Lit­tle walk on the prairie

Sum­mer ideal for visit to grass­land grandeur

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NWA OUTDOORS - FLIP PUTTHOFF

Smart hik­ers on this sum­mer­time jaunt wore rub­ber boots, but not to cross creeks. Knee-high footwear helps to wade the wet grass at Ch­es­ney Prairie Nat­u­ral Area near Siloam Springs. The 82-acre pub­lic tract is one of the few tall­grass prairie rem­nants left in North­west Arkansas. Sum­mer is prime sea­son to see wild­flow­ers, stands of na­tive grass and birds on the wing. Three miles of mowed trails make easy foot travel through Ch­es­ney Prairie, sit­u­ated north of the Siloam Springs air­port. Hik­ers don’t have to stay on the paths, but they’re nice for walk­ing. Early ris­ers en­joy the cool of morn­ing for a prairie trek. Grass on the trails is short, but rub­ber boots fend off the dew. Re­pel­lent keeps away the in­sects. Both were stan­dard gear for North­west Arkansas Audubon So­ci­ety mem­bers dur­ing a visit to the prairie on July 8. Joe Neal and Joe Wool­bright led a group of about 15 through the wide open area. Neal knows birds like he has wings him­self. Wool­bright is care­taker of Ch­es­ney Prairie Nat­u­ral Area and is a walk­ing, talk­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia of botany and prairie knowl­edge. “Of the 82 to­tal acres, 62 acres are high qual­ity tall­grass prairie. The rest was once planted in row corps, but it’s be­ing re­stored,” Wool­bright said. Ch­es­ney is ad­min­is­tered by the Arkansas Nat­u­ral Her­itage Com­mis­sion. Wild­flow­ers wow vis­i­tors right away. Not far from the en­trance, a stand of blaz­ing star daz­zles the eye with a sea of blue blos­soms at the top of each flower. These peren­nial prairie plants bloom dur­ing sum­mer and early fall, sport­ing straight, tall stems crowned with royal blue. A beau­ti­ful pas­sion flower now and then got hik­ers point­ing their cam­era lenses to­ward the sum­mer­time bloom. Pas­sion flow­ers also sport a bluish hue that is said to have health ben­e­fits. They are a sight for sore eyes at the very least. Trip leader Neal pointed out a stand of poke that’s a valu­able na­tive plant for birds, wildlife and some­times peo­ple who like to make poke salad. Then he turned his at­ten­tion to the sky. “Look! There’s two male goldfinches duk­ing it out,” Neal hollered to the group. The two birds ap­peared to be in a dog­fight high over­head, wings whirling and beaks slash­ing. “They’re get­ting real ter­ri­to­rial. Their nest­ing sea­son is just start­ing.” The group fo­cused binoc­u­lars ear­lier in the trip on a male painted bunt­ing and its crayon box of color. Males sport blue, green, yel­low and red in their plumage. The fi­nale of the hike fea­tured an­other bat­tle in the sky. A scis­sor-tail fly catcher ha­rassed and chased a Cooper’s hawk. The fly catcher

was win­ning. “I’ve ac­tu­ally seen fly catch­ers land on the backs of fly­ing hawks and peck at their heads,” Neal said. Joan Reynolds mar­veled at dif­fer­ent won­ders in the sky. A storm ap­proached, bring­ing a bank of fore­bod­ing dark clouds. “One of the most in­ter­est­ing things about a prairie is the sky,” she mused. Ch­es­ney Prairie Nat­u­ral Area is big sky coun­try from hori­zon to hori­zon. Rain and sun nur­ture dozens of na­tive plant va­ri­eties, which pro­vide seed to re­store other prairie ar­eas. Af­ter the field trip, some of the Audubon folks fol­lowed Wool­bright to col­lect seed from cer­tain plants. Wool­bright pointed out plants ripe for seed col­lect­ing. Willing work­ers shook the plant so seeds would drop into a pa­per sack. Seed is used in a statewide prairie restora­tion ef­fort. A visit to the nat­u­ral area is a fine solo out­ing, but go­ing with a group like the North­west Arkansas Audubon So­ci­ety is an ed­u­ca­tion. Any­one is wel­come to join in on the so­ci­ety’s field trips. Audubon mem­ber­ship isn’t re­quired. Field trips visit deep woods, rip­pled water­ways and, some­times, wide open spa­ces like Ch­es­ney Prairie Nat­u­ral Area.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fput­ or on Twit­ter @NWAFlip

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF

Prairie pedes­tri­ans ad­mire bird life at the Ch­es­ney Prairie. The North­west Arkansas Audubon So­ci­ety hosted a trip to the area July 8.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF

A stand of blaz­ing star (above photo) brings a daz­zling blue to the Ch­es­ney Prairie Nat­u­ral Area. Joe Neal points out a stand of poke (right photo) dur­ing the field trip. Poke is a valu­able na­tive plants for birds and wildlife.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF

Joan Reynolds pho­to­graphs a darken­ing sky. Ch­es­ney Prairie Nat­u­ral Area is big sky coun­try from hori­zon to hori­zon.

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