Winter Wings: Bird Surveys on the Prairie
There is always something to look forward to in every season spent out on a prairie. The spring is filled with the first pops of lush color- purples, blues, and yellows of early wildflowers- and the air is filled with songs from breeding grassland birds. With the pressing heat of the summer, the prairie song shifts to the heavy buzzing of cicadas and crickets, and if the rains have been generous enough, the tallgrasses can envelop you into a grassland sea. Fall brings the first real promise of a break in the Texas heat (fingers-crossed it happens before November) and while birds migrate to and through Texas to their wintering grounds, the wind hisses through the subtle reds and brassy hues of dormant grasses, pushing them aside to show off flashes of yellow goldenrods. Finally, when the last of the insect song gives way, winter prairies become serene landscapes punctuated by short chirps from well hidden sparrows nestled beneath the grass canopy.
Seeking sparrows and other birds hiding in the grass is exactly what brings out NPAT staff and volunteers into the cold every winter with binoculars and cameras in hand. Winter birding on a prairie is a full sensory experience. Surveyors comb the prairies on foot, hoping to flush savannah and song sparrows up into the air for a brief glimpse of color pattern before vanishing. While only a few birds sing heartily or chitter restlessly through the winter months, prairies are never fully silent, and many birds are observed from a single short call.
Winter and spring bird surveys are conducted annually on NPAT’s Dowell Ranch, Talbot Brothers, Mary Talbot, Paul Mathews, Maddin Prairie and Lawther-Deer Park Prairie properties to assess bird populations, species richness, and to collect the data required to evaluate changes over time. For grassland dependent species, such as meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows, Texas’ native prairies and savannahs provide a critical winter refuge, breeding habitat, and stopover sites for thousands of migratory birds. Understanding the drivers of changes in bird abundance and documenting the presence or absence of expected species can be used to guide land management and contribute to grassland bird conservation. Among all ecosystems, grassland birds were found to have experienced the worst population declines since the 1970s. See 3billionbirds.org.
Winter bird survey efforts began in December at Talbot Brothers and Mary Talbot Prairies in New Boston. Both parcels protect rare silveus’ dropseed prairie, an ecosystem unique to Texas. Over two days, they recorded ~1700 individual birds and 52 different species.
Surveys continue this weekend, February 4th – 5th, when volunteers and staff will be out in Colorado City to survey Maddin Prairie. If you are interested in assisting with that effort, please contact Dr. Carly Aulicky for more information at [email protected].