Friday, March 16, 2007

Eastern Kansas and The Cranes, Mar 07

This is a report of a trip from March 7 -12, 2007 through eastern and central Kansas, with an interlude in Nebraska along the Great Bend of the Platte River. My purpose was to add new species seen in Kansas, and to see the Sandhill Crane migration event. Turns out spectacle would be a better word. I ended up adding 33 species in KS and 24 in Nebraska. Total species seen was 107. Not bad for 6 days in early March. Here's how it went.

I got out of Eureka Springs, Arkansas around 9am on a Wednesday, having escaped from two jobs, and with some cash, usually rare at this time of year. Got to Schermerhorn Park in Galena Kansas around 11. Immediately got some new tics, one being Brown Creeper, a personal favorite. Someday if I can find an artist good enough I want a Creeper going up one arm, and a Nuthatch going down the other, tatoos. Nothing weird you understand. Really enjoyed visiting with the two women at the Nature Center at Schermerhorn, and grazed the free lit racks. Best find was a Raptor ID booklet from the state of Kansas. Headed over to Baxter Springs to check out the park and lagoons there, nothing on or around the lagoons, but did find a Winter Wren along the River. Headed north, following a lead on the listserv that Cinnamon Teal had been seen at Neosho WMA. Didn't find them but did start to get some of the missing species of ducks on the list. Most of my KS birding was in summer, so I had big gaps in ducks and sparrows. Found seven new ducks, including Canvasback and Goldeneye, also a Cooper's Hawk, and Rusty Blackbird attracted with a recording.

I poked around finding some other spots in Patti and Zimmerman that I'd marked up on my mapping software. Last stop for the day was Marais de Cygnes. Stayed in a free campsite there. They had just burned, and some stumps were still on fire, delicious smells and eery glows while I walked around after dark hoping for owls. The next morning was very nice, but seriously cold, frost on ashes. Up before dawn to try for Woodcock, and finally had one good whinny, but between the smoke and cold they didn't put on any show. Found some more new ducks by walking a closed road back into the pools, and a Pileated Woodpecker. In unit G I had a Black Duck flush with some Mallards, stood out like a sore thumb, and a gratifying Bufflehead finally. Another good find that morning was a Common Loon, seen from a little space on the dam that said do not park. What was I supposed to do?, stop in the middle of the road? Didn't linger. I want to stay at the campground there, LaCygne Lake, on the next trip. Looks like a good piece of habitat.

Headed north for several strike-outs, especially disappointed at Fort Leavenworth, where I'd anticipated finding sparrows. Naturally security is intense, and I didn't think I'd like to spend an hour while they strip searched the truck, you know, the birder's truck, binocs, two scopes, two computers, four cameras etc, and a serious pile of camping gear, and the dregs of carpentry tool world that I can live with while traveling. Unload it far enough to change over to bird-and-run mode. On to Atchison, and then Atchison City Lake. What a find! Super neat place with the world's finest stonework outhouses, equipped with the world's funkiest facilities. They were burning there too. The neat part was several thousand Snow Geese, with a few Ross's, maybe five hundred Greater White-fronts, some Canada's, and a flock of about twenty Cackling Geese. Not many other ducks but I didn't care. That looks like another future camping place if its allowed.

Both days had been sorta warm by noon, but I ended up driving without stop to Lovewell Lake and the undeveloped free camping on the south shore. Further Snow Goose extravaganza, now in the tens of thousands. I slept with the camper shell open to listen through the night, goose mutter rising and falling like waves on the seashore. Morning was a bitter north wind made worse by the way it swept up the Loess bluffs. Half a dozen eagles playing fly-or-die with the geese, but they all flew. Had a real surprise with an immature Herring Gull mixed with the Ring-bills. Walked the whole loop around the bluffs, trying to find either Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (a range map check showed that to be pretty futile) or Red-breasted Nuthatch, which ended up being a real dip for the trip.

By then I was getting anxious to see the Cranes. North through Superior NE, and up to a place marked Crane Meadows Visitor Center. Seemed a good place to start. Started seeing Cranes too, and hearing the familiar whortling, not great numbers, and had a lucky pair of Common Mergansers on a roadside pond. The Visitor Center was kind of disappointing, except for some good book selection. The built facility was very nice, but the habitat was a disappointment. They charged four dollars to walk their trails, which were virtually birdless, not to mention maintainless. The first section of trail passed a small feedlot, Eau de Nebraska. Faked in a number of other states, but never truly matched. But they had a map, and the map showed the Rowe Sanctuary which I'd heard good things of. Drove there along back roads. Many more Cranes along the way. And big flocks of geese all over.

At Rowe I felt instantly at home. Immediately got into interesting conversation, and learned a quick dose on the Crane scene. I walked up to their long bird-blind, which looked on an empty river at mid-day. The Cranes feed in the area farmlands during the day, and roost on the bars during the night which provides good predator protection. The return to the river comes after sundown, and the flight is almost exactly at sunrise. I hung around Rowe for about four hours, checking out the weeds for sparrows, and studying the blind construction details. I have never seen so many American Tree Sparrows in one place. When they flushed I had the impression that there was one for each square foot of cover, meaning a couple of hundred in a modest weedy patch. Ended up buying another book, and songbird coffee too.

Needing a place to camp, I headed west to Kearny State Rec Area, nice with lots of small ponds and big trees. The main attraction was a stretch of converted rail-line made into the "Hike and Bike Trail" An old trestle crossed right over the river and was a glorious place to watch the gathering and roosting of the Cranes and immense flocks of Geese, now we're up to hundreds of thousands. Waves and skeins flew over sometimes for ten minutes at a time. The Cranes came in by thousands too after sundown, continuous calling and honking. I had met two men and a son who came every year for the Cranes, twenty years they said. Chris and David and Sam. David had heard an alternate sound, a thin whistling, which he thought came from immatures. I had noted that they had two different wing beats, one a regular sweeping up and down, and another more like a flicking on the downbeat. The next morning as we waited for the flight we figured out that the flick went with the whistle. Does anyone know anything about this?

Both David and I tried to scare up owls without luck, but we were there at first light for the flight. We met on a secondary highway bridge a little east of the trestle. The river was full of Cranes in both directions, which were stirring themselves up to make the big move. A few would take off and circle and land again, sometimes going from left to right of the bridge, or back. They would jump and flare, dancing, and the noise gradually was getting louder. The sun had risen and was shining bright orange off the water when the real thing happened. A front seemed to move down the river from the east, and wave after wave was up and gone to the fields, tremendous noise of wings and calls, dizzying swirls of birds. Spectacular. Dazzling. Unforgettable.

After that we drove the few miles back to Rowe to check the feeders and look for a reported Northern Shrike. Nothing special, and dipped. I had a map of duck areas from the previous day, and headed south to check those on the way back to Kansas. Got several new NE tics doing that, best being both Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers at the dam for Harlan County Lake. There were lots more ducks out there, But they proved inaccessible. I went on around the lake, and although I could see lots of birds on the water, when I tried approaches, they were all grown up in popple and osiers where the receding water line had withdrawn over the last several years of drought.

I was back in Kansas near Kirwin NWR. Got my KS Sandhill at the first stop as soon as the door was open, calling from nearby. They were much more of a presence in central KS than when I had run up the east side (none). I could only figure two more duck species that seemed within reason possible, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers. Kirwin had several pairs of Commons. Headed for Cheyenne Bottoms, picking up a couple of trip tics along the way, one being my first KS House Finch. At CB, there was still time to drive the main loop before it got dark, and a lucky thing too since a lot of rain started early in the night and lasted til about noon the next day. the BBB (best bottom bird) was a pair of Cinnamon Teal, something unexpected and given up on since back at Neosho. Slept soundly through the rain at the CB campground, no Owls.

I made another loop around dawn after a run into Great Bend for email and breakfast. One mail was from Scott Seltman with info on the Nekoma LEPC lek, and specific mention of lousy roads after rain. I dropped the idea, but called him and got advice to find GRPC leks by stopping on hilltops and listening. The rain had lightened up by the time I got to Quivera, but the back roads over and the roads on the refuge were pretty slimy in some places, 4WD stuff, but nothing serious. I wasn't having much luck there until I got to the tour route. Didn't find any of the shorebirds that Scott had found on Saturday, but did score a single female Red-breasted Merganser. Otherwise just usual suspects.

One of the best stops of the trip, tho it didn't net any tics, was the Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson. I think what I liked was it's compactness and a sense of promise. Both Red-breasted Nuthatch and Pine Siskins were listed as common, no I walked every trail watching and listening and playing tapes. If anybody else was there Sunday afternoon and checked those two off by ear, I'm sorry, but it was me and Stokes. Never found them, but put the place on my list of definite return trips. The habitat is so unusual for central KS. Especially after driving up the road and seeing what real Sand Prairie habitat looks like at the State Park.
Made a stop at Cheney Reservoir, but it didn't seem really promising. Then I had to decide whether to try Wichita sites, or head for camping. It was getting on in the afternoon, and I decided that Wichita might be best if I could make later arrangements with a local birder and get Janzen's book on Sedgewick County. So I went on to El Dorado State Park. Found a nice setting overlooking a Goldeneye. Later prepared to shower and shave and discovered the restroom building was closed. And no water anywhere, They didn't even have a PortaPotty. And I checked that there was no notice of the situation on the bulletin board at the pay station. All they did have was my money. I guess that makes the KS state parks the winner. Except that I'll never stay in another one. I suppose it's an effective way to lower maintenance costs.

But other than the cost it was no worse than most of the places I stayed. One adapts. One evolves. One moves on in the morning. I wanted to get another morning in somewhere, but also needed to be home for work, so it was a shot back to Schermerhorn where I had a detailed description from Lawrence Herbert of some sighting locations. But I had a plan to look for Greater Prairie Chicken leks around Cassoday, which claimed capital status for them. I had to go quite a ways east before getting away from the sound of the turnpike, but finally was able to hear a lek quite a ways off. Kept stopping on hilltops and got another distant lek and one close enough to hear all the details of the calls, but still couldn't see it. Still counted it though. Even better than that was a Short-eared Owl along the road when the daylight had just started, unmistakable bat-wing silhouette, close enough to get the size as well.

Again I poked into some Zimmerman and Patti locations just to see what they looked like. Was impressed with the habitat along the Fall River at the upper end of the Wildlife Area. Had a nice experience there, besides finding the long sought Sapsucker. A flock of Blackbirds flew into some corn stubble and just on impulse I looked them over even tho I figured just Red-wings. Spotted a Cowbird, good for a trip tic, but got to looking harder then. Voila, a Brewer's Blackbird, not expected at all.

Last stop was Elk City Lake. The lookout was nice, but no birds were near enough to ID from there. I was hoping for more loons, or Mergansers. Went through Baxter Springs, again stopped at the lagoons, but no shorebirds. I don't think I'm doing it right there. It seems that there's a pool in the back, but I couldn't figure out how to access it. Want to try the camping there too, assuming the wind is not unfavorable. At Schermerhorn the Fish Crows were easy, thought I might have heard a Pine Warbler, but not sure enough to count. I followed the Blue-bird route a little south of there, and when I finally figured out that the box numbers from Lawrence were on the bird houses, not the mailboxes, it suddenly made a lot more sense. Duh? But I couldn't scare up a Bewick's Wren, even with a recording. So I went home.


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