Sunday, July 1, 2012

Joe Neal finds wildlife getting along well where native plants dominate

For sample photos from several trips to Chesney Prairie, use this link to Flickr

If drought and heat is supposed to constrain bobwhites, gay feathers, switch grass, or compass plants, somebody quick run out to Chesney Prairie Natural Area and give them the bad news. Even though tough leaves on ashy sunflowers curl just a bit, Dickcissel young are out of the nest, chasing down their own grasshoppers.

Short-tailed fledgling Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are on the wing and keeping the long-tailed folks busy. Red-headed Woodpeckers, who prefer dead trees anyway, seem spunky as ever.

At one point, while admiring a patch of purple gay feathers well-attended by green-headed bees with yellow-striped abdomens, I could hear 1, 2, 3 -- no, actually 4 bobwhites -- calling back and forth. I flushed one suddenly right underfoot, and heard peeping young nearby. Whistled BOBWHITE! carries nicely through blue sky glare and dry air.

It's not exactly headline news that early high heat and spreading drought generally impact biota and birders, of course. Today I walked slowly, wore a sunhat, ducked into whatever shade was available. Growth of various sunflowers may have slowed and this could account for what seemed a listless performance on the part of today's American Goldfinches, just now starting to nest. But native bluestem grasses are green and thriving, as in an oasis, especially when compared to fescue and bermuda pastures just beyond. Long ago stripped of their deep-rooted and therefore drought-hardy native plants, these pastures are inexorably baking into sand-colored deserts.

Prairies came to northwest Arkansas 9000 to 5000 years ago during high a time of high heat and low rain termed the Hypsithermal. Annual rainfall was estimated at 10 inches rather than 40 we expect. The Great Plains spread east along with drought-hardy plants and animals. We got our bison and prairie chickens then, and quickly lost them as we eliminated prairie.

The fact that climate change can have big impacts isn't just a bunch of wild speculation spread by liberal scientists. Native Indians who lived in the Ozarks over the past 10,000 years stored food and sometimes camped in deep, dry rock overhangs that protected plant and animal remains from deterioration. One of the biggest ones I've visited is Cob Cave along the walking trail up to Eden Falls in Lost Valley of the Buffalo National River. Local hot dry times are well-documented in animal bones, plant fibers, and various stored seeds characteristic of the Great Plains.

I don't want to stir flat earth society partisans by bringing up this stuff. But are headed there again? If high heat and drought becomes a long term feature here, it favors plants and animals like those of a prairie oasis, disfavors poorly adapted monocultures like fescue.

Out on Chesney today, Red-winged Blackbirds are feeding young. In the pastures, cows fret about the future.

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