Last weekend was my much-awaited return to Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, a date marked with exuberance on my calendar of summer events by colorful rings and several stars. Last year I had attended a workshop there for the first time, not as an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist (OCVN) for whom these weekends are designed to offer advanced training, but just as an extra—someone interested in an opportunity to explore a wonderful wildlife area and learn from the experts about it. Since last year’s visit, having had such a great experience I investigated the OCVN program, “a research-based scientific training program that emphasizes hands on natural resource education coupled with community-based volunteer service,” enrolled in classes and completed the coursework. In a sense, this return brought me back to where it all began. Why a second look? Because a prairie is a place you must feel to understand.
Pinnate Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
Defined by Webster, a prairie is “land in or predominantly in grass.” And for most of my life, the only image I knew of a prairie was the rolling field of swaying grass and waving wildflowers that Laura Ingalls, her hair in 2 long braids, bounded through as a young pioneer heroine on Wednesday night TV. Typically treeless, prairies are often primarily composed of grasses—native prairie grasses that often tower 4 feet or more such as Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switch Grass or Prairie Cord Grass. And, just as the land itself can range from wet to dry, providing a dark rich loam or the challenge of leached sand flats, each is distinguished by unique prairie wildflowers that bloom wildly in profusions of color, thriving in, what to many would be, inhospitable ground. But, the definition of a prairie is almost incomplete without the mention of time—they’re our most native landform, expanding with the retreat of the glaciers and remaining for thousands of years until European settlement. While most of the original million plus acres of prairie in the Midwest have been claimed for agriculture and tilled until only a small fraction remains, a remnant can be found at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in north central Ohio.
Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
For 2 days, our group of 40, led by instructors David Brandenburg (botany), Jim Davidson (butterflies), George Keeney (beetles), and Bob Placier (birds) spent mornings in the classroom and afternoons walking the fields of Killdeer Plains. With spotting scopes in tow and hand lenses dangling from our necks, we dove into the flora and fauna of this tallgrass prairie habitat. It was immersion—from dawn until dark.
Prairie Dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum
Bald eagles soared above our heads while we peered into the corollas of the tiniest flowers of a mountain mint resting in the palms of our hands. We tasted the tasty flowers and rubbed our hands against the roughness of prairie dock. We hopped in and out of vehicles as we laced our way along the narrow dusty roads, stopping to stoop at carcasses where carrion beetles performed the thankless task of decomposer.
Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus Philenor
In the bright sunshine, Pipevine swallowtails flashed us with iridescent blue against a field of early goldenrod while Halloween pennant dragonflies adorned the tops of every teasel.
Halloween Pennant, Celithemis eponina
By dark, the sounds of the night took over. Where the rhythmic drones of scissor-grinder cicadas had filled the heated hours of daylight, nighttime resounded with the trills and scrapes and buzzes and ticks of countless katydids. Jim McCormac led a night hike and we waded through the brush searching with our flashlights for the leafy green singers whose songs he played as they called to us at eye level from within dense tall stands of prairie cord grass. Night brought a heavy dew, and by morning the misty web-covered field lay quiet.
A prairie is more than a shrinking shape on a map, its makeup more than a list of hardy, drought-tolerant, fire-resistant plants. It is heat and sound, tenderness and strength, woven into a colorful tapestry that is rolled out beneath a wide sky. To understand a prairie you must walk within one.
Winning image for the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp competition!
The 2012 OWLStamp will be available for sale March 1, 2012 through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website and nature organizations across the state. Proceeds of the OWLStamp benefit wildlife conservation, research & education projects within the state of Ohio! I'm thrilled to have provided the winning image for such a wonderful program!
The Adventures of Red Canoe
Come along in Red Canoe as she explores the quiet backwater of Ohio's State Parks and the scenic streams and rivers of the Midwest. Discover the beauty hidden beyond the water's edge, quietly waiting, past access points, often only inches deep!
Grabbing every minute I can find to be outside--walking in it, sleeping in it ... breathing it in. The natural world has so much beauty to uncover.
It is my hope that by capturing my experiences with nature and by sharing the richness it adds to an ordinary life, others may discover the greatest gift waiting just outside their door.
A regularly appearing feature, "Have you seen..." takes a closer, more patient look at things usually not seen in a flattering light.Take a look!
The Sweetness of Spring
Each spring, as winter lessens its grip and days warm with the first fragrant breezes of a new season, we collect sap from our Sugar Maples and produce just enough syrup for ourselves for the coming year. The progress of this year's backyard endeavor is illustrated here.
A Bird's Life
Summer 2008, the tiny jewel of the avian world, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, nested just feet from my front door. Pictures of her nest and the changing lives within are collected in thisjournal.From life the size of a pea....