A biology instructor by profession, and an avid birder by avocation, Gene Young knows the wild places of Kansas.
One of his favorites is a little-known spot a few minutes from his Arkansas City home.
“I know Cheyenne Bottoms is considered the jewel of the prairie, but I’d have to consider Slate Creek the pearl,” Young said as he drove a backroad in eastern Sumner County. “It’s a great place to see a lot of diversity. Compared to Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira, we hardly see any other birders.”
That’s despite an impressive 280-plus species of birds documented in the Slate Creek Valley.
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The region’s marshes are long on history, too.
Kurt Grimm, manager of the 927 acres owned by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said for decades private landowners in the area have faced challenges trying to farm between floods in the Slate Creek Valley.
About 125 years ago, hunters wanting to shoot waterfowl by the thousands for shipment to eastern markets poured into the Slate Creek marshes when water and waterfowl abounded.
Sportsmen’s clubs were formed to help lock up the best hunting spots for members many years ago.
Young said the two clubs still in the area — the Slate Valley Sportsman’s Association and the Winfield Gun Club — have successful histories in the valley.
Public access to land and marshes got a huge boost when Wildlife and Parks began acquiring land in the area in 1989. It’s current acreage was reached when more land was added in 1994.
Grimm and Young said there’s a lot of good things crammed into that 927 acres.
“There’s so much diversity available, and it’s all so close together,” said Young, who began research in the area while a student at Southwestern College in 1985. “You have wetlands, prairie areas and wooded areas. That leads to a lot of diversity in plants and wildlife.”
Unlike much of Kansas, the Slate Creek area has large amounts of fresh and saltwater springs and marshes.
Young said some waters have about three times the salinity of sea water.
“You have certain kinds of plants in the fresh water and others in the saltwater places,” he said, “and that leads to different kinds of wildlife.”
Grimm said on the area is a species of cicada, and a plant, found nowhere else in Kansas.
Several times on a Tuesday morning tour, Young pointed out where fresh and saltwater pockets were only a few yards apart. The vegetative difference were obvious.
That morning he and Max Thompson found Young’s favorite shorebirds in nice supplies on exposed sections of shorelines.
“We get 20,000-plus shorebirds to migrate through here annually,” Young said. “The diversity of shorebirds here is as good as Quivira or Cheyenne Bottoms.”
The diversity and numbers of grassland and woodland birds can be as impressive. Young listed a number of species of sparrows that winter or migrate through the Slate Creek area. Birds like bobwhite quail, scissor-tailed flycatchers and kingbirds were abundant on Tuesday’s tour.
The region’s attraction to migrating Swainson’s hawks has been impressive some seasons.
“You can have over 100 Swainson’s in the spring migration, drop out of the sky and on to a burned area,” Young said. “At one (Kansas Ornithological Society) meeting in we logged between 4,000 and 6,000 Swainson’s flying over in a 45-minute period.”
In the late summer, 20,000 or more assorted swallows may gather and stage in the area before migrating southward.
While Young said he rarely sees birders using the area, Grimm said the about 243 acres of assorted wetlands are increasingly popular with waterfowl hunters.
“On weekends (hunting pressure) is usually pretty heavy, but it’s not too bad during the week,” Grimm said.
He said the public area does no groundwater pumping, and relies on natural water accumulation from rains and/or flooding of Slate Creek.
Often using grants from partners such as Ducks Unlimited, Grimm has built some structures to help make the best uses of water. He’s annually working with habitat projects to help protect and feed the area’s wildlife.
The area has a decent number of pheasants, though Grimm said not as high as a few years ago.
Grimm said Slate Creek gets a lot of hunting pressure during the firearms deer seasons. Steel shot is required for all kinds of bird and small game hunting on the state area.
All who use the state land need to register at kiosks located in main parking areas as they come and go.
“Anybody can hike it, go birding or whatever,” Grimm said. “It’s open to the public the year-round.”