Scissor-tailed flycatcher (Photo by John Cassady)

Scissor-tailed flycatcher (Photo by John Cassady)

My second trip to Kansas this year spanned the days of June 17-19 and it was in Manhattan, home of Kansas State University and Konza Prairie. My institutional host was the Northern Flint Hills Audubon Society, but the three people who actually made sure the trip went swimmingly were Cindy Jeffry of KSU’s communications and marketing department, MJ Morgan of KSU’s history department (her dissertation and a subsequent book was about the French exploration of the Illinois River country: we had some fun time discussing early Midwest natural history), and Margy Stewart (a retired history professor from Washburn University).

MJ and her spouse Ron (an entomologist) met me at the airport and we headed to a most remarkable museum which anchors Manhattan’s downtown development. It is the Flint Hills Discovery Center which is all about the Flint Hills, the largest area of unplowed tall grass prairie in the United States. Due to shallow soil over limestone and chert, corn and wheat farming proved difficult and cattle ranching became the agricultural mainstay. This spared the land from being plowed and discouraged a surge of settlers. As a result, “the Flint Hills represent the last expanse of intact tallgrass prairie in the nation” (Wikipedia).

Flint outcroppings underling the shallow soils of the Fling Hills.

Flint outcroppings underneath the shallow soils of the Flint Hills.

Any visitor to the discovery center needs to see the introductory film. MJ called it fourth dimensional so I hesitated drinking water from the fountain, thinking that might be the source of this perception. But she was right: smoke from burning prairies depicted on the screen billows up from the stage. As we are treated to the prairie throughout the year, winter brought flakes of snow wafting from the ceiling: and a few minutes later it had all “melted,” leaving nary a trace.

The Morgans drove out of town to deposit me at the Stewarts. They own and manage the Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge,  a 320 acre section of the Flint Hills that is maintained as a working cattle farm and native prairie preserve. The refuge also offers accommodations, and I was put up at The Guest House, a lovely place a half mile off the paved road and situated in a wooded swale. It features most all of the modern conveniences plus an extensive tract of unplowed prairie a short walk away. Early that evening we  went for a tour of the land with an ORV across the prairie. The scent of crushed bergamot and sage mingled into an olfactory delight.

Exploring the Stewart's prairie at dusk.

Exploring the Stewart’s prairie at dusk.

The next day Cindy, MJ, and one other took me to the Konza Prairie Biological Station.  I had long heard of this place and I was excited to see it. It consists of  3,487 hectares of native prairie and “is dedicated to a three-fold mission of long-term ecological research, education, and prairie conservation.  It is a unique outdoor laboratory that provides opportunities for the study of tallgrass prairie ecosystems and for basic biological research on a wide range of taxa and processes.”Because thesite is so big, scientists can leave sections unburned studying the replace of grasses and forbes with shrubs and trees; or they can burn frequently to see what impacts that has. Prairies out here in IL are so small you could never conduct research like this.

A Konza Prairie vista.

A Konza Prairie vista.

The tall grass prairies of Kansas are different from the prairies east of the Mississippi and not only in size of surviving remnants. We get more precipitation and the geographic distance means there are different, though analogus, species. In northeastern Illinois  we have two kinds of wild indigo (Baptisia) while a third is very rare and local. In the Flint Hills that have at least one I was unfamiliar with, blue wild indigo. I was even more surprised with a gorgeous milkweed I had never seen before, spider milkweed, aka green antelope horn.

Spider milkweed.

Spider milkweed.

The last day turned out to be pretty amazing. I had the morning unplanned so before light I walked out to the prairie up the hill from the house. I had a good view of the Flint Hills as they were slowly illuminated by the rising sun. Bird song on the grassland was sparse, except for the persistent songs of eastern meadowlarks and dickcissels riding on the dawn breezes. On my way back, I tarried in the woods and was treated to a male summer tanager who sang vociferously from an exposed perched. A  bit of modernity intervened when I realized that my phone could get a signal from higher on the hill and not in the hollow where the house is: there had been a curve-billed thrasher at Montrose, on the Chicago lakefront (second state record, the first of which I did not see.) A little later Margey was taking me to the airport, a twenty minute drive that passed a scissor-tailed flycatcher on a telephone wire.

Sun rise over the Flint Hills.

Sun rise over the Flint Hills.

Cindy picked me up at O’Hare and we took Irving Park to Montrose. Some other people were looking for the thrasher too with no luck. We were chatting with Josh Engle and Amanda Zeigler when Evan Graff spotted the bird. It was easy to see- “next to thst white plastic bag”- and all was good.

Curve-billed thrasher at  Montrose (photo by Geoff Williamson).

Curve-billed thrasher at Montrose (photo by Geoff Williamson).


2 Comments to “To The Flint Hills”

  1. Camila says:

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. How in the world did you find it, pearhps by searching for flint hills, or what. I LOVE the flint hills of Kansas, so does my husband. While driving from Colorado I anxiously anticipate seeing the first change in the countryside. I love those rolling hills and always have the desire to mount up and gallop across them (not that I can do that anymore). Then driving back across, I feel the same way. I love your site and will visit again. We went through Independence but we were a week or so early.

  2. Joel says:

    Thanks for your comments. I love prairies too so it was a real joy to have visited the largest area of extant tall grass prairie.

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