Birders reach rarefied Kansas air

Kevin Groeneweg and Pete Janzen have completed the task of finding 100 species of birds in each of Kansas 105 counties. Only three people have done it.
Kevin Groeneweg and Pete Janzen have completed the task of finding 100 species of birds in each of Kansas 105 counties. Only three people have done it. The Wichita Eagle

One of Pete Janzen’s biggest finds in a long birding career was a common great horned owl near Hugoton. For Kevin Groeneweg, a simple white-crowned sparrow by a sewage lagoon at Satanta.

For both Wichitans, those western Kansas birds marked the milestone of finding 100 species of birds within each of Kansas’ 105 counties. Chuck Otte, past president of the Kansas Ornithological Society, and webmaster for www.ksbird.org, said such has only been achieved by three Kansans.

“When you think of how big our state is, and how many counties we have, it’s a pretty big accomplishment,” Otte said. “That takes a lot of miles and a lot of dedication.”

Otte said for about 12 years, Kansas birders have been keeping listings per county, something that’s been done in other states for decades. The original concept was for birders to combine their finds for the best idea of what birds a county holds. Eventually birders began keeping their own lists, usually first within their own county, then neighboring counties, and eventually far beyond.

“Kansas is an absolutely beautiful state and there were a lot of parts I hadn’t seen,” said Henry Armknecht, the other person to reach 100 species in all counties. “I’m always looking for an excuse to go see new areas.”

“It’s like running the fastest mile, visiting every state capital, stamp collecting, you name it,” Janzen said. “Once it kicks in, you just kind of let it happen.”

And letting it happen meant many weekends and vacation days away from home during the quest all three began about 10 years ago. Armknecht completed his in 2009, Janzen in 2011 and Groeneweg in November.

Janzen estimated they would drive at least 1,500 miles some weekends. Groeneweg said they might try to make weekend trips through as many as nine counties.

Some counties, particularly those in western Kansas, required multiple trips. Armknecht, of Osborne, said he had to make 11 trips to Decatur County to find 100 species of birds.

Groeneweg and Janzen benefited from their Wichita location. With 382 species noted, Sedgwick County is the most prolific birding county in Kansas, thanks to habitat diversity and many good birders.

It’s also within a few hours of some other productive areas.

“If you go to eastern Kansas, during the migration, and there’s a lot of timber, you can get 100 species in one day,” Otte said. “But you go out to western Kansas and there are a lot of counties that just don’t have much habitat, or different kinds of habitat. They can be tough.”

For that reason, the birders learned to concentrate their searches around towns in western Kansas, which might hold 90 percent of a county’s trees. In many areas their sewage lagoons are the only standing water for miles.

All three birders said they benefited greatly from other birders, often locals to a particular county, for shortening their searches. Groeneweg spent a lot of time studying satellite photography on his phone to find nearby good birding areas as he traveled.

They also learned to get the most from their miles.

“If you can find a good road that’s right on the county line, you can get some two-fers,” said Janzen. “When a meadowlark flies from one side of the road to the other you get both counties.”

For waterfowl, shorebirds and gulls, he said Cheney Reservoir can be ultra productive because Sedgwick, Reno and Kingman counties nearly meet at the lake.

As well as providing challenges and recreation for birders, Otte said the quest to build good county numbers has benefited Kansas ornithology.

“When all this got started, we had counties out there that only had 120 species listed,” he said. “Now we only have one county, Wichita County, with less than 200 and it’s at 189 species.”

Groeneweg and Janzen, like Armknecht, will continue to add to county listings as they chase personal goals. Janzen has a list of about 10 counties where he hopes to make it more than 150 species this year. Armknecht already has 110 in all counties, and may go for at least 150 species in the counties east of Hays and 125 in counties west of Hays.

Such quests, Groeneweg said, helps keep birding exciting for three of the state’s most experienced birders.

“All birds are new and exciting again,” he said, “when it’s the first time you’ve seen it in a county.”