Whatever your skill level, Lawrence is a great place for birding! As we townies like to boast, if you drive for 10 minutes (or bicycle for 15 or 20), you’re in the country. There are also some nice little pockets of habitat tucked right into town as well. Maybe you’re already a seasoned birder and want to find some new sweet spots. Or maybe you would like to head out with others to hone your skills or even take up a new hobby. With the Jayhawk Audubon chapter offering monthly bird hikes led by retired Baker University professor of ornithology, Roger Boyd, you can do just that. Lawrence offers something for everyone!
Winter birding offers its own rewards. Views of distant birds are uncomplicated in the soft gray crewcut of trees. If you come prepared, you’ll have a great time in the field. I’m one to talk though. I was dressed appropriately for my bike ride to the Fitch Nature Preserve, but I left my water bottle on the kitchen table. On the ride home, I affectionately remembered my sister’s catastrophizing mother-in-law who unfailingly sent them back to Kansas City from her Napton, Missouri farm with a mason jar of water for drinking, pouring in an overheated radiator, and Lord only knew what else. A full plastic bottle tossed by the side of the road tempted me, but the contents were cloudy, so I soldiered on.
Fitch Nature Preserve
2055 E 1600 Road, Lawrence, KS 66044
“The Fitch,” as it is affectionately known, is part of the University of Kansas’s Field Station five miles of public nature trails. Park across from the Fitch at the McColl Nature Preserve, and walk 400 yards beyond the gate to reach the trailhead and picnic area. Once there, you’ll find information about the area’s namesake, herpetologist Henry Fitch, who lived and researched on the plot for more than 50 years. One look at Google’s aerial map of the Fitch will reveal why this is such a prime birding spot: It’s a virtually unbroken forest. The unbroken aspect is why I highly recommend birders visit in the winter. The first time we visited many years ago, my partner Lisa and I hiked it in April and saw all kinds of delights, including my first yellow-bellied sapsucker. Floating on a cloud of birder’s bliss, I bent to tie the shoe of my boot. Wait…I hadn’t worn polka-dotted jeans… It took what felt like hours to pick off all the ticks hurrying up our legs. For winter birders (and supposedly those doused in repellent), these unwelcome visitors aren’t a problem.
Photo Credit: Red-shouldered Hawk by Jim McClellan/Audubon Photography Awards
Because it is several miles out of Lawrence proper, the Fitch offers several silence-soaked hikes, both short and long. Other than my own clumsy self stumbling over a root and the occasional small plane taking off or landing at Lawrence Municipal Airport, I heard only the wind in the trees and birds. Here’s who I heard and spotted on the short Quarry Trail, the shortest hike from the trailhead: Red-headed Woodpeckers (what a winter for the Red-headed’s!), White-throated Sparrows sifting through the leaves, Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, American Crows, a Bald Eagle flying overhead, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Cardinals, and Robins.
Bowersock Mill & Power Company, Constant Park, Burcham Park
parking at W 2nd St & Indiana St, Lawrence, KS 66044
Burcham Park is a city-managed riverfront park blessed with towering cottonwoods and other deciduous trees and undergrowth favorable to many songbird species. In winter, birders can also see waterfowl in the river as well. Those of you wanting to witness the wild cackle and vermillion crest of a Pileated Woodpecker, this is your spot! They are reliably present. Taking the paved and nicely accessible walk through Burcham Park to the east, you can eventually cross Constant Park to an unpaved yard and climb a set of wooden stairs to the 2nd Street bridge over the Kansas River. From the bridge, winter birders can look east toward the historic Bowersock Mill & Power Company and often see a bald eagle or two roosting in the prominent tree on the right bank. Depending on the ice cover, you might see multiple “baldies” roosting and fishing over the open water east of the dam.
Photo Credit: Pileated Woodpecker by Rolland Swain/Audubon Photography Awards
If you head west from the parking lot, an unpaved trail takes you to a heavily wooded area behind the University of Kansas Women’s Crew facility, home to many wintering species as well. Here is my list of birds from a January trip to Burcham: Canada Geese; Common Goldeneye; Ring-Billed Gulls; Bald Eagle; Red-shouldered Hawk; Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers; Northern Flickers; Blue Jays; American Crows, Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice; White-breasted Nuthatches; American Robins; Eastern Bluebirds; Yellow-rumped Warblers; House Finches; Dark-eyed Juncos; White-throated and Song Sparrows; and Northern Cardinals.
Photo Credit: Common Goldeneye by Shirlay Donald/Audubon Photography Awards
Because these hikes are so close to downtown Lawrence, you’ll find a great restaurant or coffee house to warm your bones after.
Lawrence Nature Park
201 Folks Rd, Lawrence, KS 66049
Jointly managed by the Lawrence Parks & Rec and the Kansas Land Trust, this 100-acre park is a hidden gem of primarily oak-hickory forest between residential developments in Northwest Lawrence. Half a dozen Red-headed Woodpeckers offered quite a display on a January visit, cartwheeling through the treetops in pairs and sending melting snow flying. Since they and the Red-breasted Nuthatches I saw on the trip as well are less common to the area, I trust their presence as an indicator that this is great winter habitat for they and the scores of other songbirds that made an appearance. The park offers three trail loops of varying lengths, technicalities, and inclines with open views of limestone outcrops and wooded slopes. The “white” trail that I hiked was a relatively easy one-mile round-trip. Pieced together with both donated and purchased land, the Lawrence Nature Park is a sterling example of civic cooperation in preserving conservation easements within urban boundaries.
As I did, those with bicycles can load them onto Lawrence Transit’s all-electric Bus #6 from downtown and avoid some winter gusts from the North. A 10-minute bus ride and 10-minute bike jaunt north took me to the parking lot and trailhead.