07 September 2010

Habitat Conservation in Sandhills Helps With IBA Designation

Land conservation efforts which benefit birds has resulted in the recent recognition of the Greater Gracie Creek Landscape as an Important Birding Area.

The Greater Gracie Creek Landscape area - within the area marked by a yellow line, and the Calamus Reservoir IBA, the area indicated by the blue line. Image courtesy of the Nebraska IBA committee.

Located north of the Calamus Reservoir in the eastern Sandhills of Nebraska, the area comprises 48,802 acres on the Switzer and Scherzberg Ranches, the Morgan Ranch and Gracie Creek Ranch.

The tract abuts the Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area IBA, which comprises 10,000 acres, including the reservoir and adjacent upland, which was designated by the state's IBA committee in 2006.

The Nebraska IBA selection committee, sees "a value in an area getting recognized, in terms of publicity, increased awareness of birds and habitat, and greater land stewardship," said Kevin Poague, the manager of the IBA program in Nebraska, which is sponsored by the National Audubon Society.

This particular area, met four of the five site criteria, according to the submitted nomination. The bird information was derived from observations made within the area, and from an analysis of 15 Breeding Bird sites within a 25-miles, as prepared by a consultant.

1). Noted for species of significant concern...
a). Breeding population: notable population densities of Greater Prairie-Chicken, Upland Sandpiper, Burrowing Owl, Grasshopper Sparrow and Bobolink. BBS details indicate the local presence of other species of concern.
b). Migrating populations: numbers of Greater White-fronted Goose, Franklin's Gull, Long-billed Curlew, Wilson's Phalarope and Sandhill Crane. Also, Whooping Crane, White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper and Stilt Sandpiper, present at three or more of the BBS route sites.
2). Birds that congregate in significant numbers; mentioned were waterfowl, shorebirds, waders, and gulls and terns.
For terrestrial habitats, the nearby Calamus Reservoir is notable for its high density of wintering Bald Eagles, with "some 100 species of passerines" at the area and as noted at the BBS survey sites.
Many of the waterfowl species would occur in greater numbers at Calamus Reservoir.
3). The primary species mentioned in the public education and Research category, was the Greater Prairie-Chicken, whose habitats are being studied in the area by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Switzer Ranch has also worked with a consultant of the World Wildlife Fund on "developing a ranch and management plan that is focused on supporting and sustaining the bird diversity and other wildlife," according to the IBA nomination.
4). The GGCL is comprised mostly of upland grassland prairie, which represents well the native grassland habitats which some conservation groups designate as threatened on a global level, according to the nomination.
There are also "blowouts" within the IBA, and the endangered Blowout Penstemon has been transplanted in some of these.

Overall, 218 species are claimed to occur on the GGC Landscape area, according to the nomination.

Birding Economics

Since the GGCL IBA is private property, access is limited.

The Switzer Ranch does operate the nature-based Calamus Outfitters: "Over time it is our intent to increase our capacity to provide naturalist and ornithological interpretation and education for guests to the area. This is part of our ongoing ranch and business planning, and part of our program of relationship building with our neighbors," the nomination form said.

"For a commercial business, an IBA recognition is certainly something they can promote for their own good. But it also makes them more willing to keep their habitat in good shape for the sake of their birds (and their livelihood)..." Poague said.

"The more qualified sites that are recognized, then that could mean more publicity for birds and conservation for the owners of these sites, which in turn may increase their interest in keeping the habitat in good condition for birds."

Ongoing Land Conservation

Two ranches within the GGCL have been involved in landscape conservation projects in association with the Sandhills Task Force, and local resource-conservation agencies.

In 2006, the owner of the Gracie Creek ranch, was involved in efforts to conserve their ranch land, as indicated in the 2007 annual report of the STF:

"Years of building vigor in range condition has allowed" the ranch owner "to rest 20% of the ranch each year. In 2007, the STF installed two water structures, designed to seasonally hydrate wetlands, meadows, and stop downcutting. The ranch includes several expansive, flat, meadows, that provide superb migratory waterfowl habitat each spring."

A second phase of this project was completed in 2009, involved the placement of two water-control structures along Gracie Creek, according to the STF annual report. "As a result of [the] entire project three miles of Gracie Creek and approximately eleven acres of wetlands and surrounding wet meadows will benefit by a renewed groundwater table and higher quality wildlife habitat."

On the Switzer property, following the stream restoration effort along Gracie Creek, the Switzer family partnered with the STF, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to undertake another stream restoration project.

"The entire project consisted of removing eastern red cedars and renewing the natural hydrology to a portion of Gracie Creek. The stream restoration project consisted of installing a water control structure designed to slow down the flow of Gracie Creek and return [the] stream to a natural gradient. The project was completed in July of 2009," according to the 2009 STF report.

Local Avifauna

In evaluating the bird information, it is apparent that the "15 BBS sites within 25 miles of the GGC Landscape," must refer to the multiple stops made for each BBS route. The two closest known BBS routes are Swan Lake in southwest Holt County, and Almeria in southwest Loup County, with the latter route the possible source of observations.

By using a records-based analysis, it is possible to derive a bird species list based on locations within the GGCL IBA and the adjacent Calamus Reservoir IBA. These include, obviously, Calamus Reservoir, the Calamus-Loup winter count area, and the few particular notes of birds known for Gracie Creek and Nichol Lake. Each record includes the species noted at a particular site on a specific date, and where available, and importantly, the number of birds counted when this is available. All of these records are maintained in the BirdRecords table of the Sandhills Database.

For these four localities, the presence of 174 distinct species is documented.

By expanding this area to additional, nearby areas with bird records the tally increases. Notable places nearby where birds have been surveyed during recent decades, include Carson Lake (in northwest Garfield County) as well as Horseshoe Bend Lake and Mud Bayou, along the Loup River.

Using this analysis, the overall species list increases to 192 species.

Though a species list can be readily devised using various known sources, there is little actual data on the occurrence of different species, and their numbers, which occur within the boundaries of the Greater Gracie Creek Landscape.

And, expressing an opinion, having a reliable source of the bird details specific for an IBA, the easier it would be to determine its value within the IBA context.

During travels in the past three decades among the sandhills region, my route only a very few times were at a couple of places within the GGCL IBA. The compiled, records-base has more than 142,600 specific records which provide the essentials for any sandhills-based consideration of avifauna, which also includes more than 53,000 instances of bird occurrence from nearly 1000 specific locations, gathered during personal forays starting in 1982. Another source includes historic records which extends back to at least 1855.

The current IBA being considered is especially notable for the efforts which forward-thinking land-owners have undertaken to conserve and improve habitats utilized by a variety of birds. This is the most notable aspect, as other regional landscapes within the Sand Hills have a similar diversity of bird species.