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Weekender: Quivira & Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas
By Jerry Kiesow
Kansas is for the birds. It’s also a state that raises wheat and milo; where cattle graze among oil wells, and thousands of bison once roamed. It’s also a state not normally thought of as wet, but right smack dab in the middle are two watery wildlife refuges. Both are important stopovers during the bird migratory seasons because of the large water impoundments and adjoining marshes.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheye-nne Bottoms Wildlife Area are close neighbors. They’re two places where bird-watching enthusiasts can see a multitude of species. There are also camping facilities nearby.
The dominating feature on a map of Kansas is Interstate 70. Just south of I-70, near Great Bend, are Cheyenne Bottoms, northeast of the city, and Quivira to the southeast. These two refuges offer food, cover, and a place to rest for an amazing number of migratory avians, especially shorebirds and waterfowl, with an occasional rare and/or endangered species, such as the whooping crane, dropping in from time to time. It’s positioned along the Mississippi flyway and fills with feathered friends each spring and fall. The refuges are identified by the State of Kansas as major components of the Arkansas River Lowlands, one of several physiographic provinces in the region.
Cheyenne Bottoms (27,000 acres) is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. At Quivira, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the more than 22,000 acres. Both are open to the public year-round and offer self-guided wildlife viewing tours, and fishing and hunting in proper season. Geared primarily toward birders, the tours present many opportunities to see other wildlife, too. Deer, coyotes, bobcats and prairie dogs are just a few species that inhabit the area.
With 30 miles of roadway to drive or walk, plus six to seven miles of dike open only to walking, it is not difficult to spend a day or more at Cheyenne Bottoms. Canoeing is available, but limited to time, places and seasons.
Quivira has 14 miles of roadway to drive or walk, plus short paths leading into the marsh. Two of the trails are wheelchair friendly: The “Bluebird Boulevard” and “Migrant Mile” trails are hard-surfaced for easy accessibility. Due to low water levels, no boat or canoe travel is allowed here.
The name “Quivira” comes from a tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area when Coronado, the Spanish explorer, visited in 1541. He was looking for the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold.” Instead he found a land richly blessed with agriculturally based native villages, grassland, salt marshes, and an abundance of wildlife. Following a period of mass hunting, the Migratory Bird Commission approved the purchase of the land to create a wildlife refuge in 1955.
Cheyenne Bottoms is a portion of a 41,000-acre, natural land-sink complex of marshy basins. In the 1950s, the State of Kansas began purchasing land in the Bottoms with the intent of creating a refuge. The Nature Conservancy started buying land for the preservation of the Cheyenne Bottoms area in 1990.
We zipped out I-70 to Salina, then down highways 140 and 141 to Kanopolis State Park. After dawdling at Kanopolis we moved on to Quivira. We arrived shortly before the Visitor Center closed, but with plenty of daylight left, we picked up a self-guided auto tour pamphlet and ventured forth into the refuge.
Our first stop was the Little Salt Marsh, the main water storage basin for the complex. Rattlesnake Creek flows in and out of Little Salt Marsh. From this pond, 21 miles of canals were built to control and manage 34 other wetland units within the refuge boundary. We hiked some of the trails, checked out the public photo blind, and drove many miles. We also added many new species to our bird list — white pelicans, glossy ibis, black-necked stilts, lesser yellow legs, long-billed curlew, and cattle egrets. There were also plenty of great blue herons, common egrets, coots, mallards, snowy egrets, and marsh hawks.
Quivira has two salt marshes — Little and Big. The salt flat area of Big Salt Marsh is a nesting area for the endangered interior least tern. Interior refers to the fact that the least tern inhabits the interior of the United States as opposed to the same bird that frequents the east and west coasts. The coastal birds are not endangered, however.
The refuge is not all marshland and salt flats. It is mostly managed grassland. Grass is considered a crop just as are wheat and milo. Grazing cattle on these grasslands is a management tool, and it was not uncommon for us to see beef cattle and cattle egrets “grazing” together.
Our visit to Cheyenne Bottoms the next day was curtailed by rain. We roamed the dikes, following another driving tour through the Kansas State portions. We saw many of the waterfowl and shore birds of the previous day. But, due to worsening weather and the similarity of habitat to Quivira, we did not explore the outer auto tour laid out by The Nature Conservancy.
Because the roads through the Conservancy’s property reportedly become impassable after heavy rains, we took their advice and stayed on the dike roads.
WHEN YOU GO
Both areas get large numbers of migrants in spring and fall, with March, April, and October being the prime times. Of course, weather dictates the final flight patterns. Be sure to bring a good pair of binoculars and a field book or two. If you have a spotting scope it will come in handy, especially when trying to identify species you have never seen before. Also, bring your camera and tripod, and allow yourself plenty of time.
As with most wildlife observing, early morning and late evening are the best times to see the birds in flight, coming to and from feeding and resting places. During the day however, we found many ducks and pelicans resting in the open water.
There is an RV park on the south side of Quivira, and primitive camping is available at Cheyenne Bottoms. Kansas State parks Kanopolis, Cheney, Wilson Lake and Cedar Bluff are also reasonably close.
For maps and information, contact: Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area (316/793-7730), Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (620/672-5911;
), and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (620/486-2393;