Spotlight on Parks: Pawnee National Grassland

Sunset over the Pawnee. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In the northeastern quadrant of Colorado lies an oasis of grass. Named for the Pawnee, a Native American confederation of tribes living in nearby Nebraska and Kansas, Pawnee National Grassland is just one of 17 such oases dedicated to preserving North America’s rapidly diminishing prairie and the species that rely upon it. This is in comparison to the 155 National Forests designated by the U.S. Forest Service in the United States.

The short grass prairie, characterized by its dominant “short” grasses and forbs, such as blue grama and buffalo grass, and less than 12 inches of rainfall a year, is one of the most endangered habitats in the United States. This is due to expansion of agriculture, overgrazing, and encroachment due to increased human population. Recent booms in oil and gas extraction have also opened up much of the prairie to human reach, checker-boarding the prairie with roads.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel. This ground squirrel is less social than most other ground squirrels. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Pawnee consists of 193,060 acres of land protected by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as additional acreage under other management, such as by the State of Colorado, and private citizens. In particular, Pawnee is known widely for its diversity of bird life, including declining species like Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, which are grassland specialists, but Pawnee is also home to a surprising number of mammals.

My first Burrowing Owl of the season at Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One of the best ways to experience Pawnee is by driving the 21-mile long grassland bird loop. On my recent trip, I saw a herd of pronghorn and a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, as well as heard the howling of coyotes. Burrowing Owls are starting to return from migration and I saw my first of the season. To my great surprise and delight, I also saw my first ever Short-eared Owl!

While I haven’t been, I’ve heard that the Pawnee Buttes are a great place to hike. The buttes are 2 sedimentary rock formations that rise 300 feet above the grassland. Cliff-nesting species such as Golden Eagles and Prairie Falcons use the buttes as a nursery and so the buttes are off-limits from March 1 to June 30 each year.

All in all, Pawnee National Grassland is a great place to visit. Entry to the grassland is free and it’s rarely busy. It’s possible at certain times of day/year that you may not even encounter a single other person! You just can’t beat the solitude and peacefulness of a sea of grass waving in the breeze. Early morning or late afternoon/evening are the best times to visit, late afternoon particularly if you’re interested in seeing mammals as most are nocturnal or crepuscular.



The Waiting Game

2 birds 1 box
Not sure what’s going on here. The male (top) was in the box, then the female entered the box. He appeared to either be trying to mate with her or keep her in the box. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Over the past week or so, the activity at my Flicker box has seemed to drop off considerably. Rather than spending most of the day at the box, drumming, and loudly calling (or napping!), the male Flicker has spent some time here and there just chilling at the bottom of the box or hanging silently at the opening staring out. I have noticed he and a female copulating on a nearby tree a handful of times. Maybe he doesn’t need to be so loud or insistent now that he’s scored a mate?

Female flicker
Female Northern Flicker in nesting box. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The female has been in the box a few times now too (and has hung out on the top of the box or the front of the box while the male has been inside), but I’m still waiting on her to take up residence. According to the second Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, Northern Flickers nest between April 10 and August 15, so there’s still plenty of time for them to start a family.

European Starling in Northern Flicker nest box. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I’ve seen Starlings near the box a couple times, and once one of them in the box, but so far I haven’t seen them for the last few days. I’m not letting my guard down though. I’ve learned my lesson on that!