“Anyone can love a mountain, but it takes soul to love a prairie” - unknown.
As a little girl I devoured the Little House in the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and dreamed of seeing the western prairies one day. It wasn’t until 2007 that I was able to do so when I visited Prairie State Park in Missouri with a friend. I tend not to use the word awesome very often because I think it is a word that is used too frequently and lightly. But believe me when I tell you what lay before us was indeed awesome. Tall grasses and wildflowers were gently blowing in the breeze while birdsong filled the air. Grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks and dickcissels sang together in a splendid chorus. Bison roamed the short-grass areas, snorting and kicking up dust in their path. We had only allotted one day to visit this preserve and knew immediately that it was just not enough. While we stood watching the sunset we were treated to a sight that will remain with me forever - as the blazing red and orange sun descended into the horizon, the silhouette of a deer appeared, surrounded by tall grass and perfectly backlit by the flaming orb behind it. As we stood watching in awe, the deer turned and bounded into the sunset, as if swallowed up by a giant fiery ball of fire. It was pure magic. Thus began my love affair with grasslands. I have since traveled to grasslands in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Texas, each time marveling anew at the abundance of wildlife and beauty before my eyes.
Unfortunately, grasslands have been declining faster than any other habitat in the United States, if not the world. Human use and sprawl development has taken its toll on our grasslands, with only about 4% remaining. While grassland habitats modified by humans for agriculture had replaced some areas of grasslands to an extent, they too are now disappearing. As grasslands decline, so do the wildlife species that depend upon them. Grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining birds in North America; 48% are of conservation concern and 55% are showing significant declines. Right here on Long Island, grasslands were once a significant feature of the landscape. Unfortunately, most have been developed into residential, industrial or commercial real estate or converted to ball fields and other intensely used recreational areas. For this reason it is crucial that all efforts should be made to restore and reclaim potential habitat as grassland whenever possible.
There are still scattered grasslands across the island, but even when protected, they face a grave threat: non-native invasive species. One such already protected area in trouble is Underhill Preserve in Jericho. This 75 acre preserve, protected as open space in 2002, contains almost 35 acres of grassland, with a mix of native and non-native grasses.
Unfortunately, much of it has now been overrun by invasive non-native plant species. Several years ago I fell in love with this parcel and have watched with concern as each year it has become more degraded by this invasion as well as the encroachment of successional habit. Thanks to the efforts of Senator Carl Marcellino, I was able to sit down with the property’s owners (NYSDEC, Nassau County and the Town of Oyster Bay) to encourage them to create a plan to manage and restore Underhill. During this meeting, HOBAS was asked to take the lead on developing such a plan. The DEC has already named us stewards of their portion of the preserve and we are hopeful we can obtain the same designation from the other entities. As you know, the funds raised at our first Run/Walk for Conservation in the fall of 2012 are dedicated to this project. We recently applied for a grant in order to develop and implement a comprehensive restoration plan. As of this writing, we have not received word yet on the grant, but our fingers are crossed. If we are not awarded this grant, we will continue to explore other funding opportunities.
The expansion of Underhill’s grasslands and meadows would attract a greater diversity and abundance of butterflies, birds and other wildlife, thereby creating a wildlife haven which could potentially attract nesting grassland birds such as eastern meadowlarks. In addition, shrubland birds are also on the decline and providing healthy native edge habitat for birds such as these is equally vital.
Over 100 species of birds have been documented at the preserve, including two grassland species that are in decline: bobolinks and the aforementioned eastern meadowlarks. There is an abundance of eastern bluebirds in the meadows and the numerous kettle ponds provide habitat to various waterfowl, including wood ducks and hooded mergansers, arguably our most beautiful North American ducks. Blue-winged warblers are most likely nesting here and during the winter months, this is possibly the best spot around for fox, American tree and field sparrows. In addition, Underhill could have potential as a future introduction site for northern bobwhite, a bird that has seen a 65% decline over the last twenty years. Various species of turtles such as snapping, painted and eastern box (a NYS Species of Special Concern) have been documented at Underhill.
Grasslands not only host birds and mammals; they support butterflies and insects. The iconic monarch butterfly is declining due to habitat loss in the United States as well as its wintering grounds in Mexico. Milkweed is an important host plant for Monarchs and there are several species growing in Underhill, including the only known Long Island colony of whorled milkweed as well as a colony of green comet milkweed, which is listed as NYS Rare. Horace’s duskywing, a butterfly considered rare in Nassau County, utilizes the meadows, as does the red-banded hairstreak, another butterfly which was considered rare at one time but is now increasing in numbers.
An abundance of plants play host to numerous insects, which in turn, provide food for breeding birds. All told, Underhill has an impressive list of natural resources. In addition to the over 100 species of birds and almost 200 species of insects, close to 300 plants and seven species of reptiles and amphibians have been recorded since 2008. Unfortunately, these natural resources are in danger of being swallowed up by non-natives such as Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, porcelain berry, multi flora rose and autumn olive. In addition, trees are taking root in some areas of the grassland and should be removed. Currently we are working on setting the wheels in motion for a management plan that will include a restoration project and are hopeful that NYS, the Town and County will support this endeavor. While we will never be able to restore Underhill back to its former glory (unless someone wants to gift us with a few hundred thousand dollars!) we do hope to give back its dignity by allowing native vegetation to flourish once again, thereby providing critical habitat for birds and other wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for future updates and your fingers crossed that our hopes will become a reality!
Grasslands are often dismissed as monotonous stretches of empty landscape. Far from monotonous and empty, tall-grass, short-grass and mixed grasslands contain a remarkable and diverse number of species, from plants to reptiles to birds to mammals to insects. It is true that anyone can love a mountain…or a forest or a shoreline. Their beauty is in your face and splendid. It takes soul to look beyond the obvious. A prairie must be understood to be loved, for once you have experienced the magic and subtle grandeur that is a prairie you will never be the same.