21 September 2009

First-Ever BioBlitz Identifies New Species at Spring Creek Prairie

The first BioBlitz conducted at Spring Creek Prairie found many new and interesting features of nature at the 808-acre tract of native and replanted prairie, woodlands and other habitats for flora and fauna.

About 50 volunteers participated during a 24-hour period on September 19-20, according to Marian Langan, director at Audubon's Spring Creek Prairie, south of Denton, Nebraska. Volunteers came from many local communities, and included scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Doane Collage in Crete, Creighton University in Omaha, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Everyone contributed their expertise to sample the biological diversity.

"Efforts of the volunteers brought together a quilt of many pieces," of nature, Langan said. "The future of tallgrass prairie depends on what people put into its maintenance," and the surveys helped to understand prairie and reasons for its conservation.

Activities such as the BioBlitz - and numerous educational activities at the center for thousands of school kids, especially from Lincoln Public Schools - can "get people excited about the values of tallgrass prairie," Langan said. "Many people have fallen in love with prairie." Knowing more about Spring Creek Prairie can help with conservation of nearby prairie areas by showing the variety of species which occur.

"Prairies are such an amazing landscape!," she said. "Many people are exposed to biodiversity typically from a television program, and don't realize the actual variety of a prairie." Langan has been director at Spring Creek Prairie for ten years, and still "learns something new every time" she ventures out among the grass and woods.

The subtle, and exciting features of Spring Creek Prairie were obvious during the weekend.

Abundant Biodiversity

Birds: noted by observers and/or captured in mist nets for banding.

  • American Crow
  • American Goldfinch; 52 banded*
  • American Robin
  • Barn Swallow; 2 banded
  • Barred Owl; during owl hike
  • Bell's Vireo; 1 banded
  • Blue Jay; 1 banded
  • Brown Thrasher; 2 banded
  • Chimney Swift
  • Clay-colored Sparrow; 2 banded
  • Common Yellowthroat; 5 banded
  • Dickcissel; 3 banded
  • Downy Woodpecker; 1 banded
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Eastern Screech-Owl; during owl hike
  • Eastern Towhee; 1 banded
  • Flycatcher
  • Gray Catbird; 18 banded
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Horned Owl; during owl hike
  • House Wren; 7 banded
  • Killdeer
  • Least Flycatcher; 1 banded
  • Lincoln's Sparrow; 1 banded
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Cardinal; 1 banded
  • Northern Flicker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Red-winged Blackbird; 4 banded
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak; 2 banded
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Turkey Vulture
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Wilson's Warbler; 5 banded

Mammals: small mammal traps, some left out overnight were used to capture sample animals. The highlight of the weekend was a Least Shrew, a new species for the prairie. Other species noted were a meadow jumping mouse, white-footed mouse and harvest mouse. Larger species were not given any particular attention, but coyotes were so obviously notable during the starry, outside night.

Plants: at least five new plant species were added during a six hour search on Saturday by Kay Kottas, assisted by Rob Wikel. This includes a horsetail, euphorbia, goldenrod and clematis. The area plant list was already at 370 species, many of them found during an intensive two-year survey, and other intermittent visits by Kottas.

Butterflies: about fifteen species were denoted during a survey conducted Saturday by Ted Burk, and otherwise during the first day of the blitz. The species seen: Cabbage White, Orange Sulphur, Clouded Sulphur. Eastern Blue-tailed, Monarch Butterfly (with 93 counted), Red Admiral, Little Wood Satyr, Great Spangled Fritillary, Painted Lady, Regal Fritillary, Pearl Crescent, Silver-spotted Skipper, Sachem, Checkered Skipper, Tawny-edged Skipper.

Insects: a "Rainbow Scarab" dung beetle rolling a log-shaped coyote scat at least 10x larger than itself; also, grasshoppers and crickets. On Sunday, burying beetles, flies, arachnids, and a katydid were noted.

Herptiles: a garter snake and a brown snake.

On Saturday, a diversity of butterflies were recorded by Ted Burk, an entomologist at Creighton University, who came for the weekend but whom has also conducted previous surveys for these species at this prairie and others - including Nine-Mile Prairie west of Lincoln and Allwine Prairie Preserve and Bauermeister Prairie near Omaha - for six years.

"All in all it was a good day," he said. Though the peak time for butterflies was a few weeks ago, there were good results though it was late in the season. It seemed to be a peak of migration of the Monarch Butterflies, on their way to southwest Mexico, Burk said.

"Butterflies are a good indicator for invertebrates, and closely associated with plant communities," he said. As dark descended, people lingered near the nature center waiting to see what might be drawn to the blue-light placed near the nature center to see what it might attract.

Volunteer Participation

Some participants came early and left late. Several erected tents, or slept inside the nature center.

On Saturday night - which was calm, clear and autumn cool with the vivacious stars of the Milky Way blazing in the sky-dome - people appreciated a chance to view Jupiter, its color and moons through a telescope.

During the owl hike, led by Mary Bomberger-Brown, imitated calls brought a hearty response from a Barred Owl, perhaps wondering what was imitating its "who-cooks-for-you" call. Subtle yet distinctive was a Great Horned Owl towards the west. Off in the distance was the hardly heard, yet distinctive screech-owl, noted as a number of people gathered around a fine camp-fire.

For this night on the prairie, there was a gathering around the flame and glow of the fire in a pit near the woods. An "engineered" placement of logs achieved the maximum, yet subtle fire. There were stories that can only be told at such a scene of camaraderie, with talk of the wampuscat, that led to tales of its purported prey, the side-hill gouger - the results of its presence so readily obvious on dunes in the sandhills - and the bird which preys on the predator, the gillyloo bird. The discussion wandered into the wonders of the elusive wood snipe, and how to best note its presence using a burlap bag strategically placed upon a trail among the trees. Smores were tastefully enjoyed and discussed, especially how an errant, though mysterious owl might warm chocolate for the marshmallows in the morning sun, to provide the treat of one day.

As any camp-fire is a great place for stories, there was another contributed version of a man's date and biological specimens derived from the time when treatment was given to cats for their medical malady and how the results are still biological specimens.

Only a few saw the shooting stars that marked the night. Some looked through a night-vision device to try to perceive the eyes of some critter about in the dark of the prairie night.

The people that stayed on the scene were up early on Sunday.

Birdly Excitement

The second day was heralded first by the call of the Killdeer, which was soon followed by the entre of cars bringing forth volunteers before there was any sun on the eastern horizon. Breakfast was first, enjoyed by a few as pink touched the few clouds of another autumn Sunday.

"Beautiful! Beautifu!," exclaimed Josef Kren, as he noted two Wilson's Warbler's caught in mist nets among the woods near the nature center on Sunday morning. "It's a good weekend," he proclaimed as the two birds were carefully removed and placed into a container to be analyzed before getting released. Five of these warblers were banded during the weekend, which was another time of the many when Kren has banded thousands of birds at the place during the past seven years. Only recently have there been birds found which he previously banded.

While Kren and his helpers measured, weighed and then placed a band on more than 100 birds during the weekend, Dr. Paul Johnsgard provided interesting tidbits of natural history for the different species, all which were "beautiful neotropical migrants."

"I never turn down a chance to come to Spring Creek Prairie," Johnsgard said. The professor has traveled around the world to study birds - and recently was a major participant in an exhibition celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and had visited the Galapagos Islands - yet the weekend event was "a better reason than most" to contribute his comments. Besides leading a bird hike on Sunday morning, he also helped with the butterfly survey on Saturday, which was an opportunity for him to learn something new about the natural history of species at the prairie, he said.

The number of birds captured, allowed several photographers to get up-close images of the colorful birds, with several people enjoying the chance to hold the bird for viewing before it was released back to the wild.

BioBlitz Success

"It was awesome to have people come together and work for prairie conservation," Langan said. "There was a sense of community over the weekend," with many different volunteers present and able to meet others that have also helped at different times during the year.

The BioBlitz at Spring Creek Prairie was made possible through grant funds from Toyota, provided to the National Audubon Society through the "TogetherGreen" volunteer initiative, and then given to the local Audubon center.

"I was very pleased with the results of the BioBlitz," Langan noted. "We plan to have one again."

A similar event was also held at Rowe Sanctuary, on 18-19 September, Langan said.

BioBlitz Pictured

Capturing a bug while "sugaring for moths" on Saturday night.

Volunteers looking at a specimen from the days' collecting, Saturday night.

Josef Kren extracting a Downy Woodpecker from a mist net on Sunday morning.

Looking at some birds captured in the mist nets on Sunday morning.

Dr. Paul Johnsgard during the Sunday morning bird hike.

Removing a small mammal from a trap so it can be identified before it is released.

Marian Langan holding a captured small mammal.

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