By Jeff Cantrell
Special to The Globe
Diamond Grove Prairie is a clear symbol of our national heritage. If we live in the Four-State Area, whether for generations or just in recent times, we have ties to this land. A 10-minute walk out to the middle of the prairie will give you a sense of history, a sense of what this country was like when the Osage knew it.
Mima mounds are a natural feature of a virgin prairie and are an immense draw for nature and landscape photographers and artists. I’ve met photographers on the prairie from as far away as Michigan, North Carolina and California, not to mention the local camera buffs who frequent the area.
I bring hundreds of people to Diamond Grove each year for scheduled general public hikes, including birding groups from Springfield, Grove, Okla., Fayetteville, Ark., and Pittsburg, Kan., and schedule local school field trips. Rarely is it just a birding event or botany study. The groups are almost always exploring the landscape itself, the complex web of life for which the tallgrass prairie is known.
The plant population is especially impressive, and visitors love to see the July masses of blazing star in bloom. However, it is rare ones that really catch their attention — plants such as ragged fringed orchid, grass pink orchid, royal catchfly and Barbara’s buttons. Birds that are species of concern nest here, such as Bell’s vireo and Henslow sparrow.
I led the last group to see prairie chickens in the area in 1995; unfortunately, due to area development and tree encroachment, that is one species that we will not see make a comeback on this prairie. We have hope for other focus areas in the state.
Insect life holds some specialties, such as the endangered Regal Fritillary. It is almost a guarantee that visitors will see this eye-catching giant among Missouri butterflies. If the trekker has a good eye while walking, the pink katydid can often be found, too. It often surprises people that we naturalists categorize insects as “wildlife,” but the truth is everything is important and we can’t manage for one species. When it comes to the ecosystem and the benefit of people, everything is vital. Wildlife includes a wide array of pollinators and other insects, mammals, grassland birds, amphibians and reptiles.
It is in our (Missouri Department of Conservation) management plans to mimic natural processes that naturally manage traditional prairies. Traditional prescribed burns and haying have been our main management tools, haying partial areas to help mimic the traditional grazing of bison and elk that would have moved through an area.
I’m confident with traditional or new management practices the conservation department will consider the entire prairie ecosystem, and in the management plan will include how it benefits wildlife and even plant life seed banks of neighboring private prairies.
I hope more area residents come out on their own or on one of my organized hikes to hear for themselves the captivating sounds of narrow-mouthed toads and see a rotating changing color scheme week to week during the blooming season.
Events you might put on the calendar to learn more about prairies include:
• Short-eared owl outing, today and Friday, Feb. 11. Meet at 4:30 p.m. at the Joplin MDC office at the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center in Wildcat Park and carpool to the Shawnee Trail Conservation Area in Barton County.
• Prairie ecology hikes, Friday, April 8, and Wednesday, May 25, 6 p.m., at Diamond Grove south of Joplin.
• Bio-Blitz at Golden Prairie near Golden City, June 4-5. This event includes camping, hikes and classes with prairie biologists.
• Seeking Regal, a search for the Regal Fritillary butterfly, 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 15, at Diamond Grove Prairie. This will include a 90-minute hike.
Pre-registration is required for these programs. Call 417-629-3423 to pre-register or to check to see if weather conditions have caused a cancellation.
Jeff Cantrell is a conservation education consultant with the Missouri Department of Conservation, a local naturalist and a technical adviser for the Missouri Prairie Foundation.