Special tours and educational programs and even an ice cream social over the weekend of April 24-25 will celebrate the first birthday of Cheyenne Bottoms' Kansas Wetlands Education Center, a unit of Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History. All events are free.
"The programs are all nature based, focusing on bird watching and birding, photography and hunting, because all three of those things are incredibly important for Cheyenne Bottoms and the people who use Cheyenne Bottoms," said Curtis Wolf, KWEC manager. "We would like to encourage families to come out and participate."
The center will open at the regular time of 8 a.m. on Saturday, April 24, but will remain open until 7 p.m., two hours past the normal Saturday closing time. Events for that day include special tours from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; a shorebird identification program in the center's auditorium at 1 p.m.; small-group shorebird identification field trips beginning at 1:45 p.m. (pre-registration preferred); a cake and ice cream social at 3 p.m.; and a special presentation by Wolf at 3:30 p.m.
Sunday's hours will be the normal hours of 1 to 5 p.m. Pam Martin, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks educator, will lead a special children's craft activity beginning at 1:30 p.m. Another cake and ice cream social is scheduled for 2 p.m., and at 2:30 p.m. Robert Penner of The Nature Conservancy will present "Birds in Trouble."
Another activity will involve families taking a driving tour through Cheyenne Bottoms and then returning to the center, where the children -- "and their parents, if they want to," said Wolf -- can use sidewalk chalk to draw one of the birds they see during the tour.
For more information, for directions to the center on K-156 on the southeast side of the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, or to sign up for the programs, call (620) 786-7456 or toll free (877) 243-9268. The Web site is at http://wetlandscenter.fhsu.edu/.
"We have established a lot of our programs and services that we offer the public," said Wolf. "Cheyenne Bottoms is there for people to use. It is a public area."
Wolf, speaking of the idea of the center, said that the first year has involved a lot of planning, "and we're still not done with that -- fitting into the niche of Cheyenne Bottoms, fitting into the region and the state of Kansas. There's still a lot of planning to do."
"We're trying to make people aware of these wetlands here in Kansas," he said. "Most people don't associate Kansas with wetlands, but they're incredibly important, so what we're trying to do is facilitate people's understanding of them."
Many species of birds, mammals and plants require this particular kind of habitat, and wetlands are also vital for flood control and water purification. The Bottoms are in the Arkansas River basin. Two creeks feed in, Deception Creek and Blood Creek, but they don't flow out.
"They actually dead end at the Bottoms," said Wolf. "The way I describe Cheyenne Bottoms to most people is you have this huge flat area and the water comes and it's like pouring a pitcher of water on a table. The water spreads out over the flat basin, creating a wetland."
Cheyenne Bottoms, managed by the KDWP, is used by at least 335 species of birds. That's how many have been documented. In addition to the expected ducks and geese, shorebirds "are a big category that people don't realize we have in Kansas," said Wolf. Other common birds include wading birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, cranes and avocets. The avocet is also the center's logo bird.
But the area has some upland areas and therefore also has some upland birds -- pheasants, quail, a few prairie chickens, sparrows (a big group), meadowlarks and raptors (another "major group" that includes redtail hawks, northern harriers, peregrine falcons and prairie falcons). Many other animals also call the wetlands home: snakes and reptiles and mammals. "One that people don't realize we have is mink," said Wolf.
In the 10 months since Wolf took over as manager, the center has been constantly adding to the exhibits and has developed live animal displays, which includes snakes, turtles, mammals and fish. Other features are the educational programs and research. The staff includes four graduate students from Fort Hays State who help with center operations and conduct research as part of their graduate assistantships.
Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation, the center opened in April 2009 with the Koch Wetlands Exhibit of mounted specimens. The center has since added to those specimens and added a Nature Conservancy exhibit called "Pieces of the Puzzle," which focuses on the role of hunting in wetlands management.
"We are beyond being just an education center," he said. "We're also a visitors' center, and we're there to promote the whole area -- Great Bend, Claflin, Ellinwood, Hoisington. There's also an economic component to it."
Another ongoing project is developing the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway. Established in 2005 by a group from Barton County and all the surrounding communities, the route is 77 miles that takes people from Cheyenne Bottoms down to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the other major wetlands in the area. Quivira, he said, is actually a salt marsh. "They have salt flats instead of mud flats."
A nature trail, a half-mile loop that begins and ends at the center and which passes through three different ecosystems -- grassland, woodland and marsh -- has also been developed. Another addition is art -- a display of artwork prints from the Kansas Duck Stamp program.
Regular hours for the center are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. It is closed Mondays, New Years Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, but can be reserved for after-hours use.