Pondering Winter Wildlife Cover From My Comfy Couch

It’s a good ol’ fashioned blizzard here today.  As I’m sitting snugly in my warm house, I’m feeling a little badly for some of wildlife out there in the snow and wind.  The boys went outside to play in the snow for a little while, and both of them spent most of their time building shelters from the weather.  Many wildlife species, of course, migrate to warmer places or find/build themselves underground burrows to overwinter in, but there are some animals out there in the prairie right now, and this has to be a bad day for them.

Calvin was able to dig out a little shelter in a drift. He was still pretty glad to come in and get some hot chocolate a few minutes later…

Sitting here on my comfortable couch, I’ve been thinking about the prairies I manage or help with, trying to remember what kind of cover is out there.  Overall, I feel pretty good about the situation.  Our shifting habitat mosaic approach involves providing a wide range of vegetation structure types in each of our prairies, including everything from short sparse vegetation to the kind of thick dense cover wildlife are probably seeking out today.  Nelson  (our Platte River Prairies land manager) and I have periodic conversations in which we try to envision ourselves as creatures that prefer various habitat types.  How far would we have to travel to find cover?  If we burn one patch of dense cover, where is the next closest patch of similar cover, and what would animals have to travel through to get to it?  We have a lot of factors to consider and balance as we discuss management plans each year, so it’s always helpful to see the world through the eyes of the various species that will have to live with (literally) the decisions we make.

To be completely honest, I probably don’t think enough about winter cover as I’m trying to consider the perspective of various creatures.  I’m more often thinking about nesting habitat for birds, breeding cover for small mammals, or sunning areas for invertebrates and reptiles that need to thermoregulate during the growing season.  Days like today are a great reminder that while all those considerations are important, at least some species will probably live or die based on what kind of shelter they can find during winter storms like the one roaring outside right now.

Many parts of our family prairie have pretty short vegetation structure during the winter, but we always try to leave some patches of taller grass as well.  This is kind of in-between.  It’s not really dense enough to provide great cover from the wind, but has places for small animals to hide while they’re out feeding.

I’m thinking today about meadowlarks, for example.  As I’ve walked our prairies during the last month or two, I’ve seen a lot of meadowlarks flying around in small groups.  My understanding is that meadowlarks that breed around here head south to Kansas or Oklahoma, and the ones we see during the winter come from up in the Dakotas.  In other words, meadowlarks don’t migrate en masse to one general destination.  Instead, each bird just goes a little southward from where they spent the summer.  I wonder if they each wait until they start seeing birds from the north show up and then head south to get away from the crowd…

Regardless, birds like western meadowlarks need some kind of shelter out in the prairie on days like this.  We know a lot less about the winter habitats used by grassland birds than we do about summer habitat use, and as far as I know, no intrepid biologist has yet gone out to see where meadowlarks or other birds are hanging out during blizzards.  (If you’re an intrepid biologist who HAS done this, please let me know!)  I think it’s fair to assume that most birds (and any other wildlife who aren’t underground) try to get out of the wind during this kind of storm.  It’d be interesting to know whether they stay in open grassland and look for tall dense vegetation or venture into brushy or wooded areas where they might not normally go.

Somebody is apparently sheltering in place under the snow here.  Probably not a meadowlark…

Not knowing much about individual wildlife species and how they each choose to shelter from winter storms, I guess the best strategy is to provide as many habitat types as possible so they can all find what they need.  That way, meadowlarks can forage in short or “weedy” areas during pleasant sunny days, but move to a nearby patch of dense grass (or whatever other cover they like) when they need to nestle in thatchy vegetation and get out of the wind.

Here in our comfy house, we’ve been talking about trying to fix the drafty corner of our kitchen, where one of our walls needs a little better insulation.  Our poor little feet get cold when we’re making toast on windy winter mornings!  It’d be really nice to get that fixed.  On the other hand, it’s just the kind of hardship that helps me understand what meadowlarks are going through on days like this.  I bet their feet were cold at breakfast time too…

 

Meadowlarks could learn from opossums, who either take over abandoned burrows from other mammals or find a nice wood pile to shelter in during cold weather and blizzards.

Trying to Create Something Different in the Nebraska Sandhills

At our Niobrara Valley Preserve (NVP), we’re experimenting with prairie management techniques to see if we can create a wider range of habitat conditions than is found throughout much of the Nebraska Sandhills.  On many Sandhills ranches, pastures look fairly similar to each other in terms of vegetation structure.  That’s because Sandhills ranchers tend to be careful in their grazing management to avoid wind erosion that can cause “blowouts” of bare sand.  As a result, pastures are rarely grazed intensively enough to create wide expanses of bare ground.  If intensive grazing does happen, it’s usually on a small scale and/or for short periods of time, which allows for quick recovery of grasses.

The Nebraska Sandhills have tremendous innate heterogeneity.  Just in this photo, you can see areas of bare sand created by pocket gophers and/or other animals, habitat structure created by various kinds of plants, including grasses, wildflowers, yucca, and shrubs.  Vegetation height varies greatly across small areas.

Overall, the ecology of the Nebraska Sandhills seems very healthy.  It’s a huge and mostly intact grassland landscape, and because of the dry sandy soils, topography and diversity of vegetation, there is quite a bit of habitat heterogeneity that is independent of management.  As you walk across most Sandhills pastures, you will move through both short/sparse vegetation and taller/dense vegetation, and occasionally come across other structural components like yucca plants or plum thickets.  Wildlife and insect species can often find the habitat structure they need somewhere in that pasture, though it might be in a small patch surrounded by other habitat types.  That seems to be true even for many bird species, which have relatively large breeding territories.  As an example, in pastures with fairly tall vegetation, we often see and hear horned larks that are (apparently) nesting in a few small and scattered patches of the short vegetation structure they prefer.  Those patches of short habitat often occur in gravelly flat areas or in favorite feeding areas for cattle, where grass growth is weak because of frequent grazing.

This late July photo shows a portion of our west bison pasture that was burned this spring and has been grazed intensively by bison all year. Because bison are in the pasture year round, they had immediate access to the burned area and started grazing regrowth as soon as it was available.

We’re trying to figure out more about how management with patch-burn grazing or other similar grazing systems affects Sandhills ecology.  Patch-burn grazing has part of the management of our bison pastures at NVP since the early 1990’s.  Because of that, we know Sandhills vegetation can recover from fires that are followed immediately by season-long intensive grazing.  However, we still don’t know much about how many animal species might respond – positively or negatively – to the kind of large patch heterogeneity created by this kind of management.  Instead of pastures with interspersed small areas of tall and short vegetation, we’re trying to create large patches (500-1000 acre patches within 10,000-12,000 acre pastures) of each habitat type and then shift the location of those patches between years.

Plains sunflower (an annual) often becomes very abundant after fires because it germinates well in exposed soil and then thrives in the absence of strong competition from perennial grasses.  This is the current year’s burn patch in our east bison pasture, where plains sunflower tall and blooming, surrounded by short-cropped grasses.

Creating large patches of various habitat types could bring both advantages and disadvantages to different species.  As an example, large patches could create an abundance of resources that support larger and more viable populations of some animal species. On the other hand, a vole who likes thatchy habitat could wake up in the middle of a 1000 acre burn, and it would have to make a long dangerous trip to find a more suitable place to live.  Trying to evaluate those potential costs and benefits is a big challenge for us.

This landscape shot shows the abundance of plains sunflower across the entire burned patch.

One possible advantage of the kind of shifting mosaic of habitat approach we’re trying is that it helps avoid risks that come from having the same habitat conditions in the same place year after year.  Just as crop rotation can help avoid buildups of pests and pathogens, shifting habitat types from place to place could have important benefits.  For example varying the location of habitat types from year to year could limit disease outbreaks and help prevent predators or herbivores from building up large and potentially destabilizing populations.

Showy evening primrose, aka fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) where the prairie was burned in 2015 and grazed intensively in both 2015 and 2016.  This opportunistic biennial is taking advantage of a long period where grasses are weakened by prior intensive grazing and haven’t yet recovered.

The most intriguing part of our experimentation for me, though, is the idea that we could create large ‘recovery patches’ where grasses have been weakened by a full season of intensive grazing and the plant community is temporarily dominated by opportunistic, mostly short-lived plant species.  That combination of short grasses and tall ‘weedy’ wildflowers can provide excellent brood-rearing habitat for some birds and important structure for reptiles and invertebrates that need to regulate their body temperature by moving quickly from sun to shade as needed.  Studies in other landscapes have shown that this kind of recovery patch habitat creates pulses of high insect biomass, which could have numerous impacts – including the provision of an awful lot of food for wildlife.  In addition, if an abundance of opportunistic plants include species beneficial to pollinators, that could provide quite a bonanza of resources for bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Zoomed out

In most of the Sandhills, patches of  ‘weedy’ habitat tend to be in small, static and widely scattered locations such as around windmills or other places where cattle or bison frequently congregate.  We’re wondering what might happen if we created big patches of the same habitat type and shifted their location from year to year.  In our Platte River Prairies, patch-burn grazing (and similar strategies) has sustained prairie plant diversity over many years, but we haven’t looked closely for similar responses in the Sandhills.  In addition, we know a little about how birds respond to patch-burn grazing in the Sandhills, but not much about impacts on other species like lizards, pollinators, small mammals, or invertebrates.  Now we’re trying to collect data on the responses from all those different organisms.

The lesser earless lizard is often found in and around sand blowouts or other habitat patches with abundant bare sand.  Will they respond positively to much larger patches of sparse vegetation?  Can they successfully shift their population locations as we burn/graze new sites?
Will pollinators such as this plasterer bee (Colletes sp) benefit from higher abundances of flowering plants in big patches of Sandhills prairie that are recovering from season-long intensive grazing?
This is part of our east bison pasture that hasn’t burned since 2012, and has been only lightly grazed during that time period.  It should support a different array of wildlife and allow different plant species to thrive than more recently-grazed areas.  Providing a wide range of habitat types across the prairie seems beneficial for biological diversity, but we still need to test that idea in the Sandhills.

I’ve really enjoyed digging into all the questions we have about our attempts to create more habitat heterogeneity in the Sandhills.  We haven’t had time to answer many questions yet, but we feel like we’re at least creating something different than what exists throughout most of the Sandhills landscape.  A few years from now, we might conclude that the heterogeneity we created didn’t really result in any significant positive or negative impacts compared to what exists elsewhere.  If that’s the conclusion, we’ll move forward with that in mind.  On the other hand, we might find that there are some important positive (and/or negative) impacts of the shifting mosaic approach we’re testing.  In the meantime, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to try something different and watch what happens.  Stay tuned…

If nothing else, huge populations of Plains sunflower like this one in our west bison pasture provide a different (and I think beautiful) look to parts of the Sandhills landscape at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.