Birding on a hundred-degree day might not top the list of outdoors activities in Kansas, but if you can take the heat, a waterhole makes a great photo opportunity. Birds spend a lot of time in and around the water when temperatures soar, and non-stop action is usually the reward.
I spent yesterday afternoon in a tent blind at a remote waterhole on Pratt Sandhills Wildlife Area. Temperatures inside the blind were at least 130 degrees, and I was soaked from sweat within minutes. The black inner lining of the blind made it a perfect hide for close-up work on sharp-eyed subjects, but it also absorbed heat and blocked any breeze. Uncomfortable, it allowed me to see a variety of adult and juvenile birds as they quenched their thirst and soaked themselves for natural air conditioning. And the photographic trade-off was worth it.
For several reasons, birds must stay near water. First, they’re feathered, and a downy covering is a brutal insulator that acts against them in hot weather. They don’t sweat. Birds often arrive every few minutes with gaping mouths, ready for another drink. And unlike deer and larger waterhole visitors that may drink quarts at a time, a bird's water tank is measured in teaspoons. So they visit often.
But thirst is seldom a reason to drop their natural caution. I had to move my blind to allow viewing in the most shadowed and remote parts of the waterhole. Birds are constantly on guard for a surprise attack from a Cooper’s hawk or bobcat; predators also realize the drawing power of a waterhole. So the birds normally sneak through dense foliage to find a safe drinking place.
Some birds splashed and soaked their feathers before flying into nearby shade. Then, even a hot breeze could help them cool off.
Watch for an expanded version of “Birds at a Waterhole” on the next Kansas Outdoors Today video player on the KDWPT homepage. I’ve got some nice closeup footage of some of Kansas’ most colorful species, and you won’t even have to leave your cool house. Or, if you're up for it, visit a KDWPT public land waterhole and see for yourself.