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Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds
A Guide for Wisconsin

Natural Divisions: Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland


When dandelions have set the mark of May on Wisconsin pastures, it is time to listen for the final proof of spring. Sit down on a tussock, cock your ears at the sky, dial out the bedlam of meadowlarks and redwings, and soon you may hear it: the flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine... Soon a flash of silver will tell you on which post the plover has alighted and folded his long wings. Whoever invented the word "grace" must have seen the wing-folding of the plover. There was a time in the early 1900's when Wisconsin farms nearly lost their immemorial timepiece, when May pastures greened in silence, and August nights brought no whistled reminder of impending fall. Universal gunpowder, plus the lure of plover-on-toast for post-Victorian banquets, had taken too great a toll. The belated protection of the federal migratory bird laws came just in time.

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County
Almanac and Sketches Here and
There
(Leopold 1949)

Small Map: Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland

Most of this natural division was historically dominated by northern mesic forests that included large landscapes of barrens habitats (northwest and northeast); pine forests, conifer swamps, bogs, and boreal forests (near Lake Superior); extensive sedge meadows; and some lowland hardwood forests and southern oak forests.

Grassland bird habitat was limited mostly to the sedge meadows, open bogs, barrens, and recently burned-over forest lands. Many of the former barrens areas succeeded to forest, while large areas of former mesic forest in the southern and western parts of the division were cleared and converted to agriculture.

Birds
We identified 16 priority species in this natural division (see sidebar), including one of the shortgrass species, two each of the midgrass, woody and nest structure-dependent, and species requiring open water, four of the tallgrass species, and all five species requiring large areas from the statewide list (see Table 5).

Shortgrass species.
Upland sandpiper is locally common, particularly in large open and diverse barrens in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the division. It also occurs wherever there are sufficiently large idle grasslands, old fields, grass hayfields, and other suitable habitats.

Midgrass species.
Bobolink and savannah sparrow are common in appropriate habitats—such as hayfields, old fields, and other idle grasslands—in agriculture-dominated parts of the division. They also occur in open bogs and sedge meadows.

Tallgrass species.
Three of the four tallgrass species (yellow rail, sharp-tailed and Le Conte's sparrow) are most common in this division and are typically restricted to large sedge meadows and sedge marshes, especially in the Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex (T). Le Conte's sparrow is more of a generalist than the other three species and also occurs in hayfields and other idle grasslands in counties scattered throughout the division, including Ashland, Bayfield, Taylor, and Marathon counties. Sedge wren is locally common.

Species requiring woody vegetation or nest structures.
Brewer's blackbird is generally most common in the open and diverse barrens in the northwest and northeast, in open bogs, and in the agricultural grasslands in the south. Clay-colored sparrow is widespread in appropriate habitats.

Species requiring open water.
Blue-winged teal and Wilson's phalarope are found in suitable landscapes and habitats, such as sedge marshes, throughout.

Species requiring large areas.
Prairie-chicken range is rather narrowly defined and runs from Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands (P) in the Central Plains west and north through the Mead/Paul J. Olson Grasslands (X) and up to the open agricultural landscapes in the Unity and Medford areas (North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands (V1 and V2). Sharp-tailed grouse is locally distributed but is most common in the barrens, cut- or burned-over forest, sedge meadow, and open bog landscapes of the northwest. Northern harrier and short-eared owl are found in large publicly owned grasslands such as the Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex (T); harriers are also found in the open agricultural landscapes in the south. The only confirmed nesting record for barn owl in the last twelve years is from the Antigo area in Langlade County.

Habitats, Landscapes, and Sites
The Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland is large and diverse. While most of the area is forested, it also contains a variety of habitats used by grassland birds, including some of the largest open grassland landscapes in the state. Extensive areas of sedge meadows and open bogs are scattered throughout. There are major areas of barrens habitats in the northwest and northeast and a variety of agricultural grasslands in the south and the Ashland-Bayfield County area. Several counties in this division include some of the major acreage of grass-dominated hay grown in the state. Grassland birds use all of these habitats.

Priority habitats, landscapes, and sites for grassland management in the Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland are listed next to Figure 13. There are an estimated 65,000 acres of permanent grassland in blocks greater than 100 acres, including 38% sedge or wet grass meadows, 35% barrens, and 6% upland grass. This is half of the state's permanent grassland acreage in large blocks. The six landscapes identified in Figure 13 include the landscape with the most permanent grassland bird habitat in the state: Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex (T).

The Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland offers special opportunities for birds of large open, diverse, and brush prairie barrens landscapes, and sedge meadows—particularly those birds restricted to or most common in large northern sedge meadows, such as yellow rail, sharp-tailed and Le Conte's sparrow, and Wilson's phalarope. As mentioned above, forestry practices can help expand the effective habitat size of barrens, by focusing short-rotation, even-age silviculture at the boundaries of barrens rather than within forest interiors or by maintaining wide (greater than 440 yd) herbaceous- and heath-dominated firebreaks within barrens landscapes. This is already being practiced in some areas such as the southwestern Bayfield County forests (100). Areas in the division with concentrations of grass-dominated hayfields can also offer opportunities for management if the amount of idle grassland can be increased and if hay is cut after 15 July. The Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland has the advantage of large public ownerships dedicated partly to wildlife management; also, the division is too far north for major production of corn and soybeans—with the exception of southern counties. However, it has some inherent drawbacks: it is out of the range of a number of southern bird species, it lacks a variety of prairie sod types, and most of the permanent grasslands are on the wet or woody ends of the habitat continuum.

Photo by Michael Mossman: Northern sedge meadow
Although a majority of the Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland Natural Division is forest, it also includes large open landscapes of agricultural and native grasslands. This is a northern sedge meadow in the Fish Lake Wildlife Area in Burnett County. It is an important site for species such as yellow rail, Wilson's phalarope, northern hairier, upland sandpiper, short-eared owl, and Le Conte's and Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow.  

      Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Sharp-tailed grouse
Sharp-tailed grouse
Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland
(in order of priority)

Yellow rail
Sharp-tailed sparrow
Le Conte's sparrow
Sharp-tailed grouse
Bobolink
Wilson's phalarope
Brewer's blackbird
Greater prairie-chicken
Sedge wren
Upland sandpiper
Savannah sparrow
Short-eared owl
Clay-colored sparrow
Northern harrier
Blue-winged teal
Barn owl


Figure 13: Map of the Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland Natural Division showing locations of priority and secondary landscapes along with sites for management focus
Figure 13.  Priority landscapes and sites for grassland bird management in the Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland Natural Division.

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

T.  Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex   NSME, PAST, ICSG, SHSW2
Sites:   89.  Meadman Meadows NSME, SHSW
90.  Fish Lake Wildlife Area (WA) NSME, NSMA, IWSG, OPBA, DIBA, BPBA, COBA
91.  Crex Meadows WA, including Crex Sand Prairie State Natural Area (SNA) BPBA, OPBA, DMPR, NSME, SHSW, DROF, IWSG
92.  Reeds Lake Bog Meadow NSME, OPBO
93.  Kohler-Peet Barrens and Cedar Swamp SNA OPBA, DROF, BPBA
   
U.  Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens CBOV, NSME, BPBA, DIBA
Sites:   95.  Fenton Lake Fuelbreak CBOV, DIBA, BPBA
96.  Namekagon Barrens WA CBOV, BPBA, OPBA, DIBA
97.  Solon Springs Sharptail Barrens SNA/Douglas County WA CBOV, OPBA, DIBA, DROF
   
V(1).  North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands GLHA, DROF, NSME, FAFI, PAST, SMGR, SHSW, YCPL, ICSG
Sites:   85.  McMillan Marsh WA ICSG, DROF, SHSW, NSME
   
V(2).  North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands GLHA, DROF, NSME, FAFI, PAST, SMGR, SHSW, YCPL, ICSG
   
W.  Moquah Barrens CBOV, OPBA, DIBA, BPBA
Sites: 101.  Moquah Barrens SNA  
   
X.  Mead/Paul J. Olson Grasslands PAST, GLHA, ICSG, DROF, SHSW
Sites:   83.  Paul J. Olson WA NSME, DROF, WEOF, ICSG, UPSH, SHSW, OPBO
84.  Mead WA NSME, IWSG, ICSG, DROF, NSMA, SHSW, WEOF, OPBO, UPSH, SWOF, COBA
   
Y.  Spread Eagle Barrens  
Sites: 112.  Spread Eagle Barrens SNA CBOV, OPBA, DIBA, BPBA
   
Z.  Black Lake/Belden Swamp OPBO, NSME, SHSW
Sites:   98.  Belden Swamp OPBO, NSME, SHSW
99.  Black Lake Bog SNA OPBO, SHSW, NSME
   
        Other Sites Located Outside of Landscapes:
86.  Pershing WA   BPBA, DROF, SHSW, CBOV
87.  New Auburn WA IWSG, ICSG, WMWP, SHSW, NSME, DROF
88.  Bear Lake Sedge Meadow NSME, SHSW
94.  Amsterdam Sloughs WA NSME, NSMA, SHSW, IWSG
100.  Bayfield County Fuelbreaks CBOV, OPBA, BPBA
102.  Bark Bay Sedge Meadow NSME, SHSW, OPBO
103.  Stockton Island Tombolo (Apostle Islands National Lakeshore) NSME, DIBA, NSMA
104.  Kakagon Slough Sedge Meadow NSME, OPBO, NSMA, SHSW
105.  Powell Marsh WA NSME, NSMA, OPBO, ICSG
106.  Johnson Lake Barrens DIBA, NSME
107.  Rainbow Flowage Sedge Meadow NSME, SHSW, OPBO
108.  Big Swamp OPBO, NSME
109.  Thunder Lake WA NSME, OPBO, SHSW
110.  Bogus Swamp SNA OPBO
111.  Dunbar Barrens SNA CBOV, DIBA, OPBA

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 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 Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland 1
(ranked by priority)

NSME Northern sedge meadow:
(92) Reeds Lake Bog Meadow, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (90) Fish Lake WA, (88) Bear Lake Sedge Meadow, (105) Powell Marsh WA, (104) Kakagon Slough Sedge Meadow, (103) Stockton Island Tombolo, (102) Bark Bay Sedge Meadow, (107) Rainbow Flowage Sedge Meadow, (105) Powell Marsh WA, (94) Amsterdam Sloughs WA, (109) Thunder Lake WA, (84) Mead WA, (89) Meadman Meadows, (T) Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex, (U) Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens, (85) McMillan Marsh WA, (V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands, (83) Paul J. Olson WA, (98) Belden Swamp, (99) Black Lake Bog SNA, (Z) Black Lake/Belden Swamp, (87) New Auburn WA, (106) Johnson Lake Barrens, (108) Big Swamp
 
OPBA Open barrens:
(96) Namekagon Barrens WA, (97) Solon Springs Sharptail Barrens SNA/Douglas County WA, (W) Moquah Barrens, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (112) Spread Eagle Barrens SNA, (100) Bayfield County Fuelbreaks, (90) Fish Lake WA, (93) Kohler-Peet Barrens and Cedar Swamp SNA, (111) Dunbar Barrens SNA
 
DIBA Diverse barrens:
(96) Namekagon Barrens WA, (97) Solon Springs Sharptail Barrens SNA/Douglas County WA, (W) Moquah Barrens, (112) Spread Eagle Barrens SNA, (111) Dunbar Barrens SNA, (95) Fenton Lake Fuelbreak, (103) Stockton Island Tombolo, (106) Johnson Lake Barrens, (90) Fish Lake WA, (U) Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens
 
BPBA Brush prairie barrens:
(96) Namekagon Barrens WA, (W) Moquah Barrens, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (93) Kohler-Peet Barrens and Cedar Swamp SNA, (112) Spread Eagle Barrens SNA, (100) Bayfield County Fuelbreaks, (95) Fenton Lake Fuelbreak, (86) Pershing WA, (90) Fish Lake WA, (U) Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens
 
IWSG Idle warm season grass/forb (medium):
(87) New Auburn WA, (84) Mead WA, (90) Fish Lake WA, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (94) Amsterdam Sloughs WA
 
ICSG Idle cool season grass/forb (short, medium, and tall):
(84) Mead WA, (85) McMillan Marsh WA, (T) Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex, (V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands, (83) Paul J. Olson WA, (X) Mead/Paul J. Olson Grasslands, (87) New Auburn WA, (105) Powell Marsh WA, and other public properties such as the Brule River State Forest in Douglas County.
 
NSMA Northern sedge marsh:
(90) Fish Lake WA, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (105) Powell Marsh WA, (84) Mead WA, (94) Amsterdam Sloughs WA, (103) Stockton Island Tombolo, (104) Kakagon Slough Sedge Meadow
 
DROP Dry old field:
(84) Mead WA, (85) McMillan Marsh WA, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (93) Kohler-Peet Barrens and Cedar Swamp SNA, (97) Solon Springs Sharptail Barrens SNA/Douglas County WA, (V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands, (83) Paul J. Olson WA, (X) Mead/Paul J. Olson Grasslands, (86) Pershing WA, (87) New Auburn WA
 
PAST Pasture:
(T) Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex, (V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands, (X) Mead/Paul J. Olson Grasslands
 
OPBO Open bog:
(99) Black Lake Bog SNA, (98) Belden Swamp, (110) Bogus Swamp SNA, (105) Powell Marsh WA, (108) Big Swamp, (104) Kakagon Slough Sedge Meadow, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (83) Paul J. Olson WA, (84) Mead WA, (Z) Black Lake/Belden Swamp, (102) Bark Bay Sedge Meadow, (107) Rainbow Flowage Sedge Meadow, (109) Thunder Lake WA, (92) Reeds Lake Bog Meadow
 
GLHA Grass or grass/legume hay:
(V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands, and scattered sites in Bayfield/Ashland/Douglas counties (e.g., Brule River State Forest)
 
CBOV Cut- or burned-over:
(96) Namekagon Barrens WA, (97) Solon Springs Sharptail Barrens SNA/Douglas County WA, (W) Moquah Barrens, (95) Fenton Lake Fuelbreak, (100) Bayfield County Fuelbreaks, (111) Dunbar Barrens SNA, (112) Spread Eagle Barrens SNA and on industrial or managed forest lands adjacent to these areas, (U) Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens, (86) Pershing WA
 
DMPR Dry-mesic prairie:
(91) Crex Meadows WA
 
UPSH Upland shrub:
(83) Paul J. Olson WA, (84) Mead WA
 
COBA Conifer barrens:
(91) Crex Meadows WA, (90) Fish Lake WA, (84) Mead WA
 
WEOF Wet old field:
(83) Paul J. Olson WA, (84) Mead WA
 
SHSW Shrub swamp:
(89) Meadman Meadows, (91) Crex Meadows WA, (T) Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex, (85) McMillan Marsh WA, (V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands, (83) Paul J. Olson WA, (84) Mead WA, (X) Mead/Paul J. Olson Grasslands, (98) Belden Swamp, (99) Black Lake Bog SNA, (Z) Black Lake/Belden Swamp, (86) Pershing WA, (87) New Auburn WA, (88) Bear Lake Sedge Meadow, (94) Amsterdam Sloughs WA, (102) Bark Bay Sedge Meadow, (104) Kakagon Slough Sedge Meadow, (107) Rainbow Flowage Sedge Meadow, (109) Thunder Lake WA, (93) Kohler-Peet Barrens and Cedar Swamp SNA
 
WMWP Wet-mesic or wet prairie:
(87) New Auburn WA
 
SMGR Small grains:
(V1) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands
 
FAFI Fallow fields:
(V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands
 
YCPL Young conifer plantation:
(V1,2) North Central Prairie-Chicken Grasslands
 
SWOF Shrubby wet old field:
(91) Crex Meadows WA, (84) Mead WA

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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