Nature’s art revealed at Sand Prairie

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG - The seed heads a partially dispersed Yellow Goat’s Beard illustrate the fine architecture of each “parachute.” When the yellow flower has bloomed, which this one has, the result soon afterwards is a 3-inch diameter ball of these super light weight wind dispersal elements. The plant has a smooth stem and grass-like leaves about 12 inches long. A mature plant can be anywhere from one to three feet tall. It can be found throughout temperate North America. This plant is not a native specimen, however it does like areas where disturbances have happened in the past. It is common but not obnoxious. To find this plant and many others, take a hike through the Marietta Sand Prairie located on Knapp Avenue about 1.5 miles north of county road E-29.

A YELLOW GOAT’S BEARD (Tragopogon dubius) is today’s special plant to learn about, a colorful plant of grasslands. It is of European origin however, and is not a native.

Still it seems to find a niche where it can carry on its business of life. This specimen with its partially dispersed seed head was observed at the Marietta Sand Prairie. In fact, there is so much to see at this site, both for its restored prairie and its adjacent native tall grass prairie preserve. To do justice to a walk-about of this terrific land area, one would need several volumes of Iowa native plant identification guides. Or, better yet, attend a guided tour of the area this summer when a trained botanist is there to help name any of the more than 250 plants growing at this sandy soil site.

The original 17 acres was acquired in 1983 with the much appreciated assistance of one benevolent donor. The area was well known prior to that time for its wealth of native plants growing in unique sandy soils with a mixture of wetland and boggy habitats. An inventory of the plant species found there by botanists soon confirmed that it was a true remnant sand prairie. By the time a full inventory list was made and submitted to the Marshall County Conservation Board, it became a priority for acquisition. Tall grass prairies occupy less than one-tenth of one percent of Iowa land areas. Sand Prairies are even more rare.

Iowa has a fair number of very unique land forms that qualify for special status and acceptance as an Iowa Preserve. This is no easy task. But once all the documentation is in place, and interest cultivated among those folks who know when a very rare and unique landform has been identified, additional steps can be made to nominate the land parcel for inclusion as an Iowa State Preserve. Marshall County is fortunate in this regard to become the managers/owners of the site on behalf of the State Preserves system. It is a good fit. A State Preserve designation places such and area into a very highly protected legal status because of the rarity of its

botanical and biological habitats.

Several decades later, the balance of this sandy soil farm was purchased with generous assistance from Iowa’s Habitat Stamp program and many generous donations from philanthropic citizens of the surrounding area. In addition, wildlife organizations such as Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited added generous funds to the project. This addition of 212 acres now joined the existing 17 acres of the original acquisition. Those seventeen acres remain in the Preserves system. The additional lands are not of preserve status but still quite valuable as a buffer and expansion of grassland habitat. A big grassland like this is an upland game stronghold.

Another unique segment of the Sand Prairie is a special portion of a side hill where water slowly percolates to the surface. Within these special boggy conditions, a whole new set of plants find the area to their liking. Botanists have found many very rare and in some cases living examples of endangered plants thriving in these watery conditions. The fen is located about one-fourth mile east of the north parking lot. If one desires to hike into the fen, wear waterproof boots, have adequate insect repellent, long sleeved shirts and perhaps a head net. These factors are just part of what is needed to investigate the unique plant life of a fen.

A transition of these very sandy soils took place with planned seedings of native grasses and forbs over the next ten years. Active management is still on-going with some former fields getting “frost seedings” when the seeds for a new prairie were disbursed via a tractor and seed hopper while driving a pattern over snow covered land. The tractor tracks in the snow allowed the operators to know where they had driven. Once the fields was seeded in one direction, a new crossing pattern made sure no area was left out. The idea of frost seeding allows millions of various seeds to lay upon the snow ands slowly drop toward the soil surface as snows melted when spring weather arrived. Self planting took place. It worked.

Another management tool involves periodic controlled fire. A plan for burning various segments is mapped out. Fire lanes mowed the previous summer to provide a way for controlling a fire line to burn what is desired for that year. In general, a three year rotation is desired whereby one-third of the total land area may get burned in any one year. This system helps duplicate nature’s variety of disturbances which were common throughout the Midwest prior to settlement.

To learn more about the Sand Prairie, obtain a brochure for the site from the MCCB office located at the Grimes Farm and Conservation Center.

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Marshall County IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE will have its final Hunter Education Class at the Ikes grounds on Aug. 16 and 18. The first class of 23 youth attended and experienced the wisdom of elders telling of all the aspects of safety related to shooting sports. It was fun. Many of the youth had never held a .22 rifle to shoot at targets. Some had never held a 20 gauge shotgun to try their hand a braking a clay target thrown at 42 miles per hour out of a launcher. Many had never seen or experienced archery as a serious hunting endeavor. These were just a few of the topics covered in the class and field for hunter safety. Youth interested in attending the August class must pre-register at the DNR website.

Did you know: Hunters through their purchase of firearms and ammunition, or archers buying bow and arrows, contribute nationally to benefit wildlife conservation. Since 1939, over $5.6 billion has been available to the states for conservation programs. Did you know that fishermen/women, hunter pay for most wildlife conservation programs via licenses and stamp fees? Did you know that the average hunter spends $1,638 non their sport? There are more than 38 million Americans that hunt and/or fish. On average, hunters across America collectively spent 282 million days in the field each year. Did you know that more Americans hunt than play golf? The fastest growing segment for hunting gear sales are teenage girls? Research shows that 72 percent more women are hunting with firearms today than just five years ago? And 50 percent more women are now target shooting. These statistics are from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation report.

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“Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.”

— Nikola Tesla, inventor, engineer and physicist.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.