canada goose over wetlands

A Million Migratory Birds Expecting Kansas Wetlands to Find Dust

Large sections of Kansas, usually green and lush, are very dry due to the drought, which is expected to impact many bird species migrating to the area.

Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas is the largest inland wetland in the United States and is located approximately 110 miles northwest of Wichita.

canada goose above wetlands
An image of a Canada goose flying over the Wakarusa Wetlands in Kansas. The Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands, also crucial for migrating birds, are almost entirely dry due to drought.
iStock/Getty Images Plus

In 2022, however, the wetlands are almost completely dry, due to a drought that has plagued the region, having contained almost no water since June.

“We’re 100 percent dry. There’s no water on the property,” said Jason Wagner, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area Manager. The wichita eagle. “This year is kind of a perfect storm.”

Kansas drought and dead livestock

The US Drought Monitor shows that as of November 15, more than a third of the entire state of Kansas is in “exceptional drought”, the highest level measured by the monitor. The rest of the state ranges from “abnormally dry” to “extremely dry,” with zero percent of Kansas’ land area not experiencing such conditions.

These conditions are believed to have been caused by a combination of unusually low rainfall and high temperatures: a Kansas State University report showed the third quarter of 2022 to be the driest since records began in 1895 in southeastern Kansas, and the second driest on record in south-central Kansas.

These extremely dry and hot weather conditions led to the mass death of animals, including livestock. In July 2022, more than 2,000 cattle are believed to have died from heat stroke in a matter of days.

USDM drought in Kansas
US Drought Monitor image of drought conditions affecting Kansas as of November 15, 2022. Large parts of the state that are generally green and lush are very dry due to the drought.
US Drought Monitor/Brad Rippey/US Department of Agriculture

Cheyenne Bottoms: A vital stop for birds

The drying up of Cheyenne Bottoms, which is a staging area for between 750,000 and 1 million birds each year during their annual southward migrations, will also likely have widespread impacts on wildlife.

Tom Langen, professor of wetland ecology at Clarkson University in New York, said Newsweek: “Kansas’s wetlands are especially important to migrating shorebirds, waterfowl, cranes and other waterfowl. Shorebirds and waterfowl breed in the Arctic tundra, Great Forest Belt bogs boreal or prairie pothole regions.

“They stop in Kansas because the wetlands are vast, shallow, teeming with small worms and other invertebrates that provide the food that shorebirds need, and the seeds that some waterfowl eat,” Langen added.

“The birds then head south to the Gulf Coast, Central and South America, and some as far as Chile and Argentina. On the return trip in the spring, they also use the Kansas wetlands .”

In 2022, however, the usual influx to wetlands is lacking.

“Our bird numbers are nothing [this year]”Wagner said. “Most of them don’t even stop because they have nothing to stop with.”

bottom cheyenne
Stock image of migratory blackbirds flocking to Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas. The herds will find dust, instead of water, in 2022, due to the persistent drought.
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Depending on the species, this lack of pit-stopping is likely to have a severe impact on many birds.

“Many long-distance migrating birds depend on stopover sites to rest and ‘refuel’ by feeding enough to reacquire fat that will provide energy for the next leg of the journey. Birds, because that they fly, can only store so much fat, not enough to make the whole trip. This is especially true for small birds, so safe and food-rich stopover sites are crucial,” Langen said. .

Lisa Webb, deputy unit chief and cooperative associate professor at the United States Geological Survey Missouri’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, said Newsweek: “Less wetlands available/flooded could mean that birds fly farther or have to rely on sub-optimal habitats. Flying is a costly and energetic activity, and so flying greater distances between stops can decrease reserves birds’ energy and make them vulnerable to predation or other sources of mortality.

“Even if the birds are able to complete their migration, the energy deficit created by having to travel greater distances without stopping could leave them with less energy reserves to survive through the winter,” Webb added. .

Without their roosting sites, birds may not make it to the next available source of food and water, and if they do, these sites are likely to become overcrowded.

Langen said: “In the remaining wetlands at stopover sites, the birds will congregate. Food competition is fierce and there is generally less cover, so the risk of predation by raptors, coyotes and d other predators increases.

“Overcrowding can lead to outbreaks of avian botulism and other diseases. So again, survival is reduced. Those that survive the migration journey may have lower nesting success the next breeding season due to the physiological stress of unsuitable stopover sites.”

If this drought extends over several years, the populations of some of the affected migratory species could decline.

Image of a wader in the Kansas wetlands. Drought has reduced some of these environments to dust in 2022.
iStock/Getty Images Plus

Langen said: “A prolonged drought is likely to cause some long-distance migrants to decline in population, but it really depends on whether there are other sites to move to.

“In prolonged, large-scale regional droughts, such as those experienced on the Plains and throughout the American West, it is likely that there will be a population decline due to the insufficient availability of high staging habitats. quality and overcrowding of those who remain,” he added.

“However, other stressors can be synergistic. In particular, rapid climate warming in arctic and boreal forests is changing the ecology of these regions, which will likely affect shorebird and waterfowl populations in ways we cannot yet predict. The combined effects of climate change on breeding grounds and shrinking wetlands at migratory stopover sites are worrying conservationists.”

However, Webb said all may not be lost for these migratory birds, as their ability to fly gives them greater flexibility in their location, compared to land animals.

“In the short term, drought is unlikely to drive bird species to extinction. Although drought may impact some individuals, wetland birds are flexible and opportunistic foragers during migrations, and sufficient numbers are likely to survive to sustain the population,” she added. added.

“In the long term, it is unclear what the impacts of drought are on migrating wetland birds. In the long-term absence of wetland availability, birds could shift their migration routes and distribution to parts of the country with more reliable water and food resources,” Webb said.

When will the drought end in Kansas?

Meteorologists don’t know how long this drought will last, though past droughts in Kansas have spanned several years.

The Dust Bowl, a period of drought-triggered dust storms in Great Plains states including Kansas in the 1930s, is believed to have lasted up to eight years. Cheyenne Bottoms last dried up in 2013, but was replenished by late summer rainfall ahead of the fall migration season.

However, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hutton in Dodge City told High Plains Public Radio in August that dry spells like this were to be expected, with farmers and other affected parties having no only to wait for the natural cycle of weather conditions.

“They know they’re going to have to endure these bad years,” Hutton said, “before they get back to the good stuff.”

Many climatologists claim that extreme weather events such as the Kansas drought will gradually worsen over time, due to the effects of climate change.

Auroop Ganguly, director of the sustainability and data science lab at Northeastern University, Boston, previously said Newsweek“On the hydro-meteorological hazard side, heat waves are becoming – and are expected to become – even hotter, cold snaps persist even though they become less frequent, heavy rainfall becomes heavier, etc.

“The impacts can be significant across multiple sectors, such as coastal ecosystems and processes, aspects of the water-energy-food nexus, infrastructure and urban lifelines,” Ganguly said.

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