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.

Hubbard Alumni Post – Chicken Wire?!

This post was written (and illustrated) by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows back in 2015-2016.  Evan now works for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon as a monitoring and outreach assistant.

When I worked for The Nature Conservancy near Wood River, NE, I lived close to a restored wetland. In late winter I would gaze longingly out my window at the clouds of migrating waterfowl whirling above the calm water. I wanted to photograph this spectacle but approaching the skittish birds through the open prairie seemed an impossible task. Then I met Michael Forsberg, famed Nebraskan wildlife photographer. I learned how he builds blinds out of garden fence and grass and sleeps in them, sometimes for days, in order to capture the most intimate moments of nature and share them with the rest of us. I wanted to learn this art too, so I decided to try building my own blind on the restored wetland. The result was a successful comic adventure that for some reason I never shared on the Prairie Ecologist, until now.

You could say I messed up from the start. The store was out of garden fence so I bought chicken wire instead, thinking it couldn’t be to different. It could. I spent most of the next afternoon pounding stakes; cutting wire, camo cloth, and grass; and zip tying it all together in the rough shape of a burrito with a hole at one end and a window at the other. The blind was placed right on the water’s edge and would have a spectacular view of ducks waking up in the golden light of sunrise. Or so I thought.

After leaving the blind out for two weeks to let the birds acclimate to it, I set out one March night with my camera gear and sleeping bag, crawled into the blind, and fell asleep to the quite murmurs of roosting mallards. I was so eager for sunrise that I had no less than five dreams of waking up in the blind. In one dream I woke up underwater. In another I woke up to find the wetland dry. When I finally did wake up, I discovered a snafu that I hadn’t even dreamt of: the blind had collapsed on me. The chicken wire couldn’t support the added weight of the morning dew, and in order for me to see out the blind’s window I had to prop the damn thing up with my head. In addition to being extremely uncomfortable, I worried that the floppy and occasionally cursing blob would scare away the birds. Fortunately, it did not. Maybe the birds thought it was too pathetic to be man-made, or maybe it looked like a decomposing tree trunk, but they didn’t seem to notice me at all. I knew I was okay when a Red-winged Blackbird strolled across the top of my head.

Viewed head-on, you can see how a Great Blue Heron’s head is adapted for a lifestyle of hunting prey directly below it. It amazes me how this bird’s appearance changes from Jurrasic to cartoonish with a slight adjustment.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to the blind for giving me intimate glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It’s not often you get to see wild animals behave truly naturally, not at all concerned about a human watching them. Watching a goose bathe in the golden light of sunrise, hearing Blue-winged Teal drakes whisper soft calls to an attractive female, watching beads of water drip from a Gadwall’s impermeable feathers; these were new and beautiful experiences for me. Thanks to the blind, I saw familiar birds in an entirely new way.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.

A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.

A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.

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A Greater Yellowlegs scans the water for invertebrates. This was the closest I’ve ever been to one.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to that blind for giving me glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It taught me a new way to appreciate wildlife, one that requires you to become a part of the landscape. Hunters and photographers know the value of extreme patience, but in today’s fast-paced society, rarely does the average person sit in a spot for hours and watch nature’s secrets reveal themselves. A blind, I learned, teaches you that patience and provides a window to a new view of nature. I hope to build many more blinds in the future, but never, ever again out of chicken wire.