Large parts of Kansas that are normally green and lush are bone dry from the drought, which is expected to affect many of the bird species that migrate through the area.
Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas is the largest inland wetland in the United States and is located about 110 miles northwest of Wichita.
However, in 2022, due to a drought that is heating up the region, the wetlands are almost completely dry, having held virtually no water since June.
“We are 100 percent dry. There is no water on the property,” said Jason Wagner, Cheyenne Bottoms wildlife sanctuary manager That Wichita Eagle. “This year is kind of the perfect storm.”
Kansas drought and dead cattle
The US Drought Monitor shows that since November 15, more than a third of the entire state of Kansas has been affected by an “extraordinary drought,” the highest drought recorded by the monitor. The rest of the state ranges from “abnormally dry” to “extreme drought,” with zero percent of Kansas experiencing no such conditions.
These conditions are believed to have been caused by a combination of unusually low rainfall and high temperatures: a report from Kansas State University has shown that the third quarter of 2022 will be the driest quarter in southeastern Kansas since records began in 1895 and the second driest thereafter in southcentral Kansas.
These extremely dry and hot weather conditions have resulted in mass deaths of animals, including livestock. In July 2022, more than 2,000 cattle are said to have died of heat stroke within a few days.
Cheyenne Bottoms: An important pit stop for birds
The drying out of Cheyenne Bottoms, which is a roosting place for between 750,000 and 1 million birds each year during their annual migrations south, is also likely to have far-reaching impacts on wildlife.
Tom Langen, Professor of Wetland Ecology at Clarkson University in New York, tells news week: “The wetlands of Kansas are particularly important for migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, cranes and other waterfowl. Shorebirds and waterfowl breed in the arctic tundra, the swamps of the great boreal forest belt, or the pothole regions of the prairies.
“They stop in Kansas because the wetlands are huge, shallow, and full of small worms and other invertebrates that provide the food that shorebirds need and seeds that some of the waterfowl feed on,” Langen added.
“The birds then migrate south, to the Gulf Coast, Central and South America, and some as far as Chile and Argentina. They also use the wetlands of Kansas on the spring return journey.”
However, in 2022, the usual influx to the wetlands is absent.
“Our bird numbers are nothing [this year]”said Wagner. “Most don’t even stop because there’s nothing for them to stop for.”
Depending on the species, this lack of pit stops is likely to have a serious impact on many of the birds.
“Many long-distance migratory birds rely on stops to rest and ‘refuel’ by eating enough to regain fat, which provides energy for the next leg of the journey. Birds can only store so much fat because they fly, not enough to make the whole journey. This is especially true for small birds. Therefore, safe, nutritious stops are crucial,” said Langen.
Lisa Webb, deputy department chief and cooperative associate professor at the United States Geological Survey Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, said news week: “Less available/flooded wetlands could mean birds fly further or have to rely on sub-optimal habitats. Flying is a costly, energetic activity, and so flying greater distances between stops can reduce birds’ energy reserves and leave them vulnerable to predation or other sources of mortality.
“Even if birds are able to complete the migration, the energy deficit created by flying longer distances without stopping could leave them with fewer energy reserves to survive in winter,” Webb added.
Without their roosting sites, the birds may not make it to the nearest available food and water source, and if they do, those sites are likely to be overcrowded.
Langen said: “Birds will crowd in the remaining wetlands of the stopovers. Competition for food is fierce and there is usually less cover, increasing predation risk from raptors, coyotes and other predators.
“The crowding can lead to epidemics of avian botulism and other diseases. Again, survival is reduced. Those that survive the migratory journey may have reduced nesting success in the next breeding season due to the physiological stress of inappropriate roosting sites.”
If this drought extends over several years, populations of some of the affected migratory species may decline.
Langen said: “A prolonged drought will likely result in population declines for some long-distance migrants, but it really depends on whether there are alternative locations to relocate to.
“During large-scale, regional droughts, such as those experienced on the Plains and throughout the American West, population declines are likely to occur because quality stopovers are unavailable and those that remain are overcrowded,” he added.
“However, other stressors can be synergistic. In particular, rapid climate warming in the Arctic and boreal forests is changing the ecology of these regions, which will likely affect wader and waterfowl populations in ways we cannot yet predict. The combined impacts of climate change on breeding grounds and the reduction of wetlands in migratory bird rest stops are of concern to conservationists.”
However, Webb said all might not be lost for these migratory birds because their ability to fly gives them a greater degree of flexibility in their location compared to land animals.
“Drought is unlikely to lead to bird species extinction in the short term. Although drought may affect some individuals, wetland birds are flexible and opportunistic foragers during migration and sufficient numbers are likely to survive to sustain the population,” she added.
“In the long term, it is not clear what impact the drought will have on migratory wetland birds. If wetlands aren’t available over the long term, birds could shift their migratory routes and dispersal to parts of the country with more reliable water and food resources,” Webb said.
When will the drought end in Kansas?
Meteorologists aren’t sure how long this drought will last, though past droughts in Kansas have spanned several years.
The Dust Bowl, a period of drought-induced dust storms in the Great Plains states, including Kansas, in the 1930s is said to have lasted up to eight years. Cheyenne Bottoms last dried up in 2013, but was replenished by late summer rains ahead of the fall migration season.
However, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hutton in Dodge City told High Plains Public Radio in August that droughts like this are to be expected and farmers and others affected need only wait and see the natural weather cycle.
“They know they have to endure those bad years,” Hutton said, “before we get back to the good gravy train.”
Many climate scientists say extreme weather events like the Kansas drought are only getting worse over time due to the effects of climate change.
Auroop Ganguly, director of the Sustainability and Data Science Laboratory at Northeastern University in Boston, previously said news week“On the hydro-meteorological hazards side, heat waves are getting – and continue to be forecast – even hotter, cold snaps continue albeit becoming less frequent, heavy rains are getting heavier, and so on.
“The impacts can be far-reaching across multiple sectors, such as ecosystems and coastal processes, aspects of the water-energy-food nexus, infrastructure and urban lifelines,” Ganguly said.
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