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Prairie critters at work in Sand Prairie

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG ± At the Marietta Sand Prairie last week, a host of critters big and small were working overtime to prepare for an upcoming fall and in due course another winter. Indiangrass is just one of the tall grass prairie grass species to be found at this unique native grassland area. It is a warm-season perennial bunchgrass and is intolerant of shade. Bring on the sun which it likes. Down low in other grasses, a red-sided garter snake was found giving its best impression of ‘don’t tread on me’ behavior. This species is harmless, unless you are an insect, worm, small mouse, frog or leech. And on the insect side of the ledger, a bumble bee was busy gathering nectar to take back to an underground nest site.

The MARIETTA SAND PRAIRIE has a lot to offer at this time of year. Native grasses have now grown to full height with prominent seed heads unveiled to the wind and sky. Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) is one of today’s featured photos. This clump was over 7 feet tall as seen against a nice blue sky (before the onset of this past week’s rainy spell). Blooming takes place in late summer to early fall as branching panicles of spikelets emerge from each tall stem. These flowers will become cross pollinated by the wind. Seeds produced, if harvested by hand or at commercial operations by machinery, will tip the scales at 175,000 seeds per pound. Indiangrass is well adapted in the United States from the southern border of Canada and from the eastern seaboard to Montana, Wyoming and Utah. It grows with renewed vitality after controlled burns.

The common garter snake has a cousin, specifically the RED-SIDED GARTER (Thamnophis sirtalis perietalis), can be found in lots of places. I came across this one at the Marietta Sand Prairie, again before the rains overtook us this week, lying on a sandy soil opening next to many small flowering forbs. From the snake’s point of view lying low and always close to the ground, a native prairie grassland is a good place to hunt for insects, frogs or whatever it can catch and swallow. Also from the snake’s viewpoint, slithering along between a wide variety of grasses must appear to this reptile like a vast jungle. Hiding itself is easy. Using it tongue to smell and its senses of sight and ability to detect tiny vibrations in the soil, allows this snake to hunt adequately. When late fall approaches, this snake and others will go into hibernation in an underground den below frost line. The den could be an abandoned coyote or fox den, or a hollow cavity complex deep inside the root bases of dead trees. A long winter of doing not much except sharing body heat with other snakes is all they have to do.

My last featured critter for the day is a bumble bee. This busy body was intent of gathering nectar at a coneflower. So while it was paying attention to its work, I was paying attention to camera settings, focus and composition to try and make a respectable image. Job accomplished. Insects like bumblebees are ground nesting insects. Somewhere in the complex of tall grasses and prairie forbs at Marietta Sand Prairie was home for this bee and its buddies. A good thing about ground nesting insects is that should a prairie fire sweep across the landscape, escape from those potentially killing flames is easy and quick via the burrow entrance. Only a few inches below ground level, fire has virtually zero effect. Ground squirrels, other rodents, insects, snakes or others just wait out the temporary above ground storm. Upon re-emerging, the landscape will appear vastly changed. This is only temporary as new growth of the prairie’s huge complex of plant life will be invigorated by the fire. Fire is some ways is equivalent to the grazing effects of wandering herds of bison passing through. Either way, by grazing or fire, prairie grasses are adapted to hot and harsh summer seasons, fall season seed production and winter survival via deer root system energy stores.

A FORESTED AREA HIKE this week was an eye-opening event. It was not unexpected. I already knew that the Aug. 10 windstorm had broken or felled lots of trees. What I did not quite realize was how tangled the mess of downed tree trunks, big and little branches was until I attempted to follow former deer trails. This hike was not easy. Crawling over and under tree branches took a bit of planning. I had to look down to find safe places to step. I had to look ahead in a sometime futile attempt to find access. I had to look up to make sure I was not moving into danger zones where a limb might be waiting to give way for its final falling. Well, I made it through. Knowing the territory from previous hikes on this public land helped. Otherwise it could be entirely possible to loose a sense of direction on a cloudy day. Visibility forward was always blocked by other downed trees. Since those trees fell with a heavy leaf cover on their limbs, now a rusty red and brown complex of dead leaves was all I could see in any direction.

I did find evidence of deer. A few piles of deer pellets (manure) told me that deer had survived the windstorm. Now they in turn have to explore their home territory so vastly changed from pre-wind storm conditions. Lots of places to hide now exist in the down tangled mess of trees and branches. Come late fall and this winter, with snow covering this injured forest, a new look will present itself to hunters or hikers, photographers or bird watchers. All must adapt.

One impressive find, and there have to be many others, was a big soft maple tree pushed over by the wind. The entire tall tree fell toward the east. In the soft floodplain silty soils where its roots had decades ago taken root, a large tree had prospered. Now as it fell, its huge root ball of intertwined anchor roots could not hold the tree upright. In one big wind gust, this tree toppled. And its root ball came out of the ground, almost, leaving a gaping hole large enough for me to crawl into if I had wanted to. I declined. Come next spring, little seedlings of maples may be waiting to take advantage of abundant sunlight. A new forest will be in the making.

Last week I noted the opening of several County Park areas. Sorry, still due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm remains closed to public use. The trails and outdoor facilities at the Grimes Farm are open. While on any trail, look down ahead and up. If you see a hazardous tree branch, call 641-752-5490 to report it so MCCB staff can attend to it.

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