When you think of diverse habitats for animals and plants, the coastal prairie may not come to mind. As Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge Acting Manager John Magera explains, however, it probably should.
“The wide range of animals – including more than 250 bird species – on the coastal prairie is really a function of the plant diversity. I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that, just here on the refuge, there are about 470 species of plants. We find new plants every year.
True native prairie is incredibly diverse. If you start to lose that plant diversity, the animal diversity will follow. Most people look out across a prairie and see primarily grass.
However, roughly 350 of the plant species here are annual flowering plants. If a prairie isn’t managed correctly via (prescribed burning) and grazing animals, robust perennial grasses will take over the prairie and choke out those annual flowering plants, as well as lesser grasses.
Visually, a prairie isn’t as stunning as an old-growth forest, for example, and it may take longer to understand. I’ve worked on this refuge for 10 years, and every year I see a wildflower species that I’ve never seen before. I have to go back to my office, look it up and try to figure out what it is.
The specific environmental conditions in the prior year were just right for that flower species to germinate. It may have been lying dormant for many years.
A lot of people come here specifically to try to see the Attwater’s (prairie chickens), but the more experienced birders know this is also a great place to see a lot of grassland birds they won’t see other places they go, such as dickcissels, upland sandpipers and Sprague’s pipits. They can find a lot of native prairie birds here.”