Rain replenishes Kansas wetlands

The rains began gently falling Thursday evening on the parched wetlands of Stafford County.

By Sunday, more than five inches of rain filled nearly every basin at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, bringing the wildlife area back to life.

More than 8,000 ducks – Blue-Winged Teal and Northern Pintail – swooped in almost overnight; a Peregrine Falcon was spotted; and ovenbirds, Wilson’s Warblers and Blue-headed Vireo were out and about, according to Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at the refuge.

“As of Wednesday, there was no water in the refuge,” Jones said Sunday afternoon. “And now, the Big and Little Salt Marsh has substantial coverage – about 70 percent filled in both pools, respectively.”

And, the Rattlesnake Creek which feeds the wetlands, and which had stopped flowing months ago, is once again flowing and filling the refuge.

The welcome rains means there is hope for the migrating birds this fall as well as for the deer and other animals attracted to the refuge.

“There was very little drinking water,” Jones said. “Things have been dry for so long.”

With more than a month of 100-plus degree days, the wetlands were nearly barren of life.

Todd Miller’s family has farmed and ranched on and around the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge for four generations.

Seldom have the Millers seen the famed wetland as dry as it was this past week, when the entire wetlands were dry for the first time in at least 20 years.

And, seldom have they seen it fill with water so fast.

"It’s unbelievable. She looks a whole lot better than she did," said Miller, of Sylvia, who pays to graze cattle on the refuge. "There’s good water out there where there was nothing a few days ago. Oh my word, it’s so much better than it was."

Checking cattle Saturday afternoon, Miller saw broad amounts of water on both the Big and Little Salt Marsh, with more coming in.

"The Rattlesnake (Creek) was a good five feet wide and at least a foot deep and flowing pretty good," Miller said of the stream that feeds the marshlands. "I know it was going to bring in a lot more water because (Saturday afternoon) there was a big system parked just north of St. John and it was really dumping rain."

The rain comes at a critical time. Not only will it be a boost for area farmers as they prepare the grounds for the fall wheat crop. But also for wildlife, countless critters and birds who bulk up for the fall and winter. And, in a roundabout way, the rains will bring a needed boost in the area’s economy with tourism.

Besides Florida, Kansas is the only state in the nation that boasts of having two wetlands of international importance – Quivira and the Cheyenne Bottoms in Barton County. Not nearly as much rain fell in Barton County. The bottoms received about 1½ inches over the weekend.

Still, with the fall migration just weeks away, the rains mean the thousands of migrating shorebirds and water fowl will have a resting place. Each year, the birds take a 7,000-mile journey from their wintering grounds in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico to Canada, Alaska and Siberia for the summer.

And, each year, roughly 100,000 visitors a year flock to the refuges to see about 300,000 sandhill cranes, 600,000 geese and 75,000 ducks.

During most weekends in late October or November, Quivira’s salt marsh drive is filled with out-of-state cars.

People line up to hear the deafening roar of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese and ducks that suddenly dissolve in a flutter of wings and haunting calls, and rise and fly into neighboring fields.

This past weekend’s rains promise a return of that life to the wetlands.

Contributing: Michael Pearce of The Eagle.

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