Spring is the perfect time for birdwatching in Kansas, although it’s not always easy to identify them, especially with guides who focus on large regions or entire continents.
“You want to know what’s in your backyard,” said Marc Parnell, an Ohio-based writer who just published “Birds of Kansas” via Naturalist & Traveler Press.
This is Parnell’s 41st field guide in his Birding Pro’s Field Guides series which focuses on states, cities and provinces in North America.
Parnell’s books feature birding forecasts to help readers know what to look for and when. They also have food guides and lots of fun facts, so the books can be reference guides or just fun reads.
For example, do you know the story of the common starling, one of the most common birds in Wichita?
Parnell said they don’t exist in the United States until a Shakespeare enthusiastpart of the starling featured in “Henry IV, Part 1”, introduced nearly 100 to Central Park in 1890 and 1891. Parnell said there were now more than 100 million nationwide.
“They’ve established themselves at such an incredible point.”
Then there is the Mississippi kite, which is most associated with the American Southeast but counts Kansas as its most northwestern home.
The bird catches flying insects in the air and carries its prey from its talons to its mouth while flying and hunting.
“He’s very, very skilled with his movement, and it’s quite fascinating,” Parnell said.
As a child, Parnell’s first interest was in reptiles and amphibians, but he said “contact with birds was kind of an inevitable thing”.
“I became very fascinated with their gift of flights.”
Parnell said the migratory nature of birds was mysterious to him when he was younger. For example, he might see a Shoveler in March, but there would be no more in May or June.
“It really added to this mystery of what they might be doing when I’m not watching.”
Migration patterns are something Kansas birders need to watch out for, Parnell said.
“Right now we’re in the middle of a full-fledged spring migration,” he said. “Every spring and fall, hundreds of millions of migrating birds fly across the skies of Kansas.”
Birds can fly tens of miles, even up to 100 miles, in a single evening.
“A lot of the birds are quite hungry, almost like a family on a road trip,” Parnell said.
When birds stop to eat in the open, he says, “it provides unprecedented viewing opportunities.”
He said the brightly colored thrushes and warblers are “coming in large numbers.”
“A Change in the Seasons”
Parnell said there were a few things that set his field guide apart.
One is a monthly forecast with a bar graph that shows when birds are arriving in the area. Each bird has its own forecast.
“Birds of Kansas” features Eastern Meadowlark on its cover.
Parnell said the bird whistles softly throughout the day, and when it starts to sing in the spring, “it kind of signals a change of seasons.”
He said the birds sing more in the spring as they establish territories and seek mates.
Parnell uses a frequency scoring system – with scores from 1 to 5 – for each species. A rating of 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 designates some of the most populous birds in the state.
Additionally, Parnell sorts the birds from largest to smallest species so readers can quickly flip through the book to identify them.
Over the years, he began to add food information to his books.
“People want to know what types of feeds or feeders to use.”
Parnell said someone’s own backyard is a great place to start birding because a few feeders can attract more than 50 species to a yard.
With an inexpensive pair of binoculars, he said “you can find quite a few birds in just a few weeks.”
“I’m convinced it’s a great way to get started in birdwatching.”
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are common at hummingbird feeders, and they’re starting to congregate now, Parnell said.
“They are one of my personal favorites to watch in the backyard.”
He said the birds are delicate – only the weight of a nickel – and at around 3 inches long are often misidentified as butterflies or large dragonflies. Another fact that is almost difficult to understand: birds can beat their wings up to 100 times per second, although 40 to 65 beats per second are more common.
For anyone worried about the current bird flu epidemic and what it means for backyard feeders, Parnell said a high degree of caution is best, although he said the flu is usually found in the waterfowl with their predators – think owls, hawks, eagles and vultures. . He said it’s not usually seen in songbirds.
Parnell’s recommendation is that if you live within a few miles of a lot of water, dismantle your feeders. Otherwise, just clean them thoroughly every week.
“Birds of Kansas” is intended for beginner and intermediate birders, but Parnell said it can also be useful for more advanced birders as a reference.
As an outsider, he said he thinks there are things some Kansans may not realize about their bird populations.
The state’s mix of grasses and forests attracts different types of birds.
The spotted towhee has a white pattern on its wings and a “pretty orange belly” and can often be found in bushes, thickets, and wooded edges around the state, unlike some other states.
“It’s a really wonderful Great Plains bird,” Parnell said. “It’s something that I think a lot of Kansans might take for granted.”
He called the well-preserved short-grass and tall-grass prairies of Kansas a natural paradise.
“With Kansas, I was really, really excited to see the Great Plains in all its glory,” Parnell said. “You have that kind of ideal that you’ll find in PBS documentaries about the long grass swaying in the wind.”
There are plenty of birds – such as the sparrow-like dickcissel, low-flying harriers, and the eastern bluebird so common on fence posts and power lines – in these habitats, a- he declared.
“It’s one of the best places in all of North America to find all these birds.”