Early Friday morning (May 17th), my friend Phil Floyd and I arrived at and attended an all-day series of Wildflower Workshops in beautiful downtown Alva, OK, courtesy of the OK Native Plant Society.  Saturday morning, instead of boarding a bus to go look at plants (which offer little, in any, degree-of-difficulty to find, seein' as how the plants don't fly before you can ID 'em), we snuck across the Kansas border, heading for Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Great Bend.

     There's a prairie dog town on the west side of Hwy 281, just south of St. John, and we stopped there for a few minutes hoping to find a Burrowing Owl---not because we "knew" they'd be there, but because we ALWAYS stop at prairie dog towns and look for owls.  Didn't find one, altho' it sure looked like the perfect spot for one.  However, I did watch a Black-billed Magpie fly across the back edge of the pasture beyond the dog town---a totally unexpected treat for me.  I hadn't realized we were far enough west to be within this bird's range (until I checked my field guide after we got back in the car).  Alas, I think this is the only bird I saw on the whole trip that Phil missed.

     Continuing north, we found 70th Street and turned east toward Quivira.

     Once off the highway, we shifted into our normal birding-from-the-car mode:  slowed waaayyyy down, opened the windows, listening for bird song, each scanning our respective sides of the road for anything avian (as well as wildflowers, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and anything else that catches our fancy).  Dickcissels seemed to be everywhere, perhaps even more abundant than the meadowlarks, or maybe just more vocal.  Some miles east of the highway, we found ourselves in a copse of trees that straddles the road, noticed some bird activity in among the trees, and stopped to investigate.  And found our first Baltimore Oriole, a splendid male.... WOW!!  And a pair of Western Kingbirds.  A singing House Wren, my first of the year.  Then another.  ("Dueling House Wrens"? these little guys were in full voice all over those woods.)  A Bewick's Wren, a White-breasted Nuthatch, a Warbling Vireo.  Then another oriole.  And another!!  An Eastern Phoebe, E. Wood-Pewee, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers.  A Robin and two Catbirds skulking about under a red cedar.  And _another_ oriole!  (Now I know why I never see Baltimore Orioles in Tulsa:  Kansas is hoggin' em all!!)  Two or three Lark Sparrows, a singing Brown Thrasher, a Spotted Towhee.  Then Phil almost stepped on a couple of Bobwhites.  I watched 'em fly while Phil leaned on the barbed wire fence, gasping for breath (and giggling) as he watched his whole life pass before his eyes.  He does that, y'know:  goes about looking for large birds to step on.  LAST year at one of our breeding bird atlas plots, he almost stepped on a Turkey!  Well, when he'd finally recovered his senses (and I got my own laughter under control), I told him, "son, you've GOT to quit stepping on turkeys and quails!  It's gonna be the death of ya!!!"

     In due course, we reached the southern entrance into Quivira NWR.  Now I'd done some homework on the Internet so I had bird lists and maps; I mean, I was ready.  However, I must've overlooked the part about the Visitors Center (including the restrooms) being closed on the weekends.  Well, no problem:  I quickly found a tall tree to study out behind the building and promptly took care of that need, only to discover Kansas' secret weapon against invading Oklahoma birders:  biting insects!!  (I can only hope Phil didn't suffer the same fate behind the tree _he_ was studyin'.)

     The weatherman had predicted daytime temps in the 60's but it had already warmed up well into the 70's.  It was about noon, and the walk out to the "blind" on the south side of Little Salt Marsh was a bit more exertion than either of us felt up to so we kept to the road along the eastern edge of the water.  We flushed a Green Heron from its bankside fishing spot, and spied a few White Pelicans sunning themselves on the far bank.  Plenty o' Coot (which I like to call "Ivory-billed Rails"---makes 'em sound more glamorous, don't-cha know...), lots of Shovelers and "Two-winged Bleal" (that is, Blue-winged Teal), Snowy and Great Egrets, and Great Blue Herons out in the water and along the marshy edges.  And Wilson's Phalaropes, dozens and dozens of 'em, whirly-gigging everywhere we looked.  Now, just last month, we'd found first one and then a handful of Wilson's Phalaropes down at the Great Salt Plains NWR in Oklahoma.  That had been absolutely thrilling!! but as we drove along the roads beside Quivira's many ponds, Wilson's Phalaropes were all too quickly becoming common---as common as, say, a Baltimore Oriole!!

     We noticed some Black Terns zipping and diving over one of the ponds east of the Little Salt Marsh and turned down that road for a bit, where we caught an American Bittern fishing among the reeds right out in the open, without any apparent concern for danger.  He must've known we were harmless.  Also a family of Canada Geese grazing on the bank, their young looking gangly and long-legged in their golden down.

     Crossing over one of the dike control bridges, we found 8-9 Spotted Sandpipers down on the rip-rap just below us, NOT doing their signature fanny-dancing as they hunted and preened along the water's edge.  In fact, I'd just about convinced Phil they were some other kind of sandpiper (Solitaries, I think) until I happened to look in the field guide "just to be safe" and realized my error.  Ooops!! (don't-cha HATE when that happens?)  Well, I think if they're going to call themselves Spotties, it's their _job_ to fanny-dance!!  How else are novice shorebirders like us to recognize them??

     As we worked our way north through the Refuge, we got good looks at a Least Tern and, on another occasion, a Forster's Tern.  All three terns, including the Blacks, were yearbirds for both of us.  Phil said he didn't remember ever seeing Black Terns before whereas I remember them fondly from summer birding trips in southern Manitoba.  Lots of Barn and Cliff Swallows, and Eastern Kingbirds everywhere!  A male Wood Duck flew by....

     Eventually, we reached the northernmost road inside the Refuge and turned west toward the Big Salt Marsh, and then came across another of those woodsy areas that seemed as busy as the one we'd found earlier that morning.  Great Crested Flycatcher and Western Kingbirds.  A Great Horned Owl.  A few E. Bluebirds, a couple of Cardinals, singing Song and Field Sparrows, more House Wrens, and even more damn orioles!!

     As we continued west, the waterfowl became more interesting.  A Lesser Yellowlegs.  Black Stilts flying and feeding in two's and three's right near the road.  We also began seeing Avocets out here, including one bird sitting on a nest not 10 yards away from us, while her mate cheeped nearby.  We looked at her, and she looked right back.... (see picture above)

     When we got to the sign that pointed us south down the "Wildlife Drive," I directed Phil to drive on past it, saying that we'd come back up the Drive from the other direction so we'd be facing away from the sun.  (And bless his heart, he nearly always does EXACTLY what I tell him... ~:-)  Then we came to a spot where a service road led south off the main road along some working oil pumps.  Hundreds of Wilson's Phalaropes were spinning themselves silly in the corner of the lake just beside this road, and we could see carpets of "peeps" resting on down the road.  A sign said "Authorized Vehicles Only"; well, okay, we'll walk.  A couple Black-necked Stilts flew in and landed in the small pond to our left.  More whirling phalaropes on our right.  Another bird landed in the grass at the edge of the Stilts' pond and I went ballistic in my excitement:  a Ruddy Turnstone in full breeding plumage!!!!!!  Simply A-W-E-S-O-M-E!!  Only the second time I've ever seen this bird, ever!! and the LAST time was two years ago on the Upper Texas coast.

     The horde of "peeps" shifted themselves now and then around us and as we continued walking along the road, somewhere between 50-and-100 of 'em landed right behind us.  Right on the road at our feet, within spittin' distance!!  I said as quietly as I could, "Phil, pick one bird at a time, look at its color, head shape and markings, bill shape and length, color of its feet, size relative to its neighbor, plumage details on its back and wings, overall body shape.... one-at-a-time, one-at-a-time.....," and we stood there without moving, looking at as many birds as we could.  After about 5 minutes, they flew off again.  We continued walking down the road a bit longer, especially after I watched a Willet fly in and land, flashing those fabulous black-and-white wings high over its head before it settled down to feed.  We both noticed a tiny white fluff of a bird racing up-and-down and back-and-forth across the road; it had a dark bar above its eyes, dark eyelines slanting down toward the back of its head, black bill, and a dark collar that circled its neck but did not continue across its throat.  We then returned to the car, dug out the field guide again, and conferred on the field marks we'd observed in that large flock of peeps and our little white "fluff" bird.  We'd just had the best looks at White-rumped, Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers, and Snowy Plover we may ever get; in fact, a scope would've been useless at that close range.

     When we reached the westernmost junction of the Wildlife Drive with the road we were on, I saw the "one way only; do not enter" signs.  Oh great!!  I did NOT want to waste time driving all the way back to the entrance to the Drive, especially having to face into the sun as we scanned the marsh, and we'd seen only a few other cars the whole day anyway, so I finally talked Phil into entering the "do not enter" zone.  Ignorance is a burden but I've learned to live with it (and, as it happens, we met only one other car on the whole drive).  The bird life at this Big Salt Marsh and adjacent ponds was much more varied than at the south end of the Refuge.  We picked up Northern Pintail, Lesser Scaup, Redhead and Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, and rafts of Ruddy Ducks.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds "singing" from the cattails (R2D2 would be SO proud!).  Got kick-ass looks at a Black-crowned Night-Heron while the sun was still high in the sky.  Yodeling Pied-billed Grebes and several Eared Grebes, their golden "ear" tufts shimmering in the sunlight.

     We left the Refuge sometime after 5:00 p.m. having seen 79 species.  Drove to Great Bend for dinner, then back to Alva for the night.  Sunday morning, we drove through the Great Salt Plains Refuge again before heading home, adding White-faced Ibis, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and more than a dozen other species to our trip list, so that we finished our weekend with 112 species!!

     Thanks, Kansas, for a GREAT birding day!!  We'll be back!
Sneaking into Kansas
May 20, 2002
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