Lessons from Travels: Kansas Prairies

by Carl Strang

I had heard that Kansas was the state with the best mix of high quality prairie sites, so I spent a few days touring there in June, 1999. Eastern Kansas gets enough rainfall to support tallgrass prairie, and the Flint Hills region has some good examples.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

Some Flint Hills flint. The hard stone frustrated the plow, so this region became cattle grazing country, and some expanses were grazed lightly enough that a good mix of prairie plants survived.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, part of the National Park system, is one such area. It still was being developed when I visited.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

The site is large enough to give a good feel for the big sky expanse above the spread of prairie vegetation below.

Access then was by guided tour only. I remember being struck by nighthawks roosting on the ground.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Here a small washout provided enough water, and enough of a bare-soil buffer from fire, that a tree was able to grow.

Another site worth visiting is the Konza Prairie, a preserve and research station operated by Kansas State University.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

This photo shows how trees are limited to the riparian zones of streams. The site is enormous, but only about 10 miles of trails were open to the public.

The Horsethief Canyon area provided some interesting topographic relief, along with an example of midgrass prairie on the upland plain.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

While exploring the trails, I occasionally heard the drawn-out whistles of upland sandpipers.

Finally, Cimarron National Grassland provided an excellent example of desert prairie.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

Yuccas and short grasses characterize this site.

I was impressed by the diversity of plant species, and by how subtle differences in topography and erosion made large differences in vegetation. Higher, drained areas were more desert-like, with more yuccas, sagebrush and pincushion cacti, and the plants were more widely spaced. Lower areas had more grasses and prickly pear cacti, and less bare soil.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This view down the length of the Cimarron River (dry or a trickle much of the time) again shows how trees are limited in this region.

This was paradise for orchard orioles and both eastern and western kingbirds, which nested in the trees and foraged in the prairie.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Here is another view down the length of a landscape feature, in this case the Santa Fe Trail. Even after all these decades, the trail’s route is evidenced by the different color and species composition of the plants.

Speaking of plants, here is one example.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

It seemed that the butterfly milkweeds at Horsethief Canyon, especially, were of a more intense color than this species shows in our region.

I certainly can recommend this state to anyone who wishes to get a good feel for the North American prairie biome in all its variations.

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1 Comment

  1. Hal Atherton said,

    January 30, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Hi Carl,
    I have traveled through that area. I was struck by its immensity and a deep satisfaction of not being able to see building, etc. to the horizon.
    I would love to back pack for a few days there.
    Hal


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