Saturday, June 28, 2014

Koester Prairie Dedication - with Henslow's Sparrow

This morning I was so happy to attend the dedication ceremony for the Koester Prairie site near Dennison in Rice County, Minnesota, as part of the new Prairie Creek Wildlife Management Area. This 460-acre tract of native prairie/grassland and dry hill oak savanna, grazed but never plowed, has been in the Koester family since the 1940s. They've cared for it as wonderful stewards of the the treasure it is -- "one of the largest expanses of grassland remaining in the region," according to the Trust for Public Land's Prairie Creek WMA web page.

After a nearly five-year process working with the Minnesota DNR, the Trust for Public Land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, and other groups and individual advocates, at last the land was purchased by the Trust for Public Land and transferred to the DNR, which will manage the land. Today's dedication ceremony represents the culmination of this lengthy process, ensuring the Koester family's dream that Koester Prairie will be maintained for future generations to enjoy as a source of inspiration and renewal, as I believe family spokesman Craig Koester put it in his moving remarks this morning.

Henslow's Sparrow

The rare Henslow's sparrow, decreasing in recent decades largely due to habitat loss, and listed as endangered in Minnesota, is resident here in the summer. The Henslow's sparrow prefers a large expanse of grassland, so you're not going to find it in just any old grassy field. And one thing I've learned as a birder is that when a bird prefers a certain habitat, that's exactly where you'll find it, and most likely not somewhere else. I spent about 20 minutes this morning with not another human soul in sight, watching this bird calling on its territory. Like clockwork, about every five seconds, it lifted its head to sing its quick, two-syllable, metallic-sounding song: "tsi-lick"!

Henslow's Sparrow singing

At Koester Prairie, if you climb the rise from the road and go down the other side, you are in almost a grass bowl, surrounded on three sides by a grassy expanse that climbs to the horizon. It's a wonderful setting for creatures like the Henslow's that are uncomfortable near large trees or human-made structures. Restoration work continues on the site, including control of buckthorn, wild parsnip, and Queen Anne's lace. The bird seen in the photos above was making good use of a buckthorn sapling today, though: With winds picking up, it was the sturdiest perch around.

I think it's very important to be aware that funding for this important conservation land purchase, and others like it, comes from the Outdoor Heritage Fund (one of the funds created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed by Minnesota voters in 2008) as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, as well as from the Critical Habitat license plate program (more formally called the Reinvest in Minnesota -- RIM -- Critical Habitat Program).

Koester family members gather for a photo

Dedication attendees climb the hill for a prairie tour

More information about the Koester land's history and its notable wildlife and plant offerings is available here:
Dan Tallman recently posted some great photos of a Henslow's sparrow in Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum, where it has been regularly heard and seen on the restored prairie there. (I was pleased to be able to find it for a Carleton reunion group I accompanied on a bird walk last weekend.) His post discusses the population decline and notes the importance of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in its recent partial recovery.

CRP land itself is now in decline due to competing economic incentives, as I mentioned in my recent post, Musings on Grass and Economics. Thus, it is all the more important to support and facilitate land acquisitions like the one we celebrated today.

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