Naturalist Journeys, LLC - Small Group Birding and Natural History Tours

Tallgrass Prairie Fall – Splendor in the Grass
September 14-20, 2014


Tallgrass Prairie Fall – Splendor in the Grass - ScissortailFall—the magical prairie season when the grasses are lush and colorful—is a superb time to experience the natural secrets hidden deep in the heart of Kansas. Join us to investigate world-class wetlands and grasslands as we explore the amazing prairies of central Kansas and the Flint Hills ecosystem. You will see EXPANSES (thousands of acres) of prairie that will stretch your imagination and inspire your heart. This is the only remaining area in America with intact, extensive tallgrass prairie landscapes. Our journey will begin and end in Wichita Kansas.

Big-bluestem, Indian grass, Switch grass and the other tall grasses that blanket the hills, are reaching their fall splendor and fall wildflowers are bursting forth like sunshine following a rainstorm. Spend some time at to taste the rich menu of Kansas wildflowers and grasses that we encounter during our travels.

Tallgrass Prairie Fall – Splendor in the Grass - Nature and Birding Tours by Naturalist Journeys - Big BluestemAt the National Park Service’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve we examine the grandeur and history of ranching days and at Konza Prairie we gain an update on the latest research being conducted on prairie ecosystems. We visit the Maxwell Game Wildlife Refuge, where we have an up-close, safe, encounter with bison and elk (though unlike Yellowstone, elk are shy here and often miss the meetings).

Our time at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge will provide experiences in a rich mixture of saline wetlands, grasslands, savannah and forests that serve as impressive harbingers of diverse wildlife. Though brief, our visit to Cheyenne Bottoms, designated as a Wetland of International Importance, will give you an opportunity to see why this 20,000 acre Wildlife Area is so important to migratory birds in the Central Flyway. Much of the prairie in the area around Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira is technically mixed grass and harbors a few prairie dog towns that we scan for elusive and increasingly rare burrowing owls. Seeing the mixed grass ecosystem will provide a good comparison for our time in the Flint Hills tallgrass. This is a good time to observe raptors, gulls, waterfowl, herons and White Pelicans. The Cheyenne Bottoms / Quivira complex is included as one of the “Eight Wonders of Kansas.”

Tallgrass Prairie Fall – Splendor in the Grass - Nature and Birding Tours by Naturalist Journeys - Bull BisonWhy does such quality native grassland remain here in the heart of Kansas? The Flint Hills limestone and chert geology defied use of the plow, favoring a grass and ranching agriculture that led to preservation of large expanses of prairie. This rock foundation also provided a rich cultural and architectural heritage which we discover passing through small towns of this heartland. From stone fences to elegant homes, barns and courthouses, the native stone solidified history. As our route crisscrosses the Santa Fe Trail, we feel the pull of westward expansion that brought Norwegian, Irish, Swedish, and German settlers to this area.

Tour leaders, Ed and Sil Pembleton, are "deeply rooted" in prairie ecosystems. They lived in the Kansas Flint Hills for nearly a decade and were intimately involved in studying and protecting prairie resources. Ed worked for National Audubon's regional office, which was leading efforts in both Kansas and Oklahoma to protect prairies as part of the National Park system. Sil developed interpretative materials for visitors to Kansas State University's Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research Area and helped lead the successful campaign to save Cheyenne Bottoms. They led field trips to explore prairie habitats in both states and enjoyed the opportunities to introduce people to these complex, subtle and yet spectacular ecosystems.



Sun., Sept. 14 Arrival in Wichita, Kansas
Arrive in Wichita by 1:00 pm. If you need to arrive early, the Best Western Airport Inn is convenient and has an airport shuttle.

If you arrive early and have time to explore Wichita, a visit to Botanica or the Great Plains Nature Center would provide you with an introduction to the region. And, if you have an extra day or two, the Kansas State Fair begins on September 5th and runs through the 14th, in Hutchinson.

We depart from the airport at 1:30 pm, heading north to Hesston KS, where we will get our first taste of the flora of Kansas at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. This arboretum focuses on native plants and is dedicated to educating people about the benefits of appreciating, preserving and utilizing native vegetation of Kansas and the Great Plains.

From the arboretum we will head toward Great Bend. If time allows, we’ll stop at the new Kansas Wetlands Education Center that provides a wealth of information about the ecology and history of Cheyenne Bottoms.

In Great Bend, we check in to our hotel and enjoy our welcome dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Optional: Owl prowl—8:00-10:00 pm.

If you have never seen or are interested in seeing Barn Owls, this will be an opportunity with a high likelihood of success, with a night tour of Cheyenne Bottoms. Although they have a world –wide distribution, Barn Owls are uncommon in most areas, but the Bottoms has desirable habitat that has maintained a healthy population. We found two pair during our scouting trip. More than likely we will find Great Horned owls, and if we are really lucky we may see Night herons flying or an occasional coyote.
Accommodations Best Western Angus Inn, Great Bend, KS (D)

Mon., Sept. 15 Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
We arise early, have breakfast and check out of our hotel, then head to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms taken together are considered as one of the original “8 Wonders of Kansas,” but with more than 22,000 acres of prairie and farmland containing both salt and freshwater wetlands Quivira is quite different than the Bottoms. Big and Little Salt Marshes attract thousands of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, which made them attractive sites for hunting clubs and that eventually led to the protection and management of the area as a National Wildlife Refuge. The mix of habitats attracts more than 300 of Kansas’ 453 bird species to the refuge. We should pick spot a number of Kestrels, which do well in this habitat, and will likely find the Red-headed Woodpeckers that nest here. Early migrating ducks such as Blue-wing Teal will be joining the 14 species of nesting ducks, and most of today’s birding will be by car with stops and short hikes on level ground at appropriate places. We will also check a small Prairie Dog town and see if a Burrowing Owl can provide us with a surprise appearance.

From Quivira we take a scenic route to Lindsborg, a charming town filled with Swedish heritage, where our accommodations are in the lovingly restored Swedish Country Inn. Our route includes some of the Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway and the western portion of the Prairie Trail Kansas Scenic Byway (we will enjoy the eastern portion tomorrow) and will include a stop to explore the prairie, interesting history and splendid geology of Mushroom Rock State Park.

As we approach the famous Flint Hills, (Flint Hills video) we’ll keep scanning the fence lines for Upland Sandpipers, Dickcissels and Scissortail Flycatchers.
Accommodations at the Swedish Country Inn, Lindsborg, KS (B,L)

Tues., Sept. 16 The Land Institute & Maxwell Game Preserve
After a traditional Swedish breakfast at our Inn, we head north to The Land Institute, where for more than 30 years they have researched the prairie ecosystem in their quest to develop an agricultural system with the stability of prairie and the yield of annual crops. From the complexity of the interactions of prairie plants and soils to the fine details of genetic potential, the researchers here are building a solid scientific basis for food production from a system they call Natural Systems Agriculture.

After lunch in a local restaurant, we head for our appointment at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge to meet the mammal that is probably the most symbolic representative for North American prairies—the American Bison. We journey out into the prairie pastures among the bison on specially made wagons so this a great time for close up photos in a safe situation.

After the guided tour we catch an “aerial” view from the tower, give the prairie plants at Maxwell a thorough inspection and search the prairie and nearby fishing lake for birds. Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite quail, Eastern and Western Kingbirds and perhaps Scissor-tailed Flycatchers will be among our list of prairie and grassland birds discovered here. Kreider’s Hawk, a light phase Red-tailed hawk is frequently found here too.

We return to town allowing some time before dinner for exploring Lindsborg’s main street. If we are fortunate we may get to visit with National Geographic Photographer Jim Richardson and his wife at their Small World Gallery of Arts and Ideas. Jim’s outstanding photographs have graced many Geographic articles including an April 2007 article on the Flint Hills. Dinner is at your leisure and we can make recommendations.
Accommodations at the Swedish Country Inn, Lindsborg, KS (B,L)

Wed., Sept. 17 Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve-Santa Fe Trail
This morning after breakfast and checking out of the Inn, we have free time to do some birding in Old Mill Park (good for riparian species), explore the Old Mill Museum (the mill has been totally restored to working condition) and other local historic sites. Mid morning we move east into the heart of the Flint Hills. We stop in historic Cottonwood Falls, check for Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles and other riparian dwelling birds along the Cottonwood River, and then venture to main street for lunch and a brief visit to the Chase County Courthouse.

We continue north to the National Park Service’s Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve, the only unit of the National Park System dedicated to the rich natural and cultural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. We learn about both from NPS Rangers on a guided tour of the historic palatial1881 limestone ranch house and barn, and a bus tour with emphasis on the prairie ecosystem.

At almost 11,000 acres this is a part of the Flint Hills where we can experience the sweep of the prairie and the expanse of open skies. This relatively new and still developing park, managed by a unique partnership between the NPS and The Nature Conservancy, has just added a visitor’s center and developed trails. The Park Service has recently reintroduced bison to the area and perhaps we will learn something about their experiences of shifting from cattle grazing to bison. Following our tours, we can hike trails and stop by the historic old school, where the diversity of native prairie plants is outstanding.

From here we proceed to Council Grove, a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail, for dinner and our lodging for the next three nights.
Accommodations at The Cottage House Hotel, Council Grove, KS (B,L,D)

Thurs., Sept. 18 Konza Prairie, Flint Hills Prairie Diversity & Native Stone
After a quick breakfast, we head north on the backbone of the Flint Hills to the 8,600-acre Konza Prairie Biological Station operated by the Kansas State University Division of Biology. Dedicated to long–term research, education and prairie conservation, Konza is part of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research System and carries on some of North America’s most sophisticated studies of prairie ecology.

After lunch in Manhattan, we visit the new Flint Hills Discovery Center, which uses a multitude of creative settings, hands-on exhibits, and films to provide an integrated explanation of the geology, biology and history of the Flint Hills. The story is told in such a spectacular way that one tour participant described it as, “proof that the Flint Hills ecosystem has a fan club.” As if to answer that claim, the Center is self-described as a place for learning and understanding the tallgrass prairie and the Flint Hills eco-region in particular to assure its long-term preservation.

We head east and south on the Native Stone Scenic Byway, to explore one of the most diverse Flint Hills prairies at Mt. Mitchell Historical Prairie, which honors the role Kansans played in the “under ground railroad.” The long history of protection for this area combined with recent management has produced an exciting mixture of prairie plants. We may even see the lovely Nodding Ladies Tresses Orchid. If his schedule allows, our guide will be Ron Klataske, a long-term proponent of protecting prairie ecosystems and Executive Director Audubon of Kansas, the organization that manages this property. From here we will proceed back south through Alma, “The Native Stone City” and then across the Flint Hills, where the valleys harbor ranch homesteads with stone buildings, the hills are graced with historic stone fences and the horizons are broad.

Dinner is on your own tonight at your choice of local restaurants.
Accommodations at The Cottage House Hotel, Council Grove, KS (B,L)

Fri., Sept. 19 Native Heritage and Native Prairies
This is Santa Fe Trail country so filled with the past that we would be remiss not to spend a bit of time delving into this heritage, so today we will have a potpourri of natural and historical experiences. We will hike and bird along a local riparian and prairie trail at the Kaw Nation’s 168 acre Allegawaho Heritage Memorial Park and/or return to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve for a hike there. Then we explore historic Council Grove, which became a favored stop on the Santa Fe Trail because of the pleasant grove of trees and available water at the Neosho River crossing. Later this place took on greater importance as a place for meetings and treaty signings that opened the trail to settlers moving west. We will sample Council Grove’s treasure of historic landmarks including the Kaw Mission, which recounts not only the historic events but also the Native people who inhabited this place.
We’ll end the day with our farewell dinner.
Accommodations at The Cottage House Hotel, Council Grove, KS (B,L,D)

Sat., Sept. 20 Departures and Farewells
We are up early and after breakfast, depart from our hotel by 8:00 am. We travel south on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway to Wichita. We arrive at the Wichita Airport by 11:00 am so departing flights should be after 1:00 pm. (B)

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Your guides for the journey will be Ed and Sil Pembleton.

Cost of the journey is $1895.00 per person, based on double occupancy, from Wichita (ICT). This cost includes: accommodations for 6 nights, most meals as specified in the itinerary (B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner), airport welcome and transfer or hotel shuttle, land transportation during the journey, professional guide services, park and other entrance fees, and miscellaneous program expenses. Single supplement is $275.00.

Cost does not include: round-trip airfare to and from Wichita, items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone, drinks from the bar, or gratuities for luggage handling or personal services. With fewer than 6 participants, a small-group surcharge (typically $100-200 per participant) may apply, or we may request that you pick up the cost of a few additional dinners in lieu of this surcharge.
Group Size: This is a sampler trip, maximum of 12 and minimum of 4 participants.

The airport for this journey is Wichita, Kansas (ICT).
Plan on arriving in Wichita no later than 1:00 PM on September 14 and departing after 1:00 PM on September 20. If you want to spend more time in Wichita, or arrive early, we can make lodging recommendations.

Naturalist Journeys, LLC is an equal opportunity service provider and committed to the goal of ensuring equal opportunity for all in employment and program delivery.

Photo Credits:
©Ed Pembleton

Naturalist Journeys LLC, a top birding and nature tour company, offers specialty small group travel to many of the best nature destinations worldwide. Naturalist Journeys’ expert guides have decades of experience leading guided nature and birding tours as well as travel photography tours, all with a focus on responsible travel and eco-tourism. Naturalist Journeys also offer Utah hiking adventure tours and adventure travel in national parks and wildlife reserves ranging from in-depth Alaska wildlife tours to guided Texas and Florida birding tours. Costa Rica nature and birding tours are among our top-rated as are our Panama nature tours and African wildlife safari tours. Our many repeat clients enjoy dependable and diverse holidays on Galapagos nature tours, Arctic and Antarctica nature cruises, and birding and wildlife tours from Arizona to the Amazon and beyond.