Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"Life lister" and Prairie "Snowstorm"

Along CO 14,  en route to Pawnee National Grassland
I've always been intrigued by the big green splotch shown on maps of northeast Colorado labeled Pawnee National Grassland.  The name conjures up the prairie primeval, with endless expanses of short grass meadows dotted with wildflowers grazed by American bison.  The air would be alive with grassland birds.

The reality is far different.  Sure, the land is flat and the horizon incredibly expansive, but the prairie has been gridded-up with dirt roads, the pastures are all fenced, and the cattle (not bison) have overgrazed the grasses down to nubs in most places.
The national grassland is administered by the national forest service, an agency not known for enlightened grazing practices on its own forested land, so why should I have expected anything different out on the plains.

Kali and I drove about 40 miles east of Ft. Collins on Saturday morning, June 9 to the Owl Creek Recreation Area, a birding hotspot in the grassland.  Before setting out, I assumed it would be a place where grassland species gathered.  Owl Creek turned out to be a large grove of cottonwood trees that had become established along the bone-dry Owl Creek streambed.  And, true to its reputation, the place was alive with birds (where the heck else would birds find any habitat in this barren, overgrazed grassland?), though species diversity was limited.

Kali and I wandered along the short, casual trail that threaded through the cottonwood grove.  Temperatures - even before noon - were near 100 degrees F.  We did managed to add one bird to our life lists there, a Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus).  We also enjoyed a fine view of a Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) scouting the grasslands for prey, but we'd seen these raptors before.

We had planned to drive further east to hike to the Pawnee Buttes, two rocky mesas that stick up out of the plains in another part of the grassland, but the drive would have been slow going on dirt roads, and the weather was so sweltering that we wouldn't have been able to make the trek across open ground to the buttes even if we had driven to the spot, so we retreated to the shade of the cottonwoods for lunch, and then drove back to Ft. Collins.

The cottonwood trees at Owl Creek were shedding their fluffy seeds in profusion.  There was so much cottonwood fluff in the hot breeze that it looked like a snowstorm in the summer prairie.  I tried to capture some of the magic in an image, the best of which I have included here.  Enlarge the picture to better appreciate the scene.


Carolyn H said...

I've never been to this area. i'm enjoying your reports on what you saw. Thanks!

Scott said...

Thanks for your feedback, Carolyn. Though I've been to native prairie in Kansas (the Konza Prairie outside Manhattan, owned by The Nature Conservancy--a wonderful place to visit), I'd never been on the ground in the overgrazed high plains and short-grass grasslands in eastern Colorado. It was new to me, too!