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Migratory Birds

Birdwatching in the Grasslands

Read our Q&A with the Conservancy's Jeff Walk to get some tips and tricks on watching grassland birds.

Birdwatching in the Grasslands - Q&A with Jeff Walk

Get tips and tricks for birdwatching in the grasslands from Jeff Walk, director of science in Illinois.

Q: If someone wants to spot grassland birds, what should they bring with them?

Jeff Walk: Views of grassland birds will be at relatively longer distances, so higher magnification binoculars or a spotting scope might be in order. Exposure to the sun, wind and elements can be unrelenting, so sunscreen, a hat and windbreaker jacket are suggested. Several sparrows that live in grasslands have similar appearances and tend to skulk low in the vegetation, so birders should be prepared to walk a lot, be patient to get good looks and have a field guide handy.

Q: What are some bird species people can expect to see when in a grassland?

Jeff Walk: Here in the Midwest, red-winged blackbirds are the most common bird seen in grasslands. Bobolinks, meadowlarks, dickcissels and grasshopper sparrows are all declining but still widespread, as explained in our book, Illinois Birds: A Century of Change.

Q: Are grassland birds more typically found in large, open areas or smaller, broken up parcels of land?

Jeff Walk: Very generally, the smaller the parcel, the more common types of birds you’ll find. For example, in Illinois, song sparrows and common yellowthroats can be found in grasslands less than an acre in size. In larger patches, the chances of finding meadowlarks, bobolinks and other species increase. The uncommon birds, like upland sandpipers and greater prairie-chickens, are rarely seen away from grasslands hundreds or thousands of acres in size.

Q: Your book Illinois Birds: A Century of Change focuses on a century of research on Illinois’ grassland birds. Do you expect a great change in future grasslands birds?

Jeff Walk: In the last 100 years, most of the Midwest’s prairie, hay and pasture have been converted to cropland, and grassland birds have declined 60-95 percent as a result. How we manage our remaining natural areas in the next 50 years will have big consequences for those species with small populations. For example, right now, there’s a lot of interest in using various grasses for biofuels. If those biofuels turn out to be mixes of native prairie grasses and crop fields are converted to grasslands, it could be good for grassland birds.

Q: Where did you gain interest in birding?

Jeff Walk: When I was 5 or 6 years old, I heard a cool song coming from this tiny reddish-brown bird with black streaks on its chest while it was sitting on a fence. My grandparents had a book with pictures of a few common birds, and I figured out it was a song sparrow. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Q: Do you have any specific Conservancy sites in the Midwest you would recommend for grassland bird watching?

Jeff Walk: Nachusa Grasslands in north-central Illinois is a beautiful site and close to home for me. The Platte River Prairies in central Nebraska make for an awesome birding destination in the spring, with tens of thousands of sandhill cranes staging along the Platte River and prairie-chickens and sharptailed grouse doing their spring mating dances in the upland prairies.

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