Eager eyes focused on flowery ground one moment, then on blue sky the next.
That’s the norm for visitors exploring Chesney Prairie Natural Area on the east edge of Siloam Springs, north of the city’s airport. The 83-acre public prairie is a paradise of wildflowers, native grasses and birds during the peak of summer.
All three are what 20 explorers came to savor on a Saturday in early July during a Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip. The Audubon group hosts a field trip at Chesney each summer.
Birds got the field trip off to a fast start at the entrance gate.
“A most common prairie bird is singing for us right now,” said Joe Neal of Fayetteville, while pointing to a dickcissel whistling from a tree top. More dickcissels than anyone could count were seen during a two-hour meander through Chesney Prairie.
Three miles of wide, mowed trails make it easy for visitors to see the dozens of wildflower varieties or gaze at perched and soaring birds. Hawks, vultures and songbirds filled the lenses of binoculars and cameras during the trip, scheduled for early morning to avoid midsummer heat.
Chesney Prairie Natural Area was added to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission’s network of natural areas in 2000. It’s a remnant of what once was a huge swath of tallgrass prairie in Northwest Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Some of Chesney has been plowed over the decades. The soil has never been broken on other acres.
“The upper part has been plowed. It used to be a soybean field,” said Neal, who’s an area authority on birds. “As we drop down, the ground gets too wet so it’s never been plowed.”
Sager Creek, which flows through the heart of Siloam Springs, starts in Chesney Prairie.
A mile into the walk, field trip leader Taylor Long heard a common yellowthroat singing in a tree above the Sager Creek headwaters. Long whipped out his phone and clicked on a bird-call app. The common yellowthroat’s song rang from the little speaker in hopes of bringing the warbler closer to the group. Yet the bird preferred to keep its distance, hidden in the tree’s lush leafy foliage.
Native plant delights included prairie milkweed, which is beneficial to monarch butterflies. Stands of blazing star wildflowers with their cigar-shaped blue blossoms swayed in the gentle summer breeze. Lesser known flora such as large-flowered sneezeweed dazzled the rambling prairie guests.
The early morning trip-goers saw droplets of morning dew clinging to big bluestem grass, slough grass and other head-high greenery. Most visitors stay on the trails, but it’s fine to wander deep into the vegetation for closer looks or to get the best photographs. Part way into the field trip, Phyllis Kane of Fayetteville waded through waist-high grass to shoot an exhibit-quality picture of a monarch butterfly on the round orb of a button bush.
The prairie has a bounty of birds and blooms, but Neal likes to say the best thing about Chesney Prairie Natural Area is that it’s public land. Everyone is welcome on this little slice of tallgrass prairie.