So Where Are the Prairies, Anyway?

Our first stop after the Big Thicket was at the Lennox Woods Preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). It is located northeast of Dallas, close to the Arkansas border. Although part of our prairies expedition itinerary, it was just thrown in for variety, as it is actually a very westerly example of the southeastern forests. It overlaps with the Big Thicket in terms of flora, but having added 3.5 degrees of latitude since then, the spring season was much farther behind, and we really were too early for a productive visit.

The timing of the start of the prairies exploration had been an issue ever since beginning to plan the trip. Ideally, to see the prairies at their best, you’d cover them all quickly from south (Texas) to north (Prairie Provinces) between April and early June, roughly keeping up with peak bird migration. Then you’d return south more slowly, finishing in the tallgrass prairies of eastern Oklahoma in fall, when the grasses were at full height. But plans for the solar eclipse and travels in the northeast dictated that our trip should finish in the north in August, so, starting in Texas, we were effectively constrained to a single south to north pass. So we expected to be visiting more southerly sites at earlier than optimal dates. We also would be visiting more northerly sites later than would be best for birding. However, in the north, the growing season is more compressed and thus there is less temporal spread of flowering – “spring” and “fall” species can be seen in flower in summer, so our timing would be reasonable for plants.

Our next site, a few hours farther west in Texas, was Caddo National Grassland. The National Grasslands (NG) are administered by the Forest Service, and so are similar in many respects to National Forests. The NGs in the southern prairies trace their origins to the Dust Bowl years. Settlers happened to arrive on the prairies during a wet cycle, which made them look attractive for farming. But what was not appreciated was that there were also dry cycles, and during these, the only thing that kept the soil in place was the deep root systems of the native grasses (going down as much as 12 feet below the surface). Once the prairies were plowed, and a dry cycle ensued, the top four inches of so of prime soil was lost in massive dust storms, and the region has never recovered. The NGs came from destroyed lands bought by the federal government, to provide relief to the settlers. Eighty years later, the lands still have not returned to their original condition. But virtually everywhere else has been converted to agriculture or grazing, so NGs and TNC preserves are the principal areas where prairie habitats can be explored.

We were looking forward to our first real prairie site, but Caddo NG was not what we expected. It was nearly entirely forested, with a number of species of oaks predominating. We spent two days hiking, using satellite photos to locate openings in the oak forests that might have some prairie affinities, but really did not see any grassland habitat. The NG was heavily oriented to equestrians, with many miles of trails and a dedicated campground for them. We dry-camped at a trailhead and enjoyed the night-time calls of Barred and Barn Owls and Gray Treefrogs. Though we had a fun time in Caddo NG, we still had not seen any prairies.

Our next stop was over the border, near Tishomingo, Oklahoma. We camped along the Blue River, in a state hunting and fishing area, where our target was Seaside Alder (Alnus maritima). This species has a huge disjunction in its range, being found in Maryland and Delaware, and in a tiny area here, a baffling distribution. Our isolated campsite was lovely, and included a trail that ran down to the river where, sure enough, the alders were present. We stayed two nights, which allowed sufficient time for a pair of Eastern Phoebes (a common flycatcher) to start constructing a nest under our flatbed!

Common Buckeye, Blue River NE of Tishomingo OK
Common Buckeye on Plantain-leaved Pussytoes, Blue River, Tishomingo OK

We had been staying in enough campgrounds with showers that this presented our first opportunity to try our hot water heater. We did not have one on our first camper, and we were hopeful that this would make taking outdoor showers more pleasant. It worked beautifully, providing enough hot water for two showers with just 10 minutes of propane burn. Even with the showers, our 27-gallon fresh water tank lasted us 20 days since the last fill-up, though two weeks is probably more typical for us.

Castilleja indivisa, Co Rte 900, LBJ National Grassland, TX
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland

Leaving the Blue River area, we passed by Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge, and decided to take a quick look. Most wintering waterfowl had left, but there were still hundreds of Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal (small ducks) and an adult Bald Eagle. While walking the nature trail, Eileen spotted colonies of a saprophytic coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana), which we saw for the first time at Caddo NG.

Castilleja purpurea, Co Rd 910, LBJ National Grassland, TX
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea), Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland, TX.

Still having seen no prairies, we headed for Lyndon B. Johnson NG, northwest of Dallas. We arrived late to find dispersed camping, but the Black Creek Lake Campground cost one dollar per day with a federal pass, and nobody else was camped there, so we settled in. We did a nice hike from there, which passed through some pretty oak openings, and then, finally, reached an extensive open grassland. This had many beautiful native flowers in a fine display of blue, yellow, orange, pink, and white – our first real prairie! A highlight was Celestial Lily (Nemastylis geminiflora), a lovely blue flower from a bulb, and a new genus for us. Although none of the grasses had grown enough this spring to be identifiable (by us), we added six new wildflower species to our list at this one location!

Oenothera speciosa, Co Rte 900, LBJ National Grassland, TX
Prairie Primrose (Oenothera speciosa), Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland, TX

Next, we’ll he heading to Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle for three more national grassland units, where we hope to be able to identify some actual grasses …

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