Great Egret

Great Egret

Friday, 23 January 2015

Prairie Chickens, Henslow's Sparrow, Regal Fritillary & Tallgrass Prairie

This is a relatively quiet time of year concerning outdoor natural history action. So it can be a time for reflection on other topics.

I enjoy history, and especially imagining what the landscape looked like at the time of settlement. We have all grown up with a greatly modified landscape, obviously and, to one extent or another, have benefited economically from those changes. To the early settlers and developers, those changes were called ‘improvements’. For example when early settlers were given a plot of land they had to ‘improve’ it by clearing some of it for agriculture within a certain time period or risk losing title to it.  More recently, if you are a rural landowner in southern Ontario, according to the Drainage Act, any process which facilitates moving water off of the land, including draining wetlands, to enable cultivation of crops, is an ‘improvement’. All landowners who benefit (as per the Drainage Act definition) are assessed a per cent of the cost of providing a functioning drain.

When do all these 'improvements' start having an overall negative impact on the landscape? That is likely a long and involved topic for discussion for another post or two.

One can go and visit some of the larger natural areas, such as provincial or national parks, to get an idea of what parts of the land might have looked like. But most of them represent such a small area and are themselves influenced by many 20th and 21st century impacts. Almost every forest in Ontario, and especially those of southern and central Ontario, has been heavily logged at least once or twice, so any of the remaining trees are relatively small by historical standards. The species mix may be about the same, but the forest structure has been altered.

If only I had a time machine......part I.

There are some interesting things recorded by early explorers and surveyors as they travelled throughout the land. I can only imagine what it would be like to explore with them as they travelled….if only I had a time machine. Maybe I could borrow the one that Marty McFly had in Back to the Future? However I would definitely want to take my digital camera system to record what I saw!

One of the earliest quotes I have come across was describing the Ontario side of the Detroit River in the vicinity of Windsor:

The banks are so many vast meadows, where the freshness of these beautiful streams keeps the grass always green….these same meadows are fringed with long and broad avenues of fruit trees. It is there where the careful turkey hen calls back her numerous brood. The golden pheasant, the quail, the partridge, the woodcock, the teeming turtle-dove swarm in the woods and cover the open country intersected and broken by groves of full-grown forest trees….there the hand of the pitiless mower has never shorn the juicy grass on which bisons (sic) of enormous height and size fatten.”
              … Lamothe de Cadillac, 1701

Would it have looked like this?

Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri
A quite poetic and descriptive, in my opinion. It is also a very informative one to the 21st century biologist. This is one of the earliest times that I have come across where specific types of wildlife are mentioned. The presence of bison is confirmed on the Ontario side, and thus native to Ontario, which has been questioned by some. 

The turkey, quail and woodcock are self-explanatory. 

Wild Turkey
American Woodcock
The partridge is undoubtedly Ruffed Grouse. The turtle-dove is almost certainly Passenger Pigeon, which occurred by the many millions but, as we know, became extinct in 1914. The golden pheasant is not the Ring-necked Pheasant that we normally think of on the landscape……that one is an introduction from Asia. No, the golden pheasant is the Greater Prairie Chicken, and this is the first mention of it occurring in Ontario. In recent years, most people never realized that there was a fair bit of prairie in Ontario. People assumed that any evidence of Greater Prairie Chicken here was the result of early settlers opening up the vast forests which created the openness on the landscape that in turn induced the prairie chickens to arrive from farther west after settlement.

Not true.

Certainly clearing of forests in parts of southern Ontario farther east and north, where prairie did not occur, or occurred in small more isolated areas, did encourage the expansion of the chicken in Ontario. But it was here at the time of settlement, and so is indeed a species native to Ontario.

I have seen quite a few Greater Prairie Chickens in various places on the prairies of the US mid-west, but never managed to get any decent photos of them. This next photo is actually of a male and female Lesser Prairie Chicken, very similar in appearance to the Greater. I took this almost three years ago as about 6 males were performing on their lek, just before daybreak from a blind at the Cimarron National Grassland in southwestern Kansas. The lek was a lot farther from the blind than I was hoping so even at a focal length of about 900 mm, the photo had to be considerably cropped.

Lesser Prairie Chicken
Almost half a century after the observation by de Lamothe de Cadillac was this description:

“The lands on the east side of the river are bordered by prairies in such a way that the inhabitants have no wood to cut in order to clear their fields and sow their grain. It is only necessary to plough the land and cut down some shrubs.”

              ……de Lery, 1749

Missouri Prairie

Most people probably aren’t aware that Ontario is a prairie province! And it wasn’t limited to the greater Windsor area, but it extended into present day Chatham-Kent and Lambton as well.

For example a survey of the lower Thames River described the area like this:

“On each side, and for a distance of 6 miles, were extensive meadows and marshes without any wood except for a few scattered trees. On the Dover side, the marshes and meadows extended north northeast as far as the eye could see. To the south they were confined to much shorter limits.”

              …..McNiff, 1792 

Perhaps the area north of the Thames River looked like this:

Pawnee Prairie, Missouri

And a few years later, also describing the lower Thames River area:

“The land on its banks is about the richest I ever saw….six or seven feet deep of earth would do for a garden, and extensive grass plains stretching for miles into the country, without a tree save here and there a small clump like an island out in the plain.”

              …..Stevenson, 1843
Penn Sylvania Prairie, Missouri
At the end of the 1800s, was another description of what is now the greater Windsor area:

In a sandy field at the southern end of Sandwich….a garden of rarities was entered, and in a few minutes our portfolio was filled with good things…..Liatris spicata, Lythrum alatum, Aletris farinosa, Hypoxis hirsuta, Polygala incarnata, Veronicastrum virginicum and at least a dozen others.”

                  …..James Macoun, botanist, 1893 

Perhaps it looked like this:
Liatris spicata on Walpole Island
Aletris farinosa

Polygala incarnata

Veronicastrum virginicum
A few years ago I saw a photo of the lower Thames River on the former Dover Township side, taken in 1914, and it showed still wide open prairie and wetland.

Even farther east, there were prairie and savanna systems in the Brantford area, the High Park area and north of present day Toronto up along Lake Simcoe. Farther east still, in the Rice Lake area, is the Rice Lake Plains.

What would it be like to wander through the tallgrass prairies and oak savannas that stretched as far as the eye could see? There are a few places in the mid-west where that is still somewhat possible. I've visited well over a hundred prairie sites in the US, and some of the most impressive ones occur in places like southwestern Missouri and northeastern Oklahoma.
Schwartz Prairie, Missouri

These prairies at the peak of Pale Purple Coneflower flowering are wonderful places to find the very rare Regal Fritillary.......

.......while Dickcissel, Henslow's Sparrow and Northern Bobwhite, among other species, are often heard nearby. The Henslow's Sparrow photo is one of my earlier attempts at digiscoping a bird which I found on a secluded planted prairie site in southern Chatham-Kent several years isn't the best quality but it is one of the few shots that I have.

Henslow's Sparrow

Golden Prairie, Missouri
Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri
Even some of these spectacular remnants are only a few hundred hectares, but ones like Prairie State Park (MO) is over 1600 ha (4000 acres), and Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy in northeastern Oklahoma is more than 16,000 ha (40,000 acres), with much more tallgrass prairie beyond its borders. This preserve is considered to be the largest protected tallgrass prairie area on the planet. In both of these latter locations, bison have been re-introduced.

Free-ranging Bison in the background
I had an interesting experience with two massive bison bulls, while photographing some small prairie wildflowers along a trail a loooong way from the vehicle, at Prairie State Park. Obviously I survived. Maybe sometime I will relate it.

I’d like to imagine that some of the tallgrass prairies of southern Ontario may have looked a bit like the Missouri prairies shown here, albeit with slightly different species.

If only I had a time machine....part a future post.


  1. Allen, a wonderful posting. I have been thinking about doing a series on Natural and Human history of the area myself. Again, you continue to enrich Ontario's blogosphere with your shared knowledge and insights. Being so close to Ojibway Park in Windsor, I have a special place in my heart for tallgrass prairies.

    1. Dwayne: thanks so much for your kind words. I know what you mean about the Ojibway area. I first visited it in August 1975, and have been there many dozens of times since. It is amazing what fabulous nooks and crannies of biological diversity remain in the southwestern most part of this province in spite of the extreme level of development in general.