Sunday, October 14, 2012

Joe Neal on a Missouri prairie expedition

Big grasslands make me feel young and hopeful. Like tonic, just being there, I go from 60s to 30s, From cautiously cynical to optimistic. So it was yesterday at Prairie State Park in southwestern Missouri.
    After a two hour drive in rain and wind that should spoil the day, I open the door in a patch of sunlight certain the year's Best Bird is out there, in Big Bluestem and Indian Grass. Big Sky is the only limit and in the end, only a spiritual question.
    First stop was Path of the Sky People, a loop through Tzi-Sho Natural Area. Snuggled in the covering grass, we found downy gentians in full bloom. Their blue deeply penetrates the senses on a cloudy day, mixing with penetrating purples, red, rusts, browns, blues and yellows in clumps of native grass.
    Barn Swallows were following a tractor with a front mounted roller-scooper harvesting prairie seeds. This proved to be folks from Hamilton Native Outpost of Elk Creek, Missouri, collecting in a cooperative project with the park. Then came wind gusts and dark clouds with long shafts of lightning. Darkening sky accentuated blues of gentians and abundant prairie asters.
    Back to the car in a light rain, we had road birds. American Kestrel on a powerline, one bush with three perched up sparrows: Lincoln's, Song, and Fox, overcast light accentuating the latter's red and gray.
    I've been fighting my first cold this season. During another cycle of clearing, lightning and rain, I fell asleep in the car while Joan Reynolds went in to the park visitor’s center. I have been reading "Katherine Ordway, the lady who saved the prairies." In my dream, she is up and walking big grassland, like the book's cover. She could have done anything with her inherited millions; some went to critical expansions of this park.
    In the visitor's center, Joan learns Greater Prairie-Chickens have been seen along Sandstone Trail. I knew this, but discounted the chance of ever seeing them. But with a modest sky clearing and rising optimism, we head for Sandstone. Bison roam freely and an impressive bull eyes us as we park. Walking his direction? No.
    But there is a 30-foot wide closely mowed fireline, a big greenway that loops through the grasses out toward what must be the highest area of the park. It's all sky. Earth below is afire with the glow of winged sumac thickets. It's away from the bison.
    Joan sees the first prairie-chicken as it flushes and flies low toward the sumac. Soon we have a second, describing a low moving arc of bluestem grass and red thickets as it sails into cover.
    Bison wallows, where they roll back and forth to dust off biting flies, are filled with rain water. A male Northern Harrier sweeps low, flushing meadowlarks (5) and Wilson's Snipes (9) from this ephemeral wetland.
    Walking back, keeping an eye on three bison, in the short grass of the greenway we flush a small streaked bird. With a sharp SQUEET it flies high, as though to escape velocity, then back in a down plummet, to the grass.
    My first thought: Sprague's Pipit. After we see at least 5, including a couple slowly walking away from us in short grass, pale face and dark eye, pattern made in grass, we have the confirming view, rich and full of meaning as Fox Sparrows, downy gentians, generosity of Katherine Ordway.

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