Where there is prairie
DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Have you ever seen the prairie? Not a tiny meadow somewhere, or a strip of little bluestem by a reservoir. I mean the real prairie, that stretches in every direction for as far as you can see.
If you haven’t, it’s little wonder. There isn’t much prairie left in the world.
Prairie is the name given by early explorers to the temperate grasslands that once dominated huge areas of North America. Today, most of the prairie is simply gone, converted to croplands, pastures, suburbs, and parking lots.
But, a few remnants remain. Yesterday morning, I made a brief foray into the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. According to the WWF, “The Flint Hills and adjacent Osage Hills contain the last large pieces of tallgrass prairie in the world.” Stony and dissected, the Flint Hills prairies have largely escaped the plow.
I exited I-35 at Cassoday — which, as you can see, proclaims itself “Prairie Chicken capital of the World” — to begin my exploration of the Flint Hills Wildlife Drive, a route through ranch lands in the Flint Hills.
I drove slowly, never out of earshot, it seemed, of Eastern Meadowlarks’ soprano voices. I did not hear even one Western-type song. Red-winged Blackbirds and cowbirds were abundant and vocal, but I couldn’t find any Brewer’s Blackbirds. Killdeer circled overhead, hollering.
Despite the grandiose signage in Cassoday, I held little hope of seeing prairie-chickens. I didn’t have the scoop on any lek locations, though I thought there was a slight chance some might fly across the road. As the prairies have disappeared, so have these weird, wonderful birds. Apparently they are still abundant enough in Kansas, however, that they are hunted as game birds. Well, it wasn’t a lucky prairie-chicken day for me.
Sparrows were good in the grasses and fencerows. It was clear, however, that summer breeders had not yet returned. Instead, I encountered the winter residents and migrants: Savannahs, Vespers, Harris’s, and Juncos.
Two Vesper Sparrows put on a good show for me, remaining visible in the dried grasses and giving me the best looks I’d ever had at the reddish “shoulders” (lesser coverts) that once earned the species the name Bay-winged Bunting.
Prairie plants were just beginning to break dormancy. Prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii) is apparently one of the earliest bloomers.
In narrow riparian corridors along creeks, I found titmice, bluebirds, turkeys, Downy and Red-bellied woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Wrens, and Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flickers. Only the earliest trees had broken dormancy; even the redbuds were just beginning to emerge.
Loggerhead Shrikes and a Red-tailed Hawk hunted the prairie yesterday. The bison that once grazed these lands are gone now, replaced by domestic cattle. Soon, the hills will be green again, and summer birds will have returned to raise their families. I wish I could go back then.