansas for centuries. Now, there are a total of around 800 whooping cranes, including some in captivity. The western flock is around 500 birds. Protection from poaching, habitat development and public education each contributed to the population recovery.

Those topics, and others, will be shared at this year’s Celebration of Cranes. The event includes a lunch, the educational programs and guided tours.

The event is designed to allow more of the public to see sandhill cranes, which should be in the area by the tens of thousands at that time of year. Generally, if there are whooping cranes in the area, all the tours get a look from a safe distance.

“The expert guides take the groups to the best spots, and the best time of day. We also have volunteers checking multiple locations,” Augustine says. Part of the education is teaching people how to view the cranes, and other wildlife, without disturbing the birds.

Augustine says registration is required for the two-day event, usually held the first Friday and Saturday of November. She urged people to check, beginning in September.

Those who can’t make the Celebration of Cranes should be able to find where to see whooping cranes, mid-October through mid-November, by checking the website for Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, or following any of several Kansas’ social media birding pages.