Prioritizing Shorebirds in the Prairies: Conservation Action in Kansas

In front of us, a few hundred shorebirds were focused intently on foraging for food. We were in the center of Kansas, for Manomet’s Shorebird Conservation Action Symposium at Cheyenne Bottoms. Some of us were practicing estimating flock size on a large group of Long-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwits. Some were learning to tell the difference between a Baird’s and a Semipalmated Sandpiper for the first time.

Handmaker_BASABaird’s Sandpipers. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

But the sky behind us had turned a thick, hazy gray – and the air was eerily calm after a barrage of 30-40 mph winds. Anyone from Kansas would tell you – this was the “calm before the storm.” Most of the species before us were making their way back to their high-arctic breeding grounds after a winter in South America. And this large basin in the prairies of the United States is one of their crucial rest-stops along the Central Flyway. To budge the 33 Symposium participants busy counting and identifying the birds – not to mention to move the birds concentrated on eating, that storm was going to have to get a lot closer. Luckily it skirted to the east, and we closed day one without having to brave the tornado we’d seen brewing in the distance.

Handmaker_LBDOflockTakesFlightFlock takes flight. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Cheyenne Bottoms is one of the largest interior marshes in the United States. It has been a Site of Hemispheric Importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) for 30 years, and the symposium celebrated this milestone by presenting certificates to the site partners. Migratory shorebirds passing through the mid-continent are subject to unpredictable weather patterns and a landscape of ephemeral wetlands in which to find their food. Water levels at Cheyenne Bottoms still vary on a regular basis, but the basin provides some of the most reliable food resources for shorebirds migrating through the center of the continent.

Handmaker_STSA1Foraging Stilt Sandpipers. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Of the 52 shorebird species that occur in North America, 37 are found in the Great Plains – and half of these species are considered of high conservation concern or worse.

Manomet’s Habitat Management Division and Robert Penner of The Nature Conservancy of Kansas organized and led the symposium that brought together managers of public and private wetlands, employees of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, representatives of Ducks Unlimited and other non-profit organizations as well as National Wildlife Refuges from the surrounding states of Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Kevin Teneycke, Director of Conservation for Nature Conservancy Canada, traveled from southwest Manitoba to share their shorebird conservation efforts in the Canadian Prairies. Manitoba was next on the docket for a Manomet Habitat Management workshop; a few weeks later Robert Penner would travel to Canada and he would share a presentation about Cheyenne Bottoms, thus beginning a learning exchange between these two Central Flyway regions.

Iglecia_Robert Penner presentsRobert Penner presents. Photo by Monica Iglecia.

Handmaker_GroupDiscussion1Group discussion. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

The three-day workshop focused on techniques for “managing with multiple priorities.” Cheyenne Bottoms provided an ideal case study: a diverse matrix of habitat management techniques are needed to weave shorebirds into management plans.  At a site where shallow-water dependent shorebirds overlap with shorebirds that rely on drier grasslands, a management plan needs to provide habitats that suit them all. When The Nature Conservancy rotates between mowing, haying, grazing, and prescribed burns it helps to maintain short and sparse vegetation preferred by upland shorebirds like Upland Sandpipers – and it helps to reset the prairie landscape, much as the large herds of American Bison and natural fires used to do. In other areas of Cheyenne Bottoms that are principally managed for waterfowl, water levels can be brought to levels that satisfy the habitat needs of shorebirds that arrive before most ducks.

Handmaker_GroupEstimatesPhalaropesatQuiviraGroup estimates phalarope flock size at Quivira. Photo by Maina Handmaker.

Day two’s field trip was to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, a WHSRN site of Regional Importance. Quivira combines a unique array of sand prairie, freshwater wetlands, inland salt marsh, and playa habitats – and it is one of the four most important nesting sites for Snowy Plovers in the Great Plains. It was here that workshop participants witnessed shorebirds at work with waterfowl. We watched hundreds of tiny Wilson’s Phalaropes – a member of the only group of shorebirds that can swim – forage behind the much taller shorebird the American Avocet, and the much bigger duck, the Northern Shoveler. Phalaropes are known for their behavior of swimming in circles to stir up invertebrates in the water column. Shovelers stir things up too, using their shovel-shaped bill to forage head-first in shallow wetlands. Were these phalaropes swimming in the wake of the shovelers to eat the invertebrates they brought to the surface?

Iglecia_Sea of NSHO and WIPHA “sea” of Northern Shovelers and Wilson’s Phalaropes. Photo by Monica Iglecia.

SESA Peru Flagged Quivira May 2018_Jason OlszakFlagged Semipalmated Sandpiper. Photo by Jason Olszak.

Looking out at the mudflats of Quivira, a subtle flash of yellow struck someone’s spotting scope. In a blur of small brown and grey shorebirds – Dunlin, Baird’s Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Stilt Sandpipers, and Sanderling, to name just some – a Semipalmated Sandpiper was spotted with a yellow flag on its leg. Its red letters read “8AC,” making it possible to trace this bird to Peru. It was tagged as an adult in 2011, meaning it had made this tremendous journey twice a year for at least seven years. Gathered around scopes to catch a glimpse at the sandpiper from Peru, many participants commented that the connection between the wetlands of Kansas and the coasts of South America had really hit home.

Winn_CheyenneBottomsGroupPhotoGroup photo at Cheyenne Bottoms. Photo by Brad Winn.