Location Spotlight: North America’s Most Endangered Ecosystem, Tallgrass Prairie – Part I

I’m rooted in the prairie four generations deep, and those brown hills make the spirit rise in me.  It’s the land I do my dreaming in, the place where I’ve found peace.  Can you tell me why it is I’m going to leave?

-Candace Savage-

Ozark Bill has been most fortunate during the past few weeks.  I have been able to visit some public prairie lands in south-western Missouri during two overnight trips.  The first, and topic of this post, was a trip that Steve and I took to Prairie State Park, near Lamar, MO.  We had planned on visiting a potential five prairie remnants, but we soon discovered that our 1.5 days was a bare minimum to get to know PSP, so that was as far as we got.  A couple weeks later, Sarah and I made a similar trip.  Back to PSP and as well we visited a few prairies in the El Dorado Springs neighborhood.  That will be the subject of part two of this spotlight.

Did you know?  As the title alludes, Missouri has less than 1% of its pre-European settlement 155 million acres of prairie remaining.  Thanks to John Deere and his insidious prairie-busting invention, 99% of all tall-grass prairie was forever lost in less than 200 years of intensive agriculture.  Most of the land encompassing the 3700 acres of what is now called Prairie State Park is composed of original tall-grass prairie.  The reason it escaped the plow?  For the same reason much of the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas – the top soil contains large quantities of rock, which made it too difficult to plow.  Instead, ranchers have used these areas to graze domestic cattle.  Since we also wiped the American Bison off the map, this was something of a benefit to this ecosystem, as the tall-grass prairie benefits from grazing and fire disturbances.

Okay, enough of the depressing legacy our glorious westward expansion.  There must be something left to celebrate considering we were willing to spend nearly two thousand miles in the car.  Yes there is, and I hope to show what I can of what there is still to find by taking a winter trip to Missouri’s remnant prairies.

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“Betwixt & Between”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/6.3, 1/640 sec

I can’t see a way of knowing the prairie without making multiple trips across the calendar.  Each of the green months will have a totally different blooming forb (more than 800 species in total) composition; similarly, each month of the calendar will have a new wildlife mix as migration consistently shuffles bird species.  The image of the bison above was named for the utterly fascinating behavior that these free-ranging animals demonstrated as Steve and I moved around the trails of PSP.  Signs on the drive into the park kept us focused on the fact that these were in fact wild-animals with unpredictable tendencies and not to get too close to them.  Well, this puzzled me, to say the least.  So, we asked for clarification from the nice fellow named Dana Hoisington, the visitor’s center naturalist. He gave us the detail we were looking for: 100 yards.  Okay, so while we where traversing the hills of the tall-grass, soaking up the breath-taking scenery and doing our best to find some interesting birds, we will gladly steer clear by maintaining the advised restriction from these one to two ton herbivores that can move at speeds up to 35 mph.  If we must.

We left the visitor’s center no more than an hour of arriving at PSP, hiking up the hill of what looked to be a pleasant, long hike.  In less than five minutes we came across two groups of the herd, both on opposite sides of the trail we were traversing.  The larger group comprised nearly 40 animals, the smaller came to about 10-15.  How aware they were!  They watched us with what appeared to be great curiosity, never lowering their gaze.  As we headed up the hill, in between the two groups, we noticed they were slowly moving towards us.  Curious.  They did not seem spooked, defensive or aggressive, so we decided to make our slow but steady progress up the hill, away from the visitor’s center.  We quickly realized that we would probably not be able to make it between the two groups before their progression would result in the three of our groups “meeting up”.  We decided to move back the way we came a bit, thinking that maybe the two groups were uncomfortable with the idea of being “split up” by two bipeds carrying too much optical equipment.  Imagine our increasingly apparent consternation at the fact that the two groups were now both moving towards us, NOT towards each other!  It seemed like someone forgot to tell the bison the 100 yard rule!  We increased our pace back to the visitor’s center at the same time that Dana was climbing the hill to assist us!  He told us this was very odd behavior that he had not observed before.

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“Tons of Fun”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/6.3, 1/800 sec

The shot above was taken right before we really decided it was time to retreat.  They did not seem aggressive at all, but down right fascinated.  It would have been an irresponsible experiment, for sure, but I would love to have known what would have happened if we stayed still and let them continue towards us.  We eventually made our way around this coalesced herd and were able to get a nice walk through a good portion of the park.  The real puzzling part of their behavior is that during other instances of walking towards similarly sized groups, they had a totally opposite reaction of running.  Yes, running, galloping, I’m not sure the correct name, but wow.  After observing this, the silent question each of us had about what would we do if these limber bulks decided to charge us became mostly academic.  I do not believe there would be much that could have been done.  Ideas did come up: raise arms and tripods over head and yell with deep voice, play matador and dodge at last minute, roll into ball and protect head….  After seeing these guys slowly trod between feeding stations at places like Lone Elk Park, I am still astonished at observing the speeds at which they can move!  Next time I will need to remember to watch “Dances with Wolves” before I do this.

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“Terrestrial Thunder”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/6.3, 1/1000 sec

Being able to witness the sound and feeling of small numbers of these animals thundering across the hills makes one wonder what it would have been like to observe endless thousands doing so across the great plains 200 years ago.  Shortly after spooking this group we came across the skeletal remains of two bison, minus the skulls.  It was interesting to observe the elongated vertebrate, located in the hump, that help support the huge, muscular neck of these animals.  An adult male bison’s head can weigh up to 500lbs, so it seems obvious the need for such support.

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“Harris’s Sparrow, February 2013”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/7.1, 1/200 sec

Harris’s Sparrow winter’s in a narrow band across the great plains and is rather common in western MO.  We were able to spot what must have been near 50 around PSP during our visit.  This was a new one for my bird species photograph list and a lifer for Steve.  The animal pictured above is a juvenile and does not yet have the characteristics black mask of the adults.

When we thought of the birds we had a chance to find and photograph during this visit an obvious short list came to mind: Greater Prairie Chicken, Prairie Falcon, Merlin, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-Eared Owl, Harris’s Sparrow.  For me, two species were at the top of that list, GPCH and PRFA.  I thought that at this time of year and the relative scarcity that we would have less than a 2% chance of finding Prairie Chicken and a much smaller chance at making photographs.

With a statewide population that once was a million or more birds, the GPCH flock in Missouri is now an estimated 500 birds.  The historical range of this species ran from the Atlantic coast, north to the lake states and well into central Canada, south into the Arkansas Ozarks and as far south as Texas.  The current range is now mostly centered around the middle plains states, including the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, and the species as a whole is estimated to be around 450K birds and considered vulnerable.  The Atlantic coast race, known as the “Heath Hen” went extinct in 1932 and the TX coast race, “Attwater’s Prairie Chicken” is now known as the most critically endangered bird in the United States.

Great efforts are being put forth to help save Missouri’s GPCH flock; however, many believe it may likely be too little, too late.  Hunting has been banned for nearly 100 years, so why the problems?  Loss of habitat.  Tall-grass prairie and similar ecosystems are what these birds require and they need a minimum of between 10,000 and 20,000 acres of unfragmented native prairie habitat.  There are simply no contiguous tracks of private or public prairies in MO that will provide this kind of area needed.  In addition, a series of well done investigations from Kansas State University discovered that most GPCH hens would avoid nesting or rearing young within 1/4 mile of power lines and trees and 1/3 of a mile from roads.  Considering most prairie tracks in MO are less than 2500 acres and that most of these are cut with roads or interspersed with private farm or ranch lands, it is no wonder that the flock has continued to dwindle.

Not all hope is lost for the future of the GPCH in Missouri!  Proper management of habitat is currently ongoing at the Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch in north-west MO.  Combined with the nearly 8000 acres of the nearby Neal Smith NWR across the boarder in Iowa, this mostly contiguous prairie stretch may keep the GPCH nesting in the Show-Me State for future generations to witness.

So, did we find the birds?

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“Greater Prairie Chickens in Flight, February 2013”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 1000,  f/5, 1/1000 sec

Yes!  Hiking through a rather nondescript section of the prairie, all of a sudden we flushed a couple of birds.  As I mentioned earlier, I did not really expect that we would be fortunate enough to spot them during winter, so I tried to turn them into anything else.  Quail, doves, anything but GPCH.  As Steve and I talked it through and looked at my first batch of crappy images I was able to shoot off, it seemed more and more unlikely they could be anything but GPCH.  As we closed within 100 yards or so we stopped to see if we could find them using the scope and my big camera lens.  I felt our chances would be very slim here as well.  What would the chances be of finding these birds that can camouflage so well in the prairie vegetation?  In a relatively short time I was shocked to hear Stephen proclaim, “I think I found one!”  This was a great job from someone not completely accustomed to using a scope for birding.  I was able to find the bird in my camera and squeezed a few shots and discovered the bird was watching us!  Can you find him in the photo below?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ozark_bill/8511090731/in/photostream/lightbox/

“Where’s Waldo?”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 1000,  f/5, 1/640 sec

This cover’s some of the highlights and a few images made during our brief visit.  I will continue to post images from this trip on Flickr and I will look forward to sharing stories and more photographs from the trip Sarah and I made back to this region a couple of weeks later.  Much of the information I presented in this post and further reading can be found in these great publications:

  • “Public Prairies of Missouri 3rd Ed” 1999. Free Publication by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
  • “Prairie: A Natural History” 2004. Candace Savage. Greystone Books.
  • “Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse” 2012. Noppadol Paothong. Noppadol Paothong Photograpy LLC.
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