County Seat: Clay Center
County Size: 655 square miles
County Checklist: 277 species
DeLorme pages 23 & 36
Google Map of Clay County
Best Birds: Tricolored Heron (2010), King Rail (2010), Whooping Crane (2010), Sabine’s Gull (2000), Snowy Owl (2012), Cerulean Warbler
Clay County is located in north-central Kansas. Highway K-15 and US 24 both span the county, K-15 running north and south and US 24 east and west. Primarily an agricultural county it has some interesting features that make for good birding. The upper end of Milford Lake occupies the southeast corner of the county. This area can produce outstanding birding virtually any time of the year. The agricultural areas are roughly 60% cropland and 40% rangeland. Timber areas are fairly restricted to riparian areas around creeks and rivers and the areas around Milford Lake. In extreme southwestern Clay County, In the Longford and Oak Hill area, the geography moves into more of the Smoky Hills region with great mixed grass prairies and undulating topography. Throughout the county you can encounter good native range areas that still hold declining populations of Greater Prairie-Chickens.
1. Milford Lake – The upper end of Milford Lake, created from the damming of the Republican River in Geary County, lies in Clay County and affords some of the best birding in the county. Large areas surrounding the lake, reserved for high water events, allow considerable public access. Many of these areas are managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Access may be restricted at certain times to provide wildlife refuge areas. Many other areas are accessible by foot traffic only. Always read and follow all signage at the entrance to these areas. The US Army Corps of Engineers Milford Lake website offers great information and maps of the entire Milford Project area. Copies of the map/brochure can also be found at many of the convenience stores in the area or the Milford Lake Corps Office. Note that many of the roads described in this section are gravel or dirt roads. Some of the roads are below the flood plain. In rainy periods of periods of high water, roads may be treacherous or impassable. Proceed with caution!
East side of Milford Lake/Republican River
From the town of Wakefield you can travel east on K-82 highway across the causeway. Note that there is no parking or stopping on the causeway, which is unfortunate as there can be very good birds in this region. The north side of the causeway is fairly shallow and when the lake level drops below normal the mud flats can hold thousands of shorebirds in migration. You can part on the east end of the causeway and then walk back to view the flats, or ducks and gulls on the deeper south side of the causeway.
Shortly after crossing the causeway there is a Corps of Engineers campground and park on the south side of the road, Timber Creek Park. The boat ramp area can give you a good view of the main body of the lake. There are also extensive cedar stands that have been known to hold Northern Saw-whet Owls.
A little further east from the Timber Creek Park entrance is County Highway 859 (Valleyview Rd). Turn north here and in about 2 miles there will be a dirt road that goes south. This road provides access to some of the areas on the north end of the lake.
Continuing on north on Valley View Road in about 2 miles 10th Road takes off to the west. After a couple of turns you will come up on upland wooded area. This is a very good place to listen for owls or Chuck-will’s-widows in spring. Continue along 10th road and you will find numerous areas that are working checking out. The Mall Creek wetlands and Mall Creek are along this stretch.
When you get to the intersection where 11th Rd goes north, you can continue straight ahead and access the Gatesville River Access area and Lower Smith Bottoms wetland area. This is one of several areas of managed wetlands. If there are decent water levels this can be a very good area to see shorebirds, waterbirds and waterfowl. Bald Eagles have nested in this area in recent years.
Continuing on north on 11th Rd will bring you to an access point to the Upper Smith Bottoms wetland area. Recent changes in access to this point have made it more difficult to access this area without extensive walking. Continuing north on Thunder Rd will take you by some native pasture and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) fields that can hold Henslow’s Sparrows in summer and Le Conte’s Sparrows in fall.
West side of Milford Lake/Republican River (north of Wakefield)
From Wakefield head west out of town on K-82. In roughly a mile turn north on Sunflower Rd (County Highway 837). In 2 miles the paved road will turn west. If you take the gravel road to the east you will be on 9th Rd. Go east on 9th which then turns south as Thunder Rd. This is the access point to the Steve Lloyd Wetlands and Refuge. Follow signs to the overlook for a good view of the wetland complex to the north, or take the lower road to access the river. If you take the lower road, be advised that the entire area to the east is permanently closed to all access as a wildlife refuge. Instead of turning east to access the Steve Lloyd Wetland area you can continue south on Thunder Road. If water levels are at normal level or below, the road will end and you can view large areas of mud flats.
Back on County Highway 837 traveling west now, in about ˝ mile Sunflower Rd will go north. This little detour will catch back up to 837 but can take you through some good wooded areas worth investigating. The area to the east of Sunflower Rd (where it turns west) is a seasonal refuge area. In the spring and summer there is a dirt road that will allow you to access the Republican River and overlook the Smith Bottoms wetland areas.
Back on 837 headed north (now Redwood Rd) you will encounter the entrance to Beichter Bottom wetland areas. All of these wetland areas border the Republican River and become inundated in periods of high water or when adequate river flow allows diversion or pumping of water from the river to wetland cells. All of the areas can hold birds and are worth checking out.
Continuing north on 837 you will come to 12th Rd. Going east will take you to a dead end road that accesses the Westar Wetlands.
As you approach the Republican River bridge a county road heads west (on the south side of the river) and an agricultural access road heads east. The road to the east goes along the river and allows you to access wetland cells and potentially flooded fields along here. This is a dirt road and should be avoided in wet weather. Going west the road is graveled and maintained. The road travels through an extensive area of wonderful mixed hardwood riparian timber. Some large old Bur Oaks are in this region and Wood Thrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Summer Tanagers next in this location and many warblers use this area in migration. This road eventually wanders west, up and away from the riparian area.
Back on 837 (Redwood Rd) cross over the Republican River and in a few hundred yards another road heads west. This area, on both east and west side of 837, is the Zach Hudec wetlands. In recent years when high flows on the Republican River over flow in this area, the birding has been excellent. In the late summer of 2010 and 2011 the shorebirds were nothing short of spectacular with over 50 Buff-breasted Sandpipers being present as well as numerous other species of sandpipers and plovers, as well as King Rail, Tricolored Heron, Least Tern and many other terns and gulls. In drier years this area is nothing but crop fields, but wet years it has to be checked out! Further north you will encounter the former town site of Broughton. The extensive trees in this area are worth investigating in migration for passerines.
There is no way to describe every little area of this vast public access tract, but simply slowly traversing the roads and access points can allow you to develop a pretty good list of birds most any season of the year!
DeLorme: 36: D4-E4
2. Wakefield – The town of Wakefield can offer a good jumping off point to all birding locations on the west side of Milford Lake. The city park sits next to the shoreline and can offer good camping opportunities as well as some good birding. The shoreline next to the campground can be a good place to find shorebirds in migration especially if the lake level is below conservation pool. In the northeast portion of town is a cemetery that has some good birding opportunities as well. Many of the residences next to the cemetery sport bird feeders in their back yards. If you had south out of town, following the signs to the Landscape Arboretum, bear right instead of left to the Arboretum. This will take you a short distance to the sewer ponds which can hold good waterfowl in migration.
DeLorme: 36: E4
3. Kansas Landscape Arboretum – The Kansas Landscape Arboretum offers a large accessible area of varying amounts of woodland and trails that can hold some good birds. Long-eared Owls have nested in this area and passerines can be found in migration. To reach the Arboretum, you drive south on Dogwood St. in Wakefield. As you leave town and go through a low area, bear left at the fork in the road and continue east and then south on Utah Rd. The Arboretum will first be on the west side of the road (right) and then more property on the east (left side of the road).
Just south of the Landscape Arboretum you will find the Quimby Creek wetlands area. The entrance is on the east side of Utah Road. This area can hold good waterfowl, shorebirds and waterbirds when there is decent water in the lake. Just south of the entrance to the Quimby Creek area, Utah Rd crosses Quimby Creek. This area is worth investigating, especially in migration, for passerines.
DeLorme: 36: C3,
4. Clay Center – The county seat and largest town, Clay Center offers several small parks that can provide decent birding. Just north of town, on K-15 Highway, the cemetery is worth checking out. Spring Creek and Dry Creek come into town on the northwest corner. Huntress Park in this area should be checked in migration as should Utility Park a little further south in town.
5. River/Creek Crossings - The Republican River slices from the northwest to the southeast corners of the county. As you move northwest away from Milford Lake, the roads that cross the river, or run near it, will allow you to access the timber and birds that border it. In much of the county this will provide some of the best opportunities for woodland birding and associated passerine species.
In the southwest corner of the county, Chapman Creek slices northwest to southeast and can provide some good riparian timber in an area that does not have a lot of timber. Also in this southwest part of the county you will encounter some more rugged drier terrain and simply driving slow down the county roads can turn up many avian surprises, including Black-billed Magpie.
6. Kansas Birding Festival – Starting in 2006, the Kansas Birding Festival is held the last weekend of April, in even numbered years, in Wakefield. This fun event has brought in visitors from many states and added greatly to the list of Clay County birds. Information on the festival can be found at their website; http://www.kansasbirdingfestival.org/
Updated November 2012 - CEO
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