April on the Great Plains

Driving west on I-70, I entered the Great Plains of North America several miles west of Topeka, Kansas; there, the rolling, wooded terrain of the Kansas River Valley gives way to the grass-covered ridges of the Flint Hills, eroded from Permian sediments.  Today, many parcels of the grassland were charred by recent burning and the hazy air, scented with smoke, offered evidence that this seasonal activity was ongoing.  Within another week or so, scissor-tailed flycatchers will arrive from the south, joining meadowlarks and a host of grassland sparrows on the barbed-wire fences of this prairie ecosystem.

Just west of the Flint Hills, at Junction City, a large flock of double-crested cormorants circled above the Smoky Hill River Valley while, beyond Salina, steady rain grounded a flock of Franklin's gulls and, I assume, their insect prey.  The rain also obscured the numerous turbines of the massive Smoky Hills Wind Farm, north of Ellsworth, but the skies cleared as I neared Russell.

Wildlife observations on the High Plains, which begin at Wakeeney, are generally limited due to the flat, treeless terrain; open country raptors (rough-legged hawks, Swainson's hawks, prairie falcons, northern harriers), migrant cranes and white pelicans, herds of pronghorn (in eastern Colorado), western kingbirds and flocks of grassland sparrows and longspurs are among the usual sightings.  Indeed, the broad dome of the sky, with its varied cloud formations,  fickle weather and colorful sunsets usually offers the grandest spectacle on the High Plains.  Today, mountains of water vapor gleamed in the mid-day sun while their low, slate-gray foundations unleashed curtains of rain; where the highway climbed above 5000 feet, the precipitation changed to wet snow.  More problematic was the strong north wind, gusting to 50 mph at times, that rocked my pickup all the way from central Kansas to the Colorado Front Range.