Monday, January 18, 2010

Weekend birding report from Joe Neal offers great news on January 17, 2010

Andrew Scaboo, doctoral candidate at UA-Fayetteville, has been watching a big field where up to 8 Northern Harriers have been roosting for at least the past few weeks. That is not big news in parts of Arkansas where harriers are usually numerous, but it is significant in northwestern Arkansas, where in mid-winter we see none or at most a scattered bird or two. Leesia Marshall-Rosenberger, also a UA doctoral student, followed up with the sighting of a Short-eared Owl in this same field on January 10. Subsequently, she, Andy, and others have counted as many as 6 flying owls at dusk. Prior to these sightings, we have had only local, sparse, and scattered Short-eared Owl records for more than a half-century. So, ornithologically-speaking, this is big news for us.

The habitat in use by harriers & owls is a low-lying, former Tallgrass Prairie field marked by impressive prairie mounds. We have been calling these seasonal wetlands; the areas between the mounds are wet from snow melt & retain shallow standing water. Though the field has been heavily fescued, it retains significant Tallgrass Prairie flora, including the chief grasses: big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, & cordgrass in broad patches. Other prairie forb & grass species are also visible, even at mid-winter. My assumption is that if this Tallgrass Prairie flora remains, the prairie small mammal community has survived. It would explain the attraction for harriers and Short-eared Owls. Habitat patches like this survive because they are literally “too wet to plow.” It has become a very rare habitat in western Arkansas, and the loss makes its unfortunate contribution to rangewide declines in grassland birds.

The owl field is immediately east of Woolsey Wet Prairie, adjacent Fayetteville’s Westside wastewater treatment plant. Habitat-wise, it looks exactly like Woolsey prior to the ongoing restoration efforts.

A group of us (including Leesia, Andy, Carolina Monteiro, Brandon Schmidt, and Jacque Brown) linked up last evening (Jan. 17) to look for American Tree Sparrows at Woolsey (~50 in one singing flock!), then crossed Broyles Ave. to walk the owl field. We found 6 Short-eared Owls roosting on the side of a big prairie mound, out in the wide-open middle of the big field. So we got great looks at the birds. Jacque Brown collected fascinating images of flying owls. We discovered Tallgrass Prairie attributes that remain. It is as good as any I’ve seen in northwestern Arkansas.

At dusk we linked up with Sam Holschbach & Dan Scheiman, fresh from their birding loop through northwest Arkansas. A thin gray ground fog begin to form, but we could still see several Short-eared Owls working the old former prairie fields, gliding up and down among mounds. Overhead, in the dark sky, there was just a sliver of moon, and nearby, bright Jupiter, with thee moons visible through the bins. There was just enough light to silhouette overhead flocks of Mallards (& probably shovelers and Gadwalls) as they flew into the shallow ponds and flooded grasslands at Woolsey Wet Prairie.

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