Lessons from Travels: Kansas Prairies

by Carl Strang

I had heard that Kansas was the state with the best mix of high quality prairie sites, so I spent a few days touring there in June, 1999. Eastern Kansas gets enough rainfall to support tallgrass prairie, and the Flint Hills region has some good examples.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, part of the National Park system, is one such area. It still was being developed when I visited.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

Access then was by guided tour only. I remember being struck by nighthawks roosting on the ground.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Another site worth visiting is the Konza Prairie, a preserve and research station operated by Kansas State University.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

The Horsethief Canyon area provided some interesting topographic relief, along with an example of midgrass prairie on the upland plain.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

Finally, Cimarron National Grassland provided an excellent example of desert prairie.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

I was impressed by the diversity of plant species, and by how subtle differences in topography and erosion made large differences in vegetation. Higher, drained areas were more desert-like, with more yuccas, sagebrush and pincushion cacti, and the plants were more widely spaced. Lower areas had more grasses and prickly pear cacti, and less bare soil.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This was paradise for orchard orioles and both eastern and western kingbirds, which nested in the trees and foraged in the prairie.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Speaking of plants, here is one example.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

I certainly can recommend this state to anyone who wishes to get a good feel for the North American prairie biome in all its variations.

Kirtland’s Warbler Tour

by Carl Strang

Last Thursday and Friday I drove into the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I had two goals, the first of which I’ll detail tomorrow. My secondary goal was to take the Kirtland’s warbler tour. This is a seasonal education opportunity offered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Michigan Audubon (nearly done for this year). The tours begin with a video introduction at the Ramada in Grayling, and then the guide leads participants in a car caravan to the tour site. We drove to an area where the current crop of jack pines was mainly 3-5 feet tall.

The pines are on a harvest rotation, with large areas clear-cut and replanted, so that there always are large areas covered with the small pines the warblers favor.

Kirtland’s warbler is a federally endangered species, but the population trend is upward and the range is expanding thanks to the intense management efforts. Now some are breeding in Wisconsin and Ontario as well as both peninsulas of Michigan. The rarity of the species draws birders to the area, and about 15 of us were on the Friday morning tour.

Allison, our guide, was knowledgeable, and there were plenty of competent birders in the group to assist with the spotting.

The area appears to be structurally and botanically fairly simple. The pines were dominant in the area, with scattered oaks and cherries the other large woody plants.

Jack pine has short needles and small, curved cones.

Between the pines were a few shrubs, mainly huckleberries or blueberries, as well as sweetfern, one of my favorites.

The wonderful odor of sweetfern leaves I associate with wild places. Sadly it does not occur in DuPage County, as it is a sandy soil species.

Among the herbaceous plants were scattered hairy puccoons.

This is another sandy soil plant.

The puccoons frequently threw off some of the more anxious birders whose search image was tuned to the color yellow. Kirtland’s warbler males were singing loudly at all times, but for a while they stayed out of sight. In the meantime we enjoyed a surprising diversity of birds for such a simple ecosystem: four sparrows (field, vesper, clay-colored, Lincoln’s), 3 warblers (Kirtland’s, Nashville, palm), nighthawk, upland sandpiper, brown thrasher, towhee, Brewer’s blackbird, and rose-breasted grosbeak were notable ones. Eventually a male Kirtland’s warbler perched and sang on an exposed branch.

This is an expanded view of the dot on my photo that represented the warbler. We had good spotting scope views.

The tour was highly satisfying. However, it did not allow me to further my primary goal, which was to find Roesel’s katydids in the Lower Peninsula. More on that tomorrow.

Species Dossier: Common Nighthawk

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier features a bird which in DuPage County is a migrant rather than a breeder. That is unfortunate, because the spectacle of a hunting nighthawk in summer was a special delight in my younger days.

Nighthawk, Common

Generally these are seen in the air. They also roost (nest?) on buildings, large horizontal tree branches near woods edges, temporarily on deserted streets in early morning, and on rocks in the prairie. They were summer residents in Culver and Lafayette, Indiana, there were a few in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but they are essentially absent as breeders in DuPage County although they are abundant migrants there, with rivers of them passing over in spring and fall. They feed on aerial insects, sometimes chasing them spectacularly high above the ground. They show some evidence of territoriality when breeding, with aerobatic chases, steep dives with sudden upward turns and twists. Many were brought to the wildlife hospital at Willowbrook in the early 1980’s, wings broken by wires. Adults almost always died; they had to be force-fed and didn’t take the stress well. Some young birds would beg, however, and a few made it. In the clinic they showed an impressive threat display, opening the enormous pink-lined mouth and hissing.

14AU86. First fall migrants in DuPage County, IL.

15MY87. First of year (several) passing over Geneva.

16MY87. One resting on fence rail in front of house at Summerlakes subdivision, Warrenville. I approached within 7 feet and took several photos before it suddenly popped into flight.

Nighthawk roosting on decorative fence rail in a Warrenville subdivision.

10SE87. Bulk of fall migration over. An occasional individual in the evening, yet. 3 seen on 16SE the last noted for 1987.

10SE88. Still a few migrants.

27MY99. Nighthawks migrating over Willowbrook, evening.

JE99. Horsethief Trail, central Kansas. Nighthawk flying and calling at 1pm.

18AU99. First migrating nighthawks, DuPage County.

27AU00. Nighthawks have been common, passing through Warrenville the past week. Today at Illinois Beach State Park in the Natural Area I photographed one sleeping on a horizontal branch of an Austrian pine.

Autumn migrant roosting on a tree branch, Illinois Beach State Park.

23MY02. The first evening I’ve noticed many passing over. At Elsen’s Hill, some were flying low over the river to feed.

25MY02. At Meacham Grove after 10a.m., one flying over marsh area.

29SE11. Mayslake. An unusual group of 5 nighthawks passing over the preserve at mid-day, late for them.

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