Environmental Research
Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas


Spring and summer 2021

After a wet spring, the Nature Conservancy pools were full of water—see
May 2021 precipitation. We first visited in early June, but wind was insufficient to attempt kite aerial photography. We did take some sunny pictures from the observation tower.

Views northward from the observation tower in early June (left) and early August (right). Compare these views from the top of the tower with kite aerial photos (below).

We finally had a chance to return to Cheyenne Bottoms in early August to conduct kite aerial photography (KAP) with good wind and sunshine. This represents the twentieth year of annual and seasonal aerial photographs we have acquired at TNC Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve (see below). Pools remained full, although water level had begun to fall since spring.

Wide-angle KAP overviews

View to northwest

View northward

View to northeast

The spread of duckweed (Lemna minor) over shallow-water areas that we noted last year continued into the summer of 2021. Aerial spraying of aquicide in 2018 had greatly reduced cattail in the southern half of TNC marsh/pool complex, but now cattail is beginning to recover in that area around the margin and in small clumps.

Closer KAP shots showing details in the pool complex. Kite flyers and observation tower at upper left. Dark green is mostly cattail with some bulrush. Bright yellow-green is duckweed floating on shallow water. Dark gray is wet mud; light gray is dry mud with a lime crust.
Wet meadow south of the observation tower and access road was mowed for hay this summer (left) in order to provide stopover habitat for fall migrating shorebirds. This did pay off as some Buff-breasted Sandpipers (Tryngites subruficollis) visited one of the hay fields in late July (right).

The margin of the pool is a narrow transitional zone to upland prairie habitat. As water level falls during the summer, this margin gradually dries out, which provides a chance for opportunistic plants (weeds) to colonize. In this zone, we observed snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), thistle (Cirsium sp.), curly dock (Rumex crispus), and smartweed (Polygonum sp.). Toward the pool, small stands of bulrush survive in places surrounded by cattail, and duckweed covers the shallow water surface.

Pool margin KAP and ground shots
Close-up KAP detail of pool margin (left); cattail to left and upland grass to right. The pool edge is marked by snow-on-the-mountain (white leaves) and curly dock (brown). The swirling pattern in the grass is known as "cow lick" (right).
Left: curly dock (brown), bulrush (round green stems), and smartweed (small white flowers). Right: sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae) on thistle flower.
Detailed view of snow-on-the-mountain (left), which has a bitter taste and may cause skin irritation similar to poison ivy. Duckweed on shallow water surrounded by cattail (right).

Autumn update 2021

We were able to visit Cheyenne Bottoms again in mid-November. Fall rain had completely filled the pools, and nearly all emergent vegetation already was in its late fall/winter dormant mode. Cattail were releasing seeds from their sausage-shaped pods. The abundant duckweed of summer was completely gone, and pool water held little suspended sediment. Many flocks of waterfowl were on the water in distant parts of the pool.

Panoramic overview
Looking toward the north (left) and northeast (right).
Assembled from two overlapping shots.

Kite's-eye views
Looking toward the north (left) and northeast (right) over the full pool. Cattail, bulrush and other emergent wetland vegetation have lost all color and are starting to break down. The water appears relatively clear.
Looking to the southeast (left) over a wet meadow area with disked mudflats in the background. Close-up view (right) of pool margin with kite flyers at the bottom.

20 years of bird's-eye views (2002-2021).

Spring 2022

In contrast to the previous year, 2022 began on the dry side. By mid-May, in fact, the Cheyenne Bottoms vicinity was in extreme-drought status. Many of the shallow marshes and pools had dried into mudflats, water was not flowing in channels, and only the deeper pools retained water. Most of the emergent wetland vegetation was reduced to dry thatch, although some live cattail and bulrush survived around the marsh margins.

Kansas drought monitor for May 17, 2022.
Asterisk (*) marks location of Cheyenne Bottoms.

Kite aerial overviews at the observation tower

View northeast

View southeast

Looking south

Looking west

View northwest

Closer views. Left: pool margin showing dry mudflat, patches of dead cattail, and a narow fringe of emergent vegetation (cattail and bulrush). Observation tower and kite flyers at top. Right: dry channel draining from the central pool. Some green vegetation occupies patches of dead cattail thatch.

The Nature Conservancy was in the process of acquiring a section of land (one square mile) to the east of its current property near Red Wing. The site is nearly flat between 1800 and 1810 feet elevation. This land has been used previously mainly for crop agriculture and pasture, and it contains a couple small oil wells. A small ephemeral stream meanders across the property from northwest to southeast; the channel is marked by a line of trees. This stream drains from the upland northwest of Red Wing into the state wildlife area to the south along NE 60 Avenue.

Red Wing site panorama
Looking toward the north (left) and northeast (right). The line of trees marks a small meandering stream channel. Note the oil well at lower left corner in a fallow field. Assembled from two overlapping kite photos.

Looking toward the east (left) and southeast (right) with a fallow field on left and green winter wheat to right. The state wildlife area is visible in the far background on right.
Northwestward view (left). Fallow field with an oil well (lower right) and oil storage tanks (upper left). Close-up shot (right) of the kite aerial photographers (JSA & SWA) next to the field of winter wheat.

One week after our visit, heavy rain settled into central Kansas for several days, and widespread flooding resulted. The new site at Red Wing collected standing water. Local drought conditions were reduced substantially from extreme to moderate.

Standing water on the field at the Red Wing site in late May 2022.

Summer 2022

We visited our primary site at the observation tower again at the beginning of summer in late June. Repeated rains of the preceding few weeks had partially, but not fully, refilled the pools and marshes. Shorebirds were numerous, feeding in shallow water and on mudflats, and waterfowl stalked in the deeper pools. Cattle grazed across the mudflats and drier upland prairie areas. Drought conditions had improved considerably from mid-May, and emergent vegetation was beginning to spread over the mudflats and along the marsh margin.

Kansas drought monitor for June 28, 2022.
Asterisk (*) marks location of Cheyenne Bottoms.
Compare with extreme drought (above).

Kite aerial overviews at the observation tower
Looking to the northwest over the main pool with Hoisington in the background. Clear water indicates no suspended sediment from recent runoff. Notice the cattle (black dots) in lower right.
View straight northward. A linear break in vegetation runs across the scene. This boundary is a relict of previous aerial spraying to control the spread of cattail (see 2019.) The bright green vegetation in the foreground is mostly foxtail barley and smartweed (see below).
Looking to the northeast. Water is quite shallow in the foreground, and the deeper pool beyond surrounds the delta of Deception Creek (*). The margin of the marsh is marked by thickets of cattail and bulrush.

Kite aerial close-up views
Dry mudflats covered with a gray-white crust of lime. Next to observation tower (left) and vertical shot next to nature trail (right). Note cattle tracks in both views. Bright-green vegetation is mainly foxtail barley and smartweed; dark-green thickets are a mix of cattail and bulrush (see below).
Cattle crossing shallow water out the outlet of the main pool. Moving from right side to a small island on the left. Cattle have never been known to become stuck in the mud.

Ground details
Left: thicket at edge of marsh with bulrush (on left) and cattail (center) growing together. Right: foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum L.) is a perennial grass that occupies freshwater habitats. In this case, it has rapidly spread across dry mudflats.
Left: water smartweed (Lahring 2003), also known as water knotweed (Polygonum amphibium L.). It is characteristic of shallow water and moist mudflats. Right: lime crust on vegetation debris on the mudflat surface. .

Early autumn 2022

Drought conditions returned in the late summer and early fall. In fact, most parts of western and southern Kansas were in the extreme to exceptional drought categories, including Cheyenne Bottoms. From the ground, it was apparent that marshes and pools had dried up. This impression was reinforced from the aerial vantage. No standing water was present within our field of view. Dry mudflats and dessicated vegetation predominated with just a few stands of green vegetation within the marsh-pool complex.

Kansas drought monitor for early fall 2022.
Asterisk (*) marks location of Cheyenne Bottoms.

Kite's-eye views
Panoramic image looking westward.
Assembled from two overlapping photos.
Left: looking to the northeast. Showing the delta of Deception Creek (*) and dry mudflats. Right: close-up shot of the marsh margin with dry mudflat on left. Note numerous trails and cattle (black dots). Kite flyers on right side.
Overview (left) and closer shot (right) of the vegetation thicket surrounded by dry mudflat in the middle of the marsh complex. Vegetation stripes are a relict of aerial spraying done in the fall of 2018, and still quite apparent four years later. The reddish-brown vegetation is emergent water smartweed (see below).

Several opportunistic (weed) plants had moved into the dry mudflat environment along with stunted or dormant stands of emergent wetland plants. Cattle had churned up the mud and their trails criss-crossed the area. Mowing and disking is planned for later in the fall in order to simulate heavy buffalo grazing.

Ground vegetation
Left: cattle trail across cattail thatch with a snow-on-the-mountain bush in the foreground. The latter is poisonous for cattle. Right: remnant stand of cattail in the dry mudflat.
Left: Water smartweed displays exposed reddish-brown stalks with a few green leaves and small pale-pink flowers. Right: spiny cocklebur (Xanthium spinosum L.) amid cattail thatch on the dry mudflat.

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