Ozarks and Ouachitas

Eileen is a Civil War aficionado, and had been looking forward to visiting some battlefields she had not previously seen. So we spent the first four days after leaving Alabama touring four battlefields at Shiloh, TN; Corinth, MS; Davis Bridge, TN; and Brice’s Crossroads, MS (listed in chronological order of the battles). The National Historic Park at Shiloh is very extensive and especially interesting and scenic, and the battle there was of particular significance. A small part of the auto tour route was closed when we were there because a young Bald Eagle had prematurely left its nest, and was now being cared for by its parents on the ground, close to the road. About ten days later we also visited Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove Battlefields in northwest Arkansas.

Bald Eagle, Chewalla Lake, Holly Springs NF, MS

Our last stop before entering Arkansas was at Meeman-Shelby Forest SP, just north of Memphis, TN. Our target there was Bay Star-vine, Schisandra glabra, the only North American representative of its family. We had no info except a set of coordinates from an iNaturalist record, but once at the park and in possession of a trail map, were encouraged to find that the point did plot along one of their trails. The hike was the worst for both humidity and mosquitoes of any so far in our four months on the road, but the forest was beautiful, Cerulean Warblers were singing, and the Schisandra appeared right on schedule, the vine thriving in a humid creek bottom with some light breaking through the canopy. On the way back we found a second occurrence that was even lusher. Though not in flower yet, there were buds, which assisted in the identification (I had been fooled once before by a somewhat similar species in a purely vegetative state). With this find, our vascular plant family total reached 241 out of 254, with just one more needed to reach our goal of 95%. In the areas we plan to visit later this year, we have chances at two or conceivably three more families.

Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica), Longpool Rec. Area, Ozark NF, AR

One of our goals for this year of traveling was to see the Ozarks, a mountainous area in northern Arkansas, southern Missouri, and extreme eastern Oklahoma. While in northwest Arkansas, it also made sense to explore the Ouachita (pronounced WASH-i-taw) Mountains just to the south, on the other side of the Arkansas River Valley. It is interesting to compare these very different highland areas that are so close to one another. The Ouachitas originated as part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, but became separated and rotated while shifting father west, so that they now run east and west (similar to the Transverse Ranges of southern California, which also began as normal north and south-running chains, but rotated due to tectonic plate activity, and now run east and west). The Ouachita flora overlaps quite a bit with that of the southern Appalachians.

Ovenbird with food for young, Mount Magazine SP, Ouachita Mtns., AR

In contrast, the Ozarks are not really a mountain chain in the conventional sense, but rather are a heavily dissected upland region. Uplift created a dome, which eroded to expose concentric rings of rock, the oldest in the center. In addition to the general erosion, which wore down the entire dome somewhat evenly, streams cut a dense network of steep valleys, leaving flat-topped ridges as the highest areas. The Ozark flora includes a number of endemics (species found nowhere else), and though it overlaps quite a bit with that of the Appalachians, it also has considerable representation of species from father west.

Timber Rattlesnake, White Rock area, Ozark NF, AR

A tally of our recent lifers is consistent with the expectation that we should find more new species new in the Ozarks. Although the sample size is small for the Ouachitas, we averaged only about 1½ new species per day there, a rather low rate, compared to about 3 species per day in the Ozarks as a whole, which is decent. We had some difficulties getting leads on the best locations in the Arkansas Ozarks, in part because a flat tire caused us to miss a field trip of the Arkansas Native Plant Society, where we would undoubtedly have gotten some good advice. But we did a little better in the Missouri and Oklahoma Ozarks, and averaged about 4 new species per day there.

Nuttall’s Sensitive-Briar (Mimosa nuttallii), J. T. Nickel TNC Preserve, OK

A few of the highlights from our three weeks in the region were as follows. Within the Arkansas Ozarks, three locations were notable.  We saw a very good assortment of plants at the Longpool Recreation Area, including the striking Wild White Indigo (Baptisia alba). Along limestone ledges above War Eagle Creek, in Withrow Springs State Park, there were three species of Sedums and Calamint (Clinopodium arkansana). We last saw the latter in barren limestone alvar habitat in Ontario; this species might get my nomination for having the most beautifully fragrant foliage of any native North American plant. Lastly, we had a delightful 16-mile paddle down the Buffalo National River, with 44 species of birds detected while canoeing, but were chased off our riverside campsite that night at 3:00 a.m. by a long, intense rainstorm that led to flash flood warnings.

American Painted Lady on Purple Coneflower, Glade Top Trail, Mark Twain NF, MO

In the Ozarks, but outside Arkansas, two locations stood out. The J. T. Nickel Preserve, administered by The Nature Conservancy, and located northeast of Tahlequah, OK, had good interpretive trails and some nice plants. And we greatly enjoyed a lovely scenic drive on the Glade Top Trail, Mark Twain NF, MO, which had a suite of interesting plants like Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus) on the limestone glades, especially near and in the Caney Picnic Area. Finally, in the Ouachitas, with help from a local ranger, we finally located the rare Maple-leaved Oak (Quercus acerifolium) on Mt. Magazine; there are only four populations with a total of about 450 trees in the world, all in this one mountain range.

Fowler’s Toad, Taum Sauk Mountain SP, MO

Our exploration of the Ozarks and Ouachitas was somewhat curtailed by the weather. Whereas we had been lucky in Florida, where March was much nicer than usual (and even nicer then February) – allowing us to extend our stay – we were unlucky in “western southeast”, where summer weather arrived three or four weeks earlier than usual. For the last month we have been enduring consistently high humidity (often 97% or above at night) and high temperatures (high 80s to low 90s, only dropping to around 70F at night). Under such conditions, we need to run fans with the windows open, but on some nights, tiny bugs capable of crawling through the camper’s mesh window screens, have swarmed in towards the slightest light, even a Kindle set at its lowest brightness. It’s interesting that in the roughly five months we have been on the road, we have experienced two deviations from average seasonal timing of perhaps a month each. Given our current discomforts, we have started a bit earlier than planned, to make our way east toward the higher elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Luna Moth, Taum Sauk Mountain SP, MO

2 thoughts on “Ozarks and Ouachitas

  1. Hi guys, I hope your summer is fantastic. Ralph wanted to let you know that we got the thermal imager model that you had in Panama. We are taking it with us to Colorado to see what mammals or birds we might discover.

    If you find yourself in Dallas be sure to call us!! -Valerie and Ralph-

    From Valerie Dimond



    1. Hi, Valerie, it’s good to hear from you. Hope the thermal scope works well for you. You and Ralph should have a great time in Colorado — it’s a fantastic destination! Take care, Brian & Eileen


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