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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds
A Guide for Wisconsin

Natural Divisions: Central Plains

Most of the interest in prairie restoration has been purely botanical; hence, most areas of attempted restoration are too small to harbor viable breeding populations of prairie birds. But an exciting possibility would be to upgrade a few prairie preserves to make them as large and complete as possible, favoring birds ranging from Bobolinks and Northern Harriers to Sedge Wrens and Greater Prairie-Chickens, and other animals ranging from lizards, snakes, and pocket gophers to badgers and bison... Is it not too soon to explore such possibilities, for agricultural practices could suddenly intensify further, while all open space continues to shrink under mounting pressures of human population.

—James Hall Zimmerman,
The Landscape and the Birds
(Zimmerman 1991)

Small Map: Central Plains

The Central Plains historically was dominated by oak savanna and pine and oak barrens, with a mix of extensive wet meadows and some pine and southern oak forests, conifer swamps, prairies, and lowland hardwood forests. While there was no extensive open prairie habitat, grassland birds were probably abundant in many parts of this division. Most of the division, once covered by Glacial Lake Wisconsin, is flat and characterized by sandy soils, shallow peats, and mucks.

There are 19 priority bird species in this natural division (see sidebar). They include all of the shortgrass species and species requiring large areas, one midgrass species, one of the species requiring open water, three of the five tallgrass species, and five of the six species requiring woody vegetation or nest structures from the statewide list (see Table 5).

Shortgrass species.
The distribution of these species generally follows the distribution of dry upland soils with shortgrass habitats. Vesper sparrow reaches its highest densities in this natural division and is found mainly in row crops and conifer and oak or river barrens. Upland sandpiper is most numerous on large blocks of idle or lightly grazed grassland, such as the Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands (P). Grasshopper sparrow and Western meadowlark occur in suitable shortgrass habitats throughout the division.

Midgrass species.
Bobolink occurs throughout the division in appropriate upland and lowland habitats.

Tallgrass species.
Henslow's sparrow is irregularly distributed throughout the division. It can be locally common on sites with good habitat, such as Buena Vista Grasslands. Sedge wren is common in wet grass and sedge meadows. The Central Plains is an important natural division for managing this and other sedge meadow species, including Le Conte's sparrow. Yellow rail has recently occurred at Comstock Bog-Meadow (67), and may warrant addition to the list of priority bird species for this division.

Species requiring woody vegetation or nest structures.
Lark sparrow is locally distributed in oak or river barrens and conifer barrens, especially in the southern part. Bell's vireo is mostly restricted to the southern part of this division. Clay-colored sparrow is common in both upland and lowland shrub habitats and young conifer plantations. Field sparrow is common throughout, especially in dry habitats with brush. Brewer's blackbird is found in large open grasslands, especially those with some scattered trees or snags.

Species requiring open water.
Wilson's phalarope occurs irregularly in large sedge meadows and sedge marshes.

Species requiring large areas.
The Central Plains is currently the most important natural division for conservation of the greater prairie-chicken, in particular at the Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands Landscape (P) and Dewey Marsh Wildlife Area (78). Sharp-tailed grouse occur in relatively low numbers in the western part of this natural division, primarily in wetland habitats such as Wood County Wildlife Area (74) and Dike 17 (73). Large expanses of grasslands, such as at the Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands, are the main areas of importance for northern harrier and short-eared owl, although other sites may be used. Short-eared owl is particularly unpredictable and variable in its distribution, as is the very rare barn owl. The presence of area-sensitive birds in this division indicates the quality and size of grassland landscapes there.

Habitats, Landscapes, and Sites
Agriculture is not well developed in much of the Central Plains. However, in parts of the division the acreage devoted to irrigated vegetable crops such as potatoes, corn, and snap beans is substantial and increasing. This division is also the primary area for cranberry production, which is increasing in the state.

Priority habitats, landscapes, and sites for grassland management in the Central Plains are listed next to Figure 11. An estimated 19,000 acres of permanent grasslands—the vast majority of it upland—are in blocks greater than 100 acres in this small natural division. Most of these blocks are in the Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands (P), Necedah Barrens (Q), and Bear Bluff Wetlands (R). These three landscapes offer special opportunities for grassland, sedge meadow, barrens, and open bog management at fairly large scales. The potential for managing for or conserving southern sedge meadows is high because this extinct glacial lake bed has many open, poorly drained areas (one case in point are the sedge meadows occurring on county forest lands in the Bear Bluff Wetlands Landscape). Sandy soil areas are likely locations for restoring and expanding barrens and dry-mesic prairie habitats. Commercially mossed sphagnum bogs typically support a simple breeding bird community dominated by sedge wren, savannah sparrow, and Henslow's sparrow. The value of mossed bogs is elevated because they tend to occur in large open bog landscapes. However, mossed bog replaces open bog, a native habitat that is in trouble in the Central Plains, and conversion should be discouraged.

The close proximity of Necedah Barrens Landscape (Q), Bear Bluff Wetlands Landscape (R), and the Wood County Wildlife Area (74) in the Central Plains with the nearby Fort McCoy Barrens (B) in the Southwestern Upland offers unique opportunities for connection of large blocks of a variety of grassland habitats.

At Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands (P), which is the model for our concept of large-scale management areas, the challenge is to maintain suitable habitats on private lands. Currently the encroachment of irrigated row crops and cranberry bogs may threaten the value of the entire landscape for prairie-chickens and other grassland birds, which is currently very high (Sample 1995). This landscape is the single most important in the natural division, and most of the priority bird species occur there. The 4,000 acre barrens restoration activities at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (Q) hold real promise for grassland birds, especially if adequate areas are kept sufficiently open—that is, with relatively low tree density—and are not entirely isolated by more closed, wooded habitats.

Photo by David Sample: Buena Vista Grasslands
Wide open, almost treeless horizons are typical of the Buena Vista Grasslands, shown here. This landscape, a mosaic of public and private lands, is home to a highly diverse community of grassland birds, including the greater prairie-chicken. It is one of the best examples of a functioning large-scale grassland management area in the state.  

      Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Greater prairie-chicken
Greater prairie-chicken
Species of management concern in the Central Plains
(in order of priority)

Greater prairie-chicken
Henslow's sparrow
Sedge wren
Northern harrier
Wilson's phalarope
Grasshopper sparrow
Vesper sparrow
Upland sandpiper
Sharp-tailed grouse
Short-eared owl
Western meadowlark
Field sparrow
Le Conte's sparrow
Lark sparrow
Clay-colored sparrow
Brewer's blackbird
Bell's vireo
Barn owl

Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Vesper sparrow
Vesper sparrow

Figure 11: Map of the Central Plains Natural Division showing locations of priority and secondary landscapes along with sites for management focus
Figure 11.  Priority landscapes and sites for grassland bird management in the Central Plains Natural Division.

Landscape and Site Names1   Habitat Types (see below for 4-letter codes)

I.  White River Marsh Complex2   SSME, WMWP, SSMA, ICSG, PAST, ORBA, DROF, WEOF, SWOF, OASA, YCPL3
Sites: 67.  Comstock Bog-Meadow State Natural Area (SNA) NSME, SSME, OPBO, SHSW
68.  Germania Wildlife Area (WA) SSME, SHSW, DROF, IWSG, WMWP, ICSG, SSMA
P.  Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands PAST, UPSH, DROF
Sites: 76.  Leola Marsh WA ICSG, PAST
77.  Buena Vista Grasslands (Includes Buena Vista Quarry Prairie SNA and Buena Vista Prairie Chicken Meadow SNA) ICSG, DROF, DMPR, IWSG, PAST, UPSH, WEOF, SWOF, SHSW
Q.  Necedah Barrens  
Sites: 72.  Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration (Includes Necedah Oak-Pine Savanna SNA) DIBA, BPBA, IWSG, DROF, WEOF, SHSW, SSMA, DSPR, SSME
GG.  Coloma Barrens and Savannas ORBA, YCPL, DSPR, DROF
Sites: 71.  Greenwood WA IWSG, OASA, SSME
        Other Sites Located Outside of Landscapes:
69.  Quincy Bluff and Wetlands SNA   SSME, NSME, ICSG, ORBA, BPBA
70.  Lunch Creek Wetlands SSME, WMWP, ICSG, SHSW
75.  Sandhill WA (Includes Barrens Restoration and Buffalo Pasture) SSMA, SSME, PAST, ORBA, SHSW, CBOV, SWOF, DROF, OPBO

1 Landscapes are ranked from highest priority to lowest priority. Sites are not ranked within landscapes. When a landscape overlaps more than one natural division, the landscape is listed within the division where most of its land area occurs. Four-letter codes represent priority habitat types that are present in the sites and landscapes.
2 The White River Marsh Complex Landscape has sites in both the Southeastern Ridges and Lowlands Division and the Central Plains Division.
3 Codes listed after landscape names refer to habitats common or present within the landscape, in areas other than the numbered sites.

Priority Grassland Habitats for Management in the Central Plains 1
(ranked by priority)

IWSG Idle warm season grass/forb (medium and tall):
(71) Greenwood WA, (72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (68) Germania WA, (77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (73) Dike 17 WA
SSME Southern sedge meadow:
(67) Comstock Bog-Meadow SNA, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (70) Lunch Creek Wetlands, (73) Dike 17 WA, (68) Germania WA, (69) Quincy Bluff and Wetlands SNA, (71) Greenwood WA, (72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (74) Wood County WA, (75) Sandhill WA
NSME Northern sedge meadow:
(78) Dewey Marsh WA, (R) Bear Bluff Wetlands, (67) Comstock Bog-Meadow SNA, (69) Quincy Bluff and Wetlands SNA
ICSG Idle cool season grass/forb (short, medium, and tall):
(77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (68) Germania WA, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (76) Leola Marsh WA, (73) Dike 17 WA, (69) Quincy Bluff and Wetlands SNA, (78) Dewey Marsh WA, (70) Lunch Creek Wetlands
PAST Pasture:
(P) Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands, (76) Leola Marsh WA, (77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (75) Sandhill WA, (I) White River Marsh Complex
DSPR Dry or sand prairie:
(72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (GG) Coloma Barrens and Savannas
DROF Dry old field:
(77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (68) Germania WA, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (P) Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands, (72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (73) Dike 17 WA, (GG) Coloma Barrens and Savannas, (74) Wood County WA, (75) Sandhill WA, (78) Dewey Marsh WA
WMWP Wet-mesic or wet prairie:
(68) Germania WA, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (73) Dike 17 WA, (70) Lunch Creek Wetlands
DIBA Diverse barrens:
(72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (R) Bear Bluff Wetlands
COBA Conifer Barrens:
Scattered sites; mainly found in parts of the Black River State Forest in Jackson County, in Adams and Juneau counties, and in southeast Wood County.
BPBA Brush prairie barrens:
(72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (73) Dike 17 WA, (69) Quincy Bluff and Wetlands SNA, (R) Bear Bluff Wetlands
SSMA Southern sedge marsh:
(68) Germania WA, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (73) Dike 17 WA, (R) Bear Bluff Wetlands, (74) Wood County WA, (75) Sandhill WA
NSMA Northern sedge marsh:
(R) Bear Bluff Wetlands, (78) Dewey Marsh WA
OPBO Open bog:
(R) Bear Bluff Wetlands, (67) Comstock Bog-Meadow SNA, (74) Wood County WA, (75) Sandhill WA, (78) Dewey Marsh WA
ORBA Oak or river barrens:
(GG) Coloma Barrens and Savannas, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (69) Quincy Bluff and Wetlands SNA, (75) Sandhill WA
WEOF Wet old field:
(77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (74) Wood County WA
SHSW Shrub swamp:
(67) Comstock Bog-Meadow SNA, (68) Germania WA, (77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (72) Necedah NWR Barrens Restoration, (73) Dike 17 WA, (R) Bear Bluff Wetlands, (70) Lunch Creek Wetlands, (74) Wood County WA, (75) Sandhill WA, (78) Dewey Marsh WA
DMPR Dry-mesic prairie:
(77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (73) Dike 17 WA
UPSH Upland shrub:
(P) Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands, (77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (R) Bear Bluff Wetlands, (78) Dewey Marsh WA
SWOF Shrubby wet old field:
(77) Buena Vista Grasslands, (73) Dike 17 WA, (I) White River Marsh Complex, (74) Wood County WA, (75) Sandhill WA
OASA Oak savanna:
(I) White River Marsh Complex, (71) Greenwood WA
MOBO Mossed Bog:
(R) Bear Bluff Wetlands
YCPL Young conifer plantation:
(GG) Coloma Barrens and Savannas, (I) White River Marsh Complex
CBOV Cut- or burned-over:
(75) Sandhill WA; also scattered sites mainly in the western half of the division.

1 Habitats are ranked by priority within the division. Each habitat is followed by suggested landscapes and sites for management, arranged roughly from highest to lowest priority. Landscape letter codes and site number codes in parentheses correspond to the map. See Table 1 and Appendix E for descriptions of bird communities expected in the habitats listed.

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