Friday, April 18, 2014

Early Spring on Daughmer Savanna

Of all the natural landscapes and ecosystems Ohio had to offer around the time of European settlement, none have seen the same systematic destruction and removal quite like our prairies.  Over 99% of Ohio's indigenous tall grass prairie has succumbed to the activities of man or the inevitable march of natural succession.  You thought over 90% of our state's wetlands being lost was bad, the prairies have statistically had it worse.  Originally representing nearly 5% of Ohio's vegetation at the time of settlement, these open, grass-dominated ecosystems are relatively new to Ohio from a geologic viewpoint and came into existence around 4000-8000 years ago during a shift to a warmer, drier climate.  This change disrupted and discouraged reforestation's northward advancement post-Wisconsin glaciation and allowed the western tall grass prairie to migrate east through Illinois, Indiana and into Ohio.  Gradually the climate returned to a more cool and wet cycle and forestation picked back up as the prairies were invaded and recolonized by the trees.

Considering how fast open grassland can revert to shrubs-saplings and on into young forest, we have to thank in large part the Native American tribes that lived in western/northern Ohio for keeping our prairies around.  They played a huge role in maintaining these grassland habitats with their frequent use of fire.  They realized wild game was more attracted to the lush new-growth of burned areas and the open environment made hunting them easier and more successful.  This led to a consistent fire regime that kept the woody invaders at bay and a key aspect to their livelihoods healthy and intact.  Naturally-occurring fires from the likes of lightning strikes did occur historically but hardly at the same interval and efficiency as the native people's.  Without their influence, I highly doubt any substantial tracts of prairie would have persisted up until the time of settlement.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to gaze out at an almost never-ending expanse of grasses and the occasional tree with herds of grazers like bison and elk spread out across its vastness, let alone seeing a hot and intense prairie fire speed across the ground with flames licking 15-20 feet into the sky.  Sigh...too many invaluable things have been lost to the sands of time.

The first pioneers found these open tracts of tall warm season grasses, occasional oaks and hickories, and colorful summer wildflowers to be quite formidable and were initially ignored for their lack of trees.  The early thought was any land that didn't support forest was infertile and not worth the time or effort to farm.  If only that assumption had never been questioned.  Once that mindset was reversed and the prairie's deep, rich black soil was bitten into by the steel plow and drained with tile, it wasn't long before it had all but disappeared and turned into modern prairie monocultures of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Botanists Rick Gardner and Dan Boone walking through Daughmer Prairie in early spring

However, that less than 1% of indigenous prairie hanging around is still out there and few, if any place(s) are better and more representative than Daughmer Prairie Savanna state nature preserve in Crawford county. Daughmer occurs in the former grandeur of the Sandusky Plains that once sprawled out over 200,000 acres in north-central Ohio. Only 70 or so acres of the Sandusky Plains remain and nearly half of its vestiges reside in Daughmer Prairie.

The photos that accompany this post were taken in late March of 2012 during a visit by your blogger and good friends in Ohio's Division of Natural Areas and Preserves' chief botanist Rick Gardner and the oft-mentioned and brilliant Daniel Boone.  Spring came fast and early that year and I recall this day, despite the chilled and gloomy look of the landscape, being in the 80s and a sweat-inducer, which is something I was certainly not used to so early in the season.  The darkened skies may be still and silent in the photos but lightning and thunder was discharged out of the swirling and churning blackness during our foray into the savanna and it made for a very memorable and electric experience.

Early spring on Daughmer Prairie Savanna as a line of thunderstorms move in.

Daughmer isn't what you would label as a true-blue tall grass prairie ecosystem but rather a prairie savanna due to its host of numerous bur oak trees.  Savannas existed at the tension zones between the prairie and recolonizing forest as well as in areas where fire did enough to drive off most woody/shrubby invaders but left some of the more fire-resistant trees behind to grow and mature.  The bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is the classic and quintessential tree of Ohio's prairies and savannas with white oak (Q. alba), post oak (Q. stellata) and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) the other common denizens.  In wet-saturated areas you might see more swamp white oak (Q. bicolor) while in the sandier, more xeric and acidic savanna (e.g. the Oak Openings) black oak (Q. velutina) dominate.

Dan standing with a mighty bur oak

Some of Daughmer Savanna's bur oaks approach and exceed three and four feet in diameter and have been aged to over 250 years old.  A few more than likely experienced a trial by fire as saplings during the last waning rounds of burns set by the Native Americans before their removal and/or demise at the hands of European settlement. Bur oak's thick, rigid bark can stand up to the fast but intensely hot grassland fires and often times boast scars as proof of their tenacity and brawn.  Without any significant competition from neighboring trees, oaks on the savannas grew stout and sprawled their limbs outward in a wide sweeping fashion, their leaves' photosynthesis factories humming along at peak.  Standing under these behemoths with the summer sun streaming through the emerald canopies and the robust scent of earth on the air is as refreshing a moment as exists in the natural world.

Seasonal wetlands and prairie potholes occur in parts of Daughmer and only add to the diversity of the site.

Despite looking and more-or-less being flat and unchanging as can be, Daughmer has a surprising variance in its hydrology.  On the more dry and well-drained soils you find a typical mixture of warm-season grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) mixed with forbs and sedges such as the rare Eleocharis compressa and Carex bicknellii.  Moving into more moist-wet prairie finds an association of prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) or bluejoint (Calamogrostis canadensis) and muhly-grass (Muhlenbergia mexicana) pocketed with seasonal wetland sedge meadows and small prairie pothole marshes.  Looking out across its landscape and you wouldn't think a place with "only grass" could be home to such a diversity of plant and animal life.

Rick standing in the shadows of the approaching storm

Prairie savanna is not only incredibly rare in the state of Ohio but is considered a globally rare community as well, which makes protecting these places all the more important.  Thankfully, the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves recently purchased this plot of land to give it a much more secure and bright future.  Daughmer's soils have never been plowed and remain a virgin of its steel to this day, but was used extensively for grazing cattle and sheep in the past.  This led to an extirpation of many summer wildflower species and opened the door for non-native invasives like teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) to establish but was a small price to pay for keeping this gem around and impressively intact otherwise.

Daughmer was recently dedicated as a state nature preserve and is open to the public year-round.  I encourage anyone with an interest in our natural history and a desire for a small glimpse back into the past to pay it a visit regardless of the time of year.  You can find directions to the preserve HERE.

A point worth mentioning here is that when the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves bought this land, the money used was solely from DNAP's donated income tax check-off funds.  In other words, you, the citizens and nature-caring/conscious/loving/appreciating/etc. people of Ohio all came together to make this possible.  Since its inception in 1983, over $16 million dollars have been donated and used to protect our state's natural treasures!

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