Remote Sensing Research
Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas

James S. Aber, Susan W. Aber, and Robert L. Penner II

authors below)

Table of Contents
Introduction Vegetation
2002-2005 2005-2007
2008 events 2009 update
2010 update 2011 events
2012 update 2013 update
2014 events 2015 status
2016 trends 2017 status
2018 update 2019 trends


Cheyenne Bottoms is the premier wetland of Kansas. Located in the center of the state, it is considered to be among the most significant sites for shorebird and waterfowl migration in the United States (Zimmerman 1990). At least 340 bird species have been spotted at Cheyenne Bottoms, some of which are threatened or endangered—whooping crane, peregrine falcon, piping plover and least tern (Penner 2010).

The site is an important point for rest and nourishment for hundreds of thousands of birds in their annual migrations between Arctic summer breeding grounds and southern winter ranges along the Gulf Coast, Caribbean and South America. Cheyenne Bottoms is considered by many to be the single most important wetland for migrating shorebirds in North America, and it is designated as a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

Multitemporal satellite image based on 2006 (drought), 2007 (flood) and 2009 (normal). Bright colors represent significant changes in land cover from year to year; dull-gray colors indicate little change in land cover. The broad maroon-purple zone shows the extent of high water in 2007; black and dark blue show perennial water bodies. CBWA - Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area; TCN - The Nature Conservancy. Adapted from Aber, Pavri and Aber (2012, fig. 16-20).

Beginning in 2002, we started research at Cheyenne Bottoms in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy. Our primary methods are various forms of remote sensing—satellite imagery and aerial photography, combined with ground observations. Specifically we have developed techniques and utilized low-height kite and blimp aerial photography to acquire vertical and oblique views that depict the landscape in great detail. Our goal is to document, analyze, and understand climatic and human impacts on this dynamic wetland environment (Aber, Aber and Penner 2016).

The following kite aerial photographs were taken in mid-May 2005. At this time, the marshes contained substantial water, and wetland vegetation was greening up nicely. The images are arranged to provide full 360° panorama of the Nature Conservancy marsh complex at Cheyenne Bottoms.

View westward

View toward NW

View northward

View toward NE

View eastward

View southward

View toward SW

Wetland vegetation

During our investigations we have identified three key emergent wetland plants that are indicators for wildlife habitat conditions in the Nature Conservancy marshes: bulrush, spike sedge, and cattail. These plants thrive or diminish with climatic variations, particularly drought and flood cycles. The marshes were heavily infested with cattail as a consequence of relatively abundant rainfall and high water during the 1990s—see Kansas
drought history. When we began our initial observations in 2002, most of the marshes were filled with cattail thickets. However, the status of cattail has since fluctuated substantially.

Great bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani), also known as softstem bulrush and grey club-rush. Bulrushes are among the most beneficial emergent wetland plants (Whitley et al. 1999). They may form dense thickets along the margins of water bodies. The seeds are particularly valuable for ducks; bulrush provides nesting habitat, and it binds wet soils quite effectively.
Blunt spike rush (Eleocharis obtusa). Spike rushes are quite common in and diagnostic of wetland environments in temperate regions around the world. They provide shelter for fish, amphibians and insects, and are a food resource for many wetland birds and mammals.
Common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leafed cattail (Typha angustifolia) have hybridized in the Cheyenne Bottoms vicinity. Among the most common wetland plants worldwide, cattails are invasive in the Great Plains and are able to displace more desirable wetland plants.

Cattails are considered undesirable for wetland marshes in the central Great Plains. Cattails generate persistent seed banks and may quickly colonize disturbed wetland soils. Furthermore cattail expands rapidly through clonal growth (Gucker 2008). In some situations, cattail is considered a weedy or invasive plant. Their expansion converts open marsh and mud-flat habitats into dense overgrown thickets, which are unattractive for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl. Cattails may slow or stop the spread of other wetland plants by secreting chemicals that inhibit germination of seeds.

Return to beginning.

Initial research 2002-05

We begin kite aerial photography of Nature Conservancy wetlands in the spring of 2002, which happened to be the end of a wet climatic phase and the beginning of a drought cycle. We returned repeatedly to the same site to acquire kite and blimp airphotos in different seasons and from year to year.

Kite aerial photographs

Left: healthy cattail beds prior to drought, May '02.
Right: mostly dead cattails during drought, June '03.

Upon the demise of cattails in early spring 2004, the Nature Conservancy began an experiment in cattail control. Three treatments were applied to different sections of dead cattail thatch. Some areas were mowed, some were burned, and some were left untreated. Since heavy rain refilled the marshes in June 2004, wet weather continued to support regrowth of wetland vegetation through 2005. Bulrush and spike rush spread rapidly to replace cattail in many portions of the marsh, and some small stands of cattail are beginning to come back as well. This resulted in a mosaic of emergent wetland vegetation during the summer 2005.

Above: panoramic view assembled from four wide-angle photographs, July 2004. A - former mudflat, now vegetated with blunt spike rush, B - former cattail beds, largely dead following drought, C - delta of Deception Creek.

Below: panoramic image assembled from two wide-angle photographs taken in May 2005. A mosaic of emergent wetland vegetation is evident; darkest green patches in marsh are bulrush.

Return to beginning.

Continuing research 2005-07

It is our intention to pursue additional research on climatic and human impact on vegetation and water at Cheyenne Bottoms through a variety of ground-based and remote sensing techniques (Aber et al. 2006). In particular, we will continue to monitor details of marsh habitat using small-format aerial photography on a seasonal and yearly basis. The late summer of 2005 began to show signs of diminishing surface water and the potential for drought conditions to develop.

Dry mudflats with cattle tracks (left foreground) and residual water pools (right side) are typical in late summer. Cattle graze on wet meadow in left background. Image date Aug. 2005.

The winter and spring of 2006 were unusually warm and dry. Temperature exceeded 95°F (35°C) already in April, and little precipitation fell through the month of June. As a consequence, Nature Conservancy marshes were completely dry, the state wildlife area had little water, and most inlet creeks and canals were dry. This signaled the beginning of another drought.

View toward northeast over Nature Conservancy marshes. The dry channel of Deception Creek and its delta are visible in upper left portion of scene. Vegetation has spread over dry mudflats in lower left corner. Image date May 2006.
View toward northwest with Hoisington in the far background. All mudflats are dry and vegetation displays limited growth in this scene. Image date May 2006; compare with May 2005 pictures above.

In August of 2006, heavy thunderstorms rumbled across central Kansas, resulting in significant runoff in the vicinity of Great Bend. Flood water was directed via canals and ditches into the state wildlife area of Cheyenne Bottoms, but no recharge happened for marshes in the Nature Conservancy portion of the bottoms. Dry conditions continued there into autumn.

In October 2006, the Nature Conservancy began a systematic effort to control marsh vegetation in mudflats and thickets. Mechanical means were employed; herbicides could not be used for sensitive wetland habitat. Dry mudflats were plowed (disked) in order to remove opportunistic weeds, such as bull thistle and cocklebur. Thickets were mowed to cut down the standing thatch of cattails, bulrush, and other emergent wetland plants. The idea was to simulate heavy buffalo grazing on the dry marsh environment.

View toward northwest with Hoisington in the far background. The marsh is completely dry and substantial portions have been plowed or mowed. Image date Oct. 2006.
View northward over dry marsh. Bare soil has been plowed and vegetated portions are partly mowed (note tractor). Reddish-brown vegetation is unmowed thickets of cattail and bulrush. Image date Oct. 2006.
Closeup view of tractor mowing down vegetation thicket in raised portions of the marsh. Image date Oct. 2006.

The winter and spring of 2007 were wet. Repeated, heavy rains resulted in flooding of Cheyenne Bottoms in May, when water spread over large portions of the state wildlife area and Nature Conservancy marshes. Marshes were filled to overflowing, and sites that had been dry for many years were inundated. Long-time local residents claim they have never seen so much water in the bottoms. In order to reach our primary study site, we had to drive through water with a 4WD vehicle. The following superwide-angle images document the extent of open water in the Nature Conservancy marshes in mid May. The direction toward the center of each view is indicated.

View westward

View toward NW

View northward

View toward NE

Heavy rains continued through the month of June. The combined May and June rain exceeded 20 inches (50 cm), which set a historical record. Virtually the whole of the state wildlife area was flooded, and about 20% of Nature Conservancy land was inundated (source NC 2007). Considerable damage occurred to roads and drainage structures, but nesting waterfowls were attracted in record numbers. Our field efforts were suspended for the remainder of the year because of impassable roads in study areas.

Return to beginning.

Further developments in 2008

Flooding finally began to recede during the winter and spring of 2008. Roads became passable, although water levels remained high in pools and marshes, and we were able to reach our usual Nature Conservancy study site in May and June of 2008. The experiment to simulate heavy buffalo grazing, conducted in fall 2006 (see above), seems to have been successful for creating open marsh conditions, as shown in the following pictures.

Standard view toward the north in early May 2008. Extensive open water remains in the marsh complex. Emergent marsh vegetation is mostly dormant at this time of year.
Standard view toward the northeast in early May 2008. Deception Creek and its small delta are visible in the left background.
Wide-angle view toward the northeast in mid June 2008. Emergent marsh vegetation is active and consists mainly of bulrush with small patches of cattail.
Wide-angle view toward the southeast in mid June 2008. Nature Conservancy marshes in foreground and flooded pools of the state wildlife area in the background.

In June, we conducted the first field tests of a new color-infrared digital camera. The Tetracam Agricultural Digital Camera is designed to photograph green, red, and near-infrared portions of the spectrum, specifically 0.52 to 0.92 µm wavelength. The camera employes a special lens to transmit near-infrared radiation, and blue light is excluded. The resulting pictures are false-color images: green appears as blue, red is shown as green, and near-infrared is red.

Tetracam ADC.

Color-infrared photography was initially developed during World War II for camouflage detection. Important scientific applications include vegetation, soil, and water resources. In this format, vegetation appears bright pink and red, because photosynthetically active (green) plants strongly reflect near-infrared radiation. Water bodies, in contrast, strongly absorb near-infrared energy, regardless of water depth or turbidity.

Upon launching the Tetracam camera rig, the crew takes a self portrait. Active vegetation appears in pink and red colors; vegetation is highly reflective for near-infrared, so is much brighter than normal and appears somewhat fuzzy. Note that vehicles and fence poles are sharply defined.
View over Nature Conservancy marsh in central Kansas. Water bodies are quite dark in color-infrared format, although some sun glint is visible in the foreground.
View toward north; compare with visible-color images above. Emergent vegetation (pink) contrasts sharply with water bodies.
View toward northeast; compare with visible-color images above. Deception Creek appears in upper center of scene.

The Kansas Wetland Education Center (KWEC) is under development as a joint venture between the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and Fort Hays State University. Located on the southeastern edge of the state wildlife area, construction was delayed because of flooding in 2007. The building began to take shape in the spring of 2008. It openned officially in the spring of 2009.

Overview of KWEC looking toward the southeast. Highway K-156 crosses the foreground, and a picnic area is visible in lower right portion. Outlet canal of the State Wildlife Area is toward upper right side. Photo date May 2008.
Closer view of KWEC showing the semi-circular plan of the building and the demonstration marsh behind the building. Photo date May 2008.

Our final visit in 2008 took place in late September, when water level still remained high following a relatively wet and cool summer. Color-visible (left) and color-infrared (right) views over Nature Conservancy marsh toward the northeast with delta of Deception Creek in the upper left portion (Aber et al. 2009).

Return to beginning.

Azolla bloom in 2009

We conducted routine aerial photography in early October 2009 and were surprised to find distinctive maroon-colored vegetation over substantial portions of the marsh complex. We soon identified the plant in the genus Azolla, most likely the species A. cristata (Aber et al. 2010).

Aerial views. Left: wide-angle shot looking toward the northwest. Right: closer view toward the northeast. Cattle in lower right corner for scale. Note patchy distribution of Azolla (maroon) over the marsh surface.

Azolla is a small aquatic fern, commonly called
mosquito fern, fairy moss or water fern, typically described as a delicate, mosslike plant that floats or is stranded on the edge of quiet water bodies such as ponds, marshes and ditches. It often grows in large floating mats composed of masses of tiny ferns. Color varies from gray-green to bright red-purple; the reddish color is intensified by exposure to sunlight, especially in winter. Several common names include mosquito fern, water fern, fairy moss, water velvet, duckweed fern, and floating fern.

Ground pictures. Left: oblique shot, about one yard across. Right: closeup vertical shot, about one foot across. Azolla is light pink to dark maroon just above water level and is covered by bright green algae below water.

We have not recognized Azolla before in Nature Conservancy marshes; see for example the Sept. 2008 picture just above, in which Azolla is not visible anywhere. How it was transported into this environment is not known. Azolla spores could be carried on the feet of waterfowl and shorebirds coming northward during their spring migration. The historic flood of 2007 (see above) may have washed in spores or plant fragments from other sources either within or outside Cheyenne Bottoms. Still other means of dispersal are possible. In any case, the bloom of Azolla in 2009 is remarkable.

It's not possible to predict the long-term consequences of Azolla in Nature Conservancy marshes at this time. On the beneficial side, Azolla is considered a good food source for waterfowl and provides cover for small invertebrates, which could enhance the value of these marshes for migrating waterfowl. On the other hand, Azolla spreads rapidly by vegetative reproduction and may form extensive mats. It should never be introduced intentionally, as it quickly may overspread a water body and become quite a nuissance.

Return to beginning.

2010 Update

A relatively cold and wet winter set the stage for Cheyenne Bottoms in 2010. We vistied in mid-March when some early-season vegetation was just beginning to green up, but most wetland plants were still dormant in the Nature Conservancy marshes. We conducted kite aerial photography at the usual study site at the Nature Conservancy observation tower, and controlled burning was underway nearby at the state wildlife area.

Kite aerial photographs
Wide-angle view toward the northwest with Hoisington in the background. The new observation tower, built in 2009, may be seen in the lower right portion, and students operate the kite and camera from the lower right corner of this scene.
Looking toward the southeast with pools of the state wildlife area in the background. A large smoke plume drifts southward from a controlled burn on the northern side of the state wildlife area.

Ground photographs
Marsh vegetation. Left: cattle ate cattail down to stumps the previous fall (foreground), but did not graze on bullrush (behind). Right: algae is among the first plants to thrive in the early spring conditions.
Controlled burning in the state wildlife area. Fires are set to remove dead vegetation thatch, which returns nutrients to the soil, allows new vegetation to grow up rapidly in the spring, and restricts woody vegetation from becoming established.

On a return visit in mid-October, we conducted kite aerial photography with a new Canon EOS Rebel XS 1000D camera with a 10.1-megapixel sensor and a wide-angle lens. We added a 0.7X auxiliary lens to create a focal length of 12.6 mm (20 mm film equivalent) for superwide-angle views.

Superwide-angle overviews

View to northwest

View northward

View to northeast

View to southeast

Our aerial and ground observations revealed that emergent vegetation had spread over parts of the marsh area, and the Azolla bloom of the previous year had dissipated into small patches along the marsh edge. We also observed plenty of wildlife, especially frogs and snakes.

Emergent vegetation covers substantial areas of the marsh, and the maroon color of Azolla is hardly visible. Left: view toward northwest with Hoisington in the background. Right: view toward northeast showing the small delta of Deception Creek and grazing cattle.
American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). Left: adult frog sits in a patch of Azolla. Right: Plains gartersnake (Thamnophis radix) has caught a small bullfrog; the snake already has swallowed the entire right hind leg of the frog, which has ceased to struggle.

Return to beginning.

2011 Events

We conducted kite aerial photography in late May 2011, marking our tenth year of annual aerial observations at the Nature Conservancy marsh. Following a week of heavy spring rain and runoff in central Kansas, the marshes and wet meadows were full of water, and emergent vegetation was well along with its seasonal growth. Most remarkable, cattail thickets are recovering and overspreading substantial portions of the main pools. In fact, the cattail coverage is beginning to resemble that of 2002, the first year of our observations (see

Panoramic image looking to northeast at center, east toward right, north toward left. Assembled from two wide-angle shots.

View westward

View northward

View to southeast

Left: JSA and SWA setting up to conduct kite aerial photography next to the observation tower. Note cattle grazing on wet meadow in background. Right: closeup vertical shot of cattails growing in the marsh. Note muddy water from recent runoff.

Return to beginning.

2012 Update

Our 2012 aerial observations began in late April. In most years, there is minimal plant and animal activity in TNC marshes at this time. However, following a mild winter and exceptionally warm early spring, emergent wetland vegetation was well ahead of its normal seasonal status. Cattail growth reached 3-4 feet (1 m) height, pools were full of water, and snakes and turtles were already active. This was followed in late May-June by the
earliest wheat harvest on record in the state of Kansas, which confirmed the most unusual spring weather of 2012.

April 2012 overviews of TNC marsh
Left: view northward with the delta of Deception Creek at scene center. Right: looking to the northwest with Blood Creek in the left background.
Left: looking toward the southeast with the state wildlife area in the distance. Right: closer shot of kite flyers on TNC nature trail (lower left corner). Cattail growth is similar to late May of the previous year (see above).
Left: close-up shot of TNC marsh with dense cattail growth behind kite flyers. Right: ground view in the state wildlife area showing abundant waterfowl and well-developed cattails.

Hot, dry weather extended through late spring and early summer. We returned in July to check on marsh conditions. The pools of April were completely dry mudflats, and cattail growth had reached 8 feet (2½ m) in places. Cattail and bulrush thickets had spread over substantial portions of the marsh area, and across the dry mudflats the common weed velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) had sprouted in scattered groups.

July 2012 overviews of TNC marsh

View westward

View to northwest

View northward

View to northeast
Compare with April 2012 pictures above.

Drought conditions in central Kansas had reached the severe level by early July (see drought monitor), as evidenced by nearby rivers—Arkansas River immediately south of Cheyenne Bottoms and Cow Creek to the east. Both recorded exceptionally low flows during June resulting from lack of runoff and increased upstream irrigation. On Walnut Creek at Albert, a short distance west of Cheyenne Bottoms, stream flow has been essentially zero for the past year with the exception of two brief runoff events in mid April and early June (USGS 2012). The state of Kansas is beginning to restrict junior water rights in some areas as a consequence of low stream flows (see AP story).

Close-up aerial views
Left: delta of Deception Creek and dry creek channel in upper center of view. Kite flyers in lower right corner. Right: looking to the northwest over dry mudflat and cattail/bulrush thickets. The bright green plant in the mudflat is velvetleaf.

Ground photographs
Left: dry channel of Deception Creek as it enters the marsh complex from the north. Right: mussel shells on the dry mudflat surface. Shells approx. 4 inches (10 cm) long.
Left: velvetleaf growing on the dry mudflat.

Right: SWA shows a tall stand of cattail.

Thickets of emergent wetland vegetation: bulrush (left) and cattail (right). Although the surface of the mudflat is dry; roots reach moisture below and sustain the plants.

November 2012 overviews of TNC marsh

View to northwest

View northward

View to northeast

Drought conditions continued through the autumn of 2012, and most vegetation had gone dormant by the time of our visit in early November. We were surprised to find numerous cattle trails criss-crossing the cattail thickets and vehicle tracks across the dry mud flats. The vehicle tracks resemble artistic scrollwork as viewed from above.

Closer oblique views
Left: vehicles tracks in mud flat form intricate loops and circles. Right: dry delta of Deception Creek in left background with various cattail thickets, meadows and dry marshes in foreground and to right.

Vertical superwide-angle shots
Narrow, sinuous paths are cattle trails cutting through cattail thickets. Looping vehicle tracks on mud flat were made presumably by ATVs (four-wheelers).

Return to beginning.

2013 Update

Drought conditions of the previous year continued into mid-May 2013, in spite of a relatively cool and rainy spring, and most of the marsh remained dry. Much of central Kansas experienced extreme drought conditions. Cattail and bulrush were beginning to emerge in a few spots, and spike rush covered wet meadow areas. Signs of drought were quite evident among the wet-soil wildlife with many dead crayfish and snails.

Kite aerial photographs
Panoramic overview looking northward at scene center. Small puddles are scattered in the marsh, and green emergent vegetation is sparse. Assembled from two overlapping photos.
Left: view toward northwest with Hoisington in the background. Right: looking northward over the main mudflat in the middle of the marsh complex.
Left: looking toward the southwest. Cattle graze around small ponds (center) and along Blood Creek, which is full of water. Right: close-up shot of cattle around small ponds.

Close-up ground photographs
Dead invertebrates on the meadow surface demonstrate dry conditions in the wetland soil. Crayfish (left) and snail (right).
Left: cattle trail through cattail thicket in the main marsh area. Right: sparse emergent vegetation beginning to appear on the adjacent meadow.

The 2011-13 drought came to an abrupt end with heavy rains and regional flooding beginning in late July through mid-August. TNC marshes were inundated with high water that recharged soil moisture and filled the pools. Kite aerial photography was conducted on September 6, about three weeks after peak flooding, under extremely hot conditions (99 °F) to document the effects of flooding and post-flood recovery.

The gauging station on Walnut Creek at Albert, approximately 15 miles (24 km) west of Cheyenne Bottoms, is typical of central Kansas flooding. Peak discharge exceeded 460 cubic feet per second on August 12. Chart obtained from USGS.

Landsat 8 OLI false-color satellite images of Cheyenne Bottoms

July 12, 2013.
Maximum drought (left) and post-flood (right). Landsat 8 OLI bands 8 (green + red), 5 (near-infrared) and 7 (mid-infrared) color coded as blue, green and red. Datasets from U.S. Geological Survey; image processing by JSA. * Kansas Wetland Education Center.

  • Active vegetation = green and yellow-green.
  • Fallow fields and dry pasture = pink and maroon.
  • Bare soil and dry mudflats = dark purple.
  • Water = black (clean) and blue (muddy).

August 29, 2013.

Kite aerial photographs
Left: view toward the northwest with Hoisington on the left horizon. Right: looking toward the northeast with many pools in the distance.
Left: view to the southeast. Extent of flooding marked by a ribbon of debris (wrack) around the edge of the wet meadow. Right: close-up shot of the marsh margin showing newly emergent bulrush and spike rush (A) and cattails (B).
Left: close-up shot of dead thatch with newly emergent vegetation growing up through water. Right: sun glint shows water across the marsh surface next to the observation tower.

Prolonged dry conditions followed by sudden inundation and then draining of excess water quickly brought about a diverse combination of wetland vegetation. In less than one month, typical emergent, floating and submerged wetland plants had reestablished along with remnants of drought weeds. The mix of plant species and dead thatch is evident in the following ground pictures.

Left: A – water smartweed (Lahring 2003), also known as water knotweed (Polygonum amphibium L.), B – great bulrush, and C – blunt spike rush. Right: A – mosquito fern (Azolla sp.) and B – lesser duckweed (Lemna minor).
Left: A – water speedwell (Veronica anagallis-aquatica L.) and B – algae. Right: close-up shot of water smartweed, mosquito fern, duckweed, and algae along the marsh margin.
Spiny cocklebur (Xanthium spinosum L.) is a particularly nasty weed that flourished around the marsh margin during the drought. The seed pods now have opened to disperse a multitude of seeds to blow in the wind.
Left: limit of high water is marked by flood-washed debris, known as wrack (silent w), consisting mainly of bulrush and cattail fragments. Note lush, green wet meadow in background. Right: Close-up view of wrack with numerous crayfish and snail shells.

Return to beginning.

2014 Events

Following a long and relatively dry winter, drought conditions were starting to develop again in central Kansas in the early spring. Most shallow pools had drained or dried, but the main pool still held water at a level close to that of the previous fall. Traces of the August 2013 flood had largely disappeared. Emergent wetland vegetation was just beginning to sprout and green up in late April, and many shorebirds and waterfowl were present—feeding, breeding and nesting.

Late April status
Left: looking northward with some emergent vegetation beginning to green up in the marsh. Right: view toward the northeast showing the delta of Deception Creek (*).
Left: Looking toward the southeast with the state wildlife area in the left distance. Right: close-up shot of the marsh and area where avocets (*) were feeding in shallow water.
American avocets (Recurvirostra americana) were numerous on the marsh. Left: avocet wading in shallow water with smaller Baird's sandpipers (Calidris bairdii). Right: probable avocet nest and camouflaged eggs in cattail thatch.

Heavy, repeated rains arrived in June, and TNC marshes were refilled with muddy runoff. We conducted kite aerial photography immediately after these runoff events. Emergent vegetation responded rapidly, although considerable dead thatch and wrack remained in the marsh complex. Mosquitos, dragonflies and other insects were abundant in wet meadows, and crayfish chimneys occupied the pool margins.

Late June status
Left: looking toward the northwest with Hoisington in the background. Right: shot toward the northeast showing the delta of Deception Creek at top center of view. Note muddy water around the creek inlet.
Left: view to the southeast with the state wildlife area in the distance. Right: looking toward the southwest showing Blood Creek and TNC barn in the right background.
Left: close-up shot of the main marsh and pool full of muddy water. Compare with April picture (above the eggs). Right: newly built crayfish chimney at pool margin. Little is known about crayfish species or population.

Continued rains lessened drought conditions across most of the region during the summer and early autumn. TNC marshes, pools, and streams were filled to capacity, wetland vegetation was thriving in marshes and wet meadows, and numerous waterfowl were resting on their fall migrations at the end of October.

Late October status
Panoramic view looking to the northwest at scene center.
Assembled from four wide-angle shots.
Autumn foliage colors in the marsh complex. Left: looking toward the northeast with Deception Creek and its inlet to the pool and green fields of winter wheat in the background. Right: view eastward with the state wildlife area in the right far background.

Mosquito fern (Azolla sp.) experienced a major bloom in the
autumn of 2009. Since then, it had been nearly absent in the marsh complex during the drought period 2011-13. Once again, mosquito fern is evident on kite aerial photographs in shallow water along the pool margin and in small patches within protected cattail thickets. Its maroon-purple color adds a distinctive appearance to fall foliage in the marsh complex.

Mosquito fern bloom
Close-up aerial shots of mosquito fern which appears maroon-purple color in these two views along the pool margin.
Ground pictures of mosquito fern floating on shallow water protected by cattail and bulrush. Comb is 5 inches long.

Return to beginning.

2015 Status

Repeated spring rains already had filled the marsh pools and emergent vegetation was well developed by the time of our first visit in mid-May. Access roads were extremely muddy with standing water in deep ruts and pools; we were lucky to reach the study site without getting stuck!

Panorama looking toward the northeast and east.
Deception Creek enters from left side.

During the past two years, drought conditions in central Kansas have diminished from extreme and exceptional categories. By the beginning of June 2015, in fact, drought was completely gone in the Cheyenne Bottoms vicinity. May of 2015 was exceptionally wet across the southern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions (see statewide precipitation). In fact, May 2015 was the wettest month for the whole United States since records began in 1895 (NOAA 2015). High water continued into June, and by the middle of the month lush emergent wetland vegetation had spread across much of the marsh complex.

Mid-May conditions
Overviews toward the northeast (left) and northwest (right). Note high water level and lush vegetation in the marsh complex.
Central portion of the marsh complex showing extensive cattail thickets. Cattail coverage has recovered to the level that existed at the beginning of our long-term observations in 2002.
Left: close-up shot of the marsh margin with wet meadow and Blood Creek in the background. Right: ground view of marsh margin with muddy water from recent runoff.
Left: Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) grows in clumps around the marsh margin and in the wet meadow. Right: muddy field vehicle. Access roads were barely passable to 4wd.

Mid-June conditions

View to northwest

View northward

View to northeast

A return visit in early September revealed pools still full of water and distinct variations in late-summer emergent vegetation of the marsh complex. During the past two wet years, emergent wetland vegetation has recovered and spead over substantial portions of the marsh complex, and mosquito fern (Azolla sp.) has appeared again.

Early September conditions
Overviews looking toward the northwest (left) and northeast (right) showing full pools and varied appearance of emergent vegetation within the Nature Conservancy marsh complex.
Close-up shots. Left: hint of maroon color on water surface suggests another bloom of mosquito fern is underway. White specks are large white birds wading in shallow water, and cattle graze in the background. Right: flock of large white birds, perhaps cattle egrets, taking off from a pool.

Return to beginning.

2016 Trends

The wet trend of 2015 continued through 2016 with frequent rain and high water level within the Nature Conservancy marsh complex. At the end of May, for example, there was no drought recorded anywhere in the state of Kansas. These wet conditions have contributed to record harvests for corn and soybean crops (see
AG Web).

The expansion of cattail thickets that began in 2010 was briefly arrested during the drought of 2012-13, but since has renewed and filled in many portions of the Nature Conservancy marsh complex. This, in turn, has greatly reduced the area of open pools and mud flats on which migrating shorebirds and waterfowl depend.

May conditions
Panoramic overview looking toward the north and west.
Extensive thickets of emergent vegetation and full pools.
Views toward the northeast (left) and east (right) demonstrate full pools, wet meadows, and emergent marsh vegetation. Water shows high content of suspended sediment from recent influx of Deception Creek.

October conditions
Views toward the west (left) and northeast (right) display full pools and vegetation going into autumn senescence in early October.
Close-up oblique (left) and vertical (right) shots of the cattail thicket that has grown up during the past few years. A distinct patchy pattern is evident, which may reflect growth patterns as cattail filled in the former open pool.

2017 Status

Early spring 2017 began with a series of heavy rains that completely filled the Nature Conservancy marsh-pool complex. This marks the fifth consecutive year of high water, and emergent vegetation has responded by infilling much of the former mudflats and reducing pool areas. We were assisted for this session by T. Nagasako, a visiting professor from Japan.

April conditions
Left: looking toward the northwest with Hoisington in the far background. Blood Creek enters from the left side. Right: view northward with mostly dormant marsh vegetation in the foreground. Pools are filled with muddy water from recent runoff.
Left: looking toward the northeast. Deception Creek flows into the pool at top center of scene. Note the patchy appearance of dormant marsh vegetation. Right: view to the southeast with the state wildlife area in the distance.

The primary reason for our visit was to test a new color-infrared camera and radio-controlled rig for kite aerial photography. The Sony A6000 was purchased with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and modified by
Arrow Consulting for B/G/NIR imagery. In other words, the red band is replaced by near-infrared which appears red in the image. Active vegetation reflects green light moderately and near-infrared strongly. This combination produces orange in this false-color format. In the early spring, emergent wetland vegetation is just starting to green up.

Color-infrared imagery
Looking toward the northwest (left) and north (right). Fields of winter wheat are prominent (bright orange) in the background, but there are only small patches of active vegetation in the marsh complex. Compare with normal-color images above.
View toward the northeast showing the small delta of Deception Creek (left). Emergent marsh vegetation has expanded considerably during the past several years and reduced the size of the remaining pool. Right: sun glint in lower right corner reveals shallow water beneath a cover of dead thatch.

Return to beginning.

2018 Update

The winter of 2017-18 was quite dry with severe/extreme drought
in the vicinity—see drought monitor. Furthermore, spring green-up was delayed by unusually cool weather. Our first visit to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) took place at the end of April.

A new management plan began in the summer of 2017. In order to control cattails, aerial spraying was conducted with herbicide approved for use over water, and dead cattail thatch was subsequently mowed down. This took place over ~300 acres in the eastern portion of the marsh-pool complex. Spraying and mowing will be done later this year for the western side of the marsh-pool area (see below).

April kite aerial photographs
View toward northwest (left) with Hoisington in the background and Blood Creek to far left. Looking toward the northeast (right) showing Deception Creek and its small delta in the marsh-pool complex. Note the rough texture of cattail thatch in foreground. These portions were not sprayed and mowed last year. Compare with next images.
Overview toward the southeast (left) with the state wildlife area in the distance. Aerial spraying and mowing were conducted in the foreground portion of this view. Closer view of sprayed and mowed area (right).
A wet meadow occupies the zone between our primary study marsh and Blood Creek to the south. We recognized a distinct, shallow channel (red dots) that meanders across this meadow, as shown by its vegetation pattern. This channel was not noticeable in previous years. Blood Creek appears in the background of both views.

Color-infrared images
Oblique views to the northwest (left) and northeast (right). Active vegetation is bright orange, including winter wheat fields in the background. Dormant cattail thatch appears pale orange to light gray, and water bodies are dark blue in this false-color format.

We had our first look at a new area recently purchased by Ducks Unlimited (DU) and TNC. This site is located in the southwestern portion of Cheyenne Bottoms adjacent to the canal that diverts water from Walnut Creek into the state wildlife area. This former wetland had been converted for crop agriculture, and now will be returned to wetland status. Our role will be to provide before, during, and after close-up kite aerial photography of the conversion process during the next several years.

New DU/TNC wetland site
View toward east (left) with DU/TNC area in foreground and state wildlife area behind. The inlet canal for the state wildlife area is marked (<). Looking northward (right). DU/TNC area in right foreground and private farmland in background.

The following oblique shots provide an overview of the newly acquired DU/TNC acreage. The images depict a meandering drainage channel (red dots) across wheat fields. This channel was blocked at its upstream (northern) end to divert drainage into an artificial ditch along the western boundary of the fields (marked by a line of trees). In spite of this diversion, the natural drainage channel is still clearly evident in the harvested and fallow fields.

View northward

View to northwest

View westward

View to southeast

We returned at the beginning of autumn in late September 2018. Repeated rains since early August had caused drought conditions to recede completely from central Kansas—see drought monitor. Aerial spraying took place in July over both eastern and western portions of the marsh complex. Aqua Neat is a aquicide designed for control of emergent weeds and brush in wetland settings, including flowing or stagnant, fresh or brackish water. It specifically targets cattail, reed, saltcedar and willow. Its active ingredient is glyphosate, and it is produced by Nufarm.

September kite aerial photographs
Views toward the northwest. Overview (left) with Hoisington in the far background. Notice difference in water color reflecting recent influx of suspended sediment in far pools. Close-up shot (right) showing area of aerial spraying at scene center in July of 2018.
Views toward the northeast. Overview (left) shows area that was sprayed in August 2017 and again in July 2018 in right (*) background. Area in left foreground was sprayed only in July 2018. Close-up shot (right) displays linear stripes that reflect the pattern of spraying.
Left: overview northward. This portion of the marsh was not subjected to aerial spraying. Right: sun glint reveals standing water under the cover of dead cattail thicket. Kite flyers are at upper left.

September ground photos
Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata, KWG). This plant typically blooms in late summer, and when broken it releases a toxic sap with effects similar to poison ivy. It is considered weedy or invasive (USDA). Left: distinctive white-and-green leaves that surround small flowers. Right: wasp on the plant.
Small trees growing in the farther reaches of TNC marsh area not subject to aerial spraying. Left: eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana, USDA). Right: willow (Salix L., USDA). Neither is desirable in this prairie marsh situation.

Return to beginning.

2019 Trends

The wet phase that began in the second half of 2018 continued through the winter and spring of 2019. In fact, the month of May was the wettest on record for Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska since 1895—see
May precipitation. Repeated heavy rains and floods in May and June damaged the access road to the Nature Conservancy marsh complex. The road was closed several weeks for repairs that were delayed many times by frequent rain. Rain finally let up, and the access road was fixed and reopenned at the end of June. Our first visit for the year took place on July 1st, and we conducted kite aerial photography at two sites.

Nature Trail Site

View to northwest

View to northeast

View to southeast
* Gun club KAP site in view to southeast.

Healthy cattail (*) forms a narrow margin along the southern edge of the marsh. Note kite flyers and vehicles for scale at the observation tower (left) and on the access road (right).
Left: zone subjected to aerial spraying previous year with mostly dead vegetation; open water appears nearly black. Sun glint (*) is reflected from smooth water surface, and sun glitter (>) is multiple small reflections from waves. Right: detail of blown-down tallgrass next to marsh. This swirling pattern is known as cow lick.

Gun Club Site

View northward

View to northeast

View eastward
* Nature trail KAP site in view northward.

Looking to the northeast (left). A fence divides the scene in half. The area beyond the fence was treated by aerial spraying and mowing in previous years, but the area in front was not treated. Close-up view (right) showing high-water limit of recent flooding marked by wave-washed debris, known as wrack (<).

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Author institutions

  1. J.S. Aber – Emporia State University, Kansas (
  2. S.W. Aber – San José State University, California.
  3. R.L. Penner – The Nature Conservancy of Kansas.

Other contributors: Chris Banman, Gayla Corley, Tom Eddy, Paul and Jill Johnston, Tamara Korenman, Toshiro Nagasako, Lida (Buster) Owens, Firooza Pavri, Jo Pfaff, Andy Schmidt, Jean Schulenberg, Marcia Schulmeister, Marshall Sundberg, Elena Volkova, Brenda Zabriskie, and John Zupancic.


Note: our initial research was funded by a Kansas NASA EPSCoR grant (2002-04).
The study has since continued with support from other sources.

This webpage is presented for general public use and enjoyment.
All rights reserved; text and images © by the authors (2019).

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