No Jayhawks and No Seahawks – Birding in Kansas

This was to be the last leg of my 50/50/50 Adventure – birding in Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Kansas was the only state I had not visited before, so even the touchdown at the Wichita Airport was meaningful. I had come close before – about 7 miles to the west as part of the “Chickens” tour with High Lonesome Tours in April 2016. Another member of our group had not been to Kansas either, but we were unable to talk Forrest Davis into a short detour to check off a new state rather than checking off a new species.  I would be birding with Tom Ewert on November 5th. Our email exchanges and telephone calls had been positive and enjoyable. I was sure the day would be fun but Tom was a little unsure if we would be able to get the targeted 50 species as this was a “tweener” time after most of the fall migration was complete and before all of the winter birds were in place. He did not want Kansas to be the only state that failed to produce 50 species in a day on my journeys. I don’t mind breaking the suspense to report that we surpassed 50 species early in the day and with Tom’s excellent guidance we found 81 species – a surprise to both of us. It was also a very fun day reaffirming the major point of my project – lots of great people in our birding community and birding with them is a very enjoyable activity.

Jayhawk and Seahawk

Jayhawk seahawk-logo.jpg
About that Jayhawk/Seahawnk title. At least in the bird world, there are no actual “Jayhawks” or “Seahawks”. The Seahawk is the mascot and name for the NFL football team in Seattle. Birdwise, it is most likely an Osprey but the name itself was chosen as a combination of “Sea” as in Seattle and Hawk – as in many non-specific birds of prey. The history of the Jayhawk is more complex. It is the mascot of the University of Kansas and is supposedly a combination of Jay as in Blue Jay and Hawk as in Sparrow Hawk (now a Kestrel). The name was coined in 1848 and the reader is referred to https://kuhistory.ku.edu/articles/blackmars-origin-jayhawk for an interesting historical account.

As related to my birding trip in Kansas, no Ospreys but lots of Blue Jays and Kestrels but I certainly saw lots of “Jayhawks” on the sweatshirts of KU supporters even though I was birding around Wichita – home to Wichita State University known as the Wheat Shockers – and I can conjure no avian reference there. So much for that diversion – on to the birding. On visits to previous states, I found that several species could be found around my motel before heading off to more traditional spots. European Starlings, House Sparrows and Rock Doves are often around and while almost always found later as well, there is a sense of momentum that comes with an early start to a list. Tom was picking me up at daybreak, but I was up early and so walked around my motel and found a little pond that got me off to a great start without any of those aforementioned species. There were 5 duck species, a Great Blue Heron, a Carolina Wren and a Song Sparrow. It turned out that the Wood Duck observation was the only one of the day. A great start for sure.

Tom arrived ahead of schedule and there was an immediate comfort level reaffirming my good feelings from prior communications. We headed off to Maple Grove Cemetery where we found many of the more common birds that were expected and one great surprise. My 50/50/50 trips are really focused or maybe better “unfocused” on simply finding 50 species in a day unlike many of my other birding trips which are often targeting specific species without regard to quantities. On those excursions I am chasing a rarity or perhaps trying to add to a year list, a state list or my ABA list. No ABA “Lifers” were possible in Kansas but there was a possibility for a new ABA Life photo – IF we could find a Winter Wren. Tom thought it was possible and in fact had scouted some potentially good areas the day before. He had not found a Winter Wren then but this was the time they should be arriving so maybe we would get lucky. As we passed by a small stream – perfect habitat – Tom perked up and said he was hearing the “kilp” call/rattle of our target. These are notoriously skulky birds and are very quick to pop into the open but then disappear even more quickly into brush. This was the act we watched for several moments – with fleeting glances at best. Then it was in the open – for less than a second – insufficient time for me to get in focus. There was one more somewhat open view in abysmal light and I finally got a photo – a very poor one that is better than perhaps only one of my other ABA photos – the equally elusive Sinaloa Wren found onto Santa Gertrudis Lane in Arizona last February. Use your imagination when you look at the photo but poor or not, I was thrilled and our day list was now at 28 species and it was not yet 8:00 a.m.

Winter Wren

winter-wren.jpg

We picked up a few more species on the way to Chisholm Creek Park and Great Plains Nature Center where 3 goose and 3 sparrow species brought us to 41 for the day and Tom was definitely more relaxed. I also saw my first Osage oranges. Fortunately they were discovered on the ground and not after one hit me in the head.  Perhaps not as bad as getting hit by a coconut, but with a diameter over 4 inches and solid, they are dangerous.  Many were seen during the day on the ground and still on trees and several were heard thudding on the ground.

Tom Ewert at Great Plains Nature Center

Tom Ewert

Osage Orange

Osage Orange Osage Oranges in Tree

After the Nature Center, we did one of those things that comes with having local experts and local knowledge. We stopped at a Walmart and got the Great Tailed Grackles that hang out there looking for handouts. Not a pristine environment but in this exercise, a species is a species regardless. At Cheney Reservoir and SP a Savannah Sparrow was species 49 for the day and we still had a lot of birding ahead. Quickly on Silver Lake Road we added another 6 species and there was no longer any concern that Kansas would not join the other 47 states where I had success. A lowly Eurasian Collared Dove was the 50th species for the day.

Great Tailed Grackle – A Walmart Special

Great Tailed Grackle1

One of the fun parts of birding in many different states is seeing the variation in species in different areas.  Song Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos are very common in my native Washington and are found in many other states including Kansas.  Note the differences between the typical variations found in the two states.

Song Sparrows (Washington and Kansas)

Song Sparrow  Song Sparrow

Dark Eyed Juncos (Washington and Kansas)

Dark Eyed Junco  Dark Eyed Junco

When I first started planning a trip to Kansas and knew it would have to be in November I thought that waterfowl would have to play a major role in reaching a good total. Inevitably this led me to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Birders I knew said this was a must see place and early conversations with Tom confirmed this and he thought this spot might have to be the place to get us our 50 species. Now with 50 species already in the record book, we headed west to enjoy this special place. The Kansas Ornithological Society had trips at Quivira the previous weekend and Tom had served as a guide. A highlight at the Refuge is the concentration of Sandhill Cranes with a sub-highlight sometime being the inclusion of some Whooping Cranes as they passed through in migration on their way south to Aransas NWR in Texas. On the Sunday before I arrived 4 Whooping Cranes had been at Quivira. We hoped they might have stayed but it was a long shot.

Well, there were no Whooping Cranes – just thousands of Sandhills and by the end of the day we had 52 species at Quivira and had added 25 species for the day – all but 4 being water related. One that was not water related was a Short Eared Owl that Tom spied hunting on a grassland behind one of the ponds. That would turn out to be the only owl seen on the entire trip.  There were also 7 species of sparrows including two of my favorites – Field Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow.  But the highlights really were the waterfowl with 5 species of geese, 2 swans and 9 ducks.  There were also maybe 100 American Avocets.

American Avocet

American Avocet

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

We had our rarest bird of the day at Quivira also – a late Wilson’s Phalarope that we originally identified as a Red Necked Phalarope but when Tom posted the photo (distant) on a Kansas Birding site, the consensus was Wilson’s.

Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope

All in all 36 of the 81 species seen during the day were water related – geese, ducks, swans, shorebirds, waders, gulls, grebes or cormorants. We did even better than Tom had suspected in these categories and much better with the passerines although nothing like the experience would have been in the spring or fall migrations.  And while we had hawks and jays, there were neither Jayhawks nor Seahawks.

Sandhill Cranes Silhouetted at Sunset

Sandhill Cranes at Sunset

In my write-ups after these 50/50/50 birding trips, I try to cover some non-birding issues but stress that it is the birding that links us as part of a wonderful community with many wonderful people all with their own stories.  Tom Ewert is a great case in point.  I had contacted him via Wichita Audubon and he had graciously agreed to join me for the day.  He had done great scouting before our trip and was super on the day of birding itself both as an excellent birder and a very interesting person.  Most birders I know are more to the left than the right on the political spectrum, but there are Republican birders out there, and the states I was visiting on this trip are definitely Republican strongholds.  None moreso than Kansas which is very conservative.  Nothing is more indicative of this than that Kansas (and Wichita) is the Headquarters for Koch Industries one of the largest privately owned companies in the U.S. and is home to the Koch family with its enormous influence on the Republican party through massive financial contributions.  Fortunately Tom and I were mostly on the same page so no difficulty there.  His major issues were with Kansas politics that are often at odds with conservation issues and threaten the loss of birding habitat.

I admired Tom’s birding acumen and his activism on conservation issues.  I also admired his personal story of overcoming a potentially serious health threat.  Last year with little warning, he found that he had a meningioma – a tumor that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull.  It required brain surgery and fortunately as is usually the case was determined to be benign.  Nonetheless there are impacts from the tumor and the surgery that are similar to strokes and require time and lots of rehab efforts to overcome.  Other than a scar on his head where the surgeons cut through his skull, there seem to be no impacts.  The desire to get back into the field to bird was a motivator in his recovery efforts.  It has been my privilege to bird with people like Tom who have overcome major health matters and who continue to add to and benefit from our community.

Some of my good birding friends in Washington are very serious County Listers – a “disease” I fortunately have not caught.  Tom has it big time and while I am sure I have the details wrong, I think he either has already seen or is close to seeing 100 species in each county in Kansas.  This takes on a lot more meaning when you understand that there are 105 counties in Kansas (Washington by contrast has only 39) and that the distance from Northeast Kansas to Southwest Kansas is over 420 miles.

Some other quick reflections on Kansas:  (1) At least where I was it was flat – VERY flat – did not even notice a hill.  (2)  Kansas is an “open carry” state, although I never saw any firearms.  (3) Despite a big downturn with big changes at Boeing, there is a strong aerospace industry in Kansas and the Wichita airport is as beautiful an airport as I have seen. (4)  A big surprise to me was that Pizza Hut was founded by the Carney Brothers while students at Wichita State University in 1958.  And just saying – Carney certainly sounds more Irish than the expected Italian as a “pizza heritage”.  (5)  Kansas is a very religious state including a sizable Mennonite population.  Tom was raised in that tradition but left it.  As with the Amish in Ohio and particularly at Magee Marsh, many in the group are excellent birders – and yes, there is a story there – but not for this blog to tell.

So Kansas was the 50th state I had visited and the 48th state where I had observed more than 50 species in a single day.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and like so many other places along the way during this 50 state Adventure, I hope to get back.  I would love to get to the prairies in the western part of the state or to experience migration in the eastern part.  The presence of both eastern and western species is a fascinating part of the Kansas ornithological story and explains why more than 450 species have been recorded in this completely landlocked state.  I was off to Oklahoma and there will be stories to tell from that experience – many.

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