By Pam Martin, KDWPT program specialist
Every day is different at Cheyenne Bottoms, which makes visiting and working at the Bottoms an endless adventure and this year we haven’t even had to leave the building to witness nature’s dramas.
After three years of fairly good precipitation, terrestrial and aquatic vegetation growth exploded, providing plenty of food and cover for prey and predator – a lush backdrop to the drama. Leopard frogs and bullfrogs responded by reproducing in high numbers, which means the snakes, egrets, herons and all the other predators are eating lots of frogs’ legs.
Providing front-row seating, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center windows present a perfect viewing platform. Both the plains and common garter snakes have been eating their fill of frogs, although they seem to miss many more times than successfully catching prey. Their antics provide comedic relief.
Moving along the water’s edge, one garter snake I watched seemed to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of frogs, a kind of sensory overload, like a kid in a candy store. Left, right, front, the snake struck, while the frogs jumped easily out of reach in all directions. The snake continued around the edge, striking at, but not catching anything. Eventually it moved out of sight, looking for less “jumpy” or wary prey.
A large bullfrog the size of a dinner plate, seemed unconcerned, as a garter snake looked him over. After sizing up the situation, the snake wisely turned away, looking for smaller prey. Bullfrogs will eat anything they can fit in their mouths, including each other, and probably wouldn’t be averse to eating a small snake.
In KWEC’s pollinator garden other characters act out the same scene. While weeding in the garden, one of the graduate students heard the thrasher pair loudly scolding. They have nested in the trumpet and honeysuckle vines the past three years. With the scolding escalating in intensity, she decided to check out the commotion. Parting the trumpet vine, she came face to face with a speckled king snake eating a thrasher fledgling.
Adding elegance to the show, herons and egrets stalk their prey. Standing motionless for several minutes, they are a study of patience. In the blink of an eye, their long necks shoot forward, stabbing beak disappearing under water and, more often than not, rising with a fish or frog.
Herons will even take on snakes. We once watched a large great blue heron catch a water snake. It was quite a battle, with the heron finally emerging victorious.
These life and death dramas take place daily at Cheyenne Bottoms and there’s no charge to watch the performance. With fall approaching, new characters are arriving headed for distant lands. Take a drive out and catch the show.