Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Giving hayland birds a break in a wet year

Bobolink pair (female on left)

A few days ago, before the daily monsoons hit, I had a sunny evening free and decided to go for a drive just southeast of Regina to see what birds I could find along the Wascana Creek floodplain.

Almost as soon as I was out of the city I found an alfalpha field with several birds. Mostly species that will accept tame hayland in place of native grass. Western meadowlarks, bobolinks, sedge wrens, savvanah sparrows, and common yellowthroats flew back and forth over the alfalpha or landed on fence posts or high weed stalks to sing. Species like these have adapted to the simplified structure of hay fields, or at least it seems they have adapted.

We don't know for sure whether this king of habitat is really working for these species. It may attract them to come and set up territories but in the end not provide the right matrix of cover from predators and food supply that they need to rear young. Their biggest peril comes from the farmer's mower in late June or early July. Most hay fields are cut the first time before the end of June in wet years. When that happens in a field like the one I saw just outside of the city, nests, fledglings and sometimes adult birds are destroyed.

Farmers work within a demanding cost-price squeeze. They don't get any income from raising baby bobolinks and sedge wrens, which makes it all the more amazing when you hear of a hay farmer taking measures to avoid harming the birds nesting in his hay fields. Those who are willing to, will delay their first cut to July 25, by which time most if not all young birds will be flying and dispersed from their nesting sites.

Some farmers aware of the birds just leave a piece of each field uncut, rotating to different spots each year to allow some tall grass habitat for the birds that need it.

Here are some guidelines for farmers who feel they can afford to give the birds a break and for landowners who lease out hay land or allow a local farmer to mow it:

If you can wait to mow, wait until July 25 for the first cut.

If you have to mow before July 25, consider leaving part of the field uncut.

If you must mow, start at the centre and mow out, giving nestlings a chance to flee to safety at the edge of the field.

In the long term, consider a three-year mowing rotation leaving some fields uncut each year.

savannah sparrow

In a year as wet as this one, many of these hay land species will be delaying nesting and having to renest after their nests are flooded out. Any break we can give them will help ensure that we get to hear their songs and see their colours in years to come.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Things popping up at Cherry Lake

The wet earth this spring has stirred to life some things I do not always get to see on the prairie, and in the coulees and wetlands at Cherry Lake.

The photo above shows a mushroom, verpa Bohemica, sometimes called "Early Morel" that I found in mid-May in a deep, shaded ravine on the north side of our land. The glade was covered in wood violet leaves, just emerging cow parsnip, and a liberal sprinkling of bud scales sticky with resin from balsam poplar twigs in the canopy. At first I thought they might be a kind of stinkhorn, which is another even more phallic fungi, the one that Charles Darwin's daughter, Henrietta, is said to have purged from local woods, to protect the chastity of her servant girls.

After searching through field guides, I realized that I'd missed a chance to taste another kind of wild edible mushroom, one that is said to be tasty, and harmless to most people, though some apparently react by losing their coordination. There were dozens of these fungi jutting up impudently from the winter-worn earth and trumpeting the fecundity of spring. Just as well I didn't try eating them, perhaps--I am uncoordinated enough without ingesting the complex chemistry of a dubious fungi.

The other wild thing sprouting forth in profusion this spring we have fed on several times. At first, sauteed in olive oil, garlic and lemon for two different meals and then in a wonderful quiche that appeared on our supper table last night.

our youngest, Maia, holding the season's bounty

Stalking the wild asparagus on a nearby abandoned farm site (location guarded with the greatest of secrecy), has become an annual May and early June outing at Cherry Lake. This spring we were able to harvest a crop twice, though we could have done three. Shameless as trespassing berry-pickers, we eat a few fresh as we search through the undergrowth for each stalk leaping up to get some sun, but the feast begins when we make it back to the kitchen and grill or fry up a batch.

This is a bad image of another surprise at Cherry Lake: a snowy egret.

Last weekend, we had several young families out for a campout (including the family belonging to Erin Knuttila, who sometimes reads things in this space). We went for walks, let the kids touch frogs and snakes, paddle canoes alongside beavers, and cross a stream from log to log. At dusk as we shared supper, I saw a large white bird with no black on its wings crossing the lake to the south. Through binoculars I could tell it was an egret, likely a snowy, by the speed of its wing-flap, but it was too far for me to see the yellow socks that set it apart from other egrets.

Then the next morning, as we all returned to the valley after a car tour of the upland prairie seeing Sprague's pipits, bobolinks and ducks, the egret flew across the road in front of us and landed in the creek's marshy margins. We jumped out of the vehicles and stood there, watching the angel-grace of a large white bird taking the air.

I tried to get a photo but in my excitement, I had the auto-focus set wrong and botched the opportunity. Still, the fuzzy photos do show the diagnostic yellow.

Surprises like these--a thrust of fungi, a bounty of asparagus, an egret--wake us up to miracles and mysteries whose lives are more entangled with our own than we can ever know.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Gas Development Pushs Greater Sage-Grouse toward Crisis

image courtesy of John Carlson

Within the next few weeks, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment staff will be visiting Greater Sage-Grouse habitat in Saskatchewan to prepare for a thorough helicopter survey of the breeding population in the spring of 2012.

In both Saskatchewan and Alberta, the remaining known leks (dancing grounds) are surveyed from the ground each April, but their habitat is notoriously remote and difficult to access at that time of year and so the only way to properly check some of the leks is from the air.

By this time next spring, then, we should have a much better idea of how many Sage Grouse we have left. Those who think and care about this magnificent bird will be waiting in dread. The last ground-based surveys, in the spring of 2010, put the total Canadian population at an estimated 200 birds (down from 2,000 in the 1990s).

What is behind this crash in population? Dr. Mark Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Alberta, has studied the species and has no qualms about pointing to the primary cause. In a recent article (access the pdf here and go to the feature on page 4) he wrote for Wildlands Advocate, the journal of the Alberta Wilderness Association, Boyce points to natural gas development and makes it clear that Environment Canada failed to identify Critical Wildlife Habitat for the Greater Sage-Grouse, thus rendering it incapable of protecting it from the rampant resource development that is going on in Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Boyce is not enthusiastic about the re-introduction project underway this summer in Alberta. The provincial wildlife branch is getting some Sage Grouse from Montana and introducing into former Sage-Grouse areas in Alberta. In Boyce's opinion, "the
entire exercise might be futile anyway, given that there is very little undisturbed
habitat remaining and the little that does remain continues to be eroded."

He ends the article with this stark prediction:

I fear that it might be too late already for this
spectacular bird in Alberta. Habitat protection
and restoration are most crucial to ensuring
its persistence in Alberta. No translocation or
conservation program can be successful without a
total ban on future development and disturbance in
critical habitat for Greater sage-grouse.

Unfortunately, this is not merely happening north of the 49th parallel. Things are also getting bad in Montana and Wyoming. Natural gas and coalbed methane development is driving the Greater Sage-Grouse from the land throughout its range, even in its core population zones, where only a few years ago the species was thriving in great numbers. Ten thousand or more new wells are proposed in some of Wyoming's most important Sage Grouse habitat and current buffer regulations allow the industry to build roads and well pads as close as 600 metres to an active lek. Mark Boyce and others have shown that the species needs a lot more space from development than that.

Later this month, conservationists and scientists working on the decline of the Greater Sage-Grouse will be meeting in Wyoming to discuss the crisis and see what can be done to prevent further destruction and fragmentation of its habitat. Here's hoping they come up with a strategy that will get the industry to back off and stay away from key Sage Grouse lekking and nesting zones.

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