Southwest Kansas spring birding trip

Wow, it’s somehow been over my year since my last blog post! Much has changed since then and I’m now based in Hutchinson, Kansas, USA. I’ve been here for a year now and have been enjoying our church’s youth group, time with family, and of course birding!

I’ve birded pretty hard the past year and have enjoyed birding with friends. There are 5 other young Miller birders (from low teens to low twenties) in our community (all about my second cousins): Joseph, Andrew, Anthony, Michael, and Franklin. Franklin started birding last winter and has hit it quite hard since then. He has joined me on pretty much every birding trip and Michael has joined on many of them. I wasn’t able to do as much birding with the other more experienced Millers this year because they were gone or busy although I did get in some with Andrew.

Morton county is the very southwest county in Kansas. It has a lot of trees compared to most of southwest Kansas and is known for having great birds during migration. I had a disappointing trip there last fall and an expectedly slow one this January but that had given me an idea for the area.

The May Morton county trip has become a Miller birders tradition. Joseph, Andrew, Anthony, and Michael have gone several times and Franklin had gone once before. This spring was a little different. For various reasons the others could not join, so it was just me on my first spring Morton trip and Franklin on his second.

We left Hutchinson around 1pm Thursday afternoon (12th of May) and drove about 3 hours to Arkalon Park in Seward county that has hosted breeding Bronzed Cowbirds the last few years. The weather was less than ideal, nearing 100° F with strong winds but we made the best of it. The birding was pretty slow in the scrubby woodlands but a Bewick’s Wren in there and then nice shorebird diversity at one of the ponds at the southeast end of the park helped make up for that. Shorebird highlights included Semipalmated Plover, Stilt, Baird’s, and Least Sandpipers and a White-faced Ibis. We then headed to Elkhart and got to the shelterbelt a little after 7 thanks to a wrong turn back in Liberal that added 15 minutes to the trip. Literally the second bird we saw in the shelterbelt was a nice Worm-eating Warbler! A good bird this far west. Unfortunately both of my camera batteries for my DSLR died (I think it was from being in the car in the heat at Arkalon) so I didn’t get pics of the warbler. The rest of the of the shelterbelt wasn’t crazy but we picked up a few more decent birds like Hermit Thrush, Summer and Western Tanagers, Lazuli Buntings, Ovenbird, and multiple MacGillivray’s Warblers.

an unusually gray Summer Tanager

A quick stop at the WTP gave us a surprise Lesser Prairie Chicken coming to drink at dusk! We finished our birding for the day with a Common Poorwill flying up from the road and a Great Horned Owl calling at Point of Rocks.

The next morning we were at it bright, early, and cold! The wind had switched to the north dropping the temperature to a bit under 50° F! We birded Middle Spring first thing in the morning. Warbler activity was decent for me with the best bird being a Black-throated Green Warbler which Franklin unfortunately missed. A stop at Tunnerville on our way to the shelterbelt gave us a nice Green-tailed Towhee! Because of the north winds there weren’t many new birds at the shelterbelt with a bunch of the same from yesterday. A definite highlight was finding a Black-chinned Hummingbird nest (ID confirmed by Shari Williamson) which was the first confirmed breeding record for the state!

nesting Black-chinned Hummingbird!

We grabbed pizza for lunch and ate it at a small park behind El Rancho motel while enjoying watching a Curve-billed Thrasher!

Curve-billed Thrasher

We picked up Burrowing Owl at the prairie dog town before heading to Point of Rock Ponds. Point of Rock Ponds had the usual Sora. We wandered back in a ways and had some fun stuff like Brewer’s Sparrow, but it was fairly slow birding. We were getting a bit tired at this point so we stopped at Middle Spring for some relaxed afternoon birding. I took a short nap and then enjoyed my lifer Willow Flycatcher while Franklin wandered around seeing if he could turn up anything. After not too much there we headed to West Bend and trekked in about 1.5 miles. It’s a bit of a walk, but has the potential for some good birds.

roosting Common Nighthawk

We got another Green-tailed Towhee, loads of singing Yellow Warblers and a few others like a female American Redstart, MacGillivray’s and Orange-crowned Warblers. We also had great views of a bobcat! By then it was getting fairly late so we swung by the shelterbelt quickly then headed out west of town where we had several singing Cassin’s and Grasshopper Sparrows. We came back to the WTP around the same time as the day before hoping to see the prairie chicken again, but no luck. We ended a solid day of birding with just over 100 species and 2 backyard bbq pizzas 🙂

Green-tailed Towhee a really good Kansas bird. Spring migration in Morton county is the only somewhat regular spot to get them in the state afaik
a Bobcat!

The wind had changed to more of a south east wind for much of the night so we were expecting good things for the day. We checked the WTP and there was some turnover in the waders with 2 ibis being new and a couple different peeps. The shelterbelt felt dead at first, but then as the sun warmed the treetops the warblers started moving and it started getting lively! The definite highlight of the morning was a stunning Bay-breasted Warbler, another really good bird out here. Some other highlights were a possible Audoboni Hermit Thrush (Audoboni is a western subspecies and is rare in Kansas) and Magnolia Warbler. Unsurprising given the southeast winds the there was a definite influx of eastern species. It was nice to meet Brian and Nick at the shelterbelt and it was Brian who got us on the Magnolia (we did find the other species ourselves 🙂

terrible photo of a stunning male Bay-breasted Warbler
probable Audoboni ssp Hermit Thrush

After this we went to Middle Spring which was actually pretty disappointing with nothing really of interest. We hit Tunnerville one more time hoping for the Ladder-backed that sometimes calls Tunnerville home, but yet again no luck. On our way out of Tunnerville to Elkhart I saw a Scaled Quail on a fencepost as we cruised along at 70 mph! It was very obliging and just sat there calling as I slammed on the brakes and backed up. It allowed amazing views and decent photos.

Scaled Quail

By now it was nearing noon and we needed to start birding our way back towards home. Our first stop on the way back was at Hugoton Storm Runoff Ponds roughly 30 minutes from Elkhart. It didn’t seem like a great place to me, but Franklin remembered it was decent last year so we headed to the woodlands. Almost immediately once we were in decent habitat I saw a gorgeous Wood Thrush! We continued birding and had another Wood Thrush as well as a stunning male Chestnut-sided Warbler! Both the thrush and warbler are first county records for Stevens county! Western Wood Pewee was another solid bird there.

Wood Thrush – one of 2 individuals we found
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Western Wood Pewee

After that very successful stop we went on to Clark SFL. Clark was fairly disappointing with few migrants and mainly breeding species but we still crossed 50 species there with relative ease. We now headed north towards Dodge City and were able to pick up our target Black-billed Magpie!

absolutely awful documentation shot of the Black-billed Magpie

We birded Ford County Lake a bit, but it was pretty slow. We decided to drive 1.5 hours to Quivira to end our day there around sunset and picked up a nice surprise flyover pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks as we drove through Larned. Quivira added some species to our day and trip list including Snowy and Cattle Egrets, American Bitterns and White-rumped Sandpiper taking our day list for Global Big Day to 131 species.

poor shot of a White-rumped Sandpiper

All in all it was a very successful trip with 160 species across 2.5 days of birding and half of Kansas. Our year lists ended up tied at 276 which placed us around the top 5 for the state! Also of note, I just scraped past 300 species for my Kansas life list on this trip ending at 301! Not too shabby for basically starting last June!

We had a lot of good birds and great times! I treasure these memories and am going to greatly miss this birding with friends when I go to Pennsylvania for studies in August!

I hope to add a few more blog posts yet this summer from Kansas birding and maybe even some of my last Bangladesh trips that I never made posts about so stay tuned!

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Published by Seth Miller

Teenaged birder and amateur photographer. Originally from Kansas, USA, but have grown up in Bangladesh.

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