Whooping Crane vs Sandhill Crane: How to tell the difference

How can you tell the difference between the endangered Whooping Crane (under 400 wild birds left ON THE PLANET and Kansas is a place where you can see them) and the more common Sandhill Crane ? Both species use the Central Flyway over Kansas during their migration, particularly preferring the wetlands of central Kansas, and the two species may even fly or be seen on the ground together.

While both species have long necks, long, black legs, and long, straight bills (they are both crane species after all), there are some key but sometimes subtle differences. Here’s what to look out for:


Whooping crane with sandhill cranes. Photo by USFWS Midwest

Whooping Crane: The tallest of North America’s birds can be around 5 foot tall and with a 7 to 8 foot wing span.

Sandhill Crane: Still big, but around 4.5 foot tall max and with a 6.5 foot wing span.


Whooping Crane: Adults are mostly a bright white with a red face. The black wingtips that can be seen only when the wings are extended.

Juveniles have a rusty, cinnamon color to their body and wings. — This is what can be tricky — without the characteristic size and color of the adults, a juvenile Whooping Crane could be thought to be another species.

Sandhill Crane: Adults are a slate gray with a small red cap.

Juveniles may have reddish, rusty feathers on their body but won’t yet have the red on their heads.

Where to see bald eagles in Kansas – 2019

Where to see bald eagles in Kansas – 2019


Bald eagle pair in Kansas. Photo by Bo Rader.

The return of the bald eagle has been a remarkable success story.  After being pushed towards extinction, the eagle steadily recovered under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.  In Kansas, nesting eagles made a return to the state in 1989 at Clinton Reservoir and have been increasing in numbers ever since.

As the winter cold sets in, eagles push south in search of open water.  In Kansas, mid-January is typically the ideal time to search for eagles along secluded coves of major reservoirs in the eastern half of the state.

For a good hike with a chance to see bald eagles, we recommend the Eagle Ridge Trail at Milford State Park or the Chaplin Nature Center trails by the Arkansas River.  Throughout the month of January there are events throughout the state that celebrate the recovery of this iconic species. Each of the following events offer educational programs and guided viewing tours for the public.

January 5th: The first opportunity for guided eagle viewing is at Tuttle Creek Reservoir with a program and vehicle tour starting at the Manhattan Fire Station (Kimball & Denison Ave) from 9:00 – 12:30.

January 23rd: Kaw Valley Eagles day celebrates the natural history and recovery of the bald eagle in Kansas with a family-friendly event at Billy Mills Middle School in Lawrence from 8:30 – 4:00. There will be presentations, activities for the kids and viewing expeditions.

January 26th: Eagle Days at Milford Lake. The nature center at Milford Lake hosts an annual eagle day event that includes programs and guided bus tours running from 9:00 – 4:00 to view eagles along the lake. Admission to the state park is free for the event and there’s also hot chocolate and popcorn for all!

January 26th: Chaplin Nature Center will offer a short educational program and guided hike along the nature center trails to view eagles along the Arkansas River.  Meet at the visitors center at 10:00 to join the fun.

Don’t miss the sandhill crane migration at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

Sunset at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Conard

From around Valentine’s Day to April Fool’s Day – the cranes come through Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Recent sightings at the refuge have included sandhill cranes in the thousands on the west side of Big Salt Marsh.

Kansas is a part of the “central flyway” – a migratory route for a variety of birds between Canada and Central America and the marshes and wetlands of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge provide an ideal resting and refueling spot.

Sandhill cranes in flight

Some crane facts

Sandhill cranes are passing through Kansas on their way north to breed from their southern wintering locales.  The birds, which can be 3-4 feet tall, gather in large groups during migration — strength in numbers.

At night, the waters and marshes are an ideal resting spot as any predator coming upon them will disturb the water, notifying the cranes that danger is near.

If you see two flying together, it’s likely a mated pair. If it’s three together, it’s likely to be a family group — juvenile cranes will stick with Mom and Dad for the first 10 months or so.

They can be noisy birds with distinct calls — rattling bugling type sounds that can be heard up to a mile away. Click to listen to them here.

They mate for life, which can be 20 years. Mate selection happens after courtship in the form of dancing — leaping, bobbing their heads, displaying their wings. One example is a male will fling a piece of grass or vegetation into the air as if to say “Look at me, choose me, I can build a good nest.”

They also have distinct “displays” and you can tell from their body language what they’re trying to say. Bowing, stretching their necks, jumping – each display communicates something unique.

Stop by Quivira National Wildlife Refuge — the Big Salt Marsh is one of the best places to see the cranes. It’s open daily from 1.5 hours before sunrise to 1.5 hours after sunset.

The new Baker Wetlands Discovery Center


Along with the construction around creating the South Lawrence Trafficway, the Baker Wetlands have also been changing – restoration of more land, expansion, and new trails – spearheaded by Roger Boyd and his son Jon Boyd.

Many of the trails listed in our Kansas Trail Guide are still in place, but there’s been an expansion of several more miles of multi-use trail – see the map below.

IMG_2237Another addition is the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center. The eco-friendly building was opened in October 2015, and it’s a large space with panoramic views out over the boardwalk.

The center has exhibits on the importance of the wetlands and how they
were restored and how they’re being taken care of now.

They have spotting scopes, an observatory tower, a research lab, and a classroom space.

Also featured are some family-friendly stations where kids can check out pelts and other animal artifacts. Plus there’s a little gift shop to commemorate your visit.

Around the building are impressive wildlife photos, many of them by the Boyd’s.

If you go:

1365 N. 1250 Road
Lawrence, KS 66046

Trails are open during daylight hours and dogs are allowed on leash.

Discovery Center is open 9am to noon and 1 to 3pm Monday to Saturday and 1 to 3pm on Sunday.

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Whooping Cranes are at the Big Salt Marsh!

Right now, at the Big Salt Marsh at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, there are over a half dozen whooping cranes. This is a big deal! They have been spotted there over the last couple of weeks in varying numbers.

In the early 1940s, there were only 15 surviving birds. Now there are a couple hundred, and they’re still critically endangered and one of the rarest birds around. They’re nearly all white with black wing tips and a red patch on their head. Whoopers (as they’re known by many in the birding community) are the largest birds in North America – on average they stand 5 feet tall.

Their presence at the salt marsh at Quivira helps demonstrate the value of the area to wildlife . Have you seen them?

Whooping cranes. Photo from QNWR Facebook

Whooping cranes. Photo from QNWR Facebook

Artists needed for the otter exhibit at the Hutchinson Zoo

North American River Otter. Photo by Heather Paul

North American River Otter. Photo by Heather Paul

If you happen to be a professional mosaic artist living in Kansas, the Hutchinson Zoo is looking for you! A call has gone out to submit qualifications for the chance at designing art in the new river otter exhibit opening in 2016 at the Hutchinson Zoo. Read more about it here. Deadline is November 20, and from the website about the project:

The suggested theme of the exhibit is farmland that is being reclaimed to its native state.  This theme will provide educational opportunities for many topics related to how native ecosystems have been impacted by agriculture and development.
The artwork at the Otter Exhibit should:
• Enhance the connection of the exhibit to its surroundings.
• Serve as a backdrop within the Otter habitat.
• Be colorful and fun.
• Strengthen the visitor experience.
• Withstand exposure to extreme weather conditions, including ice, water, humidity and sunlight.

Birds and butterflies at Chaplin Nature Center on 9/26

Back in high school biology, each fall, part of our homework was to tag monarch butterflies. It involves capturing the little orange and black buggers and putting a small, special tagged sticker on them and then releasing them back into the world.

Photo by USFWS Midwest

Why do this? Well, I have to say that I never forgot that biology class and running around Sunset Park with a butterfly net. But on a more practical and less specific level, it allows biologists (real ones, not high schoolers) to see when and where a butterfly was first captured and tagged and track it to where it was recovered to look at migration patterns, effects of weather, life span, etc. (I suppose at the other end of the migration path are people looking for dead butterflies with stickers on them, which seems less fun.) You can find out about the project at Monarch Watch.

And why do I ramble on about this? Because the monarch butterflies have arrived in Kansas, and Chaplin Nature Center will be running a free event this Saturday 9/26 from 10am to 3pm where you can help capture and tag monarchs as well as learn more about their migration through the Sunflower State.

There will also be members of the Wichita Audubon Society leading free nature hikes throughout the day.

If you go:
Chaplin Nature Center
27814 27th Dr, Arkansas City, KS 67005

2 miles south of Geuda Springs, then 2.6 miles east on 272nd Rd, or 3 miles west of Arkansas City on Hwy 166, then north 2 1/4 miles on 31st Rd.

Trails are open from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week

The Visitor’s Center is open on Saturdays 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sundays 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. year round. It is closed Mondays and holidays.

September 1 – November 15, Tuesday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.


Rare tropical bird spotted near Lake Scott

Audubon drawing of the piratic flycatcher

The piratic flycatcher, more frequently seen in Central and South America, was spotted on May 8 in Scott State Park by Chris Lituma. It’s the northernmost spotting of the bird, and you can read more about the impressive and unexpected discovery here and here.

Word spread amongst the birder community, and birders from around the country have flocked (pardon the pun) to the park, hoping to catch a glimpse the small brown and yellow bird.

Hundreds of bird species have been spotted at Scott State Park, and it’s home to one of our top 10 trails.

Bluffs at Lake Scott State Park

Bluffs at Lake Scott State Park