Friday, September 21, 2007

Prairie Remnants

I spent a morning last week exploring a small parcel of unplowed Blackland Prairie with Matt White,author of Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait and Birds of Northeast Texas.
I've lived in the Blacklands, in the Dallas area, for the past 25 years, but this was the first time I had ever seen virgin Blackland Prairie. I've seen many working pastures with little bluestem and and other natives that provide decent habitat for grassland birds, but nothing like this.

Unplowed Blackland Prairie is far and away the most endangered habitat in Texas if not all of North America. Of the original 12 million acres, only about 5,000 remain, mostly in the form of small patches on private land. This particular patch survived only because it was set aside as a hay meadow and was spared the plow. Even when the cotton and corn crop failed, you could feed yourself and your family on a piece of prairie with a milk cow and a few hogs or other livestock. Matt had an interesting theory on these remnants. He said, "The very best of the old Blackland farmers had a practical conservation ethic that's rare today. They knew that they had to plan for contingencies because they couldn't just run out and buy whatever they needed, like we can today."

Prairie Rose - Blooms April-July

Blue Sage


Chest-High Big Bluestem

In 1848, upon arriving at the edge of the Blackland Prairie, Dr. John Brooke, an emigrant from England, wrote,

“It was the finest sight I ever saw; immense meadows 2 or 3 feet deep of fine grass and flowers. Such beautiful colours I never saw…”

Later, after settling in Grayson County near the northern edge of the Blackland Prairie, he wrote,

“I can sit on my porch before my door and see miles of the most beautiful Prairie interwoven with groves of timber, surpassing, in my idea, the beauties of the sea. Think of seeing a tract of land on a slight incline covered with flowers and rich meadow grass for 12 to 20 miles…”

Keep that in mind if you ever drive through the Dallas area.

I just finished a feature article on the Blacklands for Texas Parks & Wildlife. I believe it's scheduled for the February issue. It was interesting, worthwhile work but very depressing.


Chas S. Clifton said...

Some say the best place to look for prairie is on railroad rights of way--I might have gotten that from Merrill Gilfillan in Magpie Rising.

Interesting that the Liatris (gayfeather) is still blooming there. Ours is long since finished.

Henry Chappell said...

Chas, it's good to hear from you. I know that preservationists here in Texas have found some small remnants along railroad rights of way. And I hear that old family cemetaries sometimes harbor patches of prairie.

Matt Mullenix said...

Patches of prairie in old cemetaries? Sadly fitting!

Here's worse for you: Some of the best grassland birding places in pre-Katrina New Orleans were in acres of "artificial prairie," aka, capped landfills.

But we went!

Henry Chappell said...

Matt, I'd go birding at a former dump, too. Fortunately, birds don't care about history or our sense of aesthetics. And I'll certainly take rehabilitated or even "created" grassland over no grassland.

I recall Terry Tempest Williams writing about birding in an actual garbage dump. On several occasions she saw a peregrine ripping into flocks of starlings that came for the garbage.

I think her point was that we ought to be thankful for falcons (or birds in general) wherever they are.

Matt Mullenix said...

Henry you're right about that and your reply reminds me about the several peregrines we saw hunting the capped fills in New Orleans. (We were hunting there too, BTW...) The city has a number of winter resident falcons.

Big females, usually adults, hunted ducks, ibis, cattle egrets and other birds along the edge of the landfill that reached out into a marsh just northeast of the French Quarter. This was very near one of the levee breaches, and in photos after the storm I saw the top of the dump as an island above our friends' flooded neighborhood.

Once, while flying our hawks there, a peregrine came in waaay too close above us, hanging in the wind to scold (and perhaps knock dead) my hawk, who would not leave his perch in fear of her. You could see the black of her eyes and every detail of her feathers.

Steve Bodio said...

I used to bird at dumps and other waste areas all the time as a kid in New England, and hawk in cemeteries.

Urban wildlife is far more abundant than people realize. Good book (on NYC) is Anne Matthews' Wild Nights (one of the reviews is mine!)