Great Egret

Great Egret

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Prime Time for Prairie

Regular readers will note that, from time to time, I put in a plug for tallgrass prairie. I'm not sure exactly why, other than it is one of the most endangered habitats on the planet, and the fact that there are some high quality remnants within the counties of Essex and Lambton as well as the municipality of Chatham-Kent. I also like wide open spaces, where one can experience the vastness of the natural landscape. Most people would not consider Ontario as a prairie province, but the fact remains that some of the most diverse tallgrass prairie habitat in Canada is in southwestern Ontario.

Prairies are impressive, but can be somewhat forbidding landscapes. When early settlers felt the urge to 'go west' across the North American continent, once they left the shelter of the eastern forests, they felt too vulnerable and exposed, so they hesitated to venture very far out. Some of them went across as quickly as they could in order to reach the mountains in the far west. Little did they know at the time, that the tallgrass prairies of mid-western North America were some of the most productive soils on earth.

One of the reasons I feature tallgrass prairie right now is that yesterday, July 20, was the end of the most recent North American Prairie Conference. This conference has been held every other year, with the exception of 2014, beginning in 1968. Most have been held in various mid-western US states, but in 1992 it was held in Windsor, ON and in 2012 it was held in Winnipeg, MN. The 2014 conference was not held, since it takes a huge amount of volunteer time and energy to organize it. I know from personal experience, as I have been to 10 conferences beginning in 1984 in Fargo, North Dakota, and I was one of several principal organizers of the 1992 conference.

Another reason I am featuring tallgrass prairie now is because it can look at its most impressive in late July and early August, when the iconic Dense Blazing-stars (Liatris spicata) are in full bloom with a few hints of the mosaic of yellow from the various goldenrods and sunflowers.
Walpole Island
Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve
Some of the most impressive tallgrass prairies I've visited are in the state of Missouri. I've had the privilege of exploring some of those prairies in their prime in the months of May and June. Prairie conferences are typically held in July or August, hence they miss some of the impressive displays earlier in the season, so on occasion I have chosen to go on my own field trips to Missouri and adjacent states to catch the early season displays. It is also better birding, and not as hot. Some of the most impressive ones in Missouri are owned or managed by the Missouri Prairie Foundation and other similarly minded partners in conservation. MPF is a fabulous grassroots organization, celebrating its 50th year in 2016, and was the first to promote a National Prairie Day. You can check out its informative web site here.

Golden Prairie is a National Natural Landmark. One can stand in it and look around 360 degrees and hardly see any sign of human activity. Here, Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) dominates in June. Golden Prairie is made up of over 250 hecatres, with almost 200 additional hectares adjacent to it being managed as prairie.
Golden Prairie, MO
 At Coyne Prairie, Indian Paintbrush and Wood Betony bloom across the landscape in May.

Some prairie remnants, such as Friendly Prairie, are relatively small at barely 20 hectares.

Treaty Line Prairie is almost 70 hectares.

Sky Prairie is about 80 hectares.

The Taberville Prairie complex, dedicated to the conservation of the Greater Prairie Chicken, is almost 700 hectares.

Prairie State Park, at over 1200 hectares, is large enough so that free-ranging bison have been re-introduced.
Prairie State Park, with herd of bison in the background

And then at the completely other end of the size scale, is the massive Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, owned by The Nature Conservancy. It is a whopping 16200 hectares in size...the largest protected tallgrass prairie in North America....and has a large free-ranging bison herd. Check out their web site here.
In the very early part of the season, the prairie can look rather bleak and empty, as shown in the previous image. However after a burn and when the vegetation begins to green up, it starts to look more alive, and the bison relish the fresh vegetation.
A little later, some portions of a prairie may be very colourful as shown by the Indian Paintbrush in this next image.

Many mid-western states have impressive tallgrass prairie holdings, including places such as Black Earth Rettemund Prairie, in Wisconsin.

Blue River Barrens is also in Wisconsin. Here Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata) dominates the landscape. It is a species which occurs in Ontario, but only at a very few sandy prairie sites.

Konza Prairie, in eastern Kansas, is almost 3500 hectares and is owned and managed jointly by Kansas State University and The Nature Conservancy. It has an excellent trail system. More about it can be found here.

A visit to the Konza Prairie in March or early April is almost surely to include a view of smoke from a fire somewhere on the prairie.

Helton Prairie, in Missouri, has a colourful mix of Butterfly Milkweed, and Bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum) with one of the Blazing-stars getting ready to flower as well.

Melanthium virginicum

You might even find the Illinois Tick-trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), a species that has occurred in Ontario but has not been seen in the province for many decades.

Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, in Missouri, is almost 1200 hectares and has some fabulous displays of Pale Purple Coneflower.

Even though the vegetation dominates the prairie landscape, there are some uncommon to rare species of wildlife that make good use of it, including Henslow's Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite and Dickcissel as well as Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, shown next.

Loggerhead Shrikes seem out of place compared to the hawthorn dominated alvars they occur on in Ontario.

When the coneflowers are out, butterflies abound and it is the perfect time to see the very rare Regal Fritillary.
Regal Fritillary

Once in awhile, one might stumble across an Ornate Box Turtle crawling through the dense vegetation.

So I encourage you to get out and if you can't get to some of the prairie remnants in the US states, try and explore some of the wonderful prairies that occur in Ontario. One of the most accessible ones is the Ojibway Prairie Complex in southwestern Windsor. There are several city-owned prairie sites, as well as the Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve. A fairly new nature centre is at the city's Ojibway Park, right across the street from the nature reserve.

Culver's-root at Ojibway Prairie PNR


  1. Just got back from the NAPC and Missouri this afternoon. As for the prairies of Missouri, wow! A whole new perspective on wide open (and super interesting) spaces. A few posts of my trip to come. Thanks again for the recommendations Allen.

    1. I'm glad you made it to the NAPC and also had some time to explore some of the prairie sites in Missouri. I look forward to your 'reports' via future blog posts!

  2. Allen, another excellent posting. Seeing Ontario's tiny tallgrass prairie habitat along with midwestern examples helps put things in perspective. The Regal Frit and Scissor tailed Flycatcher, along with all the locations you visited are all amazing. - DM

    1. Thanks, Dwayne.....we do get spoiled a bit when we live so close to the Ontario prairies, but seeing some of the examples in the mid-west definitely is another perspective, and in a sense makes one appreciate the Ontario remnants all the more. Most of the prairie conferences I have been at in Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Kansas were in my film days, so my digital selection of images is limited. I need to get back and re-visit some of them!

  3. Allen, when would be the best time of year to get down nd visit the Ojibway Prairie?

    1. Hi Stew.....thanks for asking.

      The best time in my opinion is normally the end of July and the beginning of August. At least that is when the iconic Dense Blazing-star is normally at its best. Having said that, the blazing-star is always best the summer after a spring burn, which hasn't happened as frequently in recent years as it should. A little later in August and throughout September the dominant colour is yellow, with lots of different goldenrods (some quite rare, such as Stiff and Riddell's) and other Composites, some of which are quite rare as well (e.g. Prairie Dock, Tall Sunflower, Tall Coreopsis). There are lots of interesting plants earlier in the season as well. In fact the Ojibway Prairie Complex has one of the greatest concentrations of rare plants of anywhere in Ontario. Then there are birds, butterflies, herps, etc....

      One can always contact the Ojibway Nature Centre for the latest ( or 519-966-5852.