Venturing onto the Prairie
I wanted to feel the prairie, soak it in, become a part of it like I do with trees. The prairie is harder for me to connect with, perhaps because I have spent less time in prairies than trees. To truly appreciate the prairie, to be able to describe it truthfully and share it with others, I have to walk through it, explore, observe, really get to know it, immerse myself in it, become one with it, let its energy and life course through my veins.
Kellogg-Weaver Dunes is a place of interest both to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Nature Conservancy (TNC); both entities purchased large tracts of land on the dunes for restoring the native prairie and research studies. The ecosystem is rich in plant and animal diversity, it also contains several micro-ecosystems; sand prairie, oak savannah, woods, and wetlands. Currently, the DNR is interested in the population of four snake species. Knowing my love for snakes, my friend, Larry invited me to meet the supervisor of the project, Jeff, and see what they were doing.
While we were waiting for Jeff we drove very slowly along the road, watching for baby turtles crossing. Larry and I found four turtles. They were so incredibly tiny! Little feet on my skin, a little ticklish yet soft, were thrilling. Their shell was hard and rough, not as smooth as a painted turtle’s. They each still had their caruncle, an egg tooth which was used to puncture the egg shell. They were so cute. We found one turtle headed the wrong way. Three of the turtles we rescued were Blanding’s and the other was a snapping turtle. We moved the turtles off the road. We released two Blanding’s, in a pond. I kneeled down at the edge of the water and slowly released them one at a time, watching them swim away before I turned to leave them. We found two other turtles which we released them near another marsh where wild rice stood taller than me in the water near the edge.
As we went back up on the road, several pickup trucks roared past us. Larry swore about drivers going through too fast, driving far above the posted speed limit. A school bus passed by, Larry called it a turtle killer. I had the burning desire to stop the bus, get the kids off and show them the turtles and educate them on Blanding’s and why they should care about them. But of course, I did no such thing.
While driving along, we saw a beautiful rainbow north of us, one end in Minnesota the other in Wisconsin. A juvenile bald eagle flew above it. Larry pulled over the van so I could get out and take a picture. It was sad to see so many turtles ran over by cars. I can’t understand how people just don’t care at all – even with a caution sign. Larry drove slow, stopping for turtles, checking if they were alive or dead.
Soon it was time to meet Jeff; we headed back to the TNC office. Jeff was waiting for us. After briefly explaining the DNR’s interest in the snakes living on the dunes Larry asked Jeff to explain the snake project to me, what they were doing with the snakes, before we got started. He explained that the Weaver Dunes is special for its diversity of snakes: blue racer, bull snake, garter snake, eastern and western hognose snakes. Blue racer, bull snake, and western hognose snakes are on the special concern list. Blue racers are very rare, they have caught very few at the Weaver dunes. Although bull snakes are on the special concern list, they have caught a lot on these dunes. The hognose snakes are of interest for two reasons. The western is a special concern species and the Weaver Dunes is the only place in their entire range these two species are found together. Why? We don’t know the answer. The DNR was monitoring and collecting data on the snakes, learning their habits. Perhaps there will be other projects in the future that will make use of the data being collected.
Later, we walked along a firebreak. Though it had been mowed, some grasses and other plants were nearly waist high. I marveled at the loose sandy soil and the large dunes. Larry grabbed a handful of dried bergamot petals; he held them up to my nose to smell. It was a delicious smell, minty yet flowery. He also had me smell a horsemint; I could tell it was mint by its scent. Taking the time to smell the plants of the prairie would further immerse me in it.
While we were still out on the prairie, I just gazed and wondered at its beauty. The splash of colors, yellow, gold, green, brown, tan, and purple created a beautiful painting. Along with pale green, almost white of the horsemint, amber stalks of big blue stem; it was textured by a variety of plants of all different sizes. A sunburst lit the prairie and casted a gold tint to it, taking away my breath as I marveled at the splendor. It was a fantastic and educational afternoon! I left the prairie charged, full of excitement. Eagerly I waited my return.