Southwest Kansas

I am on my third road trip of the pandemic, as usual doing my best to stay safe. Between the distance I’m keeping from other people (yay outdoors!), my recent booster shot, and the two packets of masks I bought before heading out of town, I feel pretty good about things. The trip is off to a good start. I left Madison yesterday, and I’m already at Elkhart, the most southwestern town in Kansas, right on the Oklahoma border. I could walk to the Sooner State right now if I wasn’t winding down for the day.

They say Kansas is boring. I disagree. I drove diagonally through the entire state today and I was mesmerized. Flat? Definitely not the eastern half, with its rolling hills covered in bluestem. Central Kansas was a pancake, and the western half is close to being one, but it’s not boring if you’re looking for birds. Every fence post and wire along the highway had an American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, or Rough-legged Hawk. Northern Harriers floated low across the fields. Looking for raptors along the road is my favorite pastime when driving through open country.

The towns in the last few hours of the drive were variations on a theme: grain elevators right along the highway with small settlements built around them. The one bird that dominated these towns was the Eurasian Collared-Dove. These invasive birds love the Great Plains for the plentiful grain that’s here. I am sure they outnumber human residents in at least a few of the towns I drove through.

If Kudzu is the vine that ate the South, these are the birds that ate the Plains.
Eurasian Collared-dove habitat

In one of the towns, Sublette, I found a flock of 300 or so Great-tailed Grackles. I hadn’t seen any since I went to Texas in 2017, and I was pleasantly surprised to see them. I know they’re a plains bird, but I didn’t know I’d find them in quite those numbers. They are larger, longer-legged, and longer-tailed than Common Grackles. They sometimes hold their tails up in the air when perched on the ground, giving them an athletic and “ready” look. It is comparable to the stereotypical roadrunner stance.

The farther west I got, the more it looked like, well, the West. The yuccas and small hills of Cimarron National Grassland reminded me of eastern Colorado, which I am also not that far from at the moment. I enjoyed the sunset at the grassland’s Point of Rocks before settling down for the night. I have my longest hike of the trip ahead of me tomorrow, so I’d better rest up.

From below Point of Rocks
Cimarron National Grassland from Point of Rocks

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