QUIVIRA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — Most the day the sky was a dull, gray and unbroken mass between the horizons. But by the time I’d arrived to a special spot, the clouds were cottony fluffy and white, and well scattered across the sky.
But as I’d hoped, the setting sun created the kind of scene no artist can accomplish with paints, pencils or even computers. Over the course of a half-hour, the clouds became more vibrantly colored than a mountainside of New England maples at their best.
But the splendid coloration was only one reason the shutters on my cameras were firing at machine-gun rates.
I have long believed the Wildlife Drive at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, this time of the year, is the best place in Kansas, or arguably the nation, to watch the sun set. Recently roaming a file of favorite photos from 13 years at The Eagle, I found far more from there, in November, than any other time or place.
It’s special enough that at times it takes priority over some other things I dearly love.
It takes a lot to keep me from a duck blind or deer stand when vacationing in November, but it seems I always end up timing a few trips through Quivira. Some afternoons the trek has been worthy of 500 frames for my camera, and some of my best wildlife memories for my mind.
Though a truly world-class wetland, creatures of the dry lands are another reason I make the breaks to hunt with a camera rather than shotgun or bow.
Whitetail bucks are often bold and more easily photographed than any other place I’ve been. They’re calmed by never being hunted within the 22,000-acre refuge and excited by their rut. (It does seem, though, deer aren’t as commonly seen since the refuge’s massive tree and brush removal program to convert the area back to prairie.)
Mid-November is also when clouds of ducks, geese and sandhill cranes begin settling on the refuge to refuel their systems as they pause in their southward migrations. It’s not uncommon for there to be a combined 500,000 or more of the birds at the refuge, and the vast majority gather at the Big Salt Marsh, which is partially bordered on the east by the legendary Wildlife Drive.
I entered Quivira’s south gate with about 90 minutes of daylight remaining on a recent afternoon, slowing to peer in every pocket of trees or brush along the roads. Eventually I spotted, and repeatedly photographed, a buck probably far bigger than any I’ll see from deer stands this year.
I made it to the Wildlife Loop just in time to watch the settling sun work its magic. For a while the sky was so brilliantly orange it could have been stamped “Sunkist,” and it eventually mellowed into a procession of pastels with peaceful purples, reds, blues and brassy golds.
Across those colors, a never-ending procession of flocks of geese and sandhills came and went. The challenge, if there is any such thing while witnessing such sights, was getting the right flocks to fly through the right band of color for the kind of striking silhouettes I love to photograph.
The birds were a tiny fraction of some of the clouds I’ve witnessed in the past, when surely 100,000-plus birds were milling about, ascending or descending like a living, feathered cyclone. A few times the honking and trilling has been so loud we’ve had to raise our voices to be heard.
While witnessing such grand entrances and exits a few Novembers ago, I was photographing a pair of mature whooping cranes maybe half the length of a football field away. It was like a National Geographic scene.
But the most recent show was still special. Another photographer with far, far more experience than I, agreed.
Rounding a bend on the Wildlife Drive, I saw a huge white van with Montana tags. As I thought, it was Timothy Barksdale, who I’ve written about in the past.
Barksdale may be the top bird videographer in the nation, or is at least near the top. Over about the past 20 years he’s been from South America’s southern tip to the Arctic, and shot thousands of hours of footage in jungles, dangerously steep mountain country, most major prairies and wetlands, too.
That day he was working on a project to produce some striking footage for a documentary on John James Audubon, possibly the greatest American naturalist of the 1800s.
And where was Barksdale shooting much of this?
“I’ll be right here for the next four evenings,” he said. Like me, he was a bit disappointed in the numbers of flocks that afternoon, but reveled in the sweetness of the sunset.
By the time the firy yellows had finally died burned down to the last soft blues of the finished sun, a local woman drove up to ask a few questions. She stated this time of year she’s at Quivira almost daily, and that the Wildlife Drive at sunset was her “absolute favorite place in the world.”
“It’s certainly one of my favorites,” Barksdale said. “If I lived closer I’d be out here about every day, too.”
I know exactly how he feels.