17 June 2016

Wildlife Agency Management Practice Destroys Waterthrush Habitat

Controlled grazing by cattle recently destroyed unique seep habitat used by breeding Louisiana Waterthrush on a state wildlife management area in southeast Nebraska.

During a visit on June 3rd to Rose Creek WMA – east, Shari Schwartz observed that one of three known territories was destroyed as grazing cattle “trampled every inch of the seep stream in the heart of a territory and their hoofs left one foot deep muddy peg holes of cloudy standing water where a clear shallow stream flowed in April. I don't know if the damage to this rare excellent habitat the male waterthrush was seen defending is irreparable,” she said in an email.

The area is owned by the State of Nebraska and managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC). The grazing was an intentional habitat management practice.

“While there is little or nothing that can be done to prevent waterthrush habitat loss on private property, it's wrong that there is no apparent incentive in Nebraska to prevent land managers from destroying the precious little Louisiana Waterthrush habitat on lands owned and supposedly managed for the resource values appreciated by the public, including wild birds. The water-associated habitat in the Jefferson county region used by the Louisiana Waterthrush is already so denuded, more loss will undoubtedly have further negative impact on the species’ occurrence.”

“Territorial Louisiana Waterthrush – based upon multiple observations - appear to rely heavily on the small streams and dry washes that contain spring fed seeps that connect to the creeks. Unlike the larger adjoining creeks with flood plains - like Rose creek and Rock creek - the steep topography of these smaller drainages has prevented the clearing of surrounding woodlands for agricultural use. The terrain looks like a little piece of Kansas snuck across the border and there are some impressive rock cliffs along Rose Creek (reminiscent of a mini-Niobrara River valley scene).

“It's been really fascinating learning about the Louisiana Waterthrush occurring in Jefferson county and the Sandstone Prairie region habitat they utilize. The steep prairie hills have rocky drainages with seeps and springs (sometimes on streams but sometimes on dry washes) that the waterthrush incorporate into their territories,” Schwartz said. “We suspect these Louisiana Waterthrush are connected to the population in Kansas by the Blue River drainage instead of the small-sized population of this species that occur along the Missouri River drainage. The introductory notes for songs of the male birds along the Blue River drainage sound very different and may potentially be used to differentiate distinct sub-populations, if it proves to be true.”

Schwartz and John Carlini, of Lincoln, have been traveling eastern Nebraska for several years to observe and study this species of waterthrush, including multiple visits to Platte River State Park. Problems are also known to occur here as associated with management practices by the state agency. The area manager has been repeatedly “indifferent” to adapting site management to conserve waterthrush habitat at the water-based places, Schwartz said. The Louisiana Waterthrush has a very limited breeding extent along the river floodplain.

The Platte valley may be especially important in the biology of the Louisiana Waterthrush because it might provide a link between the Blue River drainage to the south and the Missouri River valley just to the east, notably at Fontenelle Forest, east of Bellevue as well as Indian Cave State Park, further south.

“What's really needed is some sort of meaningful long-term designation or protocol for breeding Louisiana Waterthrush that would prevent NGPC staff from destroying the habitat,” Schwartz said. “Jefferson county could also use some buffer restoration where waterthrush habitat edges have been cleared for agricultural fields (probably long before NGPC acquisition of any wildlife areas).

“Minnesota appears to be more on the ball about their limited number of breeding pairs and has designated the Louisiana Waterthrush as a species of special concern because their habitat of mature forest and good water quality streams is so limited and vulnerable,” Schwartz said. “I think Wisconsin has done the same, basically to keep them from becoming threatened in the future.

“I wish we could do that in Nebraska,” Schwartz said. “Our comments go in one ear and out the other likely because the Louisiana Waterthrush is only a Tier 2 species in Nebr. which doesn't seem to put them on the radar enough for any habitat protection by the state agency which is responsible for conservation of nongame wildlife.”

When officials at NGPC were asked via email about the habitat destruction at the Rose Creek WMA, the following comment was provided by Joel Jorgensen, the nongame program manager: “Louisiana Waterthrushes, while stable across their range, are relatively rare and local nesters in Nebraska. Cattle grazing is a widely accepted management strategy used to increase diversity of native forbs, control invasive species and improve overall structure of, primarily prairie, habitats. As we learn more about what areas and habitats Louisiana Waterthrushes are utilizing, we can adapt our management strategies to optimize management and protection of streams and forested areas on Nebraska Game and Parks Commission properties.”

Despite a second request for particular details, there was no information provided on how management practices may be changed to adapt to conservation of unique seep habitats, such as those used by the Louisiana Waterthrush in Jefferson county.

The initial report on this territory destruction was reported on the NEbirds online forum. The state agency comment was also subsequently posted.

This is a list of the 37 species noted at the area during the birding visit. Further details are available on Ebird [http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S30064166].

¶ Northern Bobwhite (2)
¶ Great Blue Heron(1)
¶ Turkey Vulture (1)
¶ Red-shouldered Hawk (heard with confirmation of call)
¶ Mourning Dove (nest with two eggs)
¶ Yellow-billed Cuckoo (1)
¶ Common Nighthawk (8)
¶ Red-headed Woodpecker (1)
¶ Red-bellied Woodpecker (3)
¶ Northern Flicker (1)
¶ Eastern Wood-Pewee (3)
¶ Eastern Phoebe (2)
¶ Great Crested Flycatcher (1)
¶ Bell’s Vireo (1 north of the parking lot)
¶ Yellow-throated Vireo (2)
¶ Warbling Vireo (3)
¶ Red-eyed Vireo (6)
¶ Blue Jay (2)
¶ American Crow (1)
¶ Black-capped Chickadee (3)

¶ White-breasted Nuthatch (2)
¶ House Wren (10, territorial)
¶ Carolina Wren (3)
¶ Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (2)
¶ Eastern Bluebird (1)
¶ Louisiana Waterthrush (3; three territories visited with singing males present; pictures taken and posted with bird report)
¶ Common Yellowthroat (3)
¶ Field Sparrow (3)
¶ Eastern Towhee (2)
¶ Spotted/Eastern Towhee (rufous-sided towhee) (1)
¶ Summer Tanager (2)
¶ Northern Cardinal (5, pair in suitable habitat)
¶ Rose-breasted Grosbeak (1)
¶ Indigo Bunting (1)
¶ Red-winged Blackbird (1)
¶ Brown-headed Cowbird (1, singing male)
¶ Orchard Oriole (1)
¶ Baltimore Oriole (3)