A Midwest Trip

Please treat all images as copyrighted and ask permission to use in any manner. Thank you, DEClapp

There are a couple quick trips to the central USA that I am going to pop in here. Both trips were to Kansas with one heading to northern Nebraska as well. The first was an autumn trip to see to great migration stops; Quivira NWR and Cheyenne Bottoms. Quivira is a National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms is owned and managed by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Each of these is about 20,000 acres in size and are two of the great wetlands in the central prairies that host thousands of migrating ducks, geese, swans, teal, and all sorts of waders (shorebirds) as well as a huge portion of the Franklin’s Gull population.

The midwest was settled to be farmed and grazed. Natures grazers were butchered by hunters and “recreational shooters” as the west was settled and the numbers of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Mule Deer, American Bison, and other herbivores was drastically reduced as was the population of First Nations people who had lived here for generations. It was agriculture and oil that drove development in this part of the country and attracted settlement during the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800s as well. Water was valuable and both mineral and water rights were often bought and sold separately from the land itself.

From the Permian Basin in Texas north well into the Dakotas the country has a great deal of oil and gas beneath the surface. “Texas Tea” has created great wealth in the USA as it has elsewhere throughout the world. Over much of the midwest the pumps are small and on family farms. The oil is collected in small tanks and sold by the barrel lot to middle men. This oil works its way up the chain eventually to a refinery. These small pumps are working again in 2022 as oil has increased in value again and the opportunity for wealth has risen.
This bit of grassland is a portion of the Dayton Aviation National Historical Park (Ohio); it is the field where Wilbur and Orville Wright developed the airplane after their first very short, but memorable, flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They were flying a glider sort of plane in NC and it was back in Ohio that they spent the next year and a half developing a new look and a better machine. We stopped here for the birding but the aviation history was very interesting.
One of the smaller mammals that was abundant in the prairies land was the Black-tailed Prairie Dog. They burrow in the ground and live in colonies. Farmers and ranchers tried to eradicative the Prairie Dogs to facilitate farming and keep the land unbroken for the safe passage of cattle and horses. They are encouraged on most prairie reserves.
It should be remembered that the whole of central USA, 70 million years ago, was the bottom of an ocean. The Rockies and the Appalachians edged a sea that ran down from Canada to the Caribbean. Thus the ground is some sort of lime based stuff; chalk or limestone predominating. This also has allowed sea grown mollusks to be found easily in the raised land and low mountains. The Kansas Badlands are eroding in a manner that exposes both vistas and limestone or chalk.
Through most of the midwest you expect to find fields of corn, lots and lots of corn. But things are changing a bit as Soy Bean and Sorghum have become cash crops of significance. As a younger man I had friends with a broom corn farm in Dalhart Texas. It was a sunup to sunset work day and totally dependent on decent weather and a lack of hail and plenty of rain. The rain was not at all dependable. however. Nowadays milo or sorghum is grown for biofuel, vegetable oil, and animal food. It can be popped and eaten, mixed with wheat to make noodles and breads. Its is high in antioxidants and in areas where it is consumed regularly the cancer rates tend to be low. It is a heavy headed grass with many species within the Genus Sorghum.
The great wetlands of the prairie states are quite remarkable as magnets for migratory birds. Many plovers and sandpiper migrate north through central USA and teal, ducks, pelicans, heron and egrets, and geese also use the grasslands for grazing and the wetlands for safety. For those of us who live along the Pacific or Atlantic coast it seems the most likely pelican is the Brown Pelican; but once in the prairie states the American White Pelican becomes the resident nesting species.
The best part of these central grasslands and wetlands may be overlap between land birds and wetland species.The blackbirds and sparrows are often new to an easterner and the wrens and ducks are also different. Always a pleasant surprise is the number of and the openness of the American Bittern. This is not a flashy heron but one that is hard to see in most parts of the east. In. the midwest it was rather common and, though still in the grasses, rather easy to see.
A real surprise for us was the number of Franklin’s Gulls that we encountered in the fall out in Kansas. There were tens of thousands on several lakes. We would occasionally pick out a Bonaparte’s Gull and a Herring Gull or two but Franklin’s were present in huge numbers. They migrate south, often below the equator, along the west coast of Mexico and South America for the winter. Here in the Northeast they are a bird seen once or twice a fall or winter and only then if you are in the right place at the right time – not a dependable species.
Whether it is private land or Bureau of Land Management or some other ownership much of the protected land is leased out to ranchers. Here is an appropriate shot of a couple hundred Brown-headed Cowbirds consorting with a few Angus in a wet spot within Cheyenne Bottoms.
As I mentioned there are blackbirds that are found out here that are much less common to the east. The Brown-headed Cowbirds are now widespread though they also originated in the prairies when the were likely the Brown-headed Buffalo Bird. But the Brewer’s and Yellow-head Blackbirds are still pretty much birds of the central USA. They favor wet and coarse areas where they nest in loose colonies and often mingle with other blackbirds.
Here in New England both Turkey and Black Vultures have been increasing in numbers for a decade or more. The Black Vulture is a bird of the southeast but the Turkey Vulture (pictured) is widespread and in central and western Kansas the only vulture to be found. They are an import part of the ecosystem as they help recycle organic material and prevent pandemic circumstances. They turn dead things into molecules that can be used by the soil, fungi, plants, and animals.
The central plains has its own collection of sparrows, finches, and buntings. Not a very flashy group you might think until you take a close look. They sport colors like ochre, pale yellow, tawny brown, and more bays, sorrels, chestnuts, palominos, and roans than you’ll see at a busy race track. They may lack the blues and reds of many tropical birds but they are pretty spiffy overall. This Dickcissel looks a bit like a House Sparrow in shape but has been placed with Cardinals, Buntings, Sparrows and others as it true origins and relationships are looked for. They winter for the most part in the llanos of Venezuela and throughout northern South America in flocks that can number in the millions.
The LeConte’s Sparrow is widespread through the central plains states as a breeding bird but a very uncommon vagrant in the northeast. They are shy and usually in thick sedge vegetation. This bird was photographed as it was singing at day break in a wet weedy field.
Many of our sparrows are dismissed as common or just brown birds or as too difficult to see well. But even the common sparrows like the Song Sparrow or this Swamp Sparrow are worth looking for and looking at. The pattern of the feathers is often rich in detail and surprisingly unique. No two people are exactly the same and that goes for birds as well. The amount of streaking or the richness of the brown on the flanks or the gray on the nape and head can all vary; but you can still see the Swamp Sparrow within. Every state, country, habitat, and island has birds that may not be easy to identify. But, like the sparrows, they are all worth a good look.

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