Fall migration in heat of summer

Through a hot and steamy August, masses of visitors from much cooler climates have come to Kansas. Many won't stay long because their destinations are across the Gulf of Mexico and deep into South America. That's a lot of wing beats for birds currently on southerly migrations.

"We call it the fall migration, but not all (species) migrate at the same time," said Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center. "Fall starts in early August if you're an early-migrating bird. It's certainly going on now."

Since mid-July, some birds have come from the north. The same species came from the south for spring migrations a few months ago.

Some seem to spend much of their year in migration, said Ken Brunson, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks non-game biologist. They spend little time on their summer nesting grounds.

"They get up there and get the job done pretty darned quickly," Brunson said. "Most of those chicks are pretty active even when they're small."

He said many chicks may only be about six weeks old when they begin southward migrations with their parents.

Max Thompson has had upland sandpipers passing over his Winfield home for several days.

"All you have to do is step outside early and listen," said Thompson, a retired professor of biology at Southwestern College. "They nest from the Flint Hills up into Alaska and they're going clear back to Argentina for the winter."

Gress said several other species of sandpipers have been seen locally and most of those nested in the tundra only a few weeks ago.

Shorebirds, like sandpipers, make up many of the earliest migrants.

Barry Jones, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge naturalist, said about 20 species of the small- to medium-size wading birds have arrived within the past few weeks.

But you needn't head to a wetland to witness early migrations.

"Now's a great time to have hummingbird feeders out," Gress said. "You may have not had any nest anywhere near your house this summer, but they're moving through."

Some of Kansas' most common and popular birds are readying for migrations, too.

Purple martins currently amass near downtown Wichita nightly. A

row of trees at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis is where 40,000 or more martins are staging for a few weeks before heading to Brazil.

The birds can be viewed most evenings through about Aug. 15 from parking lots directly south of the main hospital building. The best viewing is between 8:15 and 9:15 p.m.

Thompson said Mississippi kites will start leaving in about two weeks. Other species will, too.

"A lot of our birds are gone by the first of September," he said. "I've seen purple martins in Belize the first week of August and they didn't spend the summer there."

More species will take up migration through the late fall.

By late November, Kansas prairies will hold some of the nation's top concentrations of hawks and falcons, which will spend the winter feeding on abundant rodent populations.

Huge flocks of ducks and geese will settle in Kansas to feed amid broad fields of wheat and grain. Bald eagles will settle in Kansas to feed on those flocks of ducks and geese.

Come the first teasingly warm days of late winter and early spring, the migrational cycle will reverse itself. The waterfowl will be some of the first to head north.

Some of those passing through last, like the shorebirds, will be the birds we're seeing migrating now.

But they'll make the many thousands of miles trip, some species flying up to 600 miles a day. They'll stay up north just long enough to fledge their young and do it all again.

"It's a bi-yearly migrational miracle," Brunson said. "It's all pretty amazing."