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Hot wind swept across the prairie grass. Under the blazing sun, that stiff breeze was more than welcome. I’d never visited the Douglas County Wildlife Area, but decided I needed to see it before giving a talk at Barrens Fest organized by the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary. I felt instantly drawn to the park-like quality of the pine barrens. This 4,005-acre site includes the Solon Springs Sharptail Barrens State Wildlife Area and is managed by the WDNR in partnership with Douglas County. It is one of the best sharp-tailed grouse habitats in Wisconsin.
Sharp-tailed grouse need a variety of habitat types throughout the year. In spring, they use the short-grass prairie for their dancing leks. Nests are often hidden under dense shrubs and tall grasses from the previous year. The hens raise their chicks in areas where shrubs provide shade and conceal them from aerial predators, and short grasses and other plants provide plenty of insects to eat. Winter brings the need for dense cover and edge habitat to provide thermal insulation and relief from incessant winds.
By managing the landscape for the year-round needs of this iconic species, we end up providing unique habitat for a wonderful diversity of other plants, insects, and animals.
The delicate pink blossom of a wild rose was first to greet me as I began to explore around the historic clubhouse. As the state flower of Iowa, where I grew up, wild rose has always had a special place in my heart. From the coast of Maine to the Black Hills, the Boundary Waters and beyond, I can find this familiar flower almost anywhere I travel. There are several species of wild rose just in Wisconsin, each with their own habitat preferences. I don’t know which species this was, but it didn’t matter. Its presence immediately made this new place feel a little more familiar and welcoming.
This is common theme in my life. Wherever I travel, I’m able to find familiar plants (and birds as well) that foster my connection to a new place. Great blue herons in Moab, Utah, made the desert feel a little more like home. Chestnut-backed chickadees in California brought me joy, even if they did have a funny accent. Here in the barrens, the brilliant orange of butterfly milkweed conjured up memories of my parents’ restored prairie in Iowa. The tiny white flowers of three-toothed cinquefoil reminded me of the bedrock vista in the Boundary Waters where I first learned their name, as well as the cliff on Sleeping Giant in Canada where I wrote about them for this column.
I only just learned to identify the red-orange, vase-like blossoms of wood lily while I was in the Black Hills this summer, and here I found them sprinkled across the barrens. This dry prairie habitat is mostly due to the droughty nature of glacial outwash sand that drains our ample rainfall away, while the dry climate of the Black Hills develops in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. The lily finds what it needs in both places. With the familiar plants as touchstones to keep me from feeling totally lost, my excitement at meeting new species could blossom without getting overwhelming. A purple pyramid of lupine flowers caught my eye. Although I could identify it in general (Lupine’s genus includes 200 species), I had to ask prairie-dwelling friends to help me determine the species. Sundial lupine, I discovered, is a host plant for the caterpillar of the endangered Karner blue butterfly.
Lupine has another claim to fame, too: it is a nitrogen fixer. The plant itself can’t take nitrogen out of the air and turn it into a useable format, but lupine grows nodules on its roots where bacteria can live. The plant feeds its sugar to the bacteria, and the bacteria converts nitrogen to a useable form. More productive strains of bacteria get larger homes, while inefficient bacteria are relegated to smaller nodules.
A tall stalk adorned with tubular, pale-pink flowers was also unfamiliar to me, but I could tell at least that it was a type of penstemon. Its presence brought to mind past adventures in the desert, where flashy red species of penstemon often caught my eye. Foxglove penstemon was the tentative identification from a friend.
On a forest edge, I found the crinkled yellow petals springing out the leaf axils typical of a native yellow loosestrife. I recognized its general characteristics from doing wetland monitoring in Maine, but this species was new to me. While identifying it as fringed loosestrife, I also discovered that it provides oil instead of nectar to a special group of bees. I love when a new friend leads me to a new fun fact.
All my wandering from plant to plant eventually brought me across the road from the clubhouse. While bending over to examine an unfamiliar species of goldenrod, I found yet another old friend. From then on, my botanizing was frequently interrupted by handfuls of plump, juicy blueberries.
Seeing old friends in new places allows me to feel connected wherever I go. The new acquaintances I’ve met here just expand my circle. Next time I see them they won’t be strangers. Instead, they’ll bring to mind the hot wind and bright sun of a certain, special place.
Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at http://cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/. Listen to the podcast at www.cablemusum.org!
For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!