A Year of Life in the Prairies, 2023-24

A Year of Life in the Prairies, 2023-24

It has now been a full year aerial and ground level observation of the prairies we are studying at the Southern 8ths Field Station. Observing the prairies throughout all four seasons has been a great experience. From Winter to Summer, the prairies are full of life all year.

Fireworks East

Fireworks East Prairie is an old agricultural field that was planted with Round Stone Native Seed Mix in 2019. The prairie was mowed in early spring of 2023 with two large sections left unmowed for nesting Woodcock and Quail. In late winter of 2024, unmowed sections from last year were mowed, along with other selected sections where abundant sweet gum saplings had appeared, to prevent them from crowding out and shading the new growth.

During the winter months, the plants are coated with morning frost and the sunrise dances off the ice. Beneath the tall stems of seasons past, rustling of small rodents can be heard and small birds can be observed hopping from stem to stem in search of fallen seeds. By the end of winter, temperatures begin to rise and the first green leaves of spring ephemerals begin to emerge.

By early spring, the prairie floor is full of greenery and plants such as Rattlesnake Master (E. yuccifolium), Starry Rosinweed (S. asteriscus), Lance-Leaf Tickseed (C. lanceolata), Black Eyed Susan (R. hirta), and Wild Bergamot (M. fistulosa) begin to sprout leaves and stems. The first dominant flowering plant to emerge is Small’s Ragwort (P. anonyma), part one of the yellow wave that is to come. Insects also become more active with the first active bees being observed and the prairies hum with the sounds of insects buzzing and chirping. Birds such as Robins, Mockingbirds, Bluebirds, Chickadees, and Red Winged Black Birds start to sing also and can be observed flying in and around the prairies. By the end of Spring, Small’s Ragwort becomes less prevalent in the prairies and is replaced by the next dominant flowering plant, Lance-leaf Tickseed (C. lanceolata). Other plants such as Common Yarrow (A. millefolium), Butterflyweed (A. tuberosa), Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), and Wild Quinine (P. intergrifolium) also begin to show flowers adding their whites, oranges, and pinks to the color palette.

Fireworks West

Fireworks West Prairie is an old agricultural field that was planted with Round Stone Native Seed Mix in 2019. The prairie was mowed in early spring of 2023 with a large section behind the prairie left unmowed for refuge. In late winter of 2024, a section of sweet gum saplings was removed.

Summer is peak prairie season for Carolina Wildlands and the plants that put on the biggest show in the prairies are the Black Eyed Susans (R. hirta). Black Eyed Susans bloom in droves throughout all the planted prairies and light up the landscape with their bright yellow flowers. The insects are also very active with grasshoppers, katydids, butterflies, bees, and beetles so abundant in the prairies you cannot take a single step without seeing an insect. Birds in the area such as Goldfinches, Sparrows, and Goldfinches take advantage of the abundant insect population and can be seen in and around the prairies. As Summer winds down the last of the yellow wave emerges, Starry Rosinweed (S. asteriscus). The stems reach over five feet tall, and birds are often observed perched on top searching for insects and seeds.

Steele Prairie

Steele Prairie is an old agricultural field that was planted with Round Stone Native Seed Mix in 2019. The prairie was burned in February 2023 for the first time since establishment. The neighboring prairie, Pecan Mound, was left unburned for wildlife refuge. In late winter of 2024, the prairie was mowed to prevent sweet gum and pine saplings from further establishing and allow new grasses and forbs to flourish.

In September the plants of Spring and Summer begin to brown and make way for the last dominant plants of the year, Little Bluestem (S. scoparium) and Splitbeard Bluestem (A. ternarius) grasses. These native grass species grow over four feet tall and are golden brown in color with white fluffy seed heads. By the end of Fall, the seeds begin to release. On a windy day it almost looks like it is snowing around the prairies from the number of seeds coming off the Bluestem grasses. Insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, and some bees can be observed throughout early fall but the insects that make the biggest appearance are the Orb Weaver Spiders. Orb Weaver webs can be seen anchored between the tall Bluestem grasses and throughout the forest. As cold temperatures begin to become more frequent, less insects are observed around the prairie, but their presence is still apparent through small holes in plant stems. The Bluestem grass stems persist throughout winter with their golden-brown hues becoming less vibrant but still beautiful in the morning sunlight.

Author: Brianna Bergamini

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