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A Prairie Invitation

By Jill Martin, Metropark Interpreter

There is a bench in the prairie at Indian Springs Metropark, where if you sit sideways facing east, you can see hills of green in every direction, no roads and no buildings. These hills laid down by glaciers, some 17,000 years ago, are dotted with groups of oak trees and carpeted with an array of native prairie plants.  Technically, the area is considered an oak savanna. If you walk by in a hurry, the shades of green might all blend together into a large field and you could miss some of the amazing diversity of this place.  I invite you to sit and quietly observe the prairie from a vantage point that early settlers in this area once knew.

The first thing one might notice on this brilliantly sunny day is the contrast of the bright blue sky against the green plants and the white puffy cumulus clouds. Feel the light breeze.  Air moves freely here with so few trees to impede it, cooling one’s skin from the warm summer sun. The stems of little bluestem grass bend slightly, along with the goldenrod. The oval leaves of common milkweed bob up and down, and the elongate heart-shaped leaves of the wild bergamot quiver. Listening, you notice the many bird songs; an eastern meadowlark’s descending whistle in the tall plants to the north, a barn swallow “chirring” as it swoops past, and the “squeaky wheel” sound of a horned-lark somewhere in the distance. Then you realize there’s more than one meadowlark and they are “talking” to each other! A few more minutes and you hear the buzz of grasshopper wings and the subtle “pop” of lupine seed pods, as they ripen, flinging their seeds. A dragonfly hums by, back and forth, up and down, like a tiny helicopter fending off competitors as it searches for small insects.

Speaking of insects, a small orange and gray butterfly has just flitted past! A honey bee lands on the yellow flower of coreopsis. A small red and black milkweed bug explores a milkweed plant.  Flip the leaf over and you might see the tiny eggs of the monarch butterfly that recently drifted past. While the crickets chirp, a yellow and black giant swallowtail butterfly leisurely makes its way through.  White foamy masses on the stems of some plants give away the location of frog-hopper nymphs, the “spittlebug”, that visiting schoolchildren often ask about. The mixture of native insects, including pollinators, which can exist in the presence of these native host plants is immense.  This diverse foundation has a ripple effect, providing food for the birds and wild animals who belong here.  In the heat of the day, wild animals like deer, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, coyotes, foxes, and even the federally endangered Massasauga rattlesnake stay hidden.  Come back at sunset, or early in the morning and you might meet one of these!

Even in a few minutes time, if one can pause in this natural place, you will be treated to a view that very few people from Metro Detroit experience, one that early settlers in this area would have known by heart. We invite you to get to know the restored prairies of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks a little bit better this season. You can find them at Indian Springs, Oakwoods, Stony Creek and Kensington Metroparks.  Take a moment, observe and recharge. See you on the trail!

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