Where there is prairie

2007 March 27
by David J. Ringer

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.

prairie-chicken-capital

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-parsley

Prairie plants were just beginning to break dormancy. Prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii) is apparently one of the earliest bloomers.

redbuds

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.

flint-hills-kansas-prairie

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.

Related posts:

  1. Flint Hills appetizer
  2. Prairie ghosts
  3. A Birder’s Year: January-April
5 Responses
  1. March 29, 2007

    Ahh, the prairies. Now you’re speaking my language. I remember driving through Kansas on the way to some high school conference and seeing the real prairie fields. Here in Cooke County, we have a couple fields left, and I know where every one of them is located because I’ve cut the prairie hay off of all of ‘em. Well, I might have missed one. But my point is…I dunno. But real prairie can never have been plowed or planted. The biggest field we have that I know of is 700 acres. Then there are smaller ones of 250 and 300 acres. I don’t know my birds well enough, but they used to keep me company when I’d be cutting those prairies. The hawks would dive down on the mice and rats that were trying to escape the swather, and the…smaller birds…would dart all around catching the grasshoppers. I miss those days.

  2. February 21, 2009

    The Flint Hills are a special place. Your quest for prairie chickens is to be admired and I hope you keep looking. A couple of suggestions if I may: The Konza Prairie Biological Station – where I’m a docent – offers prairie chicken viewing in March/April when the birds are booming on their leks. In even-numbered years, the Kansas Birding Festival in Wakefield offers trips to view leks as well. I hesitate to post links in a comment – lest the spam filters stop me – but I can give you the links to those events if you like.

    Dennis

  3. Debra Holland permalink
    May 13, 2014

    “OH-MY-GOODNESS”
    I love Ks. I had to move away from there 21 yrs. ago. I have been back to visit (when I can). I always promise myself that I will come back for good someday, and I will.
    I really like my location now but, “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME”.

  4. Debra Holland permalink
    May 13, 2014

    “OH-MY-GOODNESS”
    I love Ks. I had to move away from there 21 yrs. ago. I have been back to visit (when I can). I always promise myself that I will come back for good someday, and I will.
    I really like my location now but, “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME”.
    PS: The pictures are great, they brought back good memories, (I caught a 7 & 1/2 lb. large mouth bass while sitting in a floater in the middle of a farmer’s pond). That was a lot of fun.

    Deb

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