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June 22, 2023 Comments Off on Prairie State Park near Joplin, Mo., an oasis of tall grass, birds and bison Featured, Hiking, Latest, Nature

Prairie State Park near Joplin, Mo., an oasis of tall grass, birds and bison

Flip Putthoff
NWA Democrat-Gazette

Wildlife as big as bison and as small as quail share thousands of prairie acres with wildflowers and tall native grass at Prairie State Park in southwestern Missouri.

The 4,000-acre state park preserves one of Missouri’s largest remaining tracts of tallgrass prairie that once was abundant in the Show-Me State as well as in Arkansas. Today only a scant 1% of that prairie land remains, reads a brochure available at the park’s visitor center.

Joe Neal of Fayetteville is a frequent prairie wanderer at the park, situated about 30 miles north of Joplin. Prairie State Park was wintertime quiet when Neal visited in January, though there were plenty of birds on the wing. Fast forward to May when Neal and a friend found the prairie in lush greenery with accents of wildflower color.

Neal, a member of the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society and author of several books about birds, could scarcely believe his eyes en route to the park entrance. It was spring migration, and kingbird after kingbird rested on high-line wires along the rural county road.

At the park’s east entrance, a song Neal heard was music to his ears. “Listen to that, bobwhite quail,” Neal piped. More than one of the birds sounded off with the high-pitched “bob-WHITE” call that gives the quail their name.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is making a valiant effort to boost quail numbers in the Natural State. Prairie State Park is ideal quail habitat and a good place to see and hear quail. Dickcissels may be the most abundant bird at the park. The prairie was “dickcissel city,” Neal proclaimed on this fine May day. There were more of the colorful birds than one could begin to count.

Neal “birds” as much by sound as by sight. “There’s an orchard oriole,” he said, hearing the bird but not seeing it.

Stands of prairie grass were knee to thigh high as Neal walked along mowed trails at Tzi-Sho Prairie, one section of the vast state park.

“This area had just been burned when we were here last winter,” Neal said. “Just look at it now. This place has gone nuts! I didn’t expect this much regrowth.”

Part of the thrill of visiting Prairie State Park is that it is 180 degrees opposite of typical Ozark landscape. Instead of steep forested hills and hollows, the rolling tallgrass prairie is rampant with spectacular panoramic views of wide open spaces and big sky. Another attraction is silence, especially on breezeless days such as this, days made for birding by sound.

Wind farms are seen far in the distance, but their massive blades weren’t turning. Windless days aren’t the best days for producing electricity, “but it’s a perfect day for us. A feast for the ears,” Neal said.

Hiking is also a total opposite from walking an Ozark footpath. Wide, mowed pathways are the trails at Prairie State Park. A wide brimmed hat is good to wear, as the trails have little shade.

Seven trails from one-half to 4.25 miles long bisect Prairie State Park. Hikers may see bison that roam the vast prairie, but visitors are reminded to keep their distance.

There’s a shaded picnic area and small shaded campground at the park and even primitive sites for backpackers.

Prairie grass will grow even taller through the summer, Neal said. More wildflowers will be in bloom when Neal plans to visit in July. Butterflies will be the focus of that trip, when Neal hopes to see the rare regal fritillary, accompanied by the calls of bobwhite quail at Prairie State Park.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fputthoff@nwaonline.com.