Visitors Flock to Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area
If you are looking for a water slide or a wave pool at two of the biggest water attractions in the state, you’re out of luck. Yet millions of visitors flock to Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Great Bend every year. And every year these visitors — various species of migrating birds — attract a steady stream of tourists traveling the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway.
The 77-mile Byway connects these two diverse wetlands where water fowl feed and rest while journeying along a major migration route called the Central Flyway. Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area is considered the largest inland freshwater marsh in the country, while Quivira Wildlife Refuge contains salt water marshes, a rare habitat in the Midwest. Both are essential resting points providing food and cover for migratory birds during flight between breeding and wintering areas in Canada and South America.
When traveling the Byway, schedule your first stop at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, 592 N.E. K-156 Highway, to learn about the wetlands and wildlife at Cheyenne Bottoms, a 41,000-acre natural basin collecting water from two creeks. In addition to hands-on activities and educational exhibits, the Center offers a panoramic view of the marsh (binoculars and spotting scopes provide a closer look) and an observation point from which you might see Mallards tending their young or Great Blue Herons stalking prey.
Considered one of the most important shorebird migration stopover points in the Western Hemisphere, Cheyenne Bottoms hosts 45 percent of all shorebirds nesting in North America, including an estimated 90 percent of white-rumped, Baird’s and stilt sandpipers, long-billed dowitcher, and Wilson’s phalarope, according to the Byway’s website at www.kansaswetlandsandwildlifescenicbyway.com.
While the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism manages the water levels on nearly 20,000 acres, the 41,000-acre wetland naturally had benefitted from this year’s rainfall after the drought of the past few years.
"Rain impacts the Bottoms as far as the number of migratory birds that spend time there replenishing for the migration they are doing," says Barton County Administrator Richard Boeckman. "People like to watch the birds, so better conditions at the Bottoms sustains tourism."
Whether you are a birdwatcher, nature lover or sightseer visiting the area to view the magnificent spectacle of nature during migration periods, you also will see an abundance of other wildlife living in the area. Of the 417 species of birds documented in Kansas, 340 have been recorded as being seen here. Cheyenne Bottoms also hosts 23 species of mammals, 19 species of reptiles and nine species of amphibians.
Less than 20 miles away, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge consists of more than 22,000 acres of salt marsh, wetlands and prairie. Fresh groundwater in the area rests on a layer of saltwater and an upthrust in the bedrock forces saltwater into the creek and nearby springs, according to the byway’s website; evaporation can make the marshes saltier than the ocean.
The salt flats near the refuge’s ancient basins, Big and Little Salt Marshes, are the preferred breeding habitat for endangered species such as the least tern and snowy plover. Ducks, geese, and shorebirds such as whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, Peregrine falcon, Swainson’s hawk and bald eagle migrate through these marshes that are filled with crabs, crayfish and frogs.
Although famous for its wetlands, the refuge also consists of 13,000 acres of grassland habitat for ring-necked pheasant, northern bobwhite (quail), meadowlarks, hawks, wild turkeys, deer, red foxes, raccoons, bobcats, prairie dogs, coyotes, badgers and other wildlife.
For another view of the wetland ecosystem, stop at the Nature Conservancy’s Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve, near Hoisington, and climb the observation platform. The Nature Conservancy manages nearly 8,000 acres of the Cheyenne Bottoms basin.