Springtime offers excellent viewing opportunities; scope, bird ID book suggested

Mudflats get busy when hungry shorebirds migrate through Kansas. These long-distance travelers stop to rest where food is plentiful in marshes and playas. Drenched soil teems with small invertebrates that help fuel shorebird flights to the breeding grounds, and spring rains make conditions perfect for learning about these interesting birds.
Helen Hands is a Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) biologist at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area -- one of the best shorebird viewing locations in America. An avid birder, Hands enjoys watching shorebirds while helping manage this important wetland. She says mid-spring is the best time to visit.

"Although many kinds of birds migrate through the Bottoms, the area is particularly known for its shorebirds," Hands says. "This large group of species is named for its dependence on habitat along the water’s edge. Shorebirds may be large or small, but all have long bills designed for probing food from moist soil. Insect larvae and worms are plentiful here, and resting birds can fill up in a hurry."

Shorebirds aren’t skittish, but close-up views often require binoculars or spotting scopes. These optics can show impressive details of how the busy feeders hunt and preen. Some birds sift through water to capture swimming prey, while others probe mud for worms and larvae. Larger shorebirds may eat minnows or crustaceans.

A good bird book can help identify shorebird species. Many of the smaller sandpipers are tricky to tell apart although they are easier to identify in spring breeding plumage than the drab color phases of fall migration. The largest shorebirds are often colorful.

Some, such as the snowy plover, are rarely seen. Others, such as semi-palmated sandpipers, are more common. Dowitchers probe worms 4 to 5 inches deep in wet soil. Marbled godwits, black-necked stilts, and American avocets have long legs and often wade in shallow water to feed. White-faced ibises use their long, heavy bills to eat larger meals. Willets are particularly fond of crawdads although they must be careful of these crustacean’s strong pinchers.

Shorebird migration is part of nature’s grand ballet each spring, and birders visit Cheyenne Bottoms from across the nation to enjoy the show. To view an informative online video on Kansas shorebirds, click on KDWP TV.