Signs of a healthy rangeland

Biologist Luke Petersen was excited to hear an insect-like bird song at Rush Ranch in the spring of 2017.

While out in the field at sunrise to monitor birds, he heard the song of a grasshopper sparrow, a bird that is experiencing declines in populations and habitat and is more common toward the coast.

“Once you hear a grasshopper sparrow you stop what you’re doing to hear it again,” he says. “The song of the bird sounds a bit like an insect and blends in. It’s exciting and hard to miss again.”

Luke Petersen was counting birds for Point Blue Conservation Science’s Rangeland Monitoring Network, which looks at ecological function over time by monitoring soil, vegetation, and birds, and how they react to rangeland management practices. Petersen is a partner biologist with Point Blue and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners for conservation work.

Healthy ecosystems

Birds are one component of a healthy ecosystem and can indicate the overall health of a landscape. The Rangeland Monitoring Network uses a list of focal bird species that represent various niches in a functioning ecosystem. During the 2017 count, Petersen found 10 of the 16 focal species expected at Rush Ranch – a good sign! In addition to the grasshopper sparrow, he found western meadowlark, horned lark, northern harrier, American kestrel, and breeding Savannah sparrows.

The Rangeland Monitoring Network works with landowners on 80 properties throughout California. Petersen also monitors Rockville Trails Preserve and Wilcox Ranch. The data goes into a state-wide data set, and feedback goes to landowners who can use it to inform adaptive management plans.

Helping ranchers maintain a viable business protects open space. “The biggest thing we can do is help ranchers make the most of their land so that the land remains open space,” says Petersen. Large open spaces are also better for birds than fragmented, postage-stamp habitats.

It’s important to have partners like Solano Land Trust, says Petersen. “We have similar goals, and Solano Land Trust can demonstrate management that helps improve grassland ecosystems to other landowners.”

(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Luke Petersen, July 2018)