Our region is primarily a prairie landscape. For most people, that brings to mind images of grass, blowing in the wind, as far as the eye can see. While that is true, it isn’t the full story. Areas with native shrubs, like sandsage and shinnery oak, complement the grasslands and provide additional, important types of habitat. Water is also a critical component of this landscape, and you’ll find it in the rivers and streams, wetland complexes, playas, and saline lakes throughout the region.
All these different areas are unique and a vital part of the prairie landscape. From grasslands and shrublands to various types of wetlands, each plays an important role in providing habitat for the many species of grassland and migratory birds — and the people — that depend on this landscape.
As you’ll see on the map, our borders align with and encompass much of the shortgrass and central mixed-grass prairies of the western Great Plains. With about 57 million acres of grass throughout the region, grasslands currently make up about 36% of our landscape. That number is greatly reduced from historic levels which we estimate to be about 90%.
In the western part of our region, you’ll see low-growing, warm-season grasses such as blue grama and buffalo grass. As you head east, mixed grasses such as needle-and-thread and side-oats grama become more common until they transition to taller grasses like big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indiangrass further east.
These grasslands support more than 400 species of birds and other wildlife. Many of these birds, while not colorful, provide a beautiful soundtrack to our daily lives. Some species, like the Ferruginous Hawk, can be seen soaring above us or silhouetted against the sky as they sit on a high perch. Others have adapted to a landscape without trees. In order to attract females, Lark Bunting launch themselves high above the grass before they start singing and slowly glide toward the earth. In patches of bare ground, a Burrowing Owl can sometimes be spotted as it peeks out of its home near a prairie dog town.
However, grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America, and grassland birds are experiencing some of the most significant population declines. Since 1970, 720 million grassland birds have been lost — that’s a 53% population loss overall. But some species are declining even faster; for instance, the Eastern Meadowlark has experienced an even greater population loss, with three out of four birds gone.
Native shrubs are also an important part of our prairie landscape. Two such shrubs, sandsage and shinnery oak, are found in many areas within our region, wherever sandy soils occur. These shrublands are not densely populated like a forest; rather, the shrubs are spread sporadically throughout the prairie grasslands. They are also fairly short, usually no taller than a person’s waist.
Sandsage prairie consists primarily of sandsage, sand bluestem and prairie sand-reed grasses. In areas with shinnery oak, you’ll see other grasses such as sand bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, and sand dropseed which are taller than those in the shortgrass prairie.
These shrublands are an important part of some of the largest blocks of remaining native prairie in the region. The mixture of native grasslands and shrublands provide islands of critical habitat for prairie-chickens and other species. One bird that uses shrublands within its range is the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, which is known for its showy courtship dance and is only found in this part of the world. More common species, such as the memorable Scissor-tailed Flycatcher with its extremely long tail feathers, can also be seen in these areas.
As with much of the prairie, many areas of native shrublands have been converted to agricultural uses. Shrubs may be removed for planting crops or better grazing. In addition, invasive woody plants such as mesquite and eastern red cedar are taking over, choking out native plants and making those areas unsuitable for many birds that once considered them home — birds such as Cassin’s Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, Swainson’s Hawk, Northern Bobwhite and Scaled Quail.
Playas — also called mud holes, buffalo wallows, and lagoons — are the most numerous wetlands in the region, with more than 80,000 of them scattered across our six states. These round, shallow depressions are lined with clay soil, which collect and hold water from rainstorms and runoff, creating temporary lakes.
These ephemeral wetlands are magical places. They can be dry for years, and then, within days after a rainstorm, come alive to a chorus of frogs and toads. Plant seeds that have lain dormant in the soil suddenly sprout and shoot up. Eggs hatch and become fairy shrimp, tadpoles, and snails — some of which provide food for birds such as the American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt and Black-crowned Night Heron.
Healthy playas support more than 200 bird species with important, year-round habitat. In this prairie landscape, these shallow wetlands are the main source of water and food for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds as well as resident grassland birds. Playas also attract deer, pronghorn, swift fox, bobcat, and many other creatures.
These wetlands are a primary source of recharge for the Ogallala aquifer, a 174,000 square mile groundwater formation that supplies water for the people in this region. When dry, the clay soil in the playa basin contracts and forms large cracks, creating pathways for rainwater and runoff to flow through and begin its journey to the aquifer below. Playas also provide many other benefits to people including water filtration, erosion and flood control, and upland game bird hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Because of agricultural and other land use activities, playas are critically threatened, with over 80% of these wetlands impacted. However, with proper restoration and management, playas can continue to provide benefits.
Rivers and Streams
A prairie wouldn’t be complete without rivers and streams meandering through the grasslands and providing life-sustaining water. While you may be familiar with the major rivers in our region — Platte, Arkansas, Canadian, Red, Brazos and Colorado — there are also smaller tributaries that feed the streams.
Large cottonwoods and willows tower over the banks of the larger rivers, their canopies the perfect location for Swainson’s Hawk to nest and roost. This is also a good location to spot a Yellow Warbler, even if it is just a flash of yellow flitting through the trees. In places where the terrain is hilly or broken with ravines, the chatter of Bell’s Vireo can be heard amongst the dense shrubs where water sometimes flows.
Over time, much of the water that used to flow through these rivers and streams has been diverted for growing crops and to support the people living in the region, and beyond. This has resulted in fragmented river systems and changes in the plants and trees along the banks, with non-native species sometimes taking over. Where the climate is drier and water is not as abundant, many areas go through wet-dry cycles, so the rivers and streams only receive brief surges of water after heavy rains.
Although the water flow is greatly reduced from historic levels, these riparian areas provide important wildlife habitat. Millions of birds, primarily songbirds, find cover in the trees and shrubs as they make their way north and south each spring and fall. In many areas, beaver help create wetland habitat, and reservoirs add to the network of wetlands.
In the Southern High Plains are clusters of wetlands, big and small, called wetland complexes. These wetlands are oases in our dry landscape, providing much-needed water for wildlife and people.
Wetland complexes are vitally important. Each year, they host hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, including the awe-inspiring Whooping Crane — the tallest bird in North America and one of the rarest.
Each spring and fall, many species — Mallard, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Baird’s Sandpiper to name just a few — fly through our region on their long-distance journeys, some traveling from the tip of Argentina all the way to the arctic. These wetlands provide places for them to stop, eat, and build up strength to make it the rest of the way home.
Two of these wetlands, Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, have received international recognition because of their significance on a continental scale. Due to the importance of these wetlands, many of them are under state or federal management and are popular places to hunt, bird watch, and enjoy nature.
Cheyenne Bottoms, Jamestown, and McPherson Valley Wetlands in Kansas and Drummond Flat and Hackberry Flat in Oklahoma are state wildlife areas, while Muleshoe in Texas, Salt Plains in Oklahoma, and Quivira in Kansas are national wildlife refuges. North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants are an important source of funding for restoring and managing these wetland complexes.
In the southwest part of our region, you’ll find a small number of wetlands called saline lakes or salt lakes. There are only about 50 of them left, but some are quite large — over 1,000 acres.
Unlike playas, saline lakes don’t recharge the aquifer; all of the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty, white crust. In fact, that’s one way to determine whether you are looking at a saline lake, rather than a playa. Another difference is that saline lakes are spring-fed, and historically had a constant flow of water. However, many of those springs dried up as aquifer levels declined, and now many saline lakes are filled mostly through runoff from rainstorms.
Since they are generally ice-free in the winter, saline lakes host large concentrations of migratory birds, especially when other water sources are frozen. These wetlands are a great place to see large flocks of Sandhill Cranes in the fall and winter, often roosting in the middle of the lake to distance themselves from would-be predators. In the breeding season, usually April through July, Snowy Plovers blend in so well that they can be hard to spot against the salt flats. Saline lakes provide important breeding sites for this small bird which has become uniquely adapted to the environment.
The loss of water flowing in freshwater springs that feed saline lakes has changed the character of these wetlands and greatly affected the bird habitat these lakes provide. These wetlands are also facing invasion by Salt Cedar, a non-native shrub that thrives in highly saline environments. The shrubs, which sometimes grow into trees, have deep root systems and cause further declines in the water table. As Salt Cedar grows up along the shoreline, it reduces available nesting areas for Snowy Plover and provides perches for their predators, adding to an already challenging situation for this species.