From Wichita, I had a nice short 2 hour drive to my next destination. Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Refuge is best known for being the place that thousands of whooping cranes and sandhill cranes go in February so I’ll have to put that on the list for another year. In late April and May, it’s all about the shorebirds. When I reviewed the list of possible species, there were quite a few I’d never heard of so I decided to go for it.
The “first bird” of this trip was actually on the side of the road just outside of Wichita. I had to turn around and backtrack, but he waited patiently and let me pet him before he walked off.
I had trouble getting a hotel room in nearby Great Bend (which is why I had to stop in Wichita for one night). I figured it was similar to the BWIAB in Ohio and that I was a little late to the game. I finally scored a Holiday Inn Express for 3 nights.
I got to town before I could check in to the hotel, so I just figured I’d get the lay of the land at the preserve and map out the next 2 days.
Cheyenne Bottoms, as the name suggests, is a wetland area. I was cruising along the farmland roads of Kansas when my GPS said I was about 2 miles away but I was in the middle of cow pastures and corn fields. No wetland in sight. I hadn’t seen any of those telltale brown signs either.
The GPS location put me in someone’s backyard. I thought about knocking because I’m sure that isn’t the first time this has happened but…
Ok, let’s try this again. I did a little Googling and got a new destination.
This time I ended up at a Community College.
The Cute Drywall Guy
I was starting to wonder if I’d made some giant mistake. I still hadn’t seen any signs. I tried one more GPS destination.
After about 4 miles on a dirt road, I found an entry point to the refuge. There was a little ranger station so I went in. Nobody home but a really cute guy fixing some drywall.
He was very helpful and saved the day because I was about to reroute to Colorado. Thankfully he knew the area and set me on the right course.
Knockin ‘Em Down
So I set off on what would be about a 15 mile drive into the wetlands. At first, it didn’t look very promising as the wetlands are obviously affected by how much or how little water is available and it had been very dry here according to Cute Drywall Guy.
But I’m now rolling along at 18 mph and the sightings are coming quick.
And in the next 20 minutes I knocked out half a dozen “first timers”, one after another. Let’s start with the waterfowl.
Now let’s hit the celebs. One of the birds I was hoping to see at BWIAB that I did NOT see was the avocet:
The other celeb at Cheyenne Bottoms is the Wilson’s Phalarope (this Wilson guy must be a good birder because he has a warbler named after him too). This one is actually a female which goes against the normal rule of thumb that the boys get the best colors.
Our final celeb at Cheyenne Bottoms, and one of the 2 birds that will share the title of “bird of the trip”, is the rare Snow Goose.
I continued along the drive and realized about halfway through that I was still the only car out there. Where are all the birders that were clogging up the hotel rooms? I must not have hit the sweet spot yet.
I came out on the other side of the marsh and voila! The education and visitors center. And it was still open which was a miracle.
Stopping at the visitors center AFTER you have been through and taken pictures of birds you could not identify is the easiest way to figure out what you saw. The staff was as excited as I was to look at my treasures.
They were also super helpful because it turns out there is another marsh sanctuary about 30 miles from here that would also be worth checking out since I have 2 full days.
Ahead Of The Crowd
When I got to the hotel, I asked the front desk lady why the hotel was so booked. “I’m here to do some birding and I’m guessing that it why you were so booked but I didn’t see anyone else out there today.”
She informed me that the hotels in town were all booked due to a kids baseball tournament. She didn’t know anything about birding.
A 3 Hour Tour
The next morning, having already conquered the majority of what I came to see at Cheyenne Bottoms, I went to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. I made sure to get very good directions from my new friends at Cheyenne Bottoms. Good thing I did because they also told me that the visitors center at Quivira is not operational.
This was a similar but even longer marsh drive. The weather was not quite ideal for birding. It was in the low 50s but the wind was whistling along around 40mph pretty consistently.
All In The Family
I spent quite a bit of time chasing down a raptor that I could see with my binoculars but that I could not identify.
He was kind enough to land on a tree next to his wife who was more accommodating. I got this shot through the sunroof of the Range.
The teardrop shaped coloring by the eye tells you that you are looking at a falcon, not a hawk. I found her teenage son a few hundred yards down the road.
A little trip back to the friendly bird folks at Cheyenne later in the day confirmed that this was a family of Prairie Falcons, not exactly a common sighting. This family is tied with the Snow Goose for “best sighting” of the trip.
Some Things Can’t Be Photographed
It was a frustrating day in terms of photography. Not many great photos but was very happy to add this couple to the list:
I also had the most spectacular surprise visit from about 200 American White Pelicans. I shared a video of these gorgeous birds from BWIAB, but this time it was just not something that could be adequately captured with a camera.
I was looking at the falcon who had landed on a burnt patch of ground and was fairly well camouflaged. Suddenly, I noticed a flash of white in the background.
The pelicans were flying in perfect synchronicity as the approached a pond in the marsh. They shifted a few times, flew higher and then lower but always in perfect unison.
It reminded me of when you see a school of fish as a wave curls up in the ocean. The school moves as if it was one being. Same with the pelicans.
Soon after this, they landed. I lost sight of them until I was around the other side of the pond. Then I could just barely see them in the distance. They were swimming in a huge huddle and eating what must have been a plentiful supply of fish. The video is a little hard to see but had to share.
Best Kept Secret
When I finished my tour of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, I marveled again to myself that I had yet to see a single soul in either park. It’s like the birds were waiting just for me.
By now I had worked up an appetite. There is not much for the foodie in Great Bend, Kansas.
As luck would have it, I got to talking with a girl at the hotel bar in Wichita who happened to be from Great Bend. She told me to eat at a place called The Handlebar. She said it didn’t look like much, but that the food was good. She also said it was haunted.
I drove by it on my way into town but I’ll admit I was a little unsure. Then I asked my friends at the Cheyenne Bottoms education center where to eat. “The Handlebar is the only place worth going.” That’s all I needed.
Haunted Beer Taps?
I ordered a draft beer. The bartender went to pour it and the tap shot out a stream of air and beer indicating the keg needed to be changed. She changed it, poured my beer and then went to pour a Coors Light for another customer. It happened again.
I asked her if she had heard that the bar was haunted. “I don’t know, but weird things do happen here. Just yesterday I was in the stockroom and a straw came flying out of nowhere and bounced off me. The cook saw it too and neither of us could explain it.”
I looked it up online and while there is a comprehensive list of haunted places in Kansas, the Handle Bar is not on it. You’ll have to decide for yourselves.
Not In Kansas Anymore
I’ll close out this post with a few other friends I met in Kansas, but by the time you read this, we won’t be in Kansas anymore.
And from Cheyenne Bottoms, it seems appropriate to wrap with this guy who is known for bobbing his butt.