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On the Trail: Seeking out prairie in southern Illinois

  • More prairie colors

    More prairie colors

  • The colorful Rothrock Prairie at the Oakland Nature Preserve in Carbondale.

    The colorful Rothrock Prairie at the Oakland Nature Preserve in Carbondale.

  • A spider web hangs in the morning dew at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.

    A spider web hangs in the morning dew at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.
    Mike Baltz photos

By Mike Baltz
Contributing Writer
updated: 10/16/2020 7:13 AM

If you're looking for a place to hike this fall, definitely make an effort to get out to some kind of a prairie before the first frost! The fall prairie flowers are bright, and colorful and so are the butterflies and birds that you'll find out there.

While Illinois is officially the Prairie State, exceedingly little original prairie still exists. Prairies once covered 21.6 million acres in the state. Today, only a little over 6,000 acres of prairie remains, and almost none of that is undisturbed.

That said, there are prairie restoration efforts worth visiting around southern Illinois, including the Rothrock Prairie at Green Earth Inc.'s Oakland Nature Preserve on North Oakland Avenue, and a prairie trail along the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Drive.

I recently visited both sites at different times of the day and hiked the short trails there.

The Rothrock Prairie at the Oakland Nature Preserve is the first thing you see when parking at the site. It is a postage stamp of a restoration effort sandwiched between forested land along what used to be a railroad track.

I visited this site in the afternoon and there was a lot of butterfly and bee activity on the goldenrod and purple asters on the edge of the habitat. The eye-high flowers provided a perfect opportunity to spend quality time watching and appreciating the insect traffic that seems nonstop at these flowers.

The prairie restoration at Crab Orchard, just across from the Harmony Trail parking area, is a much larger restoration effort than the Rothrock Prairie, perhaps 10 acres. A wide, mowed path leads you on a short loop through the site.

If you visit the Crab Orchard Prairie in the morning, like I did, make sure to wear rubber boots and bring a pair of binoculars. The grass will be wet with dew, but that same dew is perfect for making spider webs especially photogenic. And there will no doubt be a lot of birds dipping into and out of sight as they feed on the prairie plant seeds and insects.

Technically, there never were extensive prairies in southern Illinois, like there were in the northern two-thirds of the state. Rather, southern Illinois had hill prairies, island-like patches of prairie vegetation, usually on dry, south-facing bluff-tops. Like all prairie habitats in the state, native hill prairies are barely hanging on in a few places around here. (Visit the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website for more information on our hill prairies.)

And while a "prairie purest" might take exception to some of the efforts down here to (re)create prairies, a nature-loving birdwatcher like me has no problem with the habitat that is being created.

Voltaire is attributed with saying some version of "don't let perfect be the enemy of good." And in a state where we have lost almost all of our native prairie habitats, I don't think the butterflies, bees, spiders or birds care too much about getting prairie restoration perfect.

• Mike Baltz has a PhD in biology from the University of Missouri and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.

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