Hundreds of migrating Sandhill Cranes stop over at a playa in eastern New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Tish McDaniel.

Playas — A Town Square for Wildlife

If you’ve ever flown over western Kansas or the Texas panhandle, you may have noticed shimmering, blue circles dotting the landscape. Many of those blue circles were playas — shallow, temporary ponds that collect runoff from the surrounding area after large rain events. Some dry up within days. Others contain water for weeks or months.

Aerial view of playas in the Texas panhandle. Photo courtesy of Kevin Kraai.

With more than 80,000 scattered across the western Great Plains, playas are the most numerous wetlands in the region. They support the people who live in this region, as well as a diversity of plants and wildlife.

Research shows these ephemeral wetlands recharge the Ogallala Aquifer. They’re also wonderful water filtration systems — keeping fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides out of the groundwater. Then, there’s that other benefit — providing food and shelter for the abundant wildlife found around playas.

When you talk to Tom Flowers — a retired district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at Meade, Kansas, and an enthusiastic bird-watcher — his astonishment about the life-cycle of these playas becomes apparent. He says these ephemeral lakes are almost magical.

“They can be dry for 15 or 20 years, have a rainfall event, and immediately within days perennial plants show up. They’ve lay dormant beneath the ground for all these years and as soon as that soil becomes moist, they shoot up and produce bulrush, cattails, mud plantain, spikerush, and a host of plants.”

An explosion of plant life in a wet playa. Photo courtesy of Brian Slobe.

That explosion of plant life is just part of it. Flowers is fascinated by the small creatures that wake up, too.

“They fall down in the cracks when it’s dry, and they just lay there as eggs. As soon as it gets wet, within just a few days, the eggs hatch, they grow, and they become small invertebrates such as fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, clam shrimp, and snails.”

Tiny invertebrates in wet playas provide food for local and migrating birds. Photo courtesy of Darryl Birkenfeld.

This bursting-forth of plant and animal life is irresistible to local and migrating birds. The grasses, plants, and those little invertebrates are all a ready feast for the birds — both the locals and the commuters.

According to Susan Skagen, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, “There is a broad diversity of birds migrating north and south and using wetlands, including playas, for rest stops. You’ll see a lot of the shorebirds that are making very long-distance migrations: White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover. They go right through the heart of the plains. It’s the shortest distance from Tierra del Fuego, which is how far some of them actually fly from, all the way up to the arctic.”

“Many of these birds eat the small little animals in playas,” explains Flowers. “So, even though playas don’t hold water very long, they’re absolutely critically important for not only migratory birds but also our summer and resident birds for nesting and feeding.”

To hear Flowers tell it, it’s as if playas are the town square for wildlife: “Not only birds, but bison, raccoons, coyotes, deer…everything comes to have a drink.”

Not only birds, but bison, raccoons, coyotes, deer…everything comes to have a drink from the many playa wetlands scattered across the western Great Plains. Photo courtesy of Josh Mathis.

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