By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Wetland Explorer
Kansas experiences a migration bonanza
new deh wetland explorer pic
A hawk of the open prairie, Swainsons hawks often chase grasshoppers and beetles on foot, in addition to hunting small mammals. They migrate in large groups, numbering in the thousands, often soaring on rising warm air currents. - photo by PHOTO COURTESY BOB GRESS

 From wind-surfing hawks to mobs of butterflies, it was a banner fall migration in South Central Kansas. The bird and butterfly list serves were full of unusual sightings that lasted well past normal migration parameters.

I had read about Swainson’s hawk migration, where tens of thousands flock together to migrate, but never witnessed it until Oct. 6. The date sticks in my memory, because the farrier was just leaving when we both glanced up. 

“Look at those vultures”, he said.

A large group of Mississippi kites were flying by, ahead of a forecasted cold front. As I returned from putting the horses out, I looked up again and there they were, Swainson’s hawks, flowing by, mostly soaring, tilting this way and that as though they were surfing wind waves.

I stood mesmerized, and started counting them as they flowed past, a steady river of birds. I lost count somewhere after 400 and still they streamed by. As the front got closer, clouds boiling, the hawks rose higher, displaying their more typical flight style, a soaring circle called “kettling”. A few nighthawks flew along the edge of the hawk kettle. Kites, vultures, other hawks and nighthawks often mix with Swainson’s hawks during migration.

They rose beyond sight right before the storm hit. Later, I learned bird watchers travel to regions where migrating Swainson’s are geographically “funneled”, in the southern U.S., Mexico and Central America. One of the longest bird-of-prey migrations, Swainson’s hawks migrate from Alaska and Canada to Argentina, a roundtrip of over 12,000 miles. 

Looking like brown sentinels, they land in hay and stubble fields to rest and catch insects and caterpillars during spring and fall migration. I counted over 150 in a soybean stubble field by Sterling in September. 

This fall has also been a great year to sight one of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane. Between Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira, 15 to 20 percent of the total population was present on one day in November. Estimates for the central population are around 400 individuals. A magnificent bird, it’s always a special treat to see them.  

The late summer/fall butterfly migration started with thousands of painted lady butterflies, arriving in August and continuing through October. In Colorado, masses of migrating painted lady butterflies showed on weather radar. Founder of Monarch Watch and University of Kansas entomology professor, Orley “Chip” Taylor commented it was the largest painted lady butterfly migration in at least 30 years, with possibly billions of them migrating through the middle of North America.

Clouds of the small, colorful butterflies, hence the name “painted” lady, rose from flower beds in yards and fields, eclipsing the monarch butterfly migration for a while. Monarch butterflies are the most famous butterfly migrator but many other species also migrate. 

In Europe, painted lady migration rivals that of the monarch, with adults migrating from Northern Africa to the Arctic Circle, and back again over six generations, flying 9,000 miles. A fairly recent discovery, thousands of citizens were recruited to observe and record sightings, along with the use of radar. Turns out, the painted ladies were flying at 3,000 feet, escaping detection until 2012.

The 2017 monarch migration arrived a little later than the past several years, but lasted through early October. The numbers were steady at KWEC, without a large push. In other parts of the country, monarchs were still migrating in Canada, New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio in late October. Unfortunately, their nectar sources were mostly gone by that time. 

Other notable sightings this year were high numbers of cloudless sulphurs, a large, bright yellow butterfly that also migrates here from the south, along with Gulf fritillaries, queen monarchs and pipevine swallowtails. 

It looks to be an interesting winter season also, as reports of crossbills, pine siskins and redpolls have been documented, along with recent reports of snowy owls. Stay tuned and look up!