A Big Bird, Helping Endangered Birds

During a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge last fall, I was surprised to see a small plane passing repeatedly over areas of the prairie. Its color — yellow — is one I usually associate with crop dusters, but I couldn’t imagine dusting refuge prairies with herbicides. Mosquito-spraying was my next guess, but there was no one around to ask, so I went on my way.

Early yesterday morning, I happened to be in the neighborhood, and took time for a quick drive around the auto loop. While I was busy stalking a Crested Caracara on the road, a low hum in the distance made me look up. It was the same yellow airplane, and a quick change of camera settings allowed me to catch an image of it.

I had been headed out of the refuge at the time, but curiosity demanded that I turn around, go back to the refuge headquarters, and look for an answer. The visitor center has been closed for months, but eventually a ranger spotted me nosing around the outbuildings, and came to see what I was up to. Her explanation of the work being done by the plane was both fascinating and wonderful.

The plane wasn’t spraying; it was dropping fire ant bait. [NOTE: after talking with a refuge employee this morning, I learned that the product being used is called Extinguish Plus, and it’s commercially available.] Fire ants are immensely annoying to humans, but they’re lethal to hatchlings. The young woman explained that, since the bait-dropping project began, the number of other insects on the prairie has increased, and so has the number of ground-dwelling birds. I didn’t see any of the prairie chickens during my visit, but an exceptionally large covey of quail crossed in front of me on Sunday: a visible token of the project’s success.

 

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Sunnyflowers

 

Specifically established and managed to provide native coastal prairie habitat for the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken, the 10,541 acre Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge is home to a wealth of other birds and plant species.

Driven away from the coast by a wealth of newly hatched and unbearable mosquitoes, I decided on Saturday to make a first visit to the refuge. Yesterday’s relatively long drive was worth it; the entire refuge was aglow with a variety of sunflowers, partridge pea, bitterweed, and a yellow ‘something’ that I’ve not yet identified.

From my vantage point on one side of the refuge’s lake, this flower-covered bank — no doubt a combination of species — shimmered in the high noon sunlight; its reflection in the water was lagniappe.

 

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As always, you can click on the image for a larger and more detailed image.

A Very Bushy Bluestem

 

While frost forms in the American midwest and trees take on dramatic colors in the northeast, changes in Texas grasses mark the season’s turning along the coastal plain.

One of our most dramatic grasses,  bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) grows both tall and full, its blue-green summer foliage becoming a rich, coppery brown as autumn ripens. Rooted in the Greek words for ‘man’ and ‘beard,’  both the genus name, as well as the less-favored common name of bushy beardgrass, refers to the long, soft hairs of its seed heads.

Native to the southeastern United States, parts of central Mexico, and the Caribbean, the plant can be found as far north as New England. Unlike other members of Andropogon, it thrives in moist soil, preferring areas such as roadside ditches, swamp margins, seasonal ponds, wet pastures, and river banks.

Generally, the full beauty of the grass emerges gradually, until its changed color and sunlit tufts of fluff dominate the surrounding landscape. But at least one plant at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge couldn’t wait, exploding into full autumn glory ahead of its companions.

 

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A Bit of Bluestem Beauty

Little bluestem ~ Kendall County, Texas

Accustomed to seeking out autumn color in trees, vines, and shrubs, it’s easy to forget that grasses, too, can contribute to the pleasures of autumn and early winter.

One of my favorites, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is named for the greenish-blue color its stems show off in summer. As the year progresses, blue transforms to various shades of rusty red, and prairies begin to glow with a special vibrancy beneath the rising or setting sun.

Whether found in ditches or pristine preserves, the grass is beautiful, holding its color throughout the winter for the pleasure of humans, and providing cover and seed for small mammals and birds.

Little bluestem against winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) ~ Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri
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