Twelve hours out of Eau Claire, I was pointed southeast in my Honda hybrid.
I’m hurtling toward my destination: a sprawling wetlands in central Kansas, the place to be in early autumn. I’ve got a mission, and I’ve got a system.
Every scientist knows that the world is composed of systems; predator and prey, life and decomposition, wind and water, currents, climate.
Every nature lover too, knows that this country is better because of a system; the National Wildlife Refuge system.
America’s National Wildlife Refuges are baubles; pretty as any postcard. They are also essential to serious conservation.
President Theodore Roosevelt (who else) designated the first such refuge — Florida’s Pelican Island — in 1903. Now there’s at least one in each of the 50 states. Even Puerto Rico has one.
The standout refuge in Kansas is Quivira. I’ve visited 80 of America’s 562 national wildlife refuges, and Quivira is a favorite.
In spring and fall it’s an “island” stopover for hundreds of thousands of migrant ducks and shorebirds. It’s where birds — and humans — go to seek sanctuary.
It’s ironic really. National Wildlife Refuges were conceived by hunters and have become some of the only places in North America where birds enjoy long term protection.
True, the “islands” were never big enough to begin with, they’re shrinking, and they probably should have been preserved as “continents” and not islands. But in America you take what you can get it. The wildlife certainly has.
What you get at Quivira is typical of most refuges. A superb network of wetlands embedded in grasslands, often with a designated auto route that loops the marque ponds. Quivira is unusual in that the ponds are salty due to the alkaline soil.
It’s a majestic preserve, at more than 22,000 acres, but as seems usual, I’m the only person around. Lots of birds to keep me company though; thousands of American avocets and Franklin’s gulls, white pelicans, grebes, coots, and ducks like American wigeon, cinnamon teal and northern pintail. White-faced ibis — glossy green-and-maroon wading birds with decurved bills — probed the water for supper.
I got out of the car to admire the spectacle and enjoyed my salami and swiss sandwich supper with them. Above my head birds buzzed busily back and forth on their way to foraging or roosting sites. A hunting Peregrine falcon strafed the pond and 5,000 Franklin’s gulls rose in one squawking cloud of panic.
It’s the kind of experiential satisfaction I’ve known at many refuges — Salton Sea in southern California Bowdoin in Montana, exotic Santa Ana along the Rio Grande River in extreme south Texas, Bosque del Apache in southern New Mexico. Wisconsin has a pair of refuges that I love like family: Horicon and Trempealeau. They are places packed with natural possibilities.
One of my fondest refuge memories is of Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (pronounced bow-DOYN) in Malta, Mont. I was there for the ducks and shorebirds, of course, but had come seeking the “pure prairie league species.”
Circling the lake at Bowdoin, I was fortunate to encounter four Baird’s sparrows and a Sprague’s pipit, birds I’d only encountered once before (in a North Dakota wildlife refuge). You know that saying “needle in a haystack?” Well, the North American prairie is that haystack — only without the mower — and those two birds are as obscure as needles cast upon the Great Plains.
I might not have seen them at all, but all five birds were singing. The Baird’s spouts a three-second “sweet, sweet, sweet a weed, a weed” — only with the attitude of a squeaky Radio Flyer wagon wheel.
The pipit sounds like a tin veery descending from heaven, in large part because it’s most often heard while circling high above the grasslands. It’s Vaughn Williams’ original “lark ascending.”
With all due respect, I don’t think you understand what it’s like to hear these birds in person.
I think people are keen for adventure. They hunger for unique experiences of a quality that border on incomparable or unforgettable. They long to be carried away by passion or singularity or wonder.
People will sky dive, or hang glide, or run with the bulls to chase down that kind of experience. They’ll pop mushrooms or inject outrageous chemicals into their veins to corner that kind of thrill ride.
People go to Europe so that they can take a snapshot of the Eiffel Tower or the leaning tower of Pisa, and say that “they were there.” They climb atop the Great Wall or scramble Machu Pichu, but in no-account North Dakota or eastern, mundane Montana one can stand in grass up to one’s neck and tilt one’s face to the sun and be serenaded by two birds of rarest caliber.
One can experience them in the place where they live, a setting so joyously unique and evolutionarily complex that the birds can’t help but leap into the sky and make immediate and unrestrained music. That’s how I felt listening to them.
And that’s the beauty of the National Wildlife Refuge System; it’s good for wildlife and it’s good for humans too.
National Wildlife Refuges attract nearly 50 million human visitors a year (8.4 million a year are nature photographers) and generate $2.4 billion in sales for local economies.
The 150,000 protected acres in the system are home to more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of endangered mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 1000 species of fish.
Nearly 60 refuges were established with the primary focus of conserving threatened or endangered species — species like whooping cranes, American crocodiles, red wolves, humpback whales, California condors, and Karner blue butterflies.
As I stood munching my sandwich beside my parked car in Quivira, watching avocets file by in piping lines at the heart of the continent, I felt blessed by the best of natural America. I was playing the system like a song, and the music was sweet as a grassland sparrow.
Betchkal is a bird expert, videographer and writer who lives in Eau Claire.