Prairies are home to a wide variety of grassland birds. Many types of grassland birds have been declining throughout the continent since the first settlers arrived. This decline has continued in recent decades as agriculture has intensified. The loss of native prairie habitat is a major cause of this decline. Grassland birds require large, open areas of tallgrass prairie and sedge meadow. They prefer treeless areas because trees provide shelter for predators, such as hawks, skunks, raccoons, foxes and coyotes. Brown-headed cowbirds are also more common along the edges of wooded areas. Cowbirds are nest parasites, laying eggs in other birds’ nests for the hosts to raise as their own. Grassland birds that nest in larger blocks of grasslands and at greater distances from trees are able to produce more of their own offspring. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge provides one of the biggest areas of treeless grassland habitat in Iowa. As a result, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of grassland birds on the refuge since it was established, as we have increased the size of our prairie.Grassland birds may eat insects, seeds, or rodents, all of which are plentiful in a healthy prairie. Grassland birds are adapted to nesting on or close to the ground. Some birds prefer certain types of plant structure on the prairie, such as grazed areas with shorter grass; tall, thick vegetation that has not been burned recently; wet areas like sedge meadows; scattered shrubs or thickets; or large areas of grassland without trees.Some of the grassland bird species that use Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge include the northern harrier, short-eared owl, upland sandpiper, sedge wren, Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows, common yellowthroat, dickcissel, eastern and western meadowlarks, and bobolink. During spring and fall migration, the refuge hosts clay-colored, LeConte’s and Savannah sparrows and Smith’s and Lapland longspurs. During the winter, American tree sparrows are abundant. Below are details about which birds prefer certain areas of the refuge, and when is the best time to see them. For more information about all the birds found at Neal Smith NWR, pick up a bird checklist in the visitor center.
Anywhere in the PrairieDickcissels are the last of the grassland bird species to return in the spring, usually around the second week of May. They are abundant on the refuge throughout the breeding season, singing even on the hottest afternoons through July and August. They are easy to spot and hear, perched high atop tall plants and road signs. Their song is some variation of “dick-cissel-cissel” or “dick-dick-cissel.”Both eastern and western meadowlarks are found on the refuge, although the vast majority of them are the eastern species. The two types are virtually identical, but have distinctive songs. The eastern meadowlark’s song sounds like a four-syllable “Spring of THE year”, while the western meadowlark’s song is more elaborate and melodic. Westerns are usually found where the grass is shorter. In recent years, they have been reliably seen south of 102nd Avenue near the maintenance buildlings. Easterns are easily seen elsewhere on the refuge.Bobolinks can be a challenge to find, since their distribution seems to be patchy across the refuge. Listen for their bubbly song that is reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars. Bobolinks often sing in flight, so look in the air when you hear them sing. They are often found in the bison enclosure or in other areas of the refuge with mid-height plants. Bobolinks arrive in late April or early May; they complete their nesting earlier than other birds, often by late June, when they begin travelling in flocks.The sedge wren is a tallgrass prairie species that is easily found on the refuge. These tiny brown birds can be found in dense, tall grass, often in low, wet areas such as the sedge meadow. Their staccato, bouncing-ball song accelerates at the end and is easily heard across the prairie. They may be more difficult to see than other birds, but with patience, you can see them perched above most of the tall grasses. They are curious, and may come to investigate you if you stand quietly.Expanses of Open PrairieNorthern harriers are seen from fall through spring, and sometimes during the summer. They are easy to spot as they soar low over the prairie hunting for rodents. You can find them almost anywhere on the Refuge, especially where there are the fewest trees.The best time to see short-eared owls is from October to April, generally around dusk and dawn. They are sometimes active during the day. Look for their irregular, moth-like wing-beats as they fly low over the prairie. If you’re lucky, you may see one perched on a signpost or the road. There are usually only a handful present on the refuge at any time, but their numbers fluctuate as they migrate through in spring and fall. Some of the best places to observe short-eared owls are along the auto tour route, including in the bison enclosure.Dense, Unburned PrairieHenslow’s sparrow is one of the most sought-after species by birders visiting the refuge. Each year, there are usually several dozen Henslow’s sparrows here during the breeding season. They generally arrive in mid-April and stay until at least September. They are most easily seen when they are singing, usually mid-April through July. Henslow’s sparrows prefer areas that have not been burned for at least a year, so look for them where there is standing dead grass from last year’s growth. Listen for their short, high-pitched songs (often described as a hiccup-like tsee-lik). The males often perch high on a plant with a stiff stem as they sing, so scan the tops of plants in the direction you hear the sound. As with most grassland birds, they are most easily heard early in the morning when they are most vocal and it is usually less windy.Le Conte’s sparrows migrate through the refuge and are fairly easy to see in the fall. They usually stay in tall, dense grasses, but are curious enough to come closer when they hear strange sounds.Shorter Grass in Grazed or Burned AreasGrasshopper sparrows are most often found in the bison and elk enclosure, where the plants kept shorter by grazing. They have a soft, long-drawn buzzy trill for a song. Look for them perched up above the shorter plants as they sing. Although you must remain in your vehicle within the enclosure, Grasshopper Sparrows are often quite close to the road so you can see them without getting out. Be sure to pull over to the side to prevent collisions. Upland sandpipers are much less common on the refuge, but a few pairs often nest here. Since they prefer shorter grass, the bison enclosure is one place to watch for them.During migration, Smith’s longspurs and Lapland longspurs may be found in recently burned areas with short or sparse grass. These species travel in flocks and may be easiest to see as the flocks fly, giving their rattle calls. When they land, they can blend into the dry grasses. Although the two species are seen in the same areas, they usually do not mix in the same flock. Smith’s longspurs are often in flocks of 10-100, and Lapland longspur flocks may reach 1,000 or more.Shrubs and ThicketsSome birds use thickets of shrubs, found in patches on the prairie, for feeding and nesting. These birds include Bell’s vireo, gray catbird, brown thrasher, yellow-breasted chat, and orchard oriole. Others, such as loggerhead shrike, willow flycatcher, eastern kingbird, vesper sparrow, field sparrow, lark sparrow, and American goldfinch use scattered shrubs surrounded by prairie. Bell’s vireo and yellow-breasted chats can be found (more often heard than seen) from May through August along the Tallgrass Trail; look in the trees and shrubs inside the loop at the east end of the trail.
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A grassland specialist, this medium-sized owl can often be seen in winter and is easily identified by its characteristic floppy flight. Photo by Jason Murphy.