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Secretive Birds on a Burnt Prairie.

November 15, 2014

Savannah Sparrow

American Pipit

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Out at the Darby Wetlands, the flowering season is over now.  The tall prairie grass waves in the wind, its tan color evidence of winter’s approach.  However, there are birds still living on the prairie.

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I visited there recently and didn’t even make it to the wetlands area- the surrounding tall prairie grass was my focus.  Or should I say, the areas where the prairie grass has been burned.

Every 3-5 years, the Metro Parks people burn off the prairie areas to keep them from turning into scrubby fields and eventually woodland.  This is a process that has been done by humanity for thousands of years.  Native Americans were burning prairie areas right in this very county back when the Sumerians invented writing in the Middle East.  They did this to keep areas free of trees to more easily hunt wild animals and to grow crops- it’s a lot easier to walk around, too.  Remember- when they were doing this, the rest of the state and most of eastern North America was one huge ancient forest.  The burning actually fertilizes the soil as well as keeping it free from invading forests.  It preserves the greater diversity of plants and animals.  Of course the prairie grass is burned in selective areas so as not to take away all the cover at once for birds and animals living there.

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Here’s a good view of the burned prairie area with a grass turf path running through it.

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Looking closer at the burned areas reveal various signs of life.

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Here’s an old nest that had been placed on the ground by an unknown bird last spring or summer.  Makes you wonder what family was raised there.

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Here’s a burrow of a small animal who hid underground while the fire razed the grass above it.

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Here’s a Woolly Bear Caterpillar making its way through the burnt debris.  It’s looking for a place to hole up in the winter- often under the bark or in some nook in a tree- and it will emerge as a moth in the spring.

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A handful of sparrows were visible in bushes and on the ground.  These sparrows live in the prairie grass all year- chances are good you haven’t noticed them unless you’ve been out in the middle of their habitat.

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These are Savannah Sparrows.  They look somewhat like Song Sparrows, but have pink beaks and yellow lores (the spot between the eye and the beak).  They live their lives in grassy areas, eating insects in the warm weather and seeds in the cold weather.  These birds made not a sound when I was out in their presence- maybe they are still taking in the burnt areas that they hang out in.  There’s plenty of tall prairie grass nearby for them to find cover in.

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The nice thing about the burnt prairie area is that you can spot things on it that normally are very well-camouflaged.

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The occasional Aster still bloomed here and there, but November means wildflowers are on the wane.

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A flock of birds made a distinctive ‘pip-it’ 2-note call as they flew further away from me.

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Do you see the sparrow-like bird on the burnt ground?  They blend in very well.  This is the bird I had come out to see.

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American Pipits are drab sparrow-like birds that live in grasslands, nesting on the northern tundra in the summer, and wintering in the south and Central America.  They are very difficult for non-birders in Ohio to spot, since they are migrating through in the spring and autumn.  Much like Savannah Sparrows, they eat insects in warm weather and seeds in cold weather- there’s always something to eat for them in the fields, wherever they are.

These birds show us that no matter what the environment, nature takes advantage of what it can find.  It’s not just the edges of the woods that birds can be found in.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2014 12:30 am

    Beautiful photos and a great write!

  2. John Northcutt Young permalink
    November 16, 2014 5:51 pm

    Tracy, great post as always. Your picture of the caterpillar reminded me of an article read in “Audubon” about mothing—the author referred to it as the dark side of bird watching. Any experience?

    • November 16, 2014 10:31 pm

      Thanks, John! No experience with mothing if I understand rightly (collecting moths)- any link? I’ll admit to picking up Woolly Bears and placing them in tree holes or under logs if any are nearby- most of course are eaten by birds and animals before they get to cover. If that didn’t happen, we’d be up to our belt buckles in moths!

  3. November 16, 2014 7:38 pm

    What an interesting post.

  4. November 16, 2014 10:46 pm

    Very interesting post. I’m also glad to know that I’m not the only one who gives the woolly bears a little help along their way.

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