14 December 2010

Bird Information Needed for Flint Hills

Efforts are now underway to gather the details necessary for the Flint Hills Region to be recognized as a Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network landscape.

The project is being led by The Nature Conservancy, which has "identified the Flint Hills as a priority conservation action site" and has had a "community-based conservation initiative" since 2001.

The region has also been rated as the top priority for conservation by the Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory, and is "one of only six grasslands in the contiguous U.S. that is globally outstanding for biological distinctiveness," according to the World Wildlife Fund.

There are "some gaps in the knowledge" about the extent of occurrence for some birds species - i.e., where they occur and how many might be present - especially during spring migration, as well as winter occurrence of different species, said Robert L. Penner II, the Cheyenne Bottoms and Avian Programs Manager, with The Nature Conservancy.

The Flint Hills are "thought to serve as a major migration linkage for birds, raptors and shorebirds," according to a federal report. They also are a haven for a large population of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. The large expanses of intact tallgrass prairie provide nesting habitat for iconic grassland species such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark and Henslow's Sparrow. Further information about the occurrence of the Smith's Longspur and Sprague's Pipit is also needed.

Of particular interest is the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which is classified as a species of conservation concern.

In 2007, numerous flocks were observed in the southern Flint Hills region, according to information provided by The Nature Conservancy. Researchers "feel that a significant portion of the total Buff-breasted Sandpiper population utilize the Flint Hills as a migration foraging stopover site during the spring migration."

"The majority of this species may be migrating through the region," Penner said, noting they are already known to occur at suitable places within the grassland region

"In addition, there may be very large numbers of American Golden-Plovers passing through," Penner said, "so we would like to get a better idea on how much they use the region. Also, the Upland Sandpiper not only migrates through the area, but also nests," so there is a need to also document the occurrence and numbers of this shorebird.

This effort will involve several "data gathering avenues" in which volunteer assistance is essential:

1) Particular routes will be surveyed on a regular basis from March into May
2) A region-wide survey will be conducted during a two-three day period, which will occur during the peak of the period when Buff-breasted Sandpiper are migrating northward
3) Gathering records of winter use by birds
4) Compiling observations from bird-watchers on outings within the region

Information from these survey efforts will be compiled with a records database, denoting which species was seen, especially noting the particular date and place.

A compilation of pertinent bird records would also be useful in providing a better understanding of bird use and occurrence within the region, Penner said.

A secondary goal of this project is to designate the region as an "Important Birding Area," is association with the effort underway by the National Audubon Society.

The Nature Conservancy launched its Flint Hills Initiative in 2001, and also owns more than 60,000 acres of "conservation landholdings within the region, including Konza Prairie (which includes a field research station), and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. An additional 60,000 acres have been conserved through conservation easements given to The Nature Conservancy, Kansas Land Trust, Ranchland Trust of Kansas, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Partners for the current project include the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Kansas, and the Kansas Biological Survey.

A Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area project was recently announced by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which authorizes the federal agency to acquire conservation easements on up to 1.1 million acres.

For further information about the initiative to document bird use, or to volunteer for this project, Penner can be contacted at his office in Ellinwood, Kansas (620-564-3351) or via email (rpenner @ tnc.org).