Flood and Famine

From the Osage Hills in northeast Oklahoma, described in the last post, we headed across southeast Kansas. We’ve only run out of gas twice in the 30 years we’ve been married, but this was an extremely rural area, and when we finally reached a station, the truck’s display indicated only 9 miles to empty. Our next gas stop was so far off the beaten path that they only accepted cash, which we don’t carry any more – we had to get it from a stash we keep in the truck for odd situations like this one. In response to this gasoline famine, we now start looking for gas at 120 miles to empty (formerly 80).

Reaching Prairie State Park, in southwest Missouri, we found a cute, 4-site campground in a nice bottomland woods, and wrote a check to cover 5 nights. The next day I sampled plants in the campground in the morning, then we headed for the Shelton L. Cook Meadow Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The tallgrass prairie there was filled with colorful wildflowers and we spent an absolutely glorious afternoon traipsing through the meadow. Like many TNC prairie preserves, there are no actual trails, but you are free to wander.

Carolina Wren, Prairie SP, MO
Carolina Wren, Prairie State Park, MO

That morning, the ranger advised us of major storms coming, and recommended we leave after one more night. But then she woke us at 1 a.m. to tell us we should leave immediately as the water in a stream crossing was up to the headlights of her four-wheel-drive truck! We quickly broke camp and forded the creek, which was not only deep but had a strong current. We spent the rest of the night camped in their maintenance area, and then given the dismal long-term forecast, decided to leave the area for a few days.

Dodecatheon meadia, TNC Shelton L. Cook Meadow Preserve, MO
Shooting-Star (Dodecatheon meadii), TNC’s Shelton L. Cook Meadow, MO

So we headed for Bennett Spring State Park, in central Missouri, much the easternmost site we would visit during our 5-month Prairies Trip. The sordid truth is that this location is east of the prairies and really does not belong in a grassland itinerary, but I had included it because we were so close to the Ozark Mountains that I hated not visiting them. We arrived in the late afternoon in rain, but managed to see some migrants like Blackpoll and Tennessee Warblers. The next day was a one-day window of good weather. In the morning we visited an upland oak savanna secured and donated to the park by TNC, and in the afternoon took a great hike on the Savannah Ridge Trail. It was a joy to see so many eastern plants again, and half a dozen were entirely new. The next day the rain was light so we hiked with umbrellas in the riparian forests, enjoying birds such as Prothonotary Warbler.

Bennett Spring is one of the largest springs in the state, with an average flow of 100 million gallons – per day! The water just wells up from the ground and forms a sizeable tributary of the Niangua River. Missouri has even larger springs, courtesy of its extensive limestone bedrock. When rain falls through the atmosphere, it absorbs carbon dioxide, some of which reacts with the water to make a weak carbonic acid solution. This dissolves limestone, and can lead to extensive caves, sinkholes, and underground rivers. It’s always exciting to visit such karst topography, which often is scenic and has interesting plants. One of the most exciting we saw was Cystopteris tennesseensis, a rare fern species of hybrid origin. Ferns are quite genetically malleable and hybridization events not infrequently lead to new populations that become self-sustaining species.

By the time we left Bennett Spring State Park, the bridge we came in on was closed because of flooding. We headed back to southwest Missouri for another attempt to see tallgrass prairie sites there. Everywhere we drove the creeks had become rushing rivers and the rivers had filled their floodplains. Flooding was so bad in the Joplin area that we had some trouble getting Eileen to church, and we could not make it to the campsite we selected … then we had trouble even getting to the next town! (We understand that eventually the National Guard was called out.) Finally, we pulled into a county park in southeast Kansas to ride out the storms.

Pileated Woodpecker, Bennett Spring State Park, MO

Although it did not rain the entire next day as predicted, the winds were so high that it was not worth going anywhere, and we left the camper parked, using gaps between the rain storms to catch up on our steps. For general health, we try to maintain a running average of 10,000 steps per day (about 3.5 miles), using pedometers to keep track. If paddling, we use a GPS to keep track of distance and credit steps based on mileage. We rarely fall very far behind, and typically only allow a “reset” after a significant illness. But the weather had been so bad that we had gotten uncomfortably far behind, and it was good to get caught up.

Our next scheduled location was the TNC Marmaton River Bottom Preserve, but the roads leading to the preserve were massively flooded. We considered canoeing the roads to reach the preserve, but the winds were too high, and the (this is ironic) “wet prairie” habitat we hoped to see would likely have required snorkeling gear. The next morning there were a number of newly arrived migrant songbirds in our campsite, including Palm Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Lark Sparrow. Returning to Prairie State Park (where we had had to abandon the campground in the middle of the night due to flooding), we found the prairies to be very wet and hard to hike, but the birding was exciting. Standing in one spot we had three uncommon and quintessential grassland species: Dickcissel, Henslow’s Sparrow, and Sedge Wren. Nearby was a singing Bell’s Vireo; I had not encountered this eastern subspecies before. It was truly a fine day in the field!

Dickcissel, Prairie SP, MO
Dickcissel, Prairie State Park, MO

Next time: return to central Kansas for more shorebirding.

Locations mentioned in this post.

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