SILOAM SPRINGS — Tall stands of prairie grass sway in the breeze like amber waves of grain at Chesney Prairie Natural Area in Siloam Springs.
Wildflowers, birds, butterflies, even crawdads draw visitors to the 83-acre public prairie on the east edge of Siloam Springs, north of the city’s airport. Some three miles of mowed trails meander through the tract — open for bird watching, photography and simply being immersed in nature’s native plants.
Blossoms were more the draw than birds in early July during a Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip at Chesney Prairie Natural Area. Trip leaders Joe Neal with Audubon and Joe Woolbright, prairie manager, led a group on a tour of blossoms near the ground and feathers in the air on a warm Saturday morning.
Neal got the adventure off to a fast start sounding off the names of birds seen right away at the prairie entrance.
“There’s a blue grosbeak,” he hollered with eyes gazing through binoculars. “And there’s some dickcissels. We’re in dickcissel country.”
As meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds soared overhead, Neal and all in the group were equally enthralled with the acres of native plants spread out before them.
Big bluestem is the premier grass of tallgrass prairie remnants like Chesney, Neal explained. Some call it “turkey feet,” usually with a chuckle, because the tops of bluestem grass look like a wild turkey’s foot print.
Big bluestem may be the star, but little bluestem is Chesney’s most plentiful prairie grass, Woolbright said. He’s managed the prairie for years, removing nonnative species and nurturing native ones. Woolbright burns a section of the prairie each year for the tract’s overall health.
In early July, northwest Arkansas was in a dry spell, yet Chesney Prairie was lush and green.
That’s because the soil is moist, for one reason.
“You could probably dig down three feet here and hit water,” Woolbright said.
That’s good for the plants and discouraged people from plowing much of the prairie over the decades. Chesney became part of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in 2000.
It’s moist enough to support prairie crayfish 2- to 3-inches long that burrow into and live in the prairie soil. Crayfish “chimneys” of mud are often seen surrounding their burrows where the crayfish have deposited soil from their burrowing.
Another reason the prairie looks so healthy in dry times, Woolbright said, is because the root systems of prairie plants run deep.
Chesney Prairie’s show was no greater than midway through the tour. A large stand of blazing star wildflowers with bright blue cigar-shaped tops dazzled the visitors. That was prairie performance enough, but dozens upon dozens of butterflies flitted about on these wildflowers that look like a fairy’s wand.
“There’s several species of skippers and sulphurs,” Neal noted.
Farther along, the small round-ball blossoms of rattlesnake master plants were covered with bees and butterflies. Ashy sunflowers, a native sunflower, added splashes of yellow.
The prairie was a showstopper this July morning, so much that many didn’t want to leave when the trip ended as bright sun brought the heat. That’s fine. Visitors are welcome every day at the prairie from sunup to sundown.
Chesney Prairie Natural Area is an Arkansas treasure. But it’s only a slice of what was once vast tallgrass prairie in west Benton and Washington counties, eastern Oklahoma and southwest Missouri.
Visit Chesney Prairie Natural Area
From the intersection of U.S. 412 and Arkansas 59 in Siloam Springs, travel north on Arkansas 59 approximately 2 miles. Turn right (east) on Bill Young Road. Go approximately 0.75 miles to a farm road on the left marked with a sign that reads “Railway Alley.” Follow this road approximately 0.63 miles along easements to the entrance gate at the southeast corner of the prairie as indicated by the natural area sign. Park along the fence across from some poultry barns.
Source: Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission