Scratch the trip to tropics or the crowded confines of a zoo. You can find some of the world’s prettiest birds flying free in Kansas.
Two of the state’s top wild bird authorities have offered advice on where and how to find these six species that can add some visual sizzle to your summer.
Many have wondered if there’s been a jail break at a local exotic pet store the first time they see a painted bunting. With the gorgeous blue head, chartreuse back, red throat and orange breast, they look like some kind of creation by a kindergartner with a new box of crayons.
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Kevin Groeneweg of the Wichita Audubon Society said painted buntings are birds of mixed prairie, brush and timber. That defines a lot of Kansas but areas with good populations may be separated by many miles.
Groeneweg said the best local place to see a painted bunting is the public boat launch on the Arkansas River near Derby, just off 71st Street South. Unlike their gaudy plumage, most painteds are shy and spend much of their time tucked into shady areas up in trees.
Groeneweg recommends becoming familiar with the sounds of a calling painted bunting to help with the search.
If you don’t mind making a drive, the Gypsum Hills Scenic Drive west of Medicine Lodge can be a hotspot for painted buntings as can connecting country roads. (Also watch for western kingbirds, scissor-tailed fly-catchers, and orioles, which are also on the list.)
Crusing the backroads east of Arkansas City and through the Chautauqua Hills could lead to some painted bunting happiness, too.
Bob Gress, of Birds in Focus, is one of America’s top wild bird photographers and a big fan of Baltimore orioles.
“They’re just such a striking bird. Surely everyone has to appreciate the razzle-dazzle color of a male oriole,” Gress said, of a bird with a breast so orange you half expect to see “Sunkist” stamped on it. The bird’s black back and wings help give those orange feathers extra pop.
Of all the birds on the list, orioles are possibly the easiest to find as they thrive as well in towns as in the deepest of boondocks. Gress likes to put grape jelly out in simple feeders to attract orioles to his Wichita backyard. Groeneweg said orioles thrive around large cottonwood trees, both in and out of town.
About any lake with big cottonwoods, such as Lake Afton and Cheney and El Dorado reservoirs, have healthy oriole populations. As well as the birds themselves, keep an eye out for their engineering miracle of a nest that hangs well below tree limbs.
Most times the only way you can see something as vibrant blue as an indigo bunting is if Photoshop or batteries are involved. Seriously, in the early morning light they’re possibly the prettiest one-color bird in America. Groeneweg agrees.
“There are a lot of people who got into birding because of this one species,” Groeneweg said. “It’s that stunning of an experience to see one perched on a limb. I still find them stunning.”
Unlike their more reclusive painted cousins, indigo buntings seem proud of their looks and can often be found singing loud and proud from open limbs atop trees in or near creek or river bottoms.
Groeneweg has found many within Kansas state parks. He recently found several at the public ramp on the Arkansas River, as he was looking for painted buntings.
Leave it to the Texans, who often call the species the “Texas bird-of-paradise," to try to claim a bird also found over most of Kansas. Spend a little time in the country, and you’ll see we have no shortage of the birds in our state.
The species is best known for the name-sake tailfeathers, which may make up more than two-thirds of their 15 inches in length. Gress loves to watch the males use those long feathers, opened into a deep V, as a rudder as they perform aerial acrobatics snatching insects from the air or courting a female.
But there’s far more beauty to the birds than those legendary tails.
“They’ve got that reddish color under their wings and on their body, and it’s just striking,” said Gress, who likes that the red stands in contrast to the white feathering so smooth it appears the birds have been waxed.
About any backroad going through prairie areas in central Kansas holds scissortails this time of the year. Look for the males perched on the top strands of barbed wire fences. El Dorado State Park has plenty, especially on the eastern side of the reservoir.
These 9-inch birds are proof that big things can come in small packages.
With their lemony breast, olive head and neck, and black tail, western kingbirds are unquestionably beautiful. They’re also proud enough to spend much of their time sitting in the open, easily seen, in about any habitat imaginable.
For several years a pair raised broods in a nest tucked into a transformer in the middle of Wichita’s Old Town district. Most Wichita parks have them. Even far from towns, Groeneweg often finds western kingbirds around man-made structures, like electrical substations. Keep an eye on fences and utility lines anytime you’re driving through the prairie.
Also keep an eye out for any large bird, like a red-tailed hawk, fleeing a tiny bird that’s pestering it with no mercy.
Western kingbirds are as cocky as they are colorful. One birder referred to them as “the dachshunds of the bird world” because of their willingness to take on something 10 times their size.
Angered enough, western kingbirds may even flash a bit of fiery red feathering atop their heads. It’s a sight other birds, from bald eagles on down, must fear.
El Dorado State Park is a fine place to find western kingbirds, plus scissor-tailed flycatchers and indigo buntings.
Sometimes you wonder what Mother Nature was thinking when she put so many different colors on a drake wood duck. But mostly, you just want to tell her, “thanks.”
Even the bird’s eyes are brake light-red, and then there’s that Elvis-like pompadour, which glows different colors in the sun.
Though they may nest several hundred yards away, most wood duck parents now have their fuzzball chicks on creeks and rivers, generally with heavily wooded shorelines.
People moving quietly in canoes and kayaks have excellent chances of seeing wood ducks on most area creeks or the upper end of lakes and reservoirs. Listening for their eerie, telltale call, at first light is a great way to locate the birds.
Or, people can take the easy way and check one of several Wichita parks to see wood ducks mixed in with a variety of other waterfowl seeking handouts from people. Sedgwick County Park usually has several pairs, as does the lake near the Twin Lakes mall.
To help with the search
Binoculars are a must. So is patience. Finding woodlands species, like the two buntings can take some time, even in good areas. The first hour of daylight is the best time to be searching, but cool, sunny mornings or evenings can also provide sightings.
A good bird book can help with field identification. Sibleys probably makes the best overall field guide for Kansas and other Midwestern states. Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots is the best of its kind for focusing just on Kansas, and has better information on where, in Kansas, to look for a species. Both books are sold at several local bookstores.