Have you ever thought about the contrasts and colors involved in the landscape and wildlife of the Bottoms? As a photographer, those colors are deadly important. As an inhabitant of the Bottoms, survival may well depend on the colors you display or hide. I’ve been taking a lot of black/white images lately and the absence of color adds another level of perception to the mix.
The most colorful and beautiful all-star is the wood duck. Every birder, hunter, and most school kids recognize the male wood duck. The female is a bit drab except for the wonderful white circle around her eye. The most common mistake teal hunters make in the early season is killing wood ducks in low light. It is not exactly simple to recognize the flight pattern of wood ducks versus teal, but it is important to learn that difference. The body shape is also different. All of us who mentor young hunters should precisely help them learn the look of a flying teal and a flying wood duck. Killing a Shoveler or a Mallard or Pintail during the early teal season is a crime. We need to work on this area a bit harder. Game wardens have been known to occasionally miss an identification, but they do know teal versus wood duck in the early season – and they expect young eager hunters to know that difference.
One of the best camouflage artists in the marsh is the Bittern. They are so hard to see when they stand in the cattails with their neck outstretched and bills pointed to the sky. The good thing is that they assume that they are invisible and will usually pose proudly for a picture for a long time. One of the most memorable sounds in the marsh is a disturbed bittern taking flight. Their outraged squawk is off the chart and is comparable to a Great Blue Heron. They specialize in being absolutely furious when they are disturbed. Bitterns are one of my favorite birds in our marsh.
Black-crowned Night Herons seem to break the mold. Their white front, red eye, and head ornament make them very visible. We don’t have very many Yellow-crowned birds, and I have been lucky enough to see flocks of 30-50 Black-Crowned herons both flying and sitting in the reeds watching for food. In the calm of the setting sun, a flock of these birds will stop your clock. They don’t fly in a gob – they fly almost in a single file and are usually vocal during the flight. I hope that every one of you at least once in your life will be able to see and hear them in the twilight of simple peace at our Cheyenne Bottoms.
One of the most visible, beautiful, and sad sights we see are the Snowy Owls. These are usually young birds and not skilled hunters. They are not equipped to deal with the competition of our native birds. I have seen on more than one accession Northern Harriers attack these poor birds and drive them to the ground. Very few survive this adventure from the north. It was a Snowy Owl that started Marsh Musings. Eric Geising was a biologist at KWEC and we would tour the Bottoms and take pictures and he started this column. We found a Snowy Owl that had been shot and was dying in the marsh. He retrieved the bird and we took it to the Raptor Center in Great Bend. The bird expired, Eric moved on to another job, and I was left holding the camera. That was about 10 years ago and I am more than grateful to Dale Hogg and the Great Bend Tribune for sharing our marsh in a very good way for all these years. Makes us all humble and proud of our newspaper. Thank you, Dale.
Doctor Dan Witt is a retired physician and nature enthusiast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.