"Landscape context drives breeding habitat selection by an enigmatic grassland songbird"

TPOS notes:

This study of habitat use by the rare Henslow's sparrow in eastern Kansas sampled grassland sites in the fragmented agricultural landscape ("Western Corn Belt Plains" ecoregion) as well as the extensive remnant grasslands of the Flint Hills. The species avoided woody vegetation and cropland, preferring landscapes with a higher proportion of grassland; for example, individuals were more likely to be detected in smalll patches of CRP embedded in rangeland than small patches of CRP surrounded by agricultural land. However, even in the Flint Hills the sparrows occupied less than 4% of the grassland area preferring CRP to intensively managed rangeland (typically grazed or burned then grazed). By using multiple sampling periods, researchers found that the sparrows were highly mobile within any given year, and in some cases occupied sites after mid-June that had been burned earlier in the year, though none were detected at completely burned sites during early season sampling.

First online 10/5/17 in Landscape Ecology.

Mark R. Herse, Michael E. Estey, Pamela J. Moore, Brett K. Sandercock, W. Alice Boyle




Wildlife conservation requires understanding how landscape context influences habitat selection at spatial scales broader than the territory or habitat patch.


We assessed how landscape composition, fragmentation, and disturbance affected occurrence and within-season site-fidelity of a declining grassland songbird species (Henslow’s Sparrow, Ammodramus henslowii).


Our study area encompassed eastern Kansas (USA) and North America’s largest remaining tracts of tallgrass prairie. We conducted 10,292 breeding-season point-count surveys over 2 years, and related occurrence and within-season site-occupancy dynamics of sparrows to landscape attributes within 400-, 800-, and 1600-m radii.


Sparrows inhabited < 1% of sites, appearing and disappearing locally within and between breeding seasons. Early in spring, sparrows responded to landscape attributes most strongly within 400-m radii, settling in areas containing > 50% unburned prairie. Later in summer, sparrows responded to landscape attributes most strongly within 800-m radii, settling in areas containing > 50% unfragmented prairie, including sites burned earlier the same year. Sparrows avoided landscapes containing woody vegetation, disappeared from hayfields after mowing, and were most likely to inhabit landscapes containing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields embedded within rangeland.


Landscape context influenced habitat selection at spatial scales broader than both the territory and habitat patch. Protecting contiguous prairies from agricultural conversion and woody encroachment, promoting CRP enrollment, and maintaining portions of undisturbed prairie in working rangelands each year are critical to reversing the conservation crisis in North America’s remaining grasslands. As landscape change alters natural areas worldwide, effective conservation requires suitable conditions for threatened species at multiple spatial scales.


Link to article:




Herse, M.R., Estey, M.E., Moore, P.J. et al. Landscape Ecol (2017).

"The 2016 Southeastern U.S. Drought: An Extreme Departure From Centennial Wetting and Cooling"

TPOS note:


New research on the 2016 drought in the southern Appalachians demonstrates this was an exceptional anomaly. Since the 1950s, average fall weather has been higher than average precipitation and lower than average daily high temperatures. The drought of 2016 (sometimes called a "flash drought") was notable for the "...intensity and rapid onset... and its destructive impact on wildfire and human water resources..."


Typically, fires in degraded oak ecosystems in the Upper Midwest are low intensity and low severity prescribed fires (with notable exceptions, such as a pattern of high severity fires occurring through ignition of heavy fuels from logging slash in oak savanna restorations or on xeric sites). How would fire behavior and severity look in the Midwest given similar circumstances to the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 Fire?


In the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, an arson-caused fire burned from Great Smokey Mountains National Park to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. With severe drought, strong winds, steep terrain, and high fuel loads (including recent leaf fall and dry heavy fuels) the fire covered 14,000 acres, destroyed structures, and resulted in 14 fatalities. These events suggest wildfire risk assessments for the Midwest should be reviewed to determine if models include parameters adequate to modeling wildfire spread in worst case (so-called "unthinkable") scenarios.


Read the abstract below or check out the article at



The fall 2016 drought in the southeastern United States (SE U.S.) appeared exceptional based on its widespread impacts, but the current monitoring framework that only extends from 1979 to present does not readily facilitate evaluation of soil-moisture anomalies in a centennial context. A new method to extend monthly gridded soil-moisture estimates back to 1895 is developed, indicating that since 1895, October–November 2016 soil moisture (0–200 cm) in the SE U.S. was likely the second lowest on record, behind 1954. This severe drought developed rapidly and was brought on by low September–November precipitation and record-high September–November daily maximum temperatures (Tmax). Record-high Tmax drove record-high atmospheric moisture demand, accounting for 28% of the October–November 2016 soil-moisture anomaly. Drought and heat in fall 2016 contrasted with 20th century wetting and cooling in the region but resembled conditions more common from 1895–1956. Dynamically, the exceptional drying in fall 2016 was driven by anomalous ridging over the central United States that reduced south-southwesterly moisture transports into the SE U.S. by approximately 75%. These circulation anomalies were partly promoted by a moderate La Niña and warmth in the tropical Atlantic, but these processes accounted for very little of the SE U.S. drying in fall 2016, implying a large role for internal atmospheric variability. The extended analysis back to 1895 indicates that SE U.S. droughts as strong as the 2016 event are more likely than indicated from a shorter 60 year perspective and continued multidecadal swings in precipitation may combine with future warming to further enhance the likelihood of such events.



Park Williams, A., Cook, B. I., Smerdon, J. E., Bishop, D. A., Seager, R., & Mankin, J. S. (2017). The 2016 southeastern U.S.drought: An extreme departure from centennial wetting and cooling. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 122.


Corresponding author: A. Park Williams, williams "at"

Rapidly sharing new fire science for the TPOS region

Introducing a new tool to stay up-to-date on fire science for the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna region as it comes out. The New Science Blog is an experimental effort to increase the rate at which relevant science is shared with practitioners and researchers in the Upper Midwest.

There are multiple options to follow the blog:

  • subscribe via RSS -,
  • follow the new Twitter feed set up to share new posts (@strictlyfiresci), or
  • watch for research round ups in the TPOS newsletter (join here).

How we find new publications:

Google Scholar and Web of Science alerts notify us when new fire science publications have been published for the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna ecosystems; for example, Google Scholar alerts notify us of papers that include both the phrase "tallgrass prairie" and "fire." However, this is a relatively poor filter -- many of the publications are not necessarily relevant to the region (for instance, a paper may be picked up because of a reference to tallgrass prairie in a literature review or the title of a paper in the works cited section). Papers shared via the blog are selected for their potential relevance to fire practitioners, land managers, ecologists, researchers, and policy makers in the region.

Your feedback about whether we were too narrow or too broad with our first selections will help us modify how we determine which papers to share.

The audiences:

Applied science is favored by practitioners, so expect to see an emphasis on papers that compare restoration and management techniques that incorporate prescribed fire (for example, research published in Restoration Ecology, Ecological Restoration, Fire Ecology, Conservation Biology, Ecosphere). Studies of fire effects on taxa and other natural history papers also provide valuable information to land stewards and wildlife biologists (journals such as American Midland Naturalist, Natural Areas Journal, Biodiversity Conservation).

We will also share papers that provide examples of fire ecology research methods that can be applied to management challenges in the TPOS region-even if the study was not conducted here. Those posts will be tagged "research methods."

While we are sometimes encouraged to avoid "preaching to the choir," some of our members have interest in papers that share interesting perspectives on fire ecology, wildfire, and prescribed fire, whether or not the information can be directly applied. We'll aim for 5-10 percent of posts sharing new peer-reviewed papers that address national policy, controversial issues that affect public opinion about prescribed fire, and fire science that is otherwise nationally or internationally notable.



"Developing a Conceptual Framework of Landscape and Hydrology on Tallgrass Prairie: A Critical Zone Approach"

TPOS note:


New interdisciplinary research published in the Vadose Zone Journal integrates ecology, climate, hydrology, and soils at Konza Prairie, a reference site for the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. While this paper may lack immediate applications, it provides a long view on grassland management.


Check out the abstract below or follow this link to the article (this article is not open access):


Core Ideas: 
  • Konza Prairie is a reference ecosystem for evaluation of current and former grasslands.
  • Hydrologic change includes climatic and geologic factors such as karstification.
  • Future research is needed to expand vadose zone knowledge.


Agricultural intensification and urbanization have greatly reduced the extent of tallgrass prairie across North America. To evaluate the impact of these changes, a reference ecosystem of unperturbed prairie is required. The Konza Prairie Biological Station in northeastern Kansas is a long-term research site at which a critical zone approach has been implemented. Integration of climatic, ecologic, and hydropedologic research to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of the complex environment provides the basis for predicting future aquifer and landscape evolution. We present a conceptual framework of the hydrology underpinning the area that integrates the extensive current and past research and provides a synthesis of the literature to date. The key factors in the hydrologic behavior of Konza Prairie are climate, ecology, vadose zone characteristics and management, and groundwater and bedrock. Significant interactions among these factors include bedrock dissolution driven by cool-season precipitation and hence a climatic control on the rate of karstification. Soil moisture dynamics are influenced at various timescales due to the short- and long-term effects of prescribed burning on vegetation and on soil physical characteristics. The frequency of burning regimes strongly influences the expansion of woody species in competition with native tallgrasses, with consequent effects on C and N dynamics within the vadose zone. Knowledge gaps exist pertaining to the future of Konza Prairie (a model for US tallgrass prairie)—whether continued karstification will lead to increasingly flashy and dynamic hydrology and whether compositional changes in the vegetation will affect long-term changes in water balances.


Vero, S.E., G.L. Macpherson, P.L. Sullivan, A.E. Brookfield, J.B. Nippert, M.F. Kirk, S. Datta, and P. Kempton. 2017. Developing a Conceptual Framework of Landscape and Hydrology on Tallgrass Prairie: A Critical Zone Approach. Vadose Zone J. 0. doi:10.2136/vzj2017.03.0069