Hidden Treasures

A Visit to Comertown in June

Look closely! The nest of an Upland Sandpiper is very well hidden. Although it's a shorebird, this species spends most of its time in the prairie. It is often seen standing on wooden fence posts, scanning its surroundings.

This past week, I ventured over 500 miles from Helena to complete yearly conservation easement monitoring, meet with landowners, and to collect data with contractor biologist Peter Lesica. The data we collected will help us keep the grasslands healthy at our Comertown Prairie Preserve in the far northeastern corner of Montana. June is a magical time in the prairie potholes and our preserve is located in the heart of some of the best pothole grassland in Montana. I was hopeful spring rains had maintained water in the potholes, another name for wetlands in this land worked by glaciers just over ten thousand years ago.  

This area is characterized by rolling prairie and interspersed with shallow to deep wetlands that range from less than 1 acre to over 100 acres in size. Those wetlands can be fresh, with abundant flowering plants or so salty that no vegetation can grow in them or along the edges. This combination of grass and water makes the Prairie Pothole Region the ultimate destination resort for waterfowl, with 80% of North America’s dabbling ducks* nesting here. It is also critical habitat for shorebirds and grassland birds. Even though I’ve worked in the potholes for 23 years, I’ve never gotten used to the constant commotion. Night or day, and there is a lot of day (I recorded first light at 3:55 a.m. with sunset just after 9:00 p.m.), the wetlands are a buzz of activity.  

For a day and a half we collected vegetation data, much of the time in a mixture of light to driving rain. When the rain cleared and we finished our data collection, I turned my attention to monitoring the six conservation easements we hold north of the preserve. Rain made travel by road difficult to impossible, which was actually luck for me. It gave me the opportunity to complete the work on foot – hiking five miles over hills, skirting wetlands, tripping through grass, and avoiding badger holes. The green grass and full wetlands made for excellent birding. Within a half hour I identified 10 species of ducks. As I walked further the list grew to include many shorebirds, water birds, and a full complement of grassland birds. Among the highlights was seeing dozens of Eared Grebes on Lonetree Lake, a large wetland that is protected by two Conservancy conservation easements. I also enjoyed listening to Sprague’s Pipits, one of North America’s rarest grassland birds, singing from many of the small hilltops, while Baird’s Sparrows sang from the edge of wetland basins. Both of these birds occur only in a small part of the northern Great Plains. 

One of the most important characteristics of this landscape is the connection between wetland and grassland. The dabbling ducks and many of the shorebirds nest in the prairie, some up to a mile from water. I flushed many birds as I traversed the prairie. These nests are often so well concealed that, without close observation, it’s hard to spot a nest when a bird flushes, even just a few feet away from you. Abundant grass provides cover for the nest and shade for the birds sitting on the eggs.

- by Brian Martin, Montana Director of Science 

* Dabbling ducks hunt for food at the surface of the water (e.g. Mallards). They’re often seen with just their tails bobbing in the air, as opposed to diving ducks that are totally submerged when they feed (e.g. Canvasbacks).




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