Thursday, September 6, 2012

Drier Prairie

My original plan was to post about the improved conditions on the prairies following the rains created by the remnants of Isaac that passed through over the Labor Day weekend.  Unfortunately, the total accumulation for the four day event came to one tenth of one inch of rain.  I’m beginning to think we live beneath a rain excluding bubble.  Within ten miles of us in any direction, the rainfall totals for that same period were between two and five inches.  So, the prairies are drier than ever and I’m left wondering by how much this year is going to beat our standing drought record.

Besides being abnormally short, the prairie grasses are having trouble remaining upright.  I’m sure they’ve drawn about all the moisture they can from the shallow soil.  By mid-day the grass is so wilted that it drapes itself across the ground like thin plastic ribbons.

The Reindeer Lichen turns to dust beneath my boots.  I avoid the areas with a predominantly lichen ground cover, but there’s enough lichen scattered through the grass to make a loud crunch every time I take a step.  Fortunately, the Reindeer Lichen regenerates quickly during the rainy season.  The crushed pieces travel with wind and water to establish lichen colonies in other suitable areas.  Even so, I prefer when the lichen is moist and springy.  Then you can travel through the tall grass in almost total silence.

At this time of year the grass should be taller and greener.  I shouldn’t have such a clear view of the ant mounds in September.

A new brood of Allegheny Mound Ants has hatched and the spent cocoons have been discarded atop the mound.   That event is typically followed by new excavation and a fresh exterior being added to the mound.  By the time winter arrives, the mounds are contoured so that rainfall and snow melt flow right off.  There is some new material being brought to the surface, but it’s so dry it can’t be used for any sort of mound repairs.  The winter mounds may look a bit shabby if we don’t get some rain soon.

This slope should be covered with eight foot tall Big Bluestem, but maximum height now is closer to 30 inches.  A few super short Orange Coneflowers and Western Sunflowers stand tall among the dwarfed grass.

Western Sunflower on this site usually sends up a divided flower stalk that produces anywhere from three to nine blooms.  The few plants that bloomed this year were able to produce just a single flower.  These plants do most of their expansion by vegetative means, so the loss of a seed crop is not a disaster.  It’s the birds that will lose on this deal.  Western Sunflower seeds are a favorite of many bird species and this is just one more source of food that will not be available this coming winter.

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