Kansas may be known as a flyover state, but it certainly isn’t for the birds who always visit. Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas is a twice-yearly resting place for migratory birds as they journey, flying from as far south as Chile and Argentina to as far north as Alaska. At Cheyenne Bottoms, the peak spring migration starts the last 2 weeks in April and continues through the first 2 weeks in May.
At that time, you’ll find the most significant number of birds and the most incredible variety of species. For example, about 45 percent of all shorebirds in North America stop at Cheyenne Bottoms during spring migration. The fall migration has fewer birds over a longer time, so the impact isn’t as significant. However, when the area experiences a drought, the wetlands dry out, and fewer birds come to Cheyenne Bottoms. As a result, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands designated Cheyenne Bottoms as a Wetland of International Importance. In the United States, only Kansas and Florida have Ramsar-designated wetlands.
The migrating cranes and ducks generally peak in late March and early April. Migrating shorebird numbers are typically the greatest in late April to late May. I visited in early May, and the number and variety of birds were abundant.
The birds come to rest and fatten up to continue their migration. During their long flights, they need an abundance of fuel. Sandpipers come, fatten up, and leave almost twice their size from when they arrived. The bird’s fuel is an integral part of the area. They eat bloodworms, and the site has a high concentration of this incredible nutrition. The birds build enough energy at Cheyenne Bottoms to continue the trip.
The 6-inch-long sandpipers have the longest migration distance, going through the central flyway from Chile and Argentina to Alaska. They make this incredible journey twice a year, and it takes 2–3 months each time. So they can’t just stop anywhere; they need the right ecological environment.
Many believe Kansas is flat and dry, but the area’s rolling hills and Cheyenne Bottoms dispel these myths. Cheyenne Bottoms has the most extensive wetlands in the United States’ interior, with 41,000 acres to explore.
Note: My visit to Cheyenne Bottoms was a hosted trip by Great Bend, Kansas. The opinions offered are based on my experience.
Start The Day At The Kansas Wetlands Education Center (KWEC)
Be sure to start your day at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center because it provides an overview of the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands. Commitment to conservation through education is the KWEC’s primary goal. It offers interactive exhibits on the ancient geological formation of Cheyenne Bottoms to the story of the central flyway.
A recent project added nine new exhibits and 14 of them are interactive. I enjoyed the wetland floor projection game and the augmented reality watershed simulator. You’ll also find shorebird and wetland plant adaptation magnetic boards, an aquatic invertebrate viewer, and wetland critter doors, just to name a few exhibits.
KWEC also features a classroom with live animals, like lizards, turtles, and bats. These animals are native to Cheyenne Bottoms and bring the wetlands to life for various educational programs.
KWEC has a fully-stocked gift shop to purchase birdwatching books and souvenirs. You don’t need a parking pass, and they don’t charge an admission fee at Cheyenne Bottoms.
Plan A Guided Tour
Cheyenne Bottoms offers three types of guided tours, all from the comfort of a vehicle. First, you can pick up a map and information booklet from the KWEC for a self-guided tour that you can take in your car. Second, KWEC offers a free audio tour that you can play in your vehicle as you discover the area. You can take as long as you would like for this tour and it’s free. Finally, get out of your car and explore. You can pick up a complete list of birds here before you go out and begin exploring.
Additionally, they offer guided van tours during regular business hours for about $5. Van tours can accommodate 11 people on a first-come, first-served basis, depending on the weather and guide availability. The tours include the use of binoculars and bird field guides. You’ll definitely want to take your camera and remember your long lens. They also have a photo array of the top 20 birds of Cheyenne Bottoms that you can borrow as you take your tour.
They offer two types of guided tours. The Get to Know Cheyenne Bottoms Tour is a quick 30-minute tour that covers a brief history of Cheyenne Bottoms and a quick peek at the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area pool system. The tour stops at the observation tower, where you can get an understanding of the expansive Cheyenne Bottoms landscape. Your guide will point out birds and wildlife along the way.
The second option is the Cheyenne Bottoms Deluxe Tour, which lasts about 90 minutes. This tour focuses on identifying birds and provides an interpretive view of the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Preserve. It includes a stop at the K-4 Cheyenne Bottoms overlook. To schedule a tour, it’s best to call the day before. The number to call is 1-877-243-9268.
Register For The Greater Prairie-Chicken Lek Tours
You can sign up for the greater prairie-chicken lek tours at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. The communal mating grounds of the greater prairie-chicken is called a lek. The males put on quite a display to attract the attention and ultimately the affection of the females. The staff drives you to a greater prairie-chicken lek that they have equipped with a trailer blind. From inside the blind, you can observe the prairie-chicken’s mating dance. The guide will describe the fantastic event and provide more information about these birds.
The Cheyenne Bottoms staff offers greater prairie chicken lek tours early in the morning from mid-March through April. You have to make reservations 2 days before the tour, and the cost is $40. Tours are limited to six participants per day.
Discover The Best Time For Watching Specific Birds
At Cheyenne Bottoms, most species of birds vary depending on the season. You’ll find eagles in the winter, with a more significant number of birds when the winter is mild. Spring brings over half a million geese, ducks, and thousands of other species, such as sandhill and whooping cranes. In early summer, tens of thousands of shorebirds visit the marsh. A quarter million or more birds stop on their flight south in the fall. Over the year, Cheyenne Bottoms has more birds than anywhere else in Kansas.
Birdwatchers have seen hundreds of species at Cheyenne Bottoms — whooping cranes, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, least terns, and piping plovers. It’s also a sanctuary for grassland birds like the lark, grasshopper sparrows, northern harriers, upland sandpipers, and burrowing owls. Record the birds you’ve spotted with this handy checklist.
Explore The George Stumps Nature Trail
Next to the KWEC, you’ll find the George Stumps Nature Trail. Located at the western side of the KWEC’s parking lot, you’ll find a trailhead to the half-mile loop trail. The paved level trail is wheelchair accessible. They have some benches along the way where you can sit back and soak in nature.
This area provides an opportunity to view other bird species, like eastern bluebirds and tree swallows. In the summer, the space showcases nesting house wrens and orioles. In addition, this is a layover for migrating monarch butterflies on their trip to Mexico in the fall.
The wildlife found in the area is more than birds. For example, you can see white-tailed deer at Cheyenne Bottoms year-round. Raccoons, beavers, muskrats, mink, and reptiles are common sightings. However, beware of massasauga rattlesnakes, frequently found in spring and fall.
Cheyenne Bottoms, located between Great Bend and Ellinwood, Kansas, is the perfect bird watching destination. You’ll find it convenient to overnight in one of these nearby towns if you’re in the area.
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