Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Prairie Hike

Sericea killer in a field of great blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica
Last week we made our annual hike of La Petite Gemme Prairie, spraying invasive plants in conjunction with the Missouri Prairie Foundation.  This 37 acre tract of undisturbed prairie is indeed a gem, conveniently located just outside Bolivar.  It was burned again last January, and this and the mid-summer rain has kicked it into full gear.

The grasses were over 6 feet tall, thick enough that I frequently had to yell to find Barb in the vegetation.  Most plants had bloomed already, and seed heads on the rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, and ashy sunflower, Helianthus mollis, were standing at attention.  We quickly were covered with tick trefoil, Desmodium species, and native grass seeds, dispersing them just as the plants had intended.

Skipper in the grass
Pearl Crescent butterfly

Grass skippers were flitting over the remaining small flowers, their muddled colors defying identification.  Technically they are not butterflies but a third branch of the lepidoptera group.  They "skip" around erratically and generally perch with their wings partially open at an angle.  There were also a lot of pearl crescent butterflies fluttering around searching for any nectar source and likely depositing eggs on their larval host plants, the asters.

The star of the butterflies made a brief appearance on a patch of native thistle.  This male black swallowtail appeared to be alone, nectaring to keep up his strength.  They raise multiple broods a year and he was still on the prowl, patrolling the whole prairie looking for love.  The females were undoubtedly around as there was lots of rattlesnake master and other members of the carrot family to provide food for their larvae.

We found some scattered patches of Sericea lespedeza, Lespedeza cuneata, our prime quarry as well as some scattered elm seedlings and a few early multiflora rose stems.  The prairie rose was common, hidden below the other plants, its re-curved thorns laying in wait to dig into our shins to punish us for spraying its invasive cousin.  The blooms were gone, replaced by the bright red rose hips hiding tight to the ground.

Prairie rose, Rosa setigura, in summer
Rose hips of fall

Female widow skimmer
Dragonflies were perching on the tall grass stems, not patrolling as they usually do.  This widow skimmer was taking it easy and hadn't moved for some time.  Although they usually are found around water, they occasionally stray far away.  The usually moist drainage that runs through the prairie was now dry and cracking, awaiting the next rain.

Flower fly- Click to enlarge

Finally, there were a lot of these little guys, half an inch long and doing their best to look like a dangerous yellow jacket wasp.  Not to worry - they are just Toxomerus politus, flower flies, whose larvae feed on aphids.  Undoubtedly their coloration helps protect them from predators and they gobble up their nectar.  They are stingerless and totally harmless unless you swallow one on the lip of your soft drink.

If you want to experience a prairie, La Petite Gemme is a great place to start.  It is just the right size, has both dry prairie on a hill and mesic prairie along a water drainage.  It is less than 27 minutes north of I-44 and you will have it all to yourself.  Directions and details are here.

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