Color, Movement and Noise

A couple months ago, I wrote a post asking you how you evaluate your prairies as you walk around them.  I appreciated the thoughtful responses you shared.  This week, I’ll be facilitating a discussion on the same topic at the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference.  As I’ve been preparing for that discussion, my mind keeps returning to a brief conversation I had at the end of this year’s Patch-Burn Grazing Workshop.

The annual workshop is hosted at different sites each year.  This summer, we hosted it at our Platte River Prairies.  As we were finishing the last tour of our site and walking back to the vehicles, Wayne Copp, of the Tall Grass Bison Ranch in Auburn, Kansas, caught up with me.  He told me how much he had enjoyed the tours and that he thought our prairies looked great.  I thanked him, of course – it’s always nice to hear that.  But then he went on…

“A lot of prairies I visit,” he said, “look pretty dead – there’s not much going on. But your prairies are really alive, and they’ve got the three things I always look for in grasslands.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“Color, movement and noise.”

And there you go.  I’ve not heard a more concise, all-encompassing description of a good prairie.  Even better, you don’t have to be a botanist or ecologist to recognize color, movement and noise.  Anyone, regardless of age or background, can walk through a prairie and judge whether or not that prairie has those qualities.

Color is easy to find in many prairies.  Wildflowers are an obvious source of color, but not the only one.

Color is easy to find in many prairies. Wildflowers are an obvious source of color, but not the only one.

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A closer look at most wildflowers reveals abundant movement – much of it by visiting insects, such as these pollinators on a native thistle.

Birds such as this dickcissel can provide color, movement and noise all by themselves...

Birds such as this dickcissel can provide color, movement and noise all by themselves, but a site needs more than just birds to be a prairie.

Of course, some of you are already asking, “How MUCH color, movement and noise should there be?”

But Wayne’s criteria for judging prairies (at least as I understand them) are not meant to be quantitative.  Sure, more is better, but that’s not really the point.  I think he’s just saying that a prairie without color, movement and noise is deficient.  Clean and simple.

Much of the "noise" in prairies is created by insects, though they are far from the only sources, which can include birds, mammals, wind, and many others.

Much of the “noise” in prairies is created by insects, though they are far from the only sources, which can include birds, mammals, wind, and many others.

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A great deal of the movement, color and noise in prairies can be hidden from those who just drive past at 65 miles per hour.  However, anyone who takes the time to walk out into the prairie will have no trouble finding it.

Sure, we still need other indicators and measures that can help us identify trends in plant diversity or species’ population viability.  We still need to figure out what to look for as we evaluate past management actions and plan the next ones.   And we still need to better understand what factors can indicate whether a prairie is ecologically resilient.

Unfortunately, only those of us who spend the majority of our time working in prairies can get much good out of those highfalutin indicators, measures, and factors.  They are important, but only to a small subset of people.  For everyone else – and us prairie wonks too – Wayne has already figured out the three essential qualities every prairie should have.

Color, movement and noise.

Brilliant.

How Do You Evaluate Your Prairie?

The most challenging aspect of prairie management may be evaluating what’s happening on the land and what to do about it.  What should you focus on as you walk around a prairie?  Which plant species can tell you the most about the current condition of the prairie community?  How do you know whether changes in the plant community are short term weather-related changes, versus an indication of a long term trend?  What characteristics of wildlife habitat are the most important to monitor?  It can all seem overwhelming.

Evaluating prairies and impacts of management is important but can seem overwhelming.  What should you look for as you walk through a prairie?  (Scott Moats at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa.)

Evaluating prairies and impacts of management is important but isn’t necessarily easy. What should you look for as you walk through a prairie? (Scott Moats at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa.)

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.  One of my main jobs is to help people restore and manage their prairies more effectively.  I try to share tips and techniques gleaned from our work on the Platte River Prairies, as well as from my experiences visiting and collaborating with other prairie managers across the country.  However, suggestions of management strategies are only useful if a prairie manager knows what challenges his/her prairie is facing.  Some managers are good at thinking about wildlife habitat needs but struggle to evaluate plant composition changes.  Others may focus so heavily on invasive species encroachment they ignore the needs of pollinators or grassland birds.  With so many things to think about, what are the most important?

As I walk through the prairies I work with, I pay close attention to (among other things) the abundance and vigor of particular plant species and note the distribution of certain habitat qualities.  My mental checklist is influenced by years of watching those sites respond to weather and management, as well as by the management objectives I’m evaluating.  However, I also enjoy having other ecologists and managers visit our sites because I can learn a great deal from their perspectives.  Because they have a different set of experiences than I do, they notice and evaluate different factors than I do.

This prairie was burned and grazed with a fairly light stocking rate last year.  It has not been grazed this year.  When I walked it this week, I was looking at the vigor of the dominant grasses (still low) and the wildflowers (high).  I also wanted to see if it had maintained the mixed-height habitat structure I was hoping for (it had).

This prairie was burned and grazed with a fairly light stocking rate last year. It has not been grazed this year. When I walked it this week, I was looking at the vigor of the dominant grasses (still low) and the wildflowers (high). I also wanted to see if it had maintained the mixed-height habitat structure I was hoping for (it had).

Because the process of evaluating prairies and their management needs is both important and potentially overwhelming, I want to try to develop some basic guidelines – a kind of checklist for evaluating prairies.  I need help, so I’m reaching out to others, including the readers of this blog, for their input.

What do you look at as you walk through the prairies you’re familiar with?  How do you know whether a prairie you’re managing is headed in the right or wrong direction?  Are there particular plant or animal species that you feel are good indicators of the larger prairie community?  Tell me about your mental checklist…

Please leave any suggestions and ideas you have in the comments section below (if you don’t see a comments section, click on the title of this post and then look again).  I’ll try to synthesize your thoughts and mine and see if we can come up with something useful.  Thank you very much for your help.

To get you started, here are a few examples of items on my personal mental checklist:

How many species of pollinator plants are blooming right now, and how abundant are they?

Are the populations of our most dangerous invasive species increasing or decreasing?

Which plant species are being grazed by our cattle and which are they ignoring?

Are new plants germinating and establishing themselves or is the “canopy” of existing plants stifling new growth?

Are there patches of vegetation structure types present that represent the full spectrum of habitat types? (tall/rank, short/sparse, mixed-height, etc.)

 

if you were a bee, would you find a good selection of feeding options throughout the season?

If you were a bee, would you find a good selection of feeding options throughout the season?