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Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds
A Guide for Wisconsin

Natural Divisions: Southwestern Upland


We... got into one of the most exquisitely beautiful regions I have ever seen in any part of the world... The prairie... took the form of ridges somewhat elevated, which frequently resolved themselves into masses of gracefully-rounded hills, separated by gentle depressions... America will justly boast of this unrivalled spectacle when it becomes known, for certainly it is formed of elements that no magic could enable all Europe to bring together upon so great a scale... every moment produced a new excitement; the... frequent flushing of the prairie-hen from her nest, gave animation to the still beauty around us.

—George Featherstonaugh, describing
the landscape between Madison and Blue
Mounds in A Canoe Voyage Up the Minnay
Sotor
(Featherstonaugh 1847)

Small Map: Southwestern Upland

Prior to settlement by Europeans, this unglaciated and hilly part of the state was dominated by oak savanna, with scattered areas of prairies, southern oak forests, extensive lowland hardwood forests along rivers, and southern mesic forests. A few areas of pine and oak barrens and pine forest were present along the northeastern fringe, and barrens habitats also occurred along the lower Chippewa and Wisconsin rivers. Wetlands and lakes were (and are) not common in this division except at its northern edge in the pothole area of St. Croix County. Most of the grassland bird habitat was in the oak savanna and prairie areas. The major prairies were Star Prairie in St. Croix and Pierce counties in the northwestern part of the division and Military Ridge Prairie in Iowa, Grant, and Dane counties in the southern part.

Birds
The 19 priority species for this division (see sidebar) include all of the midgrass species and species requiring woody vegetation or nest structures from the statewide list (see Table 5), all but one of the shortgrass species (excepting vesper sparrow), as well as four of the five species requiring large areas. The priority list includes only one tallgrass species—Henslow's sparrow—and one of the open-water species—blue-winged teal.

Shortgrass species.
Western meadowlark is widespread. Upland sandpiper and grasshopper sparrow are more common in the southern part than elsewhere in the division.

Midgrass species.
Bobolink and savannah sparrow can be found throughout the division, while eastern meadowlark is most abundant in the southern part. Dickcissel is most abundant here, compared to the other divisions. It is especially common in the southern part of the division in most years.

Tallgrass species.
Henslow's sparrow is more common in the southern part than in the northern part of this division. Henslow's sparrow is best managed for in the Thomson Prairie Grasslands (A), Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas (C), and Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands (E) (Figure 9) and at sites such as Governor Dodge State Park (4) and other permanent grassland sites within the division.

Species requiring woody vegetation or nest structures.
Lark sparrow is most common in the Southwestern Upland. However, it is largely restricted to present and former sand prairies and oak or river barrens such as those on the lower Wisconsin and Chippewa River terraces and at Fort McCoy Military Reservation. It will benefit from the expansion of these sand prairies and barrens. Field sparrow is most common in this division and is widespread. Bell's vireo occurs most regularly in the southern half of the division, while Brewer's blackbird and clay-colored sparrow occur mainly in the northern part. Loggerhead shrike is better managed for in the southern and northern parts than in the central part of this division.

Species requiring open water.
Blue-winged teal—the one wetland species on the Southwestern Upland's priority list—is locally common in the prairie pothole area of St. Croix County.

Species requiring large areas.
Short-eared owl and northern harrier occur mainly in the northern part of the division, including the open-grassland landscapes in St. Croix County that include large blocks of idle tallgrass habitat, many of which are Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA's). In southern counties, northern harrier—and rarely short-eared owl—depend on and may nest in relatively treeless landscapes where there is sufficient grassy cover, such as lightly grazed pasture, CRP land, old fields, and small grains in and near Thomson Prairie Grasslands (A) and Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas (C) (Figure 9). Barn owls are likely to use habitats with a higher component of hedgerows, woodlots, and wet meadows. Greater prairie-chicken was extirpated from the Southwestern Upland in the 1940s and 1950s and is included because it could possibly be reintroduced in suitably large grassland landscapes in the southern part of the division.

Habitats, Landscapes, and Sites
The Southwestern Upland provides some of the best overall habitat for upland grassland bird species in the state, especially shortgrass and midgrass species, species requiring woody vegetation or nest structures, some species requiring large areas, and species near the northern edges of their range in Wisconsin (see preceding section). Agriculture is generally less intensive in this hilly area than it is in the Southeastern Ridges and Lowlands, Lake Michigan Shoreland, and southern part of the Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland. Forest cover is generally the most extensive—and grasslands the most fragmented—from the Military Ridge (Grant, Iowa, and Dane counties) north to roughly the Chippewa River. Open agricultural and grassland habitats dominate to the north and south of this area. Row crops are most prevalent in Lafayette and Grant counties in the southern part of the division. Alfalfa is more abundant in the southern counties of this division than anywhere in the state except for parts of the Lake Michigan Shoreland division, while grass-dominated hay is quite common in northernmost counties. Small grains are grown commonly in St. Croix, Pierce, and Pepin counties and to a lesser degree in Grant and Lafayette counties. Acreage of habitats favorable to many upland grassland birds, specifically pasture and CRP land, is higher in the Southwestern Upland than in any other natural division. This division also has the highest combined acreage of prairie remnants of any natural division.

The overall character and pattern of agricultural land use in the Southwestern Upland is largely responsible for the abundant and diverse grassland bird communities there. However, habitats in this natural division are highly vulnerable to changes in agricultural policy and practices and to increasing human development, because of the lack of permanent grassland. Compared to other natural divisions, a relatively low percentage of this natural division is publicly owned and managed for grassland habitat. An estimated 14,000 acres of the permanent grassland and barrens in the division is in blocks greater than 100 acres, over 65% (8,900 acres) of which is at Fort McCoy.

Photo by Eric Epstein: Mesic prairie remnant located in cemetery
Most mesic prairie remnants are limited to small sites including railroad rights-of-way and cemeteries such as this one in St. Croix County. These remnants are generally too small to provide habitat for grassland birds.  

Priority habitats, landscapes, and sites for the Southwestern Upland are listed next to Figure 9. Five of the top ten ranked landscapes statewide occur in this natural division. Fort McCoy Barrens (B), Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens (D), and Lower Chippewa River Savannas and Prairies (F) contain the largest patches of native grassland vegetation in the division: the barrens areas at Fort McCoy and the prairies and river barrens on the terraces of the Wisconsin and Chippewa rivers. The Fort McCoy Barrens Landscape currently has some large open areas of sand prairie that are used heavily by grassland birds. It also has the potential for expanding barrens habitat through restoration. The complex of sites in both the Lower Chippewa and Wisconsin river landscapes contain high quality bird habitat in dry or sand prairie and oak or river barrens sites, which are especially important for lark sparrow and associated species. The Lower Wisconsin River also includes Avoca Prairie (8), a wet-mesic prairie which is the largest remnant prairie in the state. Both landscapes, but particularly the Lower Wisconsin River, have the potential for connecting sites along the river corridor and expanding grassland acreage through restoration and buffering. These opportunities should be pursued where possible.

The potential for managing dry or shortgrass habitat is greatest in the Southwestern Upland because of its varied topography, thin soils, its southern and western exposures, and because of the economic viability of pasture (grazing) in the division. The abundance of pastures—some of which are on unplowed prairie sod—and other fields with shrubby invasion makes this natural division excellent for upland shrub-grassland species such as loggerhead shrike, field sparrow, clay-colored sparrow (north only), and Bell's vireo. Bell's vireo, whose range is largely restricted to this natural division, also uses shrub habitats along major river terraces and some upland-wetland interfaces such as those found at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (17) (Thompson 1992). These species depend on the maintenance of upland shrub or other grasslands with a shrub component (shrubby pastures and old fields).

Photo by Michael Mossman: Avoca Prairie-Savanna State Natural Area (arial view)
The Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens landscape includes a number of unconnected native grassland sites along the Wisconsin River corridor. Some of the sites are quite large, such as the 1,500 acre Avoca Prairie-Savanna State Natural Area in Iowa County, shown here. Connection and buffering of native grassland habitats is a priority in this landscape.  

The best opportunities for managing large areas of relatively treeless grassland bird habitat that attract area-sensitive birds are in the open surrogate grassland landscapes of the former prairie and oak savanna areas of Dane, Iowa, Lafayette, and St. Croix counties, including Thomson Prairie Grasslands (A), Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas (C), and Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands (E). These counties contain large treeless landscapes where farming is not dominated by row crops, where there are still many large pasture systems, and where much land is currently enrolled in the CRP. Lark sparrow is perhaps the only priority species not likely to benefit from grassland management in these areas. These landscapes are large enough to incorporate areas of upland shrub habitat, as well as shortgrass, midgrass, and tallgrass habitats. Savanna habitats can also be easily found and potentially restored in these landscapes. The Thomson Prairie Grasslands Landscape contains a high density of scattered remnant dry and dry-mesic prairies, many of which are not currently valuable as bird habitat because they are not buffered by idle grassland, restored prairie, CRP lands, or other suitable habitats. However, those remnants that are buffered, such as at The Nature Conservancy's Thomson Prairie (1), do receive high use from grassland birds. Expanding prairie acreage through restoration will increase the value of these habitats for birds.

      Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Lark Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Species of management concern in the Southwestern Upland
(in order of priority)

Henslow's sparrow
Loggerhead shrike
Lark sparrow
Grasshopper sparrow
Eastern meadowlard
Field sparrow
Upland sandpiper
Western meadowlark
Bell's vireo
Short-eared owl
Dickcissel
Northern harrier
Bobolink
Blue-winged teal
Greater prairie-chicken
Clay-colored
   sparrow (north)
Brewer's blackbird (north)
Savannah sparrow
Barn owl

The overall character and pattern of agricultural land use in the Southwestern Upland is largely responsible for the abundant and diverse grassland bird communities there.

Drawing by Cary Hunkel: Dickcissel
 Dickcissel


Figure 9: Map of the Southwestern Upland Natural Division showing locations of priority and secondary landscapes along with sites for management focus
Figure 9.  Priority landscapes and sites for grassland bird management in the Southwestern Upland Natural Division.

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

A.  Thomson Prairie Grasslands   ICSG, IWSG, UPSH, PAST, DMPR, DSPR, DROF, OASA, SMGR2
Sites:   2.  Thomson Prairie (The Nature Conservancy; includes several remnants) DSPR, DMPR, ICSG, UPSH
   
B.  Fort McCoy Barrens ORBA, OASA, DSPR, IWSG, ICSG
Sites: 15.  Fort McCoy Military Reservation Drop Area DSPR
16.  Fort McCoy State Natural Area (SNA) DSPR, ORBA
   
C.  Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas PAST, OASA, ICSG, UPSH, IWSG, DROF, DMPR, SMGR
Sites:   1.  Yellowstone Wildlife Area (WA) and Yellowstone Lake State Park (SP) IWSG, ICSG, OASA, DROF, WEOF, DMPR, DSPR, UPSH
3.  Iowa County Farm IWSG, ICSG
   
D.  Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens DROF, DSPR, IWSG, ORBA, SHSW, SWOF, SSME, SSMA, OASA
Sites:   6.  Spring Green Reserve SNA DSPR, DROF, ORBA
7.  Gotham Jack Pine Barrens SNA ORBA, DROF
8.  Avoca Prairie-Savanna SNA OASA, WMWP, SHSW, SSME
9.  Blue River Sand Barrens SNA ORBA, DSPR
   
E.  Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands ICSG, GLHA, PAST, SMGR, IWSG, OASA, UPSH, DMPR, FAFI, YCPL
Sites: 25.  Lundy Pond, Tenmile Creek, and Three Lakes Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) ICSG, IWSG, DROF, SSMA, OASA, SHSW
26.  Bierbrauer, Amschler, Oak Ridge, and Erickson WPAs IWSG, ICSG, DROF
   
F.  Lower Chippewa River Savannas and Prairies ORBA, DROF, IWSG
Sites: 18.  Spring Brook Terrace DSPR
19.  Caryville Savanna SNA ORBA, DSPR, UPSH
20.  Meridean Barrens DSPR, ORBA, DROF
21.  Dunnville WA ORBA, DROF, IWSG, DRSP, SWOF
22.  Nine Mile Island SNA DSPR, ORBA
   
G.  Rush Creek/Battle Bluff Goat Prairies and Savannas DSPR, DROF, OASA
Sites: 12.  Rush Creek SNA DSPR, OASA, DROF
13.  Battle Bluff Prairie SNA DSPR, DROF
   
AA.  York Prairie Grasslands PAST, ICSG, DMPR, IWSG, OASA, FAFI
   
BB.  Buffalo River/Lima Mounds Savannas OASA, DSPR, UPSH
   
CC.  Mirror Lake Barrens COBA, DROF, UPSH
Sites: 10.  Van Zelst Barrens COBA, DROF, DSPR
11.  Mirror Lake SP DSPR, COBA
   
        Other Sites Located Outside of Landscapes:
4.  Governor Dodge SP   IWSG, ICSG, DROF, UPSH, WEOF, OASA
5.  Dewey Heights Prairie SNA (in Dewey Heights State Park) DSPR
14.  La Crosse Municipal Airport DSPR, DROF
17.  Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) SWOF, SHSW, ICSG, IWSG, UPSH, DROF, DRSP, OASA
23.  Morgan Coulee Prairie SNA DSPR, OASA
24.  Trenton Bluff Prairie SNA DSPR

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 Southwestern Upland 1
(ranked by priority)

DSPR Dry or sand prairie:
  • Sand prairie: (6) Spring Green Reserve SNA, (15) Fort McCoy Military Reservation Drop Area, (9) Blue River Sand Barrens SNA, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (B) Fort McCoy Barrens, (16) Fort McCoy SNA, (19) Caryville Savanna SNA, (20) Meridean Barrens, (22) Nine Mile Island SNA, (10) Mirror Lake SP, (11) Van Zelst Barrens, (14) La Crosse Municipal Airport, (21) Dunnville WA, (18) Spring Brook Terrace, (17) Trempealeau NWR

  • Dry prairie with relatively flat topography: (A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (1) Thomson Prairie

  • Dry prairie with mostly steep hillsides-currently little use by birds: (12) Rush Creek SNA, (13) Battle Bluff Prairie SNA, (6) Spring Green Reserve SNA, (5) Dewey Heights Prairie SNA, (23) Morgan Coulee Prairie SNA, (G) Rush Creek/Battle Bluff Goat Prairies and Savannas, (24) Trenton Bluff Prairie SNA, (B) Buffalo River/Lima Mounds Savannas, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone SP
 
IWSG Idle warm season grass/forb (medium and tall):
(A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone Lake SP, (4) Governor Dodge SP, (25) Lundy Pond, Tenmile Creek, & Three Lakes WPAs, (26) Bierbrauer, Amschler, Oakridge, & Erickson WPAs, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (3) Iowa County Farm, (17) Trempealeau NWR, (B) Fort McCoy Barrens, (21) Dunnville WA, (F) Lower Chippewa River Savanna and Prairies, (AA) York Prairie Grasslands
 
PAST Pasture:
(A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas, (E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (AA) York Prairie Grasslands
 
UPSH Upland shrub:
(A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (1) Thomson Prairie, (C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas, (E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (4) Governor Dodge SP, (19) Caryville Savanna SNA, (17) Trempealeau NWR, (BB) Buffalo River/Lima Mounds Savannas, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone SP, (CC) Mirror Lake Barrens
 
ICSG Idle cool season grass/forb (short, medium, and tall):
(A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (1) Thomson Prairie, (C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas, (E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (25) Lundy Pond, Tenmile Creek, & Three Lakes WPAs, (26) Bierbrauer, Amschler, Oakridge, & Erickson WPAs, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone Lake SP, (4) Governor Dodge SP, (AA) York Prairie Grasslands, (B) Fort McCoy Barrens, (3) Iowa County Farm, (17) Trempealeau NWR
 
DROF Dry old field:
(A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (6) Spring Green Reserve SNA, (C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica Grasslands and Savannas, (26) Bierbrauer, Amschler, Oakridge, & Erickson WPAs, (25) Lundy Pond, Tenmile Creek, & Three Lakes WPAs, (F) Lower Chippewa River Savanna and Prairies, (4) Governor Dodge SP, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone Lake SP, (21) Dunnville WA, (12) Rush Creek SNA, (G) Rush Creek/Battle Bluff Goat Prairies and Savannas, (20) Meridean Barrens, (CC) Mirror Lake Barrens, (10) Mirror Lake SP, (13) Battle Bluff Prairie SNA, (7) Gotham Jack Pine Barrens SNA, (14) La Crosse Municipal Airport, (17) Trempealeau NWR
 
ORBA Oak or river barrens:
(B) Fort McCoy Barrens, (F) Lower Chippewa River Savanna and Prairies, (9) Blue River Sand Barrens SNA, (16) Fort McCoy SNA, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (19) Caryville Savanna SNA, (22) Nine Mile Island SNA, (20) Meridean Barrens, (6) Spring Green Reserve SNA, (7) Gotham Jack Pine Barrens SNA, (21) Dunnville WA
 
DMPR Dry-mesic prairie:
(A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (1) Thomson Prairie, (AA) York Prairie Grasslands, (E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica Grasslands and Savannas, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone Lake SP
 
OASA Oak savanna (open with scattered trees):
(C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica Grasslands and Savannas, (12) Rush Creek SNA, (G) Rush Creek/Battle Bluff Goat Prairies and Savannas, (BB) Buffalo River/Lima Mounds Savannas, (B) Fort McCoy Barrens, (A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (8) Avoca Prairie-Savanna SNA, (AA) York Prairie Grasslands, (E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (4) Governor Dodge SP, (25) Lundy Pond, Tenmile Creek, & Three Lakes WPAs, (23) Morgan Coulee Prairie SNA, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone Lake SP, (17) Trempeleau NWR
 
COBA Conifer barrens:
(CC) Mirror Lake Barrens, (10) Mirror Lake SP, (11) Van Zelst Barrens
 
SWOF Shrubby wet old field:
(17) Trempealeau NWR, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (21) Dunnville WA
 
SHSW Shrub swamp:
(17) Trempealeau NWR, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (8) Avoca Prairie-Savanna SNA, (25) Lundy Pond, Tenmile Creek, & Three Lakes WPAs
 
WMWP Wet-mesic or wet prairie:
(8) Avoca Prairie-Savanna SNA
 
FAFI Fallow fields:
(E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (AA) York Prairie Grasslands; use as buffers
 
SSME Southern sedge meadow:
(8) Avoca Prairie-Savanna SNA, (D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens
 
WEOF Wet old field:
(4) Governor Dodge SP, (2) Yellowstone WA/Yellowstone Lake SP
 
SMGR Small grains:
(E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands, (A) Thomson Prairie Grasslands, (C) Yellowstone/Pecatonica Grasslands and Savannas; use especially as buffers for idle grassland
 
GLHA Grass or grass/legume hay:
(E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands
 
SSMA Southern sedge marsh:
(D) Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens, (25) Lundy Pond, Tenmile Creek, & Three Lakes WPAs
 
YCPL Young conifer plantation:
(E) Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands


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.
Previous Section -- Management Priorities for Birds, Habitats, Landscapes, and Sites
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