There's not a duck, goose or grebe in sight. I can't blame them. I'm standing 120 miles west of the Flint Hills on a dike overlooking what should be about 41,000 acres of wetlands near Great Bend. Instead, I see vast stretches of cracked gray dirt that must look like a shuttered motel to migrating waterfowl.
But a sign on the edge of the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands urges me not to give up on bird watching yet. "While distressing to see, it is comforting to know that this is a healthy part of the natural ecology of a prairie marsh," it says. More comforting is the sign's assurance that when one wetland is passing through a dry year in its natural cycle, that doesn't mean the entire region is parched.
Back at my motel, I open the website of my next option: the 20,000-acre Quivira National Wildlife Refuge southeast of Great Bend. The site reports "good water" at the refuge. Better yet, I find estimates of the latest bird populations. Green-winged Teal: 2,600. Mallards: 6,900. Coots: 22,000. I'm not sure what coots are or who's counting them, but they're going to ensure I don't get skunked.
At sunrise the next morning, I'm sitting along Big Salt Marsh, surrounded by flocks of birds wading, feeding, gliding in for landings and rising in great, chattering flocks that block out the scenery. With the official Quivira species booklet in one hand and All the Birds of North America in the other, I'm checking off new birds as quickly as I can identify them.
Coots, it turns out, are duck-like birds with grayish bodies, black heads and white beaks. And while I appreciate them being last night's sure thing, they soon become visual white noise. Rafts of them float past a stoic great blue heron standing by avocets and sandpipers sweeping the shallows for bugs near a muddy island. Occasionally, the coots spook and fly off, their wingtips and feet slapping the water with the sound of soft applause.
With all the birds to see, I pass the morning covering 5.5 miles of one-lane gravel cutting through Big Salt Marsh. Occasionally, I unfold a lawn chair beside the car and watch, but mostly I turn off the engine and use the car as a viewing blind. It's a welcome wind block, and birds tend to tolerate cars more than hikers. I soon stop checking the rearview mirror for traffic; I'm the only human visitor.
Over the wind's steady rush through the grass, gulls' shrieks mingle with honking geese and mallards quacking among the cattails. When the breeze swirls my way, I hear the sporadic pop-pop-pop-cough of a lone oil der-rick. Even with this intrusion, the loneliness is splendid, the kind earned by patiently accepting nature's pace.
"You can go for miles and never see a house, and that's unusual for a lot of people," Rob Penner, land manager for the Nature Conservancy's land at Cheyenne Bottoms, says about places like this. "Some people, it makes them nervous. Some people find it amazing."
Evening comes with no sunset-just a gray sky that pours out its rain as I head back to Great Bend in the dark. When I stop and pull the bird list from a coat pocket, I count check marks beside 25 species, including a rare whooping crane. I'm pretty impressed, until the booklet tells me Quivira hosts 311 species.
This punctuates the day's message: I've only seen fall's opening act. A Quivira visitor center ranger says November brings 1 million birds. And when I check in at Lizzie's Cottage bed and breakfast (now closed), I talk with Ed Klima, who runs the place with his wife, Phyll. Ed leans back in a chair and says, "I've seen a flock of geese fly over Great Bend for five or six hours straight."
That's a big story. But this is big country. And out on the prairie, I've learned, you shouldn't underestimate how big the views can be if you just go look.