Places We Protect

Cheyenne Bottoms

Kansas

A large wading bird with dark red, purple and gray plumage, a white and pink face and a long beak, stands in water.
White-faced Ibis at Cheyenne Bottoms They migrate through Kansas on their way to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. They also live year-round along the U.S. gulf coast and in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. © Tom Blandford

Up to one-quarter million waterfowl stop at Cheyenne Bottoms to rest and refuel during seasonal migrations.

Overview

Description

Cheyenne Bottoms is a 41,000-acre wetland complex in central Kansas and one of the top staging areas (the places migrating birds stop to feed and rest) for shorebirds and waterfowl in the United States. These wetlands host tens of thousands of shorebirds and up to 1/4 million waterfowl each year during their migrations. Cheyenne Bottoms is one of only 34 sites in the United States designated a “Wetland of International Importance” by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the nearly 8,000-acre Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve adjacent to the 19,857-acre Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area which is managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism. Ducks Unlimited is also a key partner that is protecting waterfowl and shorebird habitat at Cheyenne Bottoms.

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Highlights

356 bird species have been observed at Cheyenne Bottoms

Size

7,706 acres

Explore our work in Kansas

Cheyenne Bottoms and the nearby Quivira National Wildlife Refuge are critical habitat for whooping cranes, which visit for a few weeks in March or April and again in October or November. Whooping cranes are an endangered species with fewer than 700 remaining in the wild. The largest flock, currently about 500 birds, spend the summer breeding in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and the winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. These large wetland complexes in Kansas are two of the most important places for the cranes to stop and rest, mid-way along the grueling 2,500-mile journey.

Three large white birds and one large brown bird standing in shallow water.
Whooping Cranes Three whooping cranes and a sandhill crane at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas. Fewer than 700 whooping cranes remain in the wild. © United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Geography and tradition lead migrating birds to this spot. Some fly thousands of miles without rest, fueled by a few tablespoons of body fat. When the fat reserves burn low, the birds stop to feed and rest at the marshy basins that have fed and sheltered their kind for thousands of generations. More bird species are seen here than anywhere else in the state. Of the 482 bird species known to Kansas, 356 species have been observed at Cheyenne Bottoms. Birds here migrate north as far as western Alaska and the tundra at the edge of the arctic, and south to Louisiana, Texas, Central America and the far reaches of South America. Providing abundant food and a place to rest, Cheyenne Bottoms is an essential link in this migration.

A little girl looks through bionoculars while standing next to a sighting scope.
Young Birder © Laura Rose Clawson/TNC

What to See

Bird-watching is the primary reason to visit Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve. A visit can be interesting any time of the year, but it is the spring and fall migrations that bring the largest number of birds at one time. Migrating ducks and cranes reach peak numbers in late March and early April. Migrating shorebird numbers peak in late April to late May (although some start arriving in late March). Fall migration is spread out over a longer period, sometimes beginning as early as July and lasting through October.

How to Get There

Cheyenne Bottoms is located in central Kansas, a short drive north of Great Bend. It is surrounded by Highway 4 to the north, Highway 156 on the east and Highway 281 on the west. 

Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve is best toured by vehicle, beginning at one of two informational kiosks:

  • Highway 281 & NE 80th Rd (northeast corner of intersection)
  • Highway 4 & NE 20th Ave (southwest corner of intersection)

While you are visiting, we encourage you to visit the Kansas Wetlands Education Center conveniently located along Highway 156 at the southeast corner of Cheyenne Bottoms. KWEC features many state-of-the-art exhibits that tell the story of this unique Kansas wetland. 

You can also learn more about other Kansas wetlands with a trip along the Kansas Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway

Preserve Rules

Please note: Rules for The Nature Conservancy’s Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve differ from the regulations at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area which is managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

  • Visitors must stay on public roads but you may pull to the side and exit your car for bird-watching. 
  • Off-road hiking is prohibited.
  • No dogs or other pets are allowed outside of your vehicle.
  • Hunting and fishing is prohibited on The Nature Conservancy's property. (Both are allowed at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area.)

Managing For Shorebirds on Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve

by Robert L. Penner, Avian Conservation Manager

We are in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis. Many are calling the times we live in a new, unofficial geological epoch, the Anthropocene: an epoch that is characterized by the world being influenced by humans. So much so, that human activity is having a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. These changes have long been seen in bird populations. In 2019, a study was published in Science magazine showing some of the dramatic declines in bird populations in North America since 1970. These researchers estimate that there are 2.9 billion fewer breeding birds today than there were in 1970.

A brown wading bird sstanding among marsh plants in water, with black background surrounding the circular field of view of the spotting scope.
Sleeping Dowithcher A dowitcher at rest is seen through a spotting scope at Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve. © Robert Penner/TNC

Shorebirds are not immune to these declines; in fact, shorebirds have the highest proportion of native species in decline. An assessment of shorebirds in Canada found that while shorebird species as a group have declined by 40% since 1970, shorebirds that migrate long distances have declined more steeply, by 52% (compared to short-distance migrants which declined 23% over the same time period).

Several species of shorebirds that visit Cheyenne Bottoms migrate long distances between their arctic breeding grounds in the north to their South American non-breeding grounds. The tremendous energy demands associated with these twice-a-year flights of several thousand miles require that birds be able to repeat the cycle of accumulating fat and then using these fat reserves. Because these long-distance migrants cannot make the journey without periodically replenishing fat reserves, stopover sites such as Cheyenne Bottoms become critical to the survival of many of these species. But it takes more than just one location. Shorebirds need a chain of stopover sites from the Arctic to South America.

It is because of the long-term population declines and the wide range of threats to shorebirds—habitat loss ranks at the top—that The Nature Conservancy made managing habitat for shorebirds a priority at Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve. One very important job we can do to ensure the future of shorebirds is to provide ideal stopover habitat for migrating shorebirds.

A small shorebird with a buff-colored underside and dark brown feathers on its back.
Buff-breasted sandpiper © Flickr user Seabamirum (CC by 2.0)

In general, shorebirds prefer to feed in areas where vegetation is less than half the height of the bird and most use occurs in sites in which there is less than 25% vegetation cover. It is this type of habitat that was lacking on the preserve, so we are actively creating this short, sparse vegetation by harvesting late summer grass to make hay and mowing in late fall and early winter. Fall migrating birds such as the buff-breasted sandpiper find this short grass especially attractive.

A partially flooded field.
Rains on the Plains of Kansas A fall spent haying, mowing, disking and grazing fields at Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve combined with plentiful spring rains to create ideal stopover habitat for shorebirds. © Robert Penner/TNC

If you drive through the preserve in late fall, you’ll notice we’re also creating mudflats by disking the fields to break up the surface. Combined with the mowing, this creates the short vegetation alongside mudflats that many shorebirds seek. Of course, this is all a roll of the dice. If we get rains at the right time these areas will attract the species that prefer to feed in wet areas. If we don’t get rains, these areas may still be attractive to a group of shorebirds that prefer to feed in upland sites, such as American golden-plovers and upland sandpipers.

In some places, we’re building dikes and deepening basins to create more open water habitat. Last year, we reconnected a large wetland basin that had been divided by a county road which was often flooded and closed. Replacing culverts and raising the heavily-traveled road above the surrounding land reconnected 420 acres which will be wet longer and sooner as the water moves under the road rather than over.

So is all of this work worth it? We sure think so. Since the implementation of our shorebird habitat management plan in 2017, we have documented an increase in shorebird use during spring migration each year. It’s been great to see that if we build it, they will come.

Map of Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands with portions colored green for TNC ownership and blue for State of Kansas ownership.
Cheyenne Bottoms Map of Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands with portions colored green for TNC ownership and blue for State of Kansas ownership.

Find More Places We Protect

The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.

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