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‘Duck Man’ of Ellinwood part of early beginnings of Cheyenne Bottoms

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, April 30, 2012, at 6:32 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, April 30, 2012, at 6:44 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

For years, he was called the “Duck Man.”

In 1923, Frank Robl of Ellinwood started banding birds — ducks and geese that he found at Cheyenne Bottoms.

It was a hobby. He had a farm on the south shore of what was then called Cheyenne Swamp, now Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Area. It is the largest inland marsh in the United States and in recent decades was designated a Wetland of International Importance.

But back then, it was just mucky, marshy land. Its name came from the Cheyenne Indians who frequented the area before Euro-American settlement.

In his spare time, Robl drove around the swampy land. He fashioned his duck and geese bands from tin, curious about where the birds went each fall and spring migration.

In August 1927, when 14 inches of rain fell over a two-day period, the swamp filled, “becoming the largest body of water from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains, the highest point remembered in history,” Robl wrote.

It didn’t dry up until 1931.

All the time, Robl kept banding, keeping meticulous records of his discoveries — noting when he received letters in the mail letting him know where the birds landed.

“In five years, I had recoveries from as far as Alaska and Canada, Mexico and Central America,” Robl wrote.

Robl’s records made some Kansas and national wildlife officials and politicians believe the area might be a good place for a refuge.

Robl was invited to attend the American Convention of the Wildlife Association in Omaha. And then, he was invited to represent the Fish and Game Department at the Chicago Wildlife Convention. In 1934, he accompanied a delegation to the American Game Conference in New York City. He spoke on national radio about his findings and spent five days in Washington, D.C., with Kansas politicians, including Vice President Charles Curtis.

“I was introduced as being an authority on waterfowl and the best-versed man on the subject in the state of Kansas,” he wrote in his memoirs, “The ‘Duck Man’ Writes about Cheyenne Bottoms.”

His records helped document the route of the Central Flyway, a bird migration route that runs from central Canada and the region surrounding the Gulf of Mexico.

It wouldn’t be until Oct. 8, 1942, that the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Department made its first significant land purchase – 6,800 acres.

Cheyenne Bottoms is a 41,000-acre, 64 square mile basin sink. The Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area now includes 19,857 acres managed by Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism; the Nature Conservancy owns nearly 8,000 additional acres.

Nearly half of all North American shorebirds migrating east of the Rocky Mountains and up to a quarter million waterfowl stop at Cheyenne Bottoms to rest and feed during seasonal migrations.

Robl died in 1976.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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