In a ritual as old as time, dawn and dusk slip across the horizon at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
And with those first and last rays of sunlight comes a thundering, primeval sound — deafening, glorious and almost terrifying as islands made up of thousands of sandhill cranes suddenly dissolve and come together in a flutter of wings and haunting calls.
Wave upon wave fill the autumn skies with feathers and sound, mixing with growing numbers of geese and ducks.
Each year, theirs is a 7,000-mile journey that takes them from their summer nesting grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia to their winter grounds in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico.
Kansas’ two international wetlands of importance — Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira — provide a brief respite where the birds and their close cousins, the whooping cranes, can spend a few days or weeks feeding and lounging in nearby fields of wheat, milo and corn before winter’s icy grip settles over the prairie.
These are the days when big birds fly the friendly skies above Kansas.
“It depends on the weather,” said Pete Janzen, author of “The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hotspots.” “There has already been whooping cranes seen at Quivira and some sandhills have already been there, as well. They should continue to grow in numbers until the second or third week in November.”
Cold fronts from the north tend to urge the migrating birds on south.
For now, many are still north of Kansas.
Last Wednesday, Barry Jones at Quivira reported “a single adult whooping crane was present at 8:00 am this morning, 25 October 2017, at the very southwest corner of Big Salt Marsh at Quivira. It was with a flock of approximately 2,000 sandhill cranes.”
As longtime birder Janzen points out, “there will be more sandhills over the next few weeks. With whooping cranes, you’ve just got to hope you will get lucky to see them.”
The best places in the state to see them are at either Quivira or Cheyenne Bottoms, and also at Kirwin Reservoir in Phillips County, near the Kansas/Nebraska border. Janzen said the whoopers are also sometimes spotted at the Great Salt Plains State Park in Oklahoma.
Another tip is to go to ebird.org, a website that helps track what birds you can see by location.
“It’s an internet place where people post sightings,” Janzen said. “That is absolutely the most up-to-date source of information on birds.”
Whether they be sandhills or whooping cranes, the birds often travel in small family groups or larger. They can soar up to 5,000 feet in the air and sometimes travel up to 300 miles in a day.
The whooping cranes can travel in groups of three to five. The whoopers are America’s largest shorebirds. They are white with black tips on their wings and can be up to 5 feet tall. The sandhills can number into the thousands. They are gray and are between 3 1/2 and 4 feet tall.
During the afternoons, the cranes can be seen sometimes soaring in the sky — riding spiraling thermals or lining the nearby fields in groups to dance, bob and jump.
At sunset, as the thousands of birds flock back to the salt marshes, deer may slowly wade into view just feet from the landing birds, oblivious to the beating of wings and guttural cries.
These are some of Kansas’ best sights.
If you go
To report a whooping crane sighting, or to find out more information about the birds, check the “Whooping Crane Page” on Quivira National Wildlife Refuge’s website at www.fws.gov/refuge/quivira or call the refuge at 620-486-2393.