An Outing for the Birds

When considering attracting wildlife to a landscape, native plants matter. More diversity of native plant species and greater area of that native vegetation coverage both translate to a higher diversity of wildlife species attracted. Add water into the habitat offerings and your wildlife species attracted will go up even more. We probably all learned these pretty simple ecological concepts in high school. I enjoyed seeing these concepts on display this last Saturday while participating in the annual ritual of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

CBC History

Frank M. Chapman

It was the 70th annual CBC for the Halstead-Newton area, and the 118th national CBC for the Audubon Society. The national Christmas Bird Count has a long history. The first CBC was initiated as a response to unfettered sport shooting of the mid to late 1800s. A Christmas Day bird hunting competition to see who could bring back the most birds was a common pastime. Following a concern for declining bird populations amidst a new conservation trend, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition. The “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them was born (see History of the Christmas Bird Count for more). The citizen science data collected by Christmas Bird Counts allow for the study of long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Halstead-Newton 70th Annual Count

Dr. Dwight Platt

Dwight Platt was a freshman at Bethel College when he helped start the Halstead-Newton CBC. He has organized/participated in nearly all of the 70 Halstead-Newton CBCs. This Wichita Eagle article tells more about the count history. The 16-mile diameter circle Newton-Halstead CBC sampling area stretches from Harvey Co. West Park to the eastern limits of Newton. Count organizer Lorna Harder gave us our CBC assignments. My group of six, led by master birder Gregg Friesen, observed the sunrise as we set out to our designated count area of western Harvey County.

I took the job of recorder and quickly realized that I would be kept busy. The remainder of our group included experienced birders Harv Hiebert, Fred Bartel, Greta Hiebert, and Kyle Miller Hesed, who rarely had to refer to a field guide. With five pairs of eyes scanning the skies, the bird sightings came rapidly. Good bird identification utilizes perception of visual silhouette shape, flight pattern, colors/marking patterns, habitat association, and the audible patterns of calls. Even subtle variations in little “chip” and “pish” sounds can help discern species differences. My group mates incorporated all of these identification skills in ways that were quick, accurate, and impressive.

Bird silhouettes – from https://www.teacuprex.com

We started by counting what we saw from the van along roadsides, in fields, and farmyards. When we came to an area that included more adjacent habitat than farm fields, we would park roadside and spend a bit more time watching and listening. We eventually walked the roads and trails of the 310-acre Harvey County West Park, which included both sides of the Little Arkansas River and a nature trail around the 10-acre lake. Nearby “Sand Prairie,” an 80-acre parcel of sand prairie, ephemeral wetlands, shrubby areas, and woodlands co-owned by Bethel College and The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, also provides valuable bird habitat. Click on this summary of the habitat of Harvey County if you would like to know about its birding hotspots.

Data collection sheet for Sections 3 and 4 of the 2018 Halstead-Newton CBC

The above data sheet is a compilation of the 48 species we observed throughout the day and generally where we saw them. Red-winged blackbirds were most common and seen and heard by the thousands as their flying blackbird ribbons passed overhead. We estimated seeing 25,000 blackbirds and our estimates were probably low. Some highlight birds for me included a pair of spotted towhees, a pair of pileated woodpeckers, and a marsh wren. The spotted towhee is a pretty bird I don’t see often. A pileated woodpecker is the largest of our woodpeckers that used to be rare in Kansas. With fire suppression allowing more growth of woodlands, pileated woodpeckers are becoming more common. Gregg turned to technology to confirm the recluse marsh wren for which we only had a brief glimpse that was not adequate for identification. A quick playing of the marsh wren song from his iPhone initiated a replica response from the bird hidden in the brush.

Spotted towhee – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Most of the birds we saw are habitat specific – they can be predictably spotted looking for food in their preferred habitats. Kingfishers and great blue herons are found around the river where they catch fish. Grassland sparrows are found in the prairies. Woodpeckers are found exploring dead limbs of trees. The spotted towhee hangs out in tangled thickets and the tufted titmouse frequents woodlands. Northern harriers or “marsh hawks” are seen flying over wetlands, and red-tailed hawks perch in the tops of trees looking for prey.

Pileated woodpecker – Photograph by David Turgeon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Changes in Habitat

Bird populations are affected by changes in the quality or acreage of their specific habitats. The area certainly has more trees, shrubs and woody vines today than it did 70 years ago. This change has shifted composition of bird species observed during the CBC. Management tools, including grazing, herbicide application, and prescribed burning, are needed to maintain grassland integrity in certain areas. But regardless of where you find yourself in the grassland to woodland spectrum, Kansas native vegetation still provides essential habitat of food and shelter for various bird species.

Greta Hiebert, Gregg Friesen, and Kyle Miller Hesed birding Sand Prairie

We finished the count day with listening ears for the calls of owls. Standing roadside while overlooking a marshy prairie, we watched the sunset and enjoyed a rare windless Kansas stillness. It was a perfect end to an enjoyable day of citizen science. Then, a far-off pair of great horned owls bid us a faint goodnight.

Continuous Color in Your Prairie Garden

Many people ask for prairie plants that bloom continually from spring through fall.  There are no such plants growing in the prairie. Prairies rather have seasons; each time you look at them, something has changed. If you think about it, there are always plants coming into bloom and others going out of bloom throughout the year. “Petunias” don’t exist in the prairie, so to integrate wildflowers into the landscape, you must mix bloom times and plant heights. 

This list, ordered according to bloom time, will be a starting point as you think about establishing a prairie garden with continuous bloom. 

SPRING

Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a popular landscape plant with large yellow flowers from May-June and maybe again later in September atop waxy green foliage.  It stands 8-10 inches and likes a sunny location.  Dwarf blue false indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) can be found in pastures and prairie remnants throughout the state.  It is usually less than 24 inches tall and its beautiful light blue to lavender flower spikes can be seen above the emerging prairie grasses in May and June. The foliage is unique with its waxy blue green leaves which eventually dries to an intriguing black color in fall. Dwarf blue false indigo thrives in full sun, tolerates clay heavy soil,and needs little supplemental watering throughout the summer months.  Other spring wildflowers include purple poppy mallow, penstemon, amsonia, shooting star, yarrows and golden alexanders.

Missouri Evening Primrose

SUMMER

Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) can be seen throughout the state during the early summer months.  Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a butterfly magnet.  Whether it be the true species or one of the many new cultivars, purple coneflowers cannot be beat for their adaptability to sun or light shade, and the mid to late summer color they provide.  Purple coneflowers prefer moist, but well drained soil. Pale coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) can be seen throughout the Flint Hills and tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas.  Growing to three feet tall, pale coneflower is a drought tolerant and heat resistant addition to the garden.  Make sure it gets full sun in a well-drained soil.  The slender pale purple ray flowers (hence the name) in June and early July are sure to brighten up any perennial garden. Narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) is shorter than pale coneflower.  It averages 16 inches to 18 inches with short, wide, pink ray petals that bloom in late May and early June in south-central Kansas. Its range is the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies of the central Great Plains.

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is perhaps the most recognizable prairie plant. Its adaptability, vibrant colors and the lure of pollinating insects make it an excellent choice.  Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep fibrous root system.  Flowers range in color from the deepest reds in eastern Kansas to orange and even yellows further west in Kansas.  It prefers full sun and good drainage and it will tolerate light shade. Once established, it is very drought tolerant.  Several cultivated varieties have been developed including ‘Gay Butterflies’ and ‘Hello Yellow’.

Gayfeathers/BlazingStars (Liatris sp.) are true symbols of the prairie.  There are seven species that are native to the state, all bloom during the late summer and early fall.  Their upright spikes crowed with rose-purple flower heads add a vertical dimension to the last season landscape. Thickspike gayfeather, (Liatris pycnostachya) the past Kansas Native Plant Society wildflower of the year,found in the tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas is the tallest ultimately reaching up to five feet.  Rough gayfeather (L. aspera) is generally only about three feet tall and occurs in dry, rocky, tallgrass prairies and open woods in the eastern half of Kansas.  Several other worth mentioning are L. muconata, L. ligulystylis, L. spicata, L. squarossaLiatris spicata is the most common blazing star in the nursery trade but all would make a nice addition to any garden.  Other summer bloomers are black-eyed susan, purple prairie clover, and other milkweeds.

Purple Coneflower with Bumble Bee

FALL

Asters fill the gap between the relentless heat of summer and the frosty chills of autumn.  They complete the cycle of bloom in the prairie. There are more than 30 different asters represented in the Great Plains.  One of the showiest of the asters is New England aster (Aster novae-angliae).  It reaches up to 6 feet in height and has pinkish purple or lavender ray flowers.  It is found blooming in September and October in medium to moist tallgrass prairies. Other asters such as Aromatic asters ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’ are wonderful late season bloomers.  Another nice low growing aster is heath aster ‘Snow Flurry’.  Include some goldenrod and Iron plants to add color options to the autumn garden.

Aster ‘October Skies’ in full bloom

WINTER

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is one of the many prairie grasses that add winter interest to the landscape.  Taller grasses like and big bluestem, swithgrass, indiangrass will provide texture and movement in the garden.  These grasses are drought tolerant with deep roots systems that sustain them even through the harshest conditions.  Look for switchgrass cultivars like ‘Cheyenne Sky’, ‘Northwind’ and ‘Totem Pole’

Little Bluestem with beautiful fall color

This is one of several design principles that are key to the success of any prairie garden.  It is one of the easier design elements to incorporate.  To learn more about using native plants in your landscape, join us for one or all of our native plant school classes in the new year.

O Cedar Tree, O Cedar Tree

Here is a repost from last year about using local cedar trees for your Christmas decoration this year, for the ecological benefits and the fun folksy style! Enjoy —- 

This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!

Any Christmas tree, cedar or artificial, can benefit from some ecologically conscious decorations. Dried grass and seed heads of prairie plants look magical amongst warm white lights, but are biodegradable.

Cedars have become invasive

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Kansas and much of central and eastern North America. Native though they are, the USDA labels cedars as invasive, and rightfully so. Too many pastures and meadows are overgrown with cedars, choking out native grasses and wildflowers. Without natural wildfires and regular controlled burns, cedars have been allowed to flourish in places that historically would not have been suitable. The tallgrass prairie is one of the most rare and endangered ecosystems in the world, and the invasion of cedars upon open grasslands decreases species richness, changes soil composition and even threatens indigenous wildlife. If you are a landowner looking to do maintenance of your grassland or clear it of cedar trees, Dyck Arboretum can provide helpful information.

Trees and shrubs are overpopulating grassy landscapes. Randy Rodgers has a wonderful essay here on the impacts of trees encroaching on the prairie.

Cedars degrade the prairie ecosystem

Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:

“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)

and…

“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)

Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.

Cedar trees make prescribed burning  tricky and often exacerbate already dangerous wildfires by sending up massive flames. Overgrown cedar pastures are a serious fire risk, and may have been a factor in the 2015 Anderson Creek wildfire.

My coworker Brad has some great bumper stickers that encourage regular prescribed burns to prevent cedar overgrowth.

Cedars are a ‘green’ choice

For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:

  • clearing/agricultural development of land
  • years of regular water input
  • pesticides to keep needles bug free
  • shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country

Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.

Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.