County Seat: Russell
County Size: 899 square miles
County Checklist: 334 species
DeLorme pages 33, 34, 46, & 47
Google Maps of Russell County
Best Birds: all three scoters, Red-throated, Pacific and Yellow-billed Loons, Red-necked & Clark’s Grebes, Brown Pelican, Gyrfalcon, Purple Sandpiper (2015), Red Phalarope, 16 species of gull, (including Black-legged Kittiwake, Sabine’s, Little, California, Thayer’s, Iceland, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, Great Black-backed), Black Skimmer, Long-billed Murrelet, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pinyon Jay, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Pine Grosbeak
Russell County is located in central Kansas. It’s easily accessible from all directions, with Interstate 70 going east-west the entire width of the county across the southern third, passing adjacent the towns of Gorham, Russell, Bunker Hill and Dorrance. U. S. Highway 281 goes across the entire county from north to south, out of Osborne Co. through Luray, Waldo and Russell, before exiting the county south bound northwest of Hoisington in Barton Co. K-18 Highway comes out of Osborne Co. into the northwest part of Russell Co., going through Paradise, Waldo, Luray and Lucas, crossing into Lincoln Co. to the northwest of Sylvan Grove. K-232 Highway is the main road to the eastern end of Wilson Lake, going from I-70 at exit 206 (Wilson), north by the Hell Creek arm of the lake, across the dam and ends at K-18, just to the east of Lucas.
The county has lots of native grass and large tracts of pastures, rolling hills (in the Smoky Hills region of Kansas), agricultural ground, two mid-sized rivers (the Smoky Hill in the southern third of the county and the Saline in the center) and a major reservoir (Wilson Lake) that is approximately 9,000 surface acres at conservation pool. This combination of land and water has provided great birding opportunity, especially for grassland species such as Greater Prairie Chicken, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, both meadowlark species and many more. Water birds have been excellent as well, with all the grebe and loons species recorded here, most of the waterfowl and gull species found in the state, and true oddities such as Black Skimmer and Long-billed Murrelet. It has to be considered to be one of the best reservoirs in the state for bird watching. There are few tracks of timber, mainly associated with riparian zones, so passerine birding can be a challenge, but several species have been observed at one time or another.
1. Wilson Lake – this 9,000 acre reservoir is a must-stop for birders in the central part of the state. It has a relatively stable level, due mostly to the salinity of the water. It drains extensive grassland areas, rather than lots of production agricultural ground, providing what has been described as the clearest lake in the state. The salinity of the lake is problematic for use of the water as a source for crop irrigation or domestic household use. Until the technology changes, the lake should be fairly reliable for available water bird habitat. There are many areas of the lake that need checked out on a birding trip.
DeLorme: page 34 - I1, page 33 I10
A). Wilson State Park - on the southeast part of the lake, has several portions that have been great for birding opportunities. Valid Kansas State Park entrance permits are required upon entering the area. The Hell Creek area is the largest part of the park, with several campgrounds, day-use areas and other facilities. The only marina on the lake is located there and the rocky bluffs and coves are sometimes very productive. The rock formations around Lake Wilson Marina have hosted Rock Wrens in all seasons, with Say’s Phoebes nesting in the area as well. The pine and cedar trees in that area have been good for Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Fox Sparrow and other winter residents. There are many vantage points in this park to view the lake, with great birds seen including all the loon (including a Yellow-billed Loon in 1995) and grebe species (including a Red-necked Grebe in the winter of 2012-13), as well as waterfowl and gulls. Summer residents include Blue Grosbeak, Lark and Field Sparrows, and in recent years a very predictable Painted Bunting at the park office. The Otoe area of Wilson State Park has a concrete trail (Cedar Trail) that has hosted Long-eared and Barn Owl, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire in fall and winter. It has also been great for winter finches, including Red Crossbills in the past. It is a small park, but also offers vantage points to watch water birds as well. The undeveloped area southwest of the Hell Creek Bridge and the Hell Creek park area has been great in the past, with a wintering Rufous-crowned Sparrow present in 2011-12. Other good birds seen from that location include Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, extensive species of waterfowl and some shorebirds. There is a small part of the Hell Creek Cove that is in Lincoln County, so some listing for two counties can be accomplished with some luck and cooperation from the birds.
B).Minooka Park – there are three main park areas (Minooka, Lucas and Sylvan) that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages on the lake and there is great birding in each of them. Minooka Park is located mid-lake on the south side, to the north of Dorrance and is accessible by paved road (Exit 199 from I-70). It has a beautiful vista and dramatic scenery upon entering the area from the south. It’s great for Mountain Bluebirds and has hosted a variety of great birds including Gyrfalcon, Rough-legged Hawks and other raptors. As you travel down the large hill into the public property, bear left and down that gravel road to the West Minooka Boat Ramp. It provides a great vantage point to the lake and is probably the best spot on the entire reservoir to see loons and grebes. Waterfowl species are also abundant in this part of the lake, especially diving ducks. There is also some good coniferous tree habitat nearby, with the Prairie Fire nature trail providing access to many interesting species, especially in winter. Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, Mountain Bluebird, Fox Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Red Crossbills have all been observed here. When traveling to the main part of Minooka where the campgrounds are located, be sure to go to the high points as they have proven great locations for looking at waterfowl, loons & grebes. At the very east end of the park is the East Minooka Boat Ramp. It provides a vantage point to a large part of the lake and was the location for the sighting of the first alcid species for Kansas, a Long-billed Murrelet, in November of 1997. Marshall Cove is located on the south side of Minooka Park and is a good location to check for waterfowl, loons, grebes, and many other species. It is fairly protected and has produced some interesting species (all the scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Snow Bunting), mostly in fall and winter.
C). Lucas Park – this park is located on the northeast part of the lake, across the dam on the west side. It has a large hill overlooking the lake as you enter the area, which is know to locals as “Hang Glider Hill”. Visitors have indeed hang –glided from there, as well as used it as a launching point for model airplanes. It is a great location for raptors, especially Bald Eagles, Turkey Vultures and a variety of hawks, utilizing the updrafts created by the long slopes. Upon entering the main park area just past the fee booth, Rocktown Hiking Trail winds to the west through open grassland and loops around by Rocktown Cove. It has some dramatic rock formations, with Rock Wren, Say’s Phoebe, Barn Owl and other birds possible. The scenery is worth the walk. As you go further to the south into the park, there are some large shelterbelts with pine and cedars present on the left side of the main road. Check them for owls, winter finches, Hermit Thrush and sparrows in the fall/winter. There is a decent cove for waterfowl and grebes in the middle of the park and good lake visibility from the east, south and west sides of Lucas Point. The winter of 2011-12 was good for Snowy Owls utilizing this park, mostly around the Lucas Swimming Beach area.
D). Sylvan Park – although this is a small campground and associated day-use area, it has proven to be a great birding location and is worth checking out in all seasons. The area along the Saline River channel is good for waterfowl, sparrows, Belted Kingfisher and others. The seep stream channel, on the northeast side of the campground and the Bur Oak Trail are reliable for many birds of interest, with Virginia Rail and Marsh Wrens there in all but the summer months. It has ample cattails and typically a beaver pond that attracts some waterfowl. Pine trees in the area have had nuthatches, sapsuckers, kinglets and winter finches. The shelterbelt along the Bur Oak Trail is great for sparrows and other passerines during most seasons. This entire area has been known for holding some unusual species during the Christmas Bird Count period, including Brown Thrasher, House Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and Pine Grosbeak.
E). Wilson Wildlife Area – this public property is located mostly on the west end of Wilson Lake, with a limited amount of acreage below the dam near the Lincoln Co. line. It mainly consists of public hunting and refuge portions, but can be good for birding as well. The area along the Saline River as it enters Wilson Lake tends to hold waterfowl, Sandhill Cranes and other water birds, especially in spring and fall. The locations along the major creek inflows also provides good habitat, with upper areas of Cedar Creek, Spring Creek and Elm Creek on the southwest park of the lake being the best. The area below the dam can be good for sparrows, owls using cedars and shelterbelts, and other passerines of interest. There is a Great Blue Heron rookery located in this area as well.
2. Saline River – this river comes into the county from Ellis Co. from the northwest, just to the north of Fairport. It is joined by Boswell and Paradise Creeks and empties into the upper end of Wilson Lake. It exits the dam area, continuing its path into Lincoln Co. near Sylvan Grove. There are a few areas along its track that are probably accessible for birding on the upper end, as well as below the Wilson Lake dam area Both areas need more exploration to determine their worth for opportunities however.
3 Smoky Hill River – this river flows in from the southeastern corner of Ellis County, winding its way south of Russell, Bunker Hill and Dorrance, exiting into Ellsworth Co. 3 miles south of Wilson. It has limited access, but crossings and bridge areas can be really good. Bridges to the south and east of Dorrance can be birded, with decent passerines expected during migration and a full suite of breeding birds and wintering species in appropriate season. Barred Owls have been found in the riparian zones on the Smoky between Wilson and Dorrance, making for about as far west as can be expected in this part of the state.
4. Creeks – there are numerous creeks throughout the county, with many small bridges and associated riparian areas that can be birded from the road right-of-ways. Paradise Creek, in the northwest part of the county, provides some great habitat along its path towards the upper end of Wilson Lake. Wolf Creek, from Waldo to Luray and Lucas does as well as it winds its way into Lincoln Co., merging with the Saline River below Wilson Lake on the west side of Sylvan Grove. Cedar Creek, just to the north of Bunker Hill also had decent habitat, flowing northeast into Wilson Lake. It has many interesting rock outcroppings where it crosses into public lands as part of Wilson Wildlife area. It is great for woodpeckers and other typical woodland species, as well as Eastern Screech Owl and Winter Wren. The Spring Creek and Elm Creek areas within Wilson Wildlife Area also can provide decent riparian zones for birding, with Spring Creek being the better of the two. Hell Creek flows into Wilson Lake from the southeast in Lincoln Co. and is covered in the Wilson Lake summary. Other streams with good birding habitat include Beaver Creek to the south of Dorrance and Coal Creek, just to the southeast of Wilson. They both flow north into the Smoky Hill River and have hosted good birds historically.
5. Farm ponds – the county has many farm ponds that can hold waterfowl during both spring and fall migration. Ponds located along K-18 between Paradise and Lucas has been good in the past.
6. County roads – Russell County can have some productive birding accomplished by driving county roads. With the mix of agricultural fields, pastures and other grasslands, and riparian areas, many birds can be seen on a day trip, especially raptors, sparrows, longspurs, etc. Greater Prairie Chickens are fairly common in the county, with flocks possible in every direction from Wilson Lake. There are areas to north of Russell, and both north and southeast of Dorrance that host chickens as well.
7. Towns – Towns in Russell County include Paradise, Waldo, Luray, Lucas, Milberger, Gorham, Russell, Bunker Hill and Dorrance. There are limited birding opportunities in the smaller communities, but Russell has a good cemetery on the east end of town on old Highway 40 (East Wichita Ave) that has hosted Red Crossbill, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin, Fox Sparrow and other interesting species. The municipal golf course is just to the north and it has some good coniferous trees that can be birded without actually going into the property. There is also a small lake on the course that can be scoped from the road that has held other waterfowl in addition to Canada Geese. The 2-3 block area around Russell Regional Hospital (200 S. Main) has been reliable for White-winged Dove for several years, so the trees in those neighborhoods should be checked. Mississippi Kites have been summer residents in Russell, so look for them soaring over neighborhoods with large trees present. The other small communities listed do not have any special habitat to be explored for the most part, but birds can be seen while driving around in any of them
Russell County gets a decent amount of attention by birders, helping contribute to its fairly extensive list of recorded species. Wilson Lake is a prime destination for birding, with opportunities for great birding in most all seasons. Fall tends to be the best, with tremendous numbers of migrating waterfowl and other water birds present through the winter and early spring. Summer birds such as Rock Wren, Say’s Phoebe, Blue Grosbeak and others make for some interesting finds in most years. Decent birding opportunities exist in all seasons, however, making it a great destination for bird watching.
Updated March 2013 - MR
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