Assessing spatial and temporal patterns in abundances of wintering and migrating birds on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Denise Cameron* and William E. Jensen, Department of Biological Sciences, Emporia State University

The stopover and wintering habitat needs of migrating grassland birds have been understudied in comparison to habitat use during the breeding season. Substantial declines in grassland bird populations may be attributed to widespread loss of grasslands as well as management strategies that have led to a less variable grassland habitat mosaic. The Flint Hills, an ecoregion of the Great Plains, is one of the largest unfragmented remnants of the remaining 4% of the original extent of tallgrass prairie in North America. Our research explores occurrence, abundance, and habitat use patterns of migrating and wintering birds in this region, with focus on an assemblage of nine target species. Data are being collected over two years (fall, winter, and spring; 2020-2021 and 2021-2022) in the upland habitats of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (TAPR), and another property within the core of the Flint Hills, where managers use patch-burn grazing to maintain a more intrinsic mosaic of grassland habitat structure. Two survey methods are being utilized—transect counts followed by point counts—which are novel in application to surveys of wintering and migratory birds in grasslands. This presentation will focus on temporal findings from the first year of data collection and community science surveys. Our survey methods are intended to serve as templates for future bird surveys on TAPR. Our research will also increase understanding of how patch-burn grazing effects spatial habitat use of wintering and migrating grassland birds in the Flint Hills.


Behavioral tendencies of Dickcissels affect parasitism of their nests by cowbirds

Jeane A. Thompson* and William E. Jensen, Emporia State University

Intraspecific variation in behavior can have important evolutionary and ecological consequences. Such variation might involve tradeoffs, potentially affecting some, but not all demographic parameters (e.g., components of reproductive success or survival). Using the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) as a model organism, we are investigating how conspicuous behavioral tendencies such as boldness and activity might affect multiple sources of variation in reproductive success. During the breeding season from mid-May to early August of 2020 and 2021, we located and monitored 182 Dickcissel nests at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Here we compared the behavioral tendencies of individual females and males to the rate and intensity with which their nests were parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater), which might be attracted by aspects of host behavior. Of the nests that reached the incubation stage, 45% were parasitized. Nests of females who exhibited bolder / riskier behaviors were less likely to be parasitized, or if they resided in the territory of males who chipped more frequently. Future analyses will explore the effects of behavioral tendencies on daily survival rate and nestling condition. The observed patterns will give us a better understanding of how selection might act on certain behavioral tendencies and explain apparently maladaptive behaviors.


Lesser prairie-chicken response to translocation to southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado

Elisabeth C. Teige* and David A. Haukos, Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Division of Biology, Kansas State University

Ongoing declines of lesser prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) throughout its range has generated conservation concern and sparked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose listing the species under the Endangered Species Act. To document how lesser prairie-chickens respond to translocation as a conservation tool for the species, 411 lesser prairie-chickens were translocated from west-central Kansas to the U.S. Forest Service Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands in southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado, respectively, from 2016-2019. Birds had either GPS or VHF transmitters and were monitored continually until August 2020. Within two weeks of release, 22.8% of birds either died or were never located. Overall, I estimated breeding season survival to be 0.44 ± 0.02 (SE) and nest success as 0.37 ± 0.04 (SE) but with a declining trend from 2017-2020. Vital rates were average to low compared to native populations. Male high counts on established leks started to decline in 2021, two years following active translocation. Translocated birds selected for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land more than other cover types within their home ranges. Lastly, on a local scale (300 m), I found lesser prairie-chickens used thicker and taller cover primarily in CRP for nest sites. My results highlight the importance of land management conservation and its role in the conservation of lesser prairie-chicken populations. The translocation effort appears to have been a short-term success but current vital rates may not be enough to overcome inherent limiting factors for the population and for the translocation to be deemed a long-term success.


Lesser Prairie-Chicken Survival and Space Use After Megafire in the Mixed-Grass Prairie

*Nicholas Parker, Kansas State University
Daniel Sullins, Kansas State University
David Haukos, US Geological Survey, Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
Kent Fricke, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks
Christian Hagen, Oregon State University

The Starbuck fire was the largest fire in recorded Kansas history, burning approximately 254,000 ha in Kansas and Oklahoma in March 2017. The Starbuck fire was one wildfire in a growing trend of wildfires that have increased in size and severity worldwide and in the Great Plains due to climate change and decades of fire suppression. Within the mixed-grass prairie of Kansas, fire historically helped maintain diverse grasslands and prevent woody encroachment, providing habitat for many wildlife species, including the imperiled lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). While small scale fire can be beneficial for lesser prairie-chickens, the effects of such large fires on lesser prairie-chickens are unknown. We used data collected on lesser prairie-chicken survival and space use before (2014–2016) and after (2018–2020) the 2017 Starbuck fire to evaluate lesser prairie-chicken response to megafire. Male lek attendance fell 67% post-fire, and lek activity shifted to areas surrounded by more cropland. Survival rates and home range sizes of lesser prairie-chickens did not differ before and after the fire. However, home ranges did contain 5 times more percent cover of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields after the fire. Along with lek attendance results, this suggests CRP/cropland landscapes with disjointed fire fuel availability can provide refuge for lesser prairie-chickens during extreme events.


Evaluating the avian and vegetative communities on strip mined land: Year One Update

Luke Headings*, Andrew George, Christine Brodsky (Department of Biology, Pittsburg State University)

The Mined Land Wildlife Areas (MLWAs) of Southeast Kansas represent a diverse patchwork of ecosystems in varying stage of succession, including grasslands, shrublands, and forests. The goal of our study is to assess the conservation value of strip-mined land for bird communities. We continued with our second year of data collection this summer during which we conducted fixed radius point counts and vegetation sampling at 84 locations in SE Kansas and SW Missouri. A total of 75 species were detected, including 14 species of greatest conservation need, as identified in the Kansas Wildlife Action Plan. We also located and monitored 71 nests from three shrub-nesting species, 14% of which fledged young. Preliminary analyses indicate that reclaimed mined land may support similar bird communities to those adjacent unmined areas. However, it remains unclear if sites dominated by invasive plant species are negatively affecting individual species’ presence or nesting success. Ongoing work will continue to evaluate the relationships between mined land vegetation and bird communities to inform habitat restoration on the MLWAs.


Evaluating the role of vegetation phenology metrics in the nest-site selection of a declining prairie grouse

Ashley A. Messier* Horticulture and Natural Resources, Kansas State University. Daniel S. Sullins Horticulture and Natural Resources, Kansas State University. David A. Haukos
U.S. Geological Survey, Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Department of Biology, Kansas State University. Christopher M. O'Meilia U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is a remotely sensed index often used to monitor the health, productivity, and phenology of living vegetation based on the absorption and reflectance of red and near infrared light, respectively. This metric has been used for decades in ecological studies and may yield insight into the quality and availability of reproductive habitat for at-risk grassland species. The lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) is one example of a declining grassland obligate in need of conservation. Given this species’ dependence on grasslands and concerns about future population viability, an understanding of reproductive habitat availability at relevant spatial scales within remaining grasslands is needed, yet difficult to attain using ground-based measurements alone. We sought to evaluate the role of remotely sensed phenology metrics (amplitude, duration, etc.) on lesser prairie-chicken nest-site selection. Using cloud-free Landsat 8 and yearly AQUA MODIS RSP (remote sensing phenology) satellite scenes, snapshot NDVI values and yearly phenology values were extracted at 69 lesser prairie-chicken nest sites and at two paired random locations per nest at two study sites in Kansas. Preliminary results suggest that phenology metrics alone are not reliable predictors of lesser prairie-chicken nest-site selection, as no candidate model outperformed the null model. This may be due to potential interactions between phenology and climatic and disturbance variables not yet assessed or to the resolution of the satellite scenes used. Hereafter we plan to incorporate additional nests from across the lesser prairie-chicken range as well as evaluate these same phenology metrics at brood locations.


Shedding “light” on migration mortalities: New research underway at New Mexico State University

Dylan M. Osterhaus*, New Mexico State University Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Ecology

During migration, birds are exposed to various stressors including starvation, predation, extreme weather, and human alterations to the landscape. As a result of these stressors, many birds will die during their migratory journey. In recent years, multiple mass-mortality events have been documented during migration, with hundreds and even thousands of deceased birds documented during each event. Early in September 2020, a mass-mortality event occurred within south-central New Mexico and across the desert southwest in correlation with extreme weather. At the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in south-central New Mexico, hundreds of deceased birds were found near buildings which are illuminated by floodlights at night. The attraction to, and entrapment of nocturnally migrating birds in beams of light during periods of bad weather has been documented in various instances historically. However, there have been no large-scale quantitative studies conducted which have documented the potential impacts of point source light pollution on migrating birds. Therefore, my research will focus on examining the potential impacts of point source light pollution on nocturnally migrating birds in south-central New Mexico. Over the next four years I will be monitoring 55 sites (some with light at night, some without) throughout a 250 square-mile area of south-central New Mexico during fall migration using nocturnal acoustic monitors as well as next generation weather radar (NEXRAD).


Update on Red-tailed Hawks wintering in northeastern Kansas

Lucas H. DeCicco*, Bryce W. Robinson, Mark B. Robbins, Brian L. Sullivan, University of Kansas

Over the past three years we have deployed 12 GPS-GSM tracking units on wintering Red-tailed Hawks in northeastern Kansas. The focus of this research is to identify breeding provenance of certain phenotypes or subspecies and in doing so, understand the breeding distributions of subspecies occurring in remote areas of northern Canada. In doing so, we have now deployed transmitters on individuals of subspecies abieticola and harlani and have recovered breeding locations for seven of these individuals so far. Highlights include the following. Two birds have provided us with two annual cycles of data and showed very high fidelity to winter and breeding territories and migration route. All 12 birds tracked during spring 2021 showed very consistent migration direction, independent of phenotype, with all birds departing northeastern Kansas in a northwestern direction and all migrated through central Alberta. We have found notable overlap in distribution of breeding harlani and abieticola, highlighted by a phenotypic harlani nesting within 150km of an abieticola in northern Alberta. Finally, we have shown notably early returning date of two dark-morph harlani, both of which returned to their wintering range in the Great Plains by 22 September. The information we present here provides new information on migratory connectivity and breeding distributions of multiple phenotypes of Red-tailed Hawks and begins to provide information for a better understanding of this complex species.

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