Friday, June 5, 2009
I arrived in Denver — the only airport I could easily get to for free — and rented a car there. The rental agent walked me out to the lot to show me the car, and as we were examining the outside for “pre-existing damage”, my attention wandered…there were a pair of birds chasing each other around across the lot, and then perched up on the chainlink fence. That’s an interesting shape, I thought…looks like a kingbird. I dug into my bag for my binoculars, while going over the rental contract, and took a quick look. It was a pair of Western Kingbirds; this trip was going to be fun!
link to more information on the project.
click here): it shows just a little of the variety of life in this place.
We stayed at the former ranch house for the property, and for the next three days we got up before dawn went until noon or so, doing our survey lines. Using a GPS device, we’d go to each designated spot and stand for ten minutes, counting all the birds in a radius of 100 feet. Grasshopper sparrows and Western Meadowlark were ubiquitous throughout, and we often counted a half-dozen of each within a count circle. It was surprising to see as we walked how the prairie wold shift in even short distances. Where in one spot you’d have short grass and wildflowers, a hundred yards away you’d be stepping around cacti and spiky shrubs. With these shifts in plantlife there was also a shift in birdlife, so in the gullies we might have Bell’s Vireo, Blue Grosbeak, and Baltimore and Bullock’s Oriole, whereas on the open flatlands we’d have Western Meadowlark, Western and Eastern Kingbirds, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, Lark Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow and Field Sparrow. One pond turned up Cinnamon, Blue and Green-winged Teals, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Killdeer, Barn, Tree and Bank Swallows, and a passing group of Upland Sandpiper. It was interesting how localized some of the birds were…about twenty miles away we checked out a similar prairie that had Chestnut-Collared Longspur, Bairds Sparrow, and large groups of Lark Bunting, while where we were none of those species turned up.
The weather surprised me as much as the diversity did. I’d reluctantly packed a wool hat and extra jacket layer, thinking at the time that there was no way I’d need that stuff in late May. On our second day I found myself wearing everything I had most of the time, and still being chilled. It was generally overcast and cold, with a steady wind, and temperatures ranged down into the forties during a couple of mornings. It did warm up in the afternoon once or twice, but if I go back to South Dakota I’m bringing my parka! The afternoons were our time off, since bird activity tended to decrease by 11am or so, and our samples would be skewed if we continued to survey after that. Most of our IDs came from hearing, rather than seeing, birds, so if they stopped singing it was hard to get a good read on what was there. In fact, one morning was so rainy/cold/windy that we stopped by 8am—the birds seemed suppressed by the conditions, and it wouldn’t be a usable sample. We did take advantage of our free time, and spent one afternoon at LaCreek NWR. LaCreek is famous for it’s Trumpeter Swan population, which is largest around Thanksgiving and can number in the thousands. We hoped to see a couple of stragglers in the area, but were unlucky in that regard. We were very lucky, though, to meet up with Tom Koerner, who manages the refuge and who, without prompting, took us on a two hour tour of the place in his truck. Tom has a deep knowledge of the Refuge, and is responsible for keeping it healthy and appropriately managed. In that regard he seemed to be very successful. Managing a piece of land is utterly complex…altering one aspect has ramifications for every other. Maintaing a “wild” state is takes a lot of work, and a lot of intelligence and experience, and it certainly seemed that Tom was well-qualified for the job. He was also extremely friendly, and I found myself inspired again by someone doing the hard, concrete work of conservation while maintaining a palpable excitement about the place he is caring for.
CLICK HERE for lots more pictures from this trip.