This monthly feature of shorebird profiles was compiled by Dr. Robert L. Penner, Kansas Avian Programs Manager for The Nature Conservancy and Chair, U.S. Committee of the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network.
So just what is a shorebird anyway? Like the name implies, these birds are often found along the shores, from sandy or rocky ocean coasts to interior wetlands and mudflats. But many species also rely on prairie grasslands, like the Flint Hills, as stopover sites on their migrations. Many share distinctive features like long, pointy beaks for digging up worms and other invertebrates for food. But that only describes a portion of the 49 shorebird species that breed in North America.
What do shorebirds have to do with Kansas? Kansas is located in the heart of what's known as the Central Flyway, the bird migration route through the Great Plains from Canada to South America. There are three other flyways in North America, the Pacific, Atlantic and Mississippi, but the Central Flyway is the largest, covering more than 100 million square miles. Forty of the 49 shorebird species undertake long migrations to temperate and tropical regions of Central and South America. Some travel as much as 15,000 miles round-trip, year after year. It takes a lot of energy to make the long journey, so they stop at wetlands like Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in central Kansas to replenish their fat reserves along the way. Cheyenne Bottoms is the largest interior wetland in the United States and it provides a predictable resource for these birds. Without The Nature Conservancy's protection of Cheyenne Bottoms, along with our partner the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, some shorebird species could go extinct.
Is Cheyenne Bottoms all it takes? Shorebird conservation is an international issue and our work in Kansas plays a major role. But without protection of arctic breeding grounds, wintering habitats in the south and more places in between, the Conservancy's work to maintain Cheyenne Bottoms as a prime stopover site for migratory birds wouldn't be meaningful for long. Fortunately, the Conservancy works throughout the Central Flyway to implement conservation on a regional, national and international scale.