Category Archives: Field Reports

How do Lesser Prairie-Chickens Survive the Winter?

by Amy Erickson, LPCI wildlife biologist, Portales NM

Here in eastern New Mexico, winter weather can be unpredictable. Last week, the temperature was in the high 50s, with one day reaching 63 degrees.  This is in stark contrast to the incredible storm we experienced just two weeks earlier—a blizzard so severe that winds were clocked at an amazing 82 miles per hour on Cannon Air Force Base. The blowing snow and sub-freezing temperatures did not relent for 48 hours and claimed the lives of an estimated 35,000 dairy cows in eastern New Mexico and west Texas. Thousands of people lost power, and some were snowed in for days.

Lesser prairie-chickens burrow beneath the snow to escape winter winds and cold temperatures.

Lesser prairie-chickens burrow beneath the snow to escape winter winds and cold temperatures.

As I sat warm and comfortable in my home, my thoughts turned to the local wildlife. Surely no wild creature could survive a storm of this magnitude, especially not a bird.  They seem so fragile—nothing but feathers and hollow bones and a few scraps of muscle. I remember reading a study on the white-crowned sparrow, a tiny songbird that spends the winter here.  Researchers estimated that this species’ energy needs are so high and their metabolism so fast that they have to find, on average, one seed every 5-10 seconds or they will perish. Truly, birds fascinate me. They survive day by day on the razor-thin edge between life and death. This begs the question—how could a lesser prairie-chicken survive unrelenting blowing snow for two days straight?

Though scientists have yet to collect empirical data on lesser prairie-chicken winter ecology, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of their strategies. Like other grouse, lesser prairie-chickens have a unique strategy to deal with snow—they tunnel beneath it to escape the harsh wind! Studies on other grouse, such as ptarmigan, have shown that the birds scoop out burrows in the snow, complete with a ventilation hole at the top. Greater prairie-chickens, the lesser’s larger cousin to the north, have been documented diving into snow banks to escape the wind.

It is likely that the closely related lesser prairie-chicken has similar tricks up its sleeve. Most studies on radio-collared birds show the lowest mortality rates during the winter months and the majority of bird deaths occurring during the breeding season. Rather than being detrimental their survival, the cold and windy winter months may in fact be the safest time of year for the lesser prairie-chicken.

On January 9th, just days after the blizzard subsided, a local landowner spotted a group of 35 lesser prairie-chickens on a ranch near Milnesand. The year before, hunters flushed up 28 birds in the same spot. Against all odds, they seem to be surviving—perhaps even thriving—in the harsh landscape of the southern High Plains.

Tracks in the Sand

Story and photos by Amy Erickson, LPCI wildlife biologist, Portales, NM

Although the sand dunes of eastern New Mexico are full of wildlife, you would hardly know that by walking around them. Save for the occasional lizard, the sandy hills seem devoid of life. If you want to discover the life of the dunes, you have to look closely and allow your imagination to run wild.

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Sand dunes of eastern New Mexico

Often, all you see of lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife are the tracks they leave in the sand. The lesser prairie-chicken that made the tracks below took an abrupt turn–did it see a predator? An Ord’s kangaroo rat passed by as well. Its paired tracks are distinctive, and often there will also be a line in the sand where the kangaroo rat dragged its long banner-tipped tail. Its genus name Dipodomys means “two-footed mouse.”

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Tracks of lesser prairie-chicken and Ord’s kangaroo rat

The Ord’s kangaroo rat is extremely common throughout the Great Plains. I see signs of them everywhere, their tracks crisscrossing the dune blowouts. Signs of their passing assume other forms as well. Barn owls often take up residence in the many abandoned buildings on the prairies of eastern New Mexico—lonely reminders of the shattered dreams of Dust Bowl days. Barn owls regurgitate pellets of undigested bones and hair, and I like to dig through those pellets to see what the owls have been eating. It seems as if 90% or more of a barn owl’s diet here in New Mexico’s prairie country is kangaroo rats—testament to the amazing numbers that survive in this dry landscape.

Tracks of Ord's kangaroo rat

Tracks of Ord’s kangaroo rat

What must life be like for a kangaroo rat? These little seed-eaters are food for so many other prairie species—barn owls and great-horned owls, red-tailed and ferruginous hawks, northern harriers, coyotes, grey and red foxes, bobcats, badgers, snakes of all kinds. All are watching, waiting for the rat to make one small misstep, venture an inch too far from the safety of its burrow. Death or danger waits around every corner for  kangaroo rats and for their prairie neighbors, the lesser prairie-chickens, something we can hardly comprehend.

Bobcat tracks

Bobcat tracks

Every time I get to spend a day outdoors I feel so lucky to  experience things that so few others do. For me, there are no worries out there,  alone with the plants and the clouds and my thoughts. Spend a day out on the endless prairie and your worries will be gone—at least temporarily—erased by the wind like tracks in the sand.

The Role of Sand Sagebrush in Prairie Grasslands

Prairie Profile: Sand Sagebrush (Artemisia filifolia)

Wherever loose, sandy soils occur in the Southern Great Plains, there’s a good chance you’ll find sand sagebrush growing. Roll its gray-green foliage between your fingers, and you’ll catch the spicy aroma of a plant that’s an important part of the prairie community—one that benefits livestock and wildlife alike.

Sand sagebrush (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush prairie (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush prairie (photo: Dwayne Elmore)

Sand sagebrush covers some 15 million acres of the Southern Great Plains and grows throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. In this drought-prone region, sand sagebrush creates conditions that help the prairie community weather dry times. Its deep roots can draw water from as much as 30 feet below ground and redistribute it near the soil surface, where it’s available to grasses and forbs. These extensive roots also anchor sandy soils, limiting wind erosion and creating a stable growing site for other prairie plants.

In winter, the branches of sand sagebrush trap snow, which returns moisture to the surrounding soil when it melts. These branches create a shelter from summer sun and wind for the many species of grasses and forbs that thrive in sandy soils.

Lesser prairie-chicken chicks take refuge in sand sagebrush (photo: David Haukos).

Lesser prairie-chicken chicks take refuge in sand sagebrush (photo: David Haukos).

Many animals depend on sand sagebrush as well. For lesser prairie-chickens, sand sagebrush offers cover for hiding and nesting, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and a winter food source. Scaled quail, northern bobwhite, Cassin’s sparrow and many other grassland birds rely on sand sagebrush as well—studies have shown a decline in bird diversity and abundance when sand sagebrush is removed from prairie grasslands (Rodgers and Sexson, 1990).

The sand sagebrush ecoregion is one of four vegetative community types within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. In the 1970s, this ecoregion was home to more lesser prairie-chickens than any of the other three ecoregions. According to surveys in 2014, this ecoregion now holds the smallest number of lesser prairie-chickens of the four ecoregions (McDonald et al. 2014). Carefully planned conservation practices can help restore sand sagebrush prairie habitat for the benefit of both prairie wildlife and cattle. Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative funding helps landowners plan and carry out these practices.

Managing Sand Sagebrush with Prescribed Fire and Grazing

Historically, fire and periodic intensive grazing by bison shaped sand sagebrush rangelands. Fire burns back old sand sagebrush plants and releases the grasses and herbs that have grown up in the shrub’s shelter. Well-adapted to fire, sand sagebrush resprouts vigorously after a burn, quickly establishing hiding cover for prairie wildlife.

Prescribed fire and sustainable grazing practices mimic this natural dynamic and are excellent

Lighting a perimeter fire during a prescribed burn, Kansas (photo: Sandra Murphy)

Lighting a perimeter fire during a prescribed burn, Kansas (photo: Sandra Murphy)

resource conservation tools for ranchers in sand sagebrush habitat. Fire stimulates not only the resprouting of sand sagebrush, but also the vigorous regrowth of grasses and forbs. Cattle focus their grazing on this lush, newly burned land, giving less recently burned areas of the range a rest from grazing. Carefully planned burning and grazing create the mosaic of habitat structure that lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife need. In addition, fire helps reduce the extent of eastern redcedar, which can quickly overtake prairie grasslands when fire is excluded.

If you’re a landowner in the lesser prairie-chicken action area, contact your local NRCS field office for information about the conservation assistance programs available for improving the health and productivity of sand sagebrush habitat.

LPCI Films Stewardship in Action

by Sandra Murphy, LPCI communications specialist

A steady wind blew from the north over the darkened prairie as Jonathan Lautenbach shook open a pop-up viewing blind on the Hashknife Ranch in southwest Kansas. He secured the blind with rebar stakes while filmmaker Jeremy Roberts ducked through the blind’s small opening, hauling boxes of equipment.

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Jeremy Roberts (left) and Jonathan Lautenbach.

Jeremy set up his cameras by the light of his headlamp, preparing to film lesser prairie-chickens during their courtship displays. He’s in the midst of working with the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) to develop short videos that show how ranchers and LPCI collaborate to achieve habitat conservation that benefits both the prairie-chicken and ranch sustainability.

Over the course of three days in April, Jeremy filmed some of the many ranchers whose land management efforts form the cornerstone of LPCI’s collaborative habitat conservation. In this round of filming, he focused on the practice of prescribe burning, a key tool in restoring grasslands.

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Ed Koger lighting prescribed burn.

In the process, he talked with and filmed ranchers like Ed Koger of the Hashknife Ranch, whose patch-burn grazing practices mimic historic ecosystem dynamics on the prairie grasslands he manages. And Bill Barby, who spoke with Jeremy while standing in a pasture on his ranch where head-high grasses thrive in the wake of prescribed fire.

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Lisa Ballout and Nathan Lee during prescribed burn conducted by members of the Red Hills Prescribed Burn Association.

Jeremy also captured on film the collaboration of some 50 members of the Red Hills Prescribed Burn Association. As they do regularly when conditions allow, these ranchers were helping one another with the labor-intensive practice of carefully burning grasslands on a member’s ranch.

As the first hints of light illuminated the hilltop lek (lesser prairie-chicken mating display site) where Jeremy and Jonathan hunkered in their viewing blind, the stars of the show—the whole reason LPCI exists and assists ranchers in carrying out their exemplary range management—arrived in a flurry of wingbeats and chortles. Nine male lesser prairie-chickens swept in from the surrounding prairie to dance and spar, vying for the attention of a handful of females who surveyed their mating prospects.

Kansas 061Jeremy filmed their dance, the continuance of a springtime ritual that this species has enacted for thousands of years on the Southern Great Plains. He filmed, too, the efforts of Jonathan and his research assistants, who are studying the birds in an effort to better understand their needs and their responses to range management.

Cameras in hand, Jeremy will return Kansas in late May to film another aspect of LPCI collaborative work with ranchers—providing technical assistance for the Conservation Reserve Program. Stay tuned for updates on the filming process!

Lesser Prairie-Chickens Return to the Leks

By Amy Erickson, LPCI wildlife biologist, Portales, NM

Out on the seemingly endless prairie, lesser prairie-chickens are stirring. Driven by an unknown force, they travel to a place that some of them have never been, but which they still somehow know.  Each year as winter’s veil is cast aside, male lesser prairie-chickens gather on their ancestral breeding grounds, known as leks, to bow and cackle, jump and fight and kick, and show off their ornaments in a bid to attract females.

Where did they spend the winter, and what did they do there? Though most research has shown that lesser prairie-chickens generally don’t travel more than a few miles from their chosen lek, you can spend days on end wandering through the grasslands in fall and winter and never catch a glimpse of one, even if you know the locations of the leks.

Male lesser prairie-chicken on the lek, March 22, 2015. photo Amy Erickson

Male lesser prairie-chicken on the lek, March 22, 2015. photo Amy Erickson

But as spring arrives, so do the prairie-chickens. Males usually return to the same leks year after year, and the females follow. What drives them to return to the same leks, and how do they recognize the location a year later—a site that often doesn’t appear (to us) much different from the surrounding landscape? How do juveniles know where to go and what to do during their first spring? Somehow they do know, and they arrive at the lek to dance or to watch the dance—likely the same lek where they themselves were conceived.

What makes a good lek? From the male’s perspective, it’s all about seeing and being seen. A lek is usually an area of low vegetation surrounded by taller grasses and shrubs suitable for nesting. A female prairie-chicken needs access to multiple habitat types within a few square miles in order to successfully raise her young, and a lek amid prime habitat will surely be most attractive to females. The vegetation on the lek must be short so the males can show off their vivid red air sacs, their tall yellow combs, and their long neck feathers, called “pinnae”. The female chooses a male based on his looks and his dance, as well as his ability to fight off rival males.

Prairie-chickens and so many other wildlife species depend on local ranchers and landowners, since most of their habitat is on private land. When ranches and open spaces are managed with wildlife in mind, everybody wins.  I feel fortunate to be part of an organization that works so hard to benefit landowners, the community, the ranching way of life, and wildlife.

Watching prairie-chickens on the lek is something I wish everyone could experience. I hope that in a hundred years people will still  see lesser prairie-chickens dancing in springtime on the High Plains, and ranchers will still be here taking care of the land. Collaborative conservation can make that happen.

Just Add Water: Prairie Vegetation Responds to Rain

Note from LPCI: Jake Swafford wrote this field report late last summer, before LPCI had a website on which to share it. It captures so vividly the on-the-ground experience of the life-giving rains that returned last summer that we wanted to share it with you on our newly launched website.

Who knew — the recipe for grass requires rain. It’s as though Eastern New Mexico had everything prepped and ready just waiting for the drought to end. Since the rain started I have watched the surrounding land explode with life, as if the instructions read “just add water.”

New Mexico prairie. Andy Lawrence photo

New Mexico prairie. Andy Lawrence photo

I have been working in New Mexico for just a little over two years now, and this is the first time I’ve seen things really grow. Being a wildlife biologist I have the privilege of spending most days outdoors, traveling all over eastern New Mexico, seeing public and private land. The past month in the field has convinced me that management on the ground is headed in the right direction. The drought made it hard to see positive results of conservation projects, but now that we have some rain, the landowners’ hard work is apparent.

I’ve seen grasses this summer that make me feel like I’m back home in the tall grass prairie of Missouri, huge bunches of grasses and plants I barely recognize because I’ve never seen them that tall. The rain is bringing out the true nature of New Mexico’s grasslands.

The moisture also is demonstrating the true potential for wildlife in this area. I have seen more coveys of scaled quail this year than I have since moving to New Mexico. Rabbits seem to have sprouted from the ground along with the grass. The biggest change I’ve noticed in wildlife populations has been an explosion of insects. While these bugs can be annoying for those of us who work outdoors, they are a key component for supporting other wildlife. They even pollinate many of the grasses and flowers that create beautiful landscapes and habitat for our favorite animals.

The rains provide much needed relief to farmers and ranchers in the area who have been making the best of a tough couple of years. I hope eastern New Mexico is lucky enough to have several more years of much needed rain, and that its landowners are prepared to make the best of the next tough times.

Jake Swafford is an LPCI Farm Bill wildlife biologist. You can reach him at jswafford@pheasantsforever.org or at (575) 201-8117.