The Florida Dry Prairie is a rather nondescript habitat. It’s a big prairie of bluestem grasses and wiregrasses and palmettos. In fact, it’s not even really all that dry. At times it can be very wet, but its called a dry prairie simply because it is much drier than the wet prairies elsewhere in Florida. So what is special about these prairies? Well, they are home to sparrows, lots and lots of sparrows, but one of them is particularly unique.
These prairies are the wintering grounds for numerous species of sparrows but more importantly, they are the only breeding grounds for the endemic Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. This tiny bird, a subspecies of the Grasshopper Sparrow, doesn’t migrate and spends its entire life in the dry prairies of south central Florida. The population is small, with less than 1,000 birds estimated in a census in 1997 and a 2008 report showed that the birds are continuing to decline, quite rapidly at times.
Part of the problem is fire, a common theme here at Wanderer’s Apprentice recently. When we talked about fire with respect to the scrub habitat, we were talking about burning cycles in the realm of 5-25 years. For the Dry Prairie to be prime habitat for Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, it needs to burn on a 1-3 year cycle. Even more important is when during the year the prairie burns. Take a look at the two panoramas below.
The above panorama shows a dominance of palmettos with short grass near the ground, while tall grasses dominate the panorama below. In fact, these two prairies are very similar and in fact only burned about 5 months apart. They both have similar species compositions, but in the bottom panorama the prairie burned in May, during the growing season. This fire stimulated the growth of the grasses and you see the result. The top prairie was burned in December during a more dormant phase of the grasses so no growth was stimulated.
It is the bottom prairie that forms the ideal habitat for these sparrows. The tall grass not only provides cover but provides an excellent food source for both breeding Florida Grasshopper Sparrows and the other wintering sparrows. Also, as you can see, there are few trees and Florida Grasshopper Sparrows require essentially a total absence of trees, even a density of a single tree per acre can mean it is not habitat suited for these sparrows. Frequent burning helps to burn back any tree that happens to germinate and start to grow.
So what else do Dry Prairies offer besides Florida Grasshopper Sparrows? They are great places to see other species of birds including Burrowing Owls, Crested Caracaras, and White-tailed Kites. Butterflies are quite common and the wildflower displays can be quite beautiful. This particular prairie, located at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, is the largest protected parcel of Florida Dry Prairie left in the state and I highly recommend a visit, especially in spring.