Seat: Great Bend
County Size: 895 square miles
County Checklist: 375 species
DeLorme: Page 46, sections F4, F5, G4, G5, H4, I2.
Google Map of Barton County
Best Birds: Brant, 2009; Fulvous Whistling-Duck, 1999; American Black Duck, 2009; Mottled Duck, breeding, 1963-1977; Wood Stork, 1967; Neotropic Cormorant, breeding, 2007; Tri-colored Heron, breeding, 1985; Reddish Egret, 1999; White Ibis, 2010; Roseate Spoonbill, 2003; Gyrfalcon, 1990; Curlew Sandpiper, 1972; Ruff, 2004; Red Phalarope, 1984; Black-legged Kittiwake,1998; Laughing Gull, 2009; Mew Gull, 2009; Glaucous Gull, 2009; Great Black-backed Gull, 1999; Black Skimmer, 1977; Parasitic Jaeger, 1965; Long-tailed Jaeger, 1971 (and one found dead in 2012); Vermilion Flycatcher, 2001; Fork-tailed Flycatcher, 1994; Western Scrub Jay, 1971; Cave Swallow, observed every year since 2009 and most likely breeding under the bridges on highway K-4.
Barton County is perhaps best known for Cheyenne Bottoms, although there are other birding sites in the county. In this account, unless one property is specifically mentioned, “the Bottoms” refers to Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and The Nature Conservancy Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve as a combined area. Important water sources in addition to the wetlands complex include the Arkansas River, and Walnut and Cow creeks. Blood and Deception creeks empty into the Bottoms, but are dry many parts of the year. Near the center of Kansas, Barton County is home to miles of softly rolling prairie. Portions of the area host the unique sand prairie habitat. Ranching, farming and oil production are the main industries.
The fresh-water Bottoms have produced many significant and important bird records. It provides habitat critical to the survival of Whooping Cranes, Piping Plovers, Least Terns and Peregrine Falcons. Historically, the entire wetlands complex was comprised of a shallow sink of approximately 41,000 acres. The majority of the area is under protection by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and The Nature Conservancy.
The Bottoms host nearly half of the North American shorebird population as it passes through in the spring. Peak shorebird migration periods occur the last week of April—the last week of May and mid-July—mid-October. Peak waterfowl migration occurs October— early December. Whooping Cranes are most likely to be seen late October—early November. It is generally recommended that each visit include two trips around the Wildlife Area as new arrivals and flock movements occur throughout the day, allowing birders to see many different species. To date, 345 bird species have been recorded at the Bottoms.
1. Cheyenne Bottoms - First-time visitors to Cheyenne Bottoms may want to begin with a stop at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. Here you may get a general orientation to the Bottoms by visiting with staff naturalists, taking a scheduled van tour, or browsing the impressive educational exhibits. Recent sightings and population conditions are posted near the reception area. Floor to ceiling windows allow visitors to look out over a marsh and pond.
After leaving KWEC, cross K-156 and head directly into the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area (DeLorme F5, G4 and G5). One of Kansas’ Ramsar-designated Wetlands of International Importance, almost 20,000 acres are state-owned and managed primarily for shorebirds and waterfowl. A complicated system of dikes, canals, pumps and pipes are used to manage and move water throughout the Wildlife Area. Dikes surround the Pool 1 complex and allow visitors to drive along the marshes in a counterclockwise direction. As you move along the dike, be sure to look over both sides as birds will be in the marshes on the left and in the canal and marshes on the right. Concrete structures in the marshes are hunting blinds. Raptors, such as Bald Eagles and visiting Snowy Owls, often perch on them.
Pool 1A lies in front of you until the dike veers to the right. Climbing up the observation tower at this juncture will allow a broader view of the marsh. The Pool 1 complex, and in particular Pool 1A, frequently holds water the longest. This 3,300-acre area is also the refuge portion of the Bottoms and is closed to all activities. As the water levels naturally drop or are drawn down, sandbars and mudflats appear, concentrating large numbers of shorebirds, gulls, terns, ducks, geese, herons, egrets and other birds dependent upon wetlands habitat.
Continue along the dike system and scan all the pools and marshes. Some areas are open to foot traffic and are marked as such. A vault toilet near Pool 3A is the only bathroom facility available until reaching headquarters.
Staying on the dike will complete the drive along the pools. As you turn west and head toward the exit, you will see the inlet canal and Pool 5 on the left. At the end of this stretch of the dike, you will find headquarters and a vault toilet on the right. Immediately east of headquarters is a small pond surrounded by trees. Be sure to watch for passerines.
Upon reaching the intersection you have four options: retrace your drive through the Wildlife Area, turn right (north), go straight ahead (west), or turn left (south).
If you turn right, you’ll notice a small bridge. Cliff Swallows nest under bridges throughout the Bottoms, but are possibly most noticeable here in large numbers. Whenever present, scan all swallow flocks carefully for Cave Swallows. Drive a little farther north past the large maintenance shed. From the road, look back and locate the square opening near the roof. Look closely for the pale, heart-shaped face of a Barn Owl. They frequently nest here.
If you continue directly west of the Bottoms, you will see a stand of cottonwoods and cedars about a half-mile away on the left. This is a primitive camping area. Look here for passerines and listen for screech owls after dusk.
Turning south at headquarters will allow you to drive on dirt roads through agricultural areas and into Great Bend. Check feedlots along the way for Brewer’s Blackbirds.
2. The Nature Conservancy Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve (DeLorme F4) - Adjacent to the Wildlife Area is a 7,694-acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The preserve is a patchwork of land parcels managed for wetland and grassland species; the marshes and semi- permanent basins are filled by rainfall, snowmelt and local streams.
The preserve may be accessed upon leaving the west entrance of the Wildlife Area and heading north. After approximately 2.5 miles, a woodland area at the intermittent Blood Creek may hold passerines. Property on the west side of the road is privately-owned; however, land to the east belongs to TNC.
You may also access the preserve from K-4 four miles west of Redwing. Turn south. One mile after entering the preserve, you may turn on a road to the east that wends through the main contiguous portion of the property. Please be sensitive to road conditions. Some routes are unimproved dirt roads maintained by the township and may be impassable following wet weather. At no time is it advisable to attempt crossing a portion of road that is under water.
The importance of the ecology and natural history of this area of Barton County cannot be overstated. As with the Wildlife Area, the preserve is also a Wetland of International Importance. Both properties are recognized as Globally Important Bird Areas by the National Audubon Society.
3. Hoisington sewer lagoons (DeLorme F4) - No trip to Barton County is complete without a stop at the Hoisington sewer lagoons. Located southeast of town on NW 100 Road, the lagoons are easily viewable and host a variety of ducks and shorebirds.
4. Great Bend (DeLorme H4) - As its name suggests, this town is located at the great bend in the Arkansas River. The Great Bend Cemetery (4500 Broadway) has held Red Crossbills in the winter and nesting Greater Roadrunners in recent years. Ponds to check include Veteran’s Lake (17th Street Terrace and McKinley Street) and Stone Lake (Washington Street and Railroad Avenue). The Arkansas River Nature Trail allows birders to hike seven miles along the river and encounter various habitats including woodlands, marshes and agricultural land. (Enter at the south end of Washington Street at the south end of Stone Lake.)
5. Pawnee Rock - The area surrounding Pawnee Rock (DeLorme I2) has hosted a variety of species through the years including Northern Goshawk, Short-eared Owl, Whooping Crane, Brewer’s Blackbird, Sprague’s Pipit, Ross’s Goose and Whip-poor-will. Traveling west or south of town will take you into Rush and Pawnee counties, respectively, but what’s a birding trip without a little county listing?
Updated February 2013 - CM
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