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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Avian Inventory of Tallgrass Prairie
National Preserve, Kansas, 1998-1999


Based on published species distributions and Breeding Bird Survey data for eastern Kansas, we observed most of the species we expected to find at TAPR and future monitoring will likely expand the species list by increasing observations of rare birds and migrants. The most abundant breeding grassland species, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, and upland sandpiper, are all species that have shown significant population declines across the United States. TAPR falls within the Rolling Red Prairie physiographic region of the Breeding Bird Survey, where field sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, eastern meadowlark, and brown-headed cowbird populations have declined significantly over the past 32 years (Table 7). Eastern meadowlark has shown significant declines within the Rolling Red Prairie physiographic region and Kansas, but was the most abundant breeding species in the burned and grazed prairie at TAPR as determined by both point count and strip-transect methods.

Nearly all of the breeding bird species characteristic of tallgrass prairie habitat within the Flint Hills were recorded at TAPR. Exceptions were common yellowthroat, Henslow's sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) and sedge wren (Cistothorus platensis). TAPR is at the western periphery of breeding ranges for Henslow's sparrow and sedge wren. In addition, all three species are unlikely to occur on moderately to heavily grazed lands or recently or frequently burned areas (Zimmerman 1993, Herkert 1994, Sample and Mossman 1997, Johnson and Igl 1999). Henslow's sparrows are associated with habitats that include a well-developed litter layer, high cover of dead residual vegetation, and tall, dense vegetation (Johnson and Igl 1999). The combination of frequent burning and heavy grazing reduces litter, standing dead vegetation, and vegetation height and density. The small unburned, ungrazed Southwind Nature Trail prairie area was probably not large enough to support Henslow's sparrow because the species is also area sensitive (Herkert et al. 1993). Sedge wrens are moderately area sensitive, and nest in the tallgrass prairie of Kansas late in the season (July through October) except during drought years (Zimmerman 1993). Sedge wrens may not occur at TAPR or may have been absent during the duration of this study. It is also possible that we did not observe sedge wrens at TAPR due to their late seasonal occurrence or the small proportion of moist meadow habitat at TAPR. Zimmerman (1992) found higher densities of upland sandpiper in burned, ungrazed prairie but densities of mourning dove, common yellowthroat, dickcissel, grasshopper sparrow, and eastern meadowlark were higher in unburned, ungrazed prairie on Konza Prairie Natural Area, Kansas. He did not find Henslow's sparrows on burned prairie there, but they were present on unburned areas (Zimmerman 1992).

Avian species diversity is low in grassland habitats compared to forests (Cody 1966). Variation in species diversity among grassland habitats at TAPR most likely reflected differences in habitat-area and number of points per habitat rather than avian preferences for a given habitat type. For example, only a small proportion of the prairie was unburned and ungrazed (Southwind Nature Trail prairie area) and thus it had only one point location. Eastern meadowlark and dickcissel, however, both comprised a large proportion of the total number of birds for all of the grassland habitats. Both species are associated with tallgrass prairie habitats and are relatively tolerant of moderately grazed and frequently burned areas. However, eastern meadowlarks prefer areas with some litter cover and dickcissels prefer areas with moderately deep litter for breeding (Zimmerman 1993, Johnson and Igl 1999). These two species also made up a large proportion of number of birds in the riparian forest habitats because the narrow riparian zones were surrounded by prairie. Within burned and grazed prairie, upland sandpipers and grasshopper sparrows had high relative abundance. Grasshopper sparrows and upland sandpipers prefer to forage in short, sparse vegetation, which was provided in the burned and grazed prairie (Johnson and Igl 1999). Grasshopper sparrows were never observed in the brome fields, dominated by rhizominous smooth brome, probably because they prefer areas with moderately tall, clumped vegetation interspersed with bare patches of ground (Johnson and Igl 1999). In contrast, red-winged blackbirds were commonly seen within brome field, the habitat with the tallest grasses and no bare ground. Red-winged blackbirds were likely attracted to the brome fields since the ground was fairly moist in the spring and tall, and the dense grasses could be used for territorial perches and for nesting.

The majority of bird species at TAPR occurred in forested riparian areas. Species diversity was higher at Fox Creek than Palmer Creek during the breeding season as well as year-round, possibly due to the wider riparian zone and seemingly more dense and mature gallery forest. Several forest-bird species were very abundant at both creeks including eastern titmouse, black-capped chickadee, and blue jay.

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