Restoration and winter avian use of isolated prairies in eastern Texas
Numerous isolated prairies exist, or existed, on the West Gulf Coastal Plain east of the main distribution of the prairie ecosystem. Changing land-use patterns and suppression of wildfire have destroyed almost all of these small prairie occurrences. Intensified restoration and management of degraded prairie habitat on the Sam Houston National Forest in southeastern Texas have been ongoing since approximately 2004. As a result, encroaching woody vegetation has been substantially reduced, and a vegetation structure consistent with prairie habitat has been restored. Beginning in 2008, we conducted winter bird surveys on these prairies with the objective of quantifying avian use, especially by grassland sparrows of the genus Ammodramus. With the improvement in prairie structure, winter use of these sites by Ammodramus spp. was rapidly established, typically following the first post-restoration growing season. Ammodramus henslowii (Henslow’s Sparrow), a species of conservation concern, responded particularly dramatically. These results demonstrate that aggressive restoration of prairie remnants on the West Gulf Coastal Plain can rapidly reestablish prairie habitat and facilitate re-colonization by at least some avian species characteristic of prairie habitats.