One of the best wildlife viewing areas in the country is just 90 miles from Wichita

Rather than African antelope and zebra, these migrants are majestic sandhill cranes, cackling white-fronted and honking Canada geese. Sometimes their flocks of thousands are so loud there’s no need to talk until they pass overhead.

There’s a chance of seeing whooping cranes, the endangered, snow-white, five-foot tall birds, which stop at this world-class birding destination often.

But instead of far-away Africa this amazing display is just a 90-mile drive from Wichita, at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Friday through Sunday Quivira will be the site of the second-annual “Celebration of Cranes,” sponsored by Audubon of Kansas. Guided tours will be given within the 21,000-acre wetland complex west of Hutchinson.

“We’re wanting to draw attention to Quivira, one of the best wildlife viewing areas in the entire country,” said Ron Klataske, Audubon of Kansas director. “It’s strongly recognized as a major wildlife attraction of national and even international acclaim in the spring but it doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves in the fall. It can be fantastic.”

Klataske picked the first weekend of November for the celebration because it’s often a time of heavy migrations. While ducks, geese and sandhill cranes are pretty dependable, and usually stick around for weeks or months, it’s not that easy with whooping cranes.

“You just never know about the whooping cranes,” said Klataske, “but historically this has been a pretty good time frame for them to be at Quivira.” Last year about half of the people who attended the celebration saw whooping cranes. All saw thousands of the other birds.

Rented vans will take people around the refuge in the few hours that include dawn and dusk, the main times to see migratory birds flying to and from Quivira. Tour guides will set up spotting scopes in key areas and help with bird identification. Participants are encouraged to bring binoculars.

Participants are encouraged to pre-register by Oct. 28 to reserve seats. A $12 donation is suggested to help pay rental fees. Box lunches can also be purchased for $8 on Saturday.

The celebration will be based out of Quivira’s headquarters/visitors center which has few supplies.

Mid-day Saturday three speakers will present programs dealing with both species of cranes and the refuge. Staff at the refuge will be present to visit with the public. The visitors center holds several wildlife displays and offers children’s activities on Saturday.

Klataske will visit with participants interested in the on-going threats facing Quivira and other key habitats in Kansas.

“We need people to appreciate these kinds of places so they can help us protect them,” said Klataske.

Guides will work to help build that appreciation by showing guests more than just the clouds of waterfowl and cranes. Tours will be through a variety of habitats.

Bald eagles, prairie falcons and a half-dozen other species of birds of prey will likely be seen. A myriad of songbirds will be found in thickets and grasslands. Quivira is one of Kansas’ top places for photographing whitetail deer.

It’s hoped guests will leave with enough information and confidence to comeback to Quivira again. Klataske and others encourage them to explore the refuge on their own before or after a guided trip.

That would include watching a sunset over Quivira’s largest body of water – the Big Salt Marsh.

Timothy Barksdale is a renowned wildlife videographer who has worked for National Geographic, Audubon and dozens of other quality publications. He described Quivira as “the Serengeti of the Sky” for the national park in Africa famous for its wildlife.

Barksdale visits Quivira as often as possible, especially the Wildlife Drive at Quivira’s Big Salt Marsh late in the afternoon.

“The fact that you can stand on a road and look at the sunset spreading over that huge pool and watch all of those birds (silhouetted) is literally unbelievable,” said Barksdale, a Missourian who has been to every major birding spot in North America. “It really is just one of the most beautiful, and most special, places that you can find anywhere.”

Celebration of cranes

When: 2:20-7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, and 6 a.m.-10 a.m. Sunday Nov. 3.

Where: Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, 1434 NE 80th Street, Stafford

What: Guided tours of the refuge with experienced birders. See thousands of birds in the midst of migration, including a chance to see endangered whooping cranes.

How much: $12 donation to Audubon of Kansas suggested to cover the cost of the van.

Information and registration: Registration required. www.audubonofkansas.org, 785-537-4385.