Wichita State's Ninnescah field lab preserves, explores prairie wildlife

NEAR CHENEY — A great field experiment is under way. Songs of Eastern meadowlarks and blue-gray gnatcatchers can be heard as wind brushes past prairie grass.

Dragonflies and grasshoppers flit along a well-worn trail as Christopher Rogers and Don Distler drive a pickup around 330 acres known as Wichita State University's Biology Field Station Ninnescah Reserve.

The birds, the grasses, the insects are signs the experiment is working.

In fact, 528 species have been recorded at the Ninnescah Reserve, including 289 plants, 168 birds, 33 mammals, 16 fish, nine snakes, six turtles and seven amphibians.

For more than three decades, WSU biologists have worked to restore the tired farmland along the Ninnescah River to prairie.

This past spring, the university, through grant money and donations, was able to build a new state-of-the art field laboratory at the site, replacing decades-old make-do buildings located on the reserve, about 30 miles southwest of Wichita.

The new field station includes a lecture classroom, small office, library, and bird, reptile and plant laboratories.

The work that goes on inside the building may someday help not only the prairie but also plants and creatures in other places around the world.

Studies at the site include prairie restoration and recovery from overgrazing, the ecology of aquatic invertebrates, prairie bird nesting communities, incidence of West Nile virus in birds, and monitoring of fish, amphibian and reptile populations.

"We had World War II-era trailers, the kind that cause tornadoes," joked Rogers, research director at the Ninnescah Field Station and WSU associate professor in the department of biological sciences.

Because of a renewed focus on environmental biology, the National Science Foundation awarded Wichita State University — which owns the land — $240,000 to build a field laboratory. The university, through private donations, was able to raise another $270,000 to develop the site, which includes a wind turbine that will supply a portion of the electricity.

From this classroom, Rogers said, students can learn more about the prairie, but also how to make open spaces inside cities more natural.

"By exploring places like this, we can turn the urban environment into something that is more natural, better designed, and designed along organic lines," he said.

From this building comes a four-part mission:

* Research — bird, plant, reptile and amphibian species over 330 acres.

* Teach — Wichita State, Friends and Newman universities can use the lab for classes.

* Conserve — the 330 acres of grasslands and associated wetlands.

* Public Outreach — although the laboratory and surrounding land is not typically open to the public, the public is occasionally invited to the grounds to observe the fall flora and bird migration.

The grand opening for the new facility is set for Sept. 24.

Studying birds

It may not sound like much — the tiny, blue-gray gnatcatcher's song is a soft, thin, nasal "spee" call.

The trees on the reserve along the river are home to about 25 pairs of gnatcatchers. That the bird is thriving along the banks of the Ninnescah in Kansas may be excellent news for the Cerulean warbler that lives in the forests of eastern North America.

The birds are similar, Rogers said, except that the population of the Cerulean warbler has declined more than 70 percent since 1976 and the gnatcatcher is thriving.

What makes one bird species thrive and the other not? Rogers' study is helping biologists learn more about each bird's needs.

Along with the Cerulean warbler, other birds whose populations are starting to decline are dark-eyed juncos, which have been spotted along the Ninnescah." All these boreal forest birds are starting to decline," Rogers said. "It is a new phenomenon in conservation biology. The dark-eyed junco, everybody's favorite backyard bird, is declining significantly. What is happening to the boreal forest of Canada? You've got oil exploration — a gigantic shale mining operation, and all the forests are being cut for pulp? Why do they need pulp? For the Sears and Lands' End catalogs."

'Economy of nature'

As the pickup creeps along the prairie and wooded banks of the Ninnescah, Distler looks across the land and talks about how it has changed over the two decades he's lived and worked there.

"This is my home away from home," Distler said.

When Distler began working at the site in 1983, there were some areas where top soil was eroding at a rate of 50 tons an acre a year.

He has reduced that to 10 tons an acre by converting the land back to prairie and marshland. His hope is to reduce the soil loss to less than 5 tons an acre.

He's seen the animal species who make their homes there change over the years.

In the early '80s, the land was home to jackrabbits as they hopped through crop stubble.

Now, with the land returning to trees and prairie, it's home to porcupines and roadrunners.

"The jackrabbits left us because they like the open country," Distler said.

As the prairie returns, so do other critters, he said. Only recently have prairie kingsnakes been spotted on the land. Most common are black rat snakes and water snakes.

A Say's phoebe has been seen on the land as have wintering bald eagles.

And in the creek feeding into the Ninnescah, the water is full of channel catfish, carp and bullheads.

"All the things you would expect in a prairie spring," Distler said.

Coyotes are common. So are bobcats.

"You come out here sometimes and those bobcats will wait until you are about three feet from them before they burst out and run," he said.

A dickcissel, a small yellow-and-brown bird that resembles the Eastern meadowlark, lands near the pickup. Its population is also declining because of a loss of habitat. Its breeding habitat is the prairie grassland in North America.

Good numbers have been seen along the Ninnescah. But the dickcissel is a migratory bird.

They migrate in large flocks down to Southern Mexico, Central America and northern Southern America.

"We conserve it," Distler said, "and it goes down to Argentina and is poisoned by the pesticides."

But that is only part of their research, Rogers said.

The site allows ecologists to study animals and plant life in a pristine setting, Rogers said.

"Few significant natural areas exist," Rogers said. "From here, we can study the rhythm and economy of nature."