Loveliness on the Tall Grass Prairie – Day 16

I think yesterday was so lovely I didn’t have room to tell you all about it.

Let’s backtrack just a bit.  I crossed the Mississippi River, heading west. The river forms a notional boundary between the forest area (to the east) and the Great Plains (to the west). Obviously it’s not a hard and fast border but by crossing the Mississippi I was leaving the main former land of the passenger pigeon.

That tells you that my book starts with the passenger pigeon but doesn’t end there.  So the next three weeks or so will take me, and any readers who are coming along, to the Rockies (which I can see from my hotel room right now), Yosemite, the Pacific and back through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas.

But I did want to see some Tall Grass Prairie – and that’s why I came to Kansas.  Like American coffee sizes, there are three sizes of Prairie; Tall Grass Prairie, Regular Prairie and Short Grass Prairie (one of those is a made-up name).  And the Tall prairie is the easternmost for reasons of soil and climate whereas two years ago when I visited the Little Bighorn that was short prairie.

The main thing about all types of prairie is that most of it is gone.  But the best bit of Tall Grass Prairie is in the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma.  So, I came to Kansas and arrived after a long drive at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, KS where I met the lovely Danielle.

Danielle had a nice smile, lots of information and was very helpful.  She told me that the film was going to start soon and that it was really cool because it had snow in it.  I thought this was a slightly odd thing to get excited about.

The film was really great.  One entered a cinema style room with a cinema-sized screen but fewer seats.  There were about 10 of us there.  The film was truly excellent and just the right length for people of a limited attention span like the two kids present and me.

And when the wind blew in the film it blew in the cinema too – and it came from the right direction!  And when the prairie burned, smoke poured across the floor and with it a burning smell – that was cool.  And when it snowed, white stuff fell from the ceiling – now I see why I was supposed to get excited about the snow.  Danielle had correctly gauged my intellectual level – I liked the smoke and smell of burning best though.

I looked around the display and made some notes.

You remember that in “Oh what a beautiful morning’, from Oklahoma (and OK is just south of here) the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye? Well in the Flint Hills the Big Bluestem (grass) is 10 feet high and has roots that go down to 12 feet.  That’s the secret of the prairie – that’s how native grasses cope with drought and fire (most of them is underground).

Danielle gave me information about where to go and what I could see that was really useful.  She was clearly amazed that anyone from England would be so keen as I was to visit the Discovery Center and then see some Tall Grass Prairie – but this was one of the more planned parts of this trip.  She also made a note of this blog’s address.  She was lovely.  Although, she hadn’t been to the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve – tut tut, Danielle.

But I did! I left Manhattan at about 515pm and was talking to an elderly couple who had just finished their walk at about 630pm.  I went for a walk and the place was full of  birds.  There were yellow-billed cuckoos and upland sandpipers from the road and then eastern meadowlarks (even though we are getting west now) and dickcissels in the prairie.  Dickcissels were everywhere – they are finchy things – and were a new bird for me.

As I came back to the car I talked to the lovely Wendy who works at the center at the TGPNP.  She was just leaving work, at around 730 and she was really helpful too.  She asked about my ‘hike’ and told me about the opening hours and various other stuff but she also told me where I could get a room and that probably saved me money and certainly saved me time at this end of this day and the start of the next.  But Wendy hadn’t been to the Flint Hills Discovery Center – I told her it was very good and to ask for Danielle.

So I checked into the Prairie Fire Motel and asked where I might get a meal and they said to try the Longhorn Saloon in Strong City.  Longhorn Saloon sounded very western.  But Strong City is a tiny town and it doesn’t look very strong to me.  In fact it looks rather quiet and not likely ever to get noisy again.  But it is rather pretty and it has cottonwoods that are lovely, and flying over the cottonwoods was a Mississippi kite which was my third lifer of the day (back-b cuckoo, dickcissel and M kite).

The Longhorn Saloon said it closed at 8pm and it was now 755pm so my hopes weren’t high of getting a meal but the lovely Alex (who completes the set of Lovely Joyce, Lovely Danielle and Lovely Wendy) said it was fine and they’d get me something.  So I had a fireburger, fries and salad.  Alex was slim and young – very slim and very young compared with all other waitresses so far referred to in this blog.  We had a quick chat and she said they would be open for breakfast at 8 so I thought I might see her again – although the note on the door said they opened at 10 on Fridays.

Anyway, that’s the catch-up on yesterday’s loveliness.

This morning I woke quite early and was walking the trails back at the TGPNP at 7am.  It had rained overnight and was misty and cloudy – and very humid.  There were meadowlarks and dickcissels again, and a water snake swam in a pond.

A bearded young man in a vehicle stopped to talk to me.  I noticed his equipment and asked what he was radio-tracking and got the reply – prairie chickens.  Along with dickcissels and meadowlarks these are the ‘signature’ birds of these prairies (but, to remove the suspense – I didn’t see any (but to re-inject the suspense – I did see something…)).

The walk was good for me, and I enjoyed it.  I was surrounded by grass – Tall Grass Prairie.  Not very tall at this time of year but give it a couple 0f months and you’ll see…

The bearded biologist had told me that there were grasshopper sparrows here. II thanked him but said I’d probably ignore them as life was too short for sparrows. He looked slightly shocked so he’ll be glad to know that I did indeed look at some, and hear many more.

The bearded biologist was waving his aerial about as I passed him at the top of a hill.  I carried on walking and wondered when to turn back.  And then I saw something (this isn’t ‘the’ something but we are getting close).  The something was a bison.

Bison have been introduced here and I didn’t expect to see them but here was one and it was with about 20 others – almost all the bison in the Preserve in fact – the other one was probably over the horizon.

Bison are big – really big.  I’ve seen them before and I like them.  The herd was grazing its way up the slope slowly.  I was about 200 hundred yards away so it was a good view.  I didn’t want to disturb them so this was where I would turn around but for some reason I took a couple of paces forward and saw a mother bison with a very young calf (which isn’t the ‘something’ either – but we are very close now).

Bison calves are lovely.  And that’s what the three coyotes (they are the something) which were staring at the calf seemed to think too.  One was standing and the other two lying down – but all were looking at the calf.  The calf didn’t seem to mind and its mother didn’t either –  so I didn’t.

The standing coyote seemed more wily than the others and looked at me, looked at the bison calf, looked at me again and then lollopped off over the nearby horizon.  The other two sat for a while and then followed at their leisure.  I wondered whether the calf had been born overnight and the coyotes were waiting to eat the afterbirth but that’s just a guess.

Coyote was a new mammal for me and baby bison was lovely, and old bison were special too.  There was a spring in my step as I walked back.  I reported the bison calf in the office and they said that was the first sighting of the year but they’d been expecting it.

I left to look for breakfast at 9am – what an excellent start to the day.  I wasn’t surprised that the Longhorn Saloon was shut, so I couldn’t tell Alex about the baby bison, but nothing could dampen my spirits.

It was time to drive west again.  As I left the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve I almost wished I paid US taxes so that my money could be supporting such a fine site: a remnant grassland that covered huge areas but was now almost restricted to the Flint Hills.  Go on Danielle – go and have a look! And Wendy – go visit the Discovery Center up the road in Manhattan.  I found it worth coming 5000 miles to see how lovely you both are (and Joyce (yesterday) and Alex) but I’ll remember the grassland, its birds, its bison and its coyotes for ever.






8 Replies to “Loveliness on the Tall Grass Prairie – Day 16”

  1. What a “lovely” start to the day! A nice reminder that USofA not all bad. Thanks Mark.

  2. Fascinating as always. And partly for the mention of the young man who was not worthy of a name, but the “lovely” ladies who are! I wonder what the lovely Jen (Avery, daughter) would say about that! 😉

  3. The cinema sounds like a great interactive experience, lucky it wasn’t the Texas Chainsaw massacre!
    I’ve got to play devil’s advocate here a bit now though with a couple of questions
    1)With the flights and all the travelling in a car and the vast distances covered as a consevationist how do you off set the carbon footprint? Obvioulsy you’ll use a tree planting scheme of some sorts but whom do you use? Have you calculated your carbon footprint and would a diesel or hybrid car have made the footprint smaller?
    2) With so much of the prairie’s disappearing (you never stated why they’re vanishing by the way and I’m clueless) why re-introduce the Bison?

    1. Douglas, I think that the prairie grasslands have largely been lost to agriculture. As to why re-introduce Bison I guess that if the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve provides sufficient remaining habitat to support a population then reintroducing them it would seem like a worthwhile thing to do like reintroducing red kites or sea eagles over here. The bison would be an important part of the prairie ecosystem so their absence from it would itself be a factor leading to vegetation changes and potential decline of the habitat.

  4. Once again happily transported to the faraway sounds of the birds, ladies and tall grasslands by the ethernet. We’re all much obliged.

  5. ‘Life is too short for sparrows’ was the attitude that I had on my first few visits to the USA. I guess it’s because we Europeans are only used to those of the Passer genus. But eventually I came to realise that there are lots of different American ‘sparrows’ and that they fill virtually all of the niches taken here by larks, pipits and buntings, which are largely missing in North America.

    So, Mark, my advice would be to forget the name ‘sparrow’, think of them as one big group covering most of the grassland niches, and enjoy those birds!

  6. A few years ago I went to California, near Sacramento to visit family. On that trip (where I annoyed most people by being obsessed by the birds – which were colourful, largely easy to see and very satisfying to watch) I went on a morning educational trip on the subject of prairie grass and vernal pools. They told us that these vernal pools, which are wet in the winterand spring and therefore don’t support most agriculture, where the only places left in the State/Country (I can’t remember which) where native grass species grew. I found that very hard to believe, but it appears to be a similar story to the one you are giving us too. I think they were also saying that introduced grass species, introduces for agricultural purposes were the reason for the disappearance of the native sp. It seems quite amazing that there is still apparently so much wildlife in the USA despite such wholesale loss of native species and habitat.

    Enjoying the daily stories. Envious of the bird watching, not of the driving.

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