Birds, people flocking to wetlands after opening of Discovery Center; Family Fun Day scheduled

A visitor to the Baker University Wetlands spends a quiet moment on a bench near pools east of the Discovery Center. The new concrete trail in the foreground leads to boardwalks connecting to a larger pool to the south. The Discovery Center and wetlands should be much busier from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday as Outside for a Better Inside sponsors a Family Fun Day at the site.

The Baker University Wetlands is attracting more and more visitors of many kinds.

Roger Boyd, manager of the wetlands, said the site’s Discovery Center, 1365 North 1250 Road, has averaged about 1,000 visitors a month since it opened in October 2015. The wetlands also draws an unknown number of hikers to the trails through the 927-acre site.

“The first year the Discovery Center was open, we had a little more than 11,000 visitors to the center,” he said. “In the six months since October, we’re pretty much on track to have that same number for this year. We don’t keep track of how many people use the trails. I wouldn’t even make an estimate. A lot of people after they visit the Discovery Center for the first time, they come back every day to walk the trails.”

From observations, trail users have significantly increased as the wetlands became more visible with the opening of the South Lawrence Trafficway and the improvements to East 1400 Road, which wraps around the west end of the site that is home to the Discovery Center, Boyd said.

April visitations may exceed the 1,000-a-month norm because of the second annual Family Fun Day from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. Sponsored by the Lawrence nonprofit Outside for a Better Inside, the event will place various biologists and naturalists throughout the wetlands to point out aspects of the ecosystem, said Mary Jones, secretary of Outside for a Better Inside. Other naturalists will have stations that display wildlife native to the wetlands and techniques like bird banding.

Weather permitting, canoe rides will be available on the pool near the Discovery Center, and additional wildlife presentations will be offered in the center’s classroom, Jones said.

“It’s an amazing place,” she said. “We’re so fortunate to have that here. I was out there with a naturalist, and it’s amazing what they can point out that you would never notice.”

Outside for a Better Inside also contributed to a new amenity that could draw even more to the wetlands. Boyd said the organization provided a third of the funding for an 850-foot concrete trail that connects the Discovery Center parking lot to the boardwalk leading to a pool to the west. The concrete trail will make the wetlands much more accessible to wheelchairs and parents with strollers, he said.

“It replaced a gravel trail,” he said. “Even though it was tightly packed gravel, it could be pretty hard to get a stroller down it.”

The wetlands are also attracting more wildlife. That includes more snakes, turtles and frogs, and a greater variety of birds. Currently, migratory birds are revisiting or discovering the wetlands, Boyd said. The end of construction on the Discovery Center and SLT also made birds more comfortable with the site, he said.

“The numbers are way up from just a year ago, and much more so than two years ago,” he said. “Two years ago, we were lucky to see one or two golden plovers. Last year, we were excited when we saw a dozen. Just now, I counted a flock of 63. That’s fantastic. Those are not very common birds in eastern Kansas. They are more common out in Cheyenne Bottoms or Quivira (National Wildlife Refuge) in central Kansas.”

Migrating birds are appearing earlier than normal because of global warming, Boyd said.

So, unfortunately, are monarch butterflies.

“We’re seeing them come through,” he said. “From my understanding, that’s not supposed to be happening. They are supposed be stopping in Texas from their winter homes in Mexico to lay eggs on milkweed plants and die. Milkweed plants aren’t up yet in the fields of Kansas. Their wings are pretty beat up. They’re going to die before they find any milkweed.”