July 22, 2014

Summer on the Prairie

Now is the time to visit Ohio's outstanding prairie areas! Yesterday we spent the morning at the 100-acre remnant tallgrass prairie known as Huffman Prairie on Wright Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) in Dayton. I had no idea that it was open to the public, and I had no inkling of its historical significance.

Now a part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park, its full name is Huffman Prairie Flying Field. After their very brief, straight line flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903, the Wright brothers brought their plane back to Dayton. At this point, they had demonstrated that flight was possible, but they didn't have much, if any, control over the plane. 

According to the National Park signage, "When Wilbur and Orville returned to Dayton they built the 1904 Wright Flyer II and spent the summer at Huffman Prairie Flying Field testing it with mixed results. In 1905 they poured all they knew about flight into a new plane. It wasn't perfect, but with some time and effort they developed an airplane capable of banking, performing figure eights, and making repeated landings and take-offs--the world's first practical airplane." Here is a photo of the field where they developed the plane:

And here is a replica of the hangar where they stored the plane each night, in pieces because the building was so small:

Apparently they did all this flying (and crashing) in coat and tie:

Photo from the National Historic Park signage.
Huffman Prairie Flying Field is well worth a visit just for its historic significance and excellent interpretive signage, but just behind the hangar replica is the 100-acre grassland that has been restored by WPAFB and Five Rivers MetroParks to its pre-settlement condition. In mid-summer it is absolutely magnificent:

Butterfly numbers have, in general, been low this summer but we saw pretty many at Huffman Prairie. Purple coneflower seemed to attract the most; here is a red admiral:

a black swallowtail:

a tiger swallowtail:

and a giant swallowtail:

In addition to purple coneflower, the prairie had lots of gray-headed coneflower,

black-eyed Susan,

and beebalm or monarda, the lavender plant in this photo:

One of the most striking plants is the royal catchfly, which is usually bright red but thanks to a recessive gene a pink-flowered one will occasionally occur:

This tall purple plant is Liatris spicata or dense blazing star:

In addition to all these amazing plants and butterflies, we had an added bonus when one of our friends spotted a very cool dragonfly, a flag-tailed spinylegs. It was dispatching an orange sulfur butterfly, quite efficiently eating all but the wings:

And we spotted several birds, including common yellowthroat, indigo bunting and this eastern meadowlark:

Here is another view of this incredible display of native plants:

Just for the record, I'm still peeved that Dayton didn't get a space shuttle when the fleet was retired. The three shuttles and one test orbiter basically went to coastal sites: Los Angeles, Virginia (Smithsonian), Cape Canaveral and New York. Did all of these have anywhere near the aviation significance that Ohio has had? Consider the National Museum of the Air Force at WPAFB, all the Wright brothers sites contained within the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Site, the Waco Aircraft Company in Troy that made gliders that landed in Normandy on D-Day, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong...plus a location in the heart of the nation. 

In any event, now is the time to get out and visit some of our prairie areas, and Huffman Prairie is an excellent choice. While you are there, consider that these prairie plants are beautiful and drought-tolerant in the garden as well!