COVID-19 has caused program attendance at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center to decline over the past two years, but attendance is slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels, site manager Curtis Wolf said. Meanwhile, the number of whooping crane visits to the area’s wetlands has increased, Wolf told members of the Great Bend Kiwanis Club when he spoke there earlier this month.
âThis year has been a phenomenal year for the Whooping Crane in this area,â said Wolf. âBecause there are quite a few more birds now – we have about 500 that could potentially pass through here – it’s a little difficult to keep track of who is who. So we’re going to bring in cranes and you don’t know the next day if they were the same.
Stafford County Quivira National Wildlife Refuge management estimated around 90 whooping cranes had arrived as of November, Wolf said. He wasn’t sure what the numbers were in the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Barton County, but the whooping cranes stayed longer than usual. A group of 15 whooping cranes arrived on November 4 and stayed for almost a month.
The threatened species
Whooping cranes are the most endangered bird in North America, with only about 800 in the world today. These bright white cranes are also the largest bird in North America; they are about 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of 7 feet.
âIf you go back to the 1940s, there were only 16 left in the world,â Wolf said. “They were on the verge of extinction.” Placed under protection, their number continues to improve. There were still less than 35 birds in 1960, and then they saw a recovery.
âIn 2006 there were 200 birds, and today there are over 500 that are in this flyway (the central flyway), and there are several experimental groups as well. In total, there are around 800 birds.
Historically, they have migrated and reproduced in the eastern two-thirds of the United States. But by 1900 whooping cranes had disappeared from most of their historic areas.
âRight now there’s the Central Flyway herd, which is the only natural herd that migrates and they’re the ones that come through here,â Wolf said. “There are about 500 of them. They breed in northern Canada at a place called Wood Buffalo National Park, and then they basically follow the central flyway, through Kansas.” And then most of them descend and winter on the Texas coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Sandhill cranes and whooping cranes feed, roost and nest in shallow wetlands, Wolf said.
âWhooping cranes can live up to 30 years in the wild. They mate for life, but they don’t begin to reproduce until they are 3 to 5 years old. This is one of the reasons their numbers have taken so long to recover, âsaid Wolf.
Human visitors are coming back
The number of human visitors to KWEC has slowly returned to pre-pandemic levels, Wolf said.
âInterestingly enough, we did more van tours this fall than we’ve ever done.â Personalized van tours allow groups of up to 11 people to tour the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area with an expert guide.
Tours are by reservation only and depend on the weather and the availability of tour guides. A 30-minute âDiscover Cheyenne Bottoms Tourâ costs $ 3 for adults, $ 1.50 for children under 12, and is free for children under 4. The âCheyenne Bottoms Deluxe Tourâ lasts approximately 90 minutes. It focuses on bird and wildlife identification and will also include a stop at the K-4 Cheyenne Bottoms lookout. The cost for this tour is $ 5 for adults, $ 3 for children under 12, and free for children under 4.
KWEC, operated by Fort Hays State University, is located in Barton County at 592 NE K-156. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday (excluding public holidays). The phone number is 620-566-1456 and the toll-free number is 877-243-9268.
George Stumps Nature Trail
Visitors to KWEC can also take a leisurely stroll on the George Stumps Nature Trail next to the Center. Wintering songbirds are attracted to the feeders near the trailhead, which is located at the west end of the Center parking lot.
Looping about half a mile, the level paved trail is wheelchair accessible. It is sponsored by Ducks Unlimited.