Grassland birds and Grazers

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Grassland birds and Grazers

Studying the impacts on McCown’s Longspur

By Angela Dwyer, Grassland Wildlife Coordinator, Nebraska Prairie Partners, Science and Stewardship


The Central Plains Experimental Range (CPER), adjacent to the Pawnee National Grasslands, is a beautiful locale in northeast Colorado where an intact prairie landscape still exists. For decades, research ecologists have been studying the effects of long-term grazing at CPER. In the past, grazers consisted mostly of bison; however, ranching can mimic these historic conditions. Grazing often benefits many species of plants and wildlife. Researchers, range managers and private ranchers are working together to examine the landscape at CPER in more detail through an adaptive grazing management experiment.

Does adaptive grazing benefit the birds, landscape, cattle and ranchers?

Plant response, cattle weight gains, soil conditions and grassland bird nesting survival are key areas of study by biologists to help answer that question. Over the course of 10 years, they will compare pastures using adaptive grazing to pastures using traditional grazing. In adaptive grazing, cattle stocking rates vary and the animals utilize several pastures over the course of the season. Traditional grazing involves a fixed stocking rate in each pasture throughout the grazing period. We hope this research will shed light on how certain grazing practices can be beneficial to the both ranching community and the shortgrass ecosystem.

CPER Study McCown’s Longspur

Documenting ground-nests on the wide open prairie.

Studying these birds is not easy!

We have been working alongside the USDA-Agricultural Research Service and the University of Colorado-Denver to oversee a graduate student investigating the breeding success of McCown’s Longspur, a ground-nesting grassland species. I had the fortune of helping our graduate student, Amber, locate ground-nests in 2014 and 2015. In a vast grassland, this can be tricky and labor intensive. But, the hard work paid off. Amber located and monitored more than 300 nests from at least five ground-nesting grassland bird species. The majority of nests came from Lark Buntings. Unfortunately, wet weather hindered McCown’s Longspur nesting. Twenty-seven nests were found in 2014; 36 in 2015. Other species included Brewer’s Sparrow nest, Horned Lark, Common Nighthawk and Grasshopper Sparrow.

Female McCown’s Longspur,

A female McCown’s Longspur, about to be released back onto the wild prairie landscape.


And life is not easy for these birds.

The McCown’s Longspur is suffering a stark decline—an astounding 95% drop since 1966. Predators cause the majority of nest failures, but bad weather can have an impact. One hailstorm knocked out 75 of 113 nests in 2014. Even nests tended by incubating adults—some of which died trying to protect them—didn’t survive the storm. They prefer the shortgrass and disturbed areas grazing can provide, making the CPER a perfect home. We know little of the breeding success of this bird on CPER, and will continue to explore what effect that grazing practices have.

It will be years before the results of this research are complete. Like the work of finding ground nests, it is not fast and not easy. But the end result is worth the effort and, we hope, an important step toward informing grazing practices that benefit both birds and ranching.

Students engage in ‘epic’ season of bird banding at Barr Lake

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“I had an EPIC day!!” -5th grade student that attended the banding station at Barr Lake

We would have to agree, the 2015 fall migratory season at Bird Conservancy of the Rockies’ Barr Lake Banding Station was “epic” for both birds and kids.

Over 1,400 birds were banded this season and 64 species recorded. Highlights of some of the more rare species we had this season were:

  • Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco
  • Plumbeous Vireo
  • Brown Creeper
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Vesper Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In addition, the station also banded species that are common to see at Barr Lake, but rare to catch in the mist-nets. The five Red-shafted Northern Flickers caught in a single net run, 10 Red-winged Blackbirds, a Common Grackle, Mourning Dove and Black-billed Magpie were all incredible to see up-close in the hand.

Wilson’s Warbler, the most common species typically banded at Barr Lake, also did not disappoint this year with 602 individuals banded.

5th grade student helps read the weight of a Wilson's Warbler

5th grade student helps read the weight of a Wilson’s Warbler by Peggy Watson

All of the data recorded from any of the Bird Conservancy’s banding stations is reported to the USGS Bird Banding Lab. Compiled data from banding stations across North and Central America has allowed biologists to gain a better understanding of avian biology, such as the biodiversity of an area, migratory patterns, life cycle information (such as molting patterns, breeding, and survival), and individual site fidelity.

Not only are Bird Conservancy banding stations an integral part of avian conservation, but they are key in fulfilling one of our main education goals, which is to engage people in nature and the scientific process.

Student looks on as Meredith McBurney talks about the Townsends Warbler. Photo by Peggy Watson

Student looks on as Meredith McBurney talks about the Townsends Warbler. Photo by Peggy Watson

Nearly 1,400 students and over 400 adults visited the Barr Lake Banding Station this season. Experiences varied from preschoolers taking their first ever field trip on a bus to our banding station to ornithology students from nearby universities beefing up their identification skills.

When asked to reflect on their experience, teachers and parents stated:

Fourth grade students help release a Green-tailed Towhee at the Barr Lake Banding Station. Photo by Kacie Miller.

Fourth grade students help release a Green-tailed Towhee at the Barr Lake Banding Station. Photo by Kacie Miller.

“This helped my students get excited about birds and learning about nature. Several of them talked about wanting to return to Barr Lake for fun in the future, and one kiddo insisted repeatedly that when he grows up he wants to be a bird bander!”

“This was amazing! The level of rigor and the openness for student question and wondering was really at the level we were hoping for our students. The staff were great instructors and had great interactions with the kids. Thank you”

“The children LOVED the whole experience. Getting to see the birds up close and watch the banding firsthand was fascinating! They have talked non-stop about it since coming home from the program. Several went home and “banded” their bird stuffed animals and talked about their “migration” to other family members.”

Many of these schools would have been unable to participate if it was not for the wonderful support of Ed Warner, Adams County Open Space, Science Cultural and Facilities District, Science and Cultural Collaborative and the Urban Bird Treaty. These generous donors provided funding to help cover program fees and bus transportation. Many thanks also go out to our volunteers and Barr Lake State Park for helping make this wonderful season possible.

~ Emily-Snode-Brenneman, School Programs Coordinator

Finding My Calling at Camp

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After graduating from college, volunteer Jennifer Meyers became a summer camp counselor for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. Jennifer writes about her experiences at camp in the Colorado high country and how she gained just as much from summer camp as the kids she mentored and supported.

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Citizen Scientists Busy Monitoring Nesting Eagles

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The Bald Eagle nesting season is in full swing in the Rockies. Citizen scientists with Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory are busy monitoring nesting activity across Colorado. Outreach biologist Jeff Birek reports that volunteers with Bald Eagle Watch have already observed at least 20 eaglets in nests across the state, including two at Barr Lake.

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