Last weekend I had the opportunity to make my second visit to The Nature Conservancy's Fox Ranch in Yuma County, Colorado. The property is a working cattle ranch, and includes about 8 miles of the Arikaree River and its riparian and tall grass habitats. Additionally, there are thousands of acres of shortgrass prairie and sage shrubland. Due to the active ranching activities the property is not open to the public. Grazing is critical to the health of the prairie, but range management there is done thoughtfully, with pastures receiving cows one month out of each year. It is really cool to walk in waist-high grass (or even chin-high grass by the river) on a ranch- must be what it was like in the proverbial old days all over the west. I was able to visit on a joint Colorado Field Ornithologists / Nature Conservancy field trip led by Ted Floyd (whom I accompanied there last year as well for scouting.)
The Arikaree is an undammed river, almost unheard of in a state where water = money. However, deep wells tapping the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate center-pivot fields (those huge round fields you see if you fly over the plains) have seriously impacted the drainage, and the river no longer flows continuously out of Colorado. As a geographic side note, the point where the Arikaree River enters Kansas is the lowest point in Colorado, the highest low point of any state in the US at 3,315 feet.
Currently, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado are tied up in federal lawsuits regarding how much water Kansas is owed under the Republican River Compact (the Arikaree is one of three major forks of the Republican River), and many if not all of these wells will likely be shut down, either by court order or under incentives offered by the USDA. The settlement will probably also result in the draining of Bonny Reservoir (on the South Fork of the Republican River), to make up some of the water debt and reduce future evaporative losses.
An unexpected benefit of the fact that the Arikaree no longer connects to any other river system is the protection that imperiled native fishes get from their isolation from non-native predators like Largemouth Bass. Hardy little natives like Brassy Minnows and Orange-throated Darters survive the summers in perennial pools and beaver ponds, able to withstand water temperatures of up to 100° F. Once the cottonwoods drop their leaves and therefore stop sucking water out of the floodplain, some surface flow returns in the ranch reaches of the stream (take the "river" part of the name with a grain of salt), pools deepen, and the fish spawn to continue their sequestered existence out in the dry plains of Eastern Colorado. Neat stuff.
The outstanding grassland habitats also attract their share of birds, both resident and migrant, and we were not disappointed. For much of our visit, however, winds slashed grass, birders, and birds alike, keeping the latter mostly tucked deep in cover or receding with tailwind-assisted hyper-acceleration when flushed. But for a magical hour or so after sunrise the conditions were great, with the highlight bird being a shockingly non-lurking Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow- my first for Colorado, which only has a few previous records of this species. When the wind began raging again, bird photo-opps became non-existent, but I did get a few other critters to pose. Here are a few more photo highlights from the trip.
Porcupine in the cottonwoods along the Arikaree River
Vesper Sparrow in the headquarters grove
Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow in the wood pile
Female Varigated Meadowhawk
Male Yellow-legged Meadowhawk