As with “No Child Left Inside,” welcome to a series of articles in partnership with Four Rivers Environmental Coalition (FREC) and The Rock River Times. In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the FREC presents this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit www.fourriver.org.
By Lena Verkuilen
Welty Environmental Center
If you’ve ever visited Beckman Mill County Park, 7 miles west of Beloit, Wis., on County Road H, the first thing that probably struck you was the restored and replica historic buildings. From the restored 1868 grist mill, the cooperage that served as the Beckman family home, and the replica creamery, human history is very apparent at Beckman Mill. Those who rest for a moment at the pavilion will notice a unique natural history feature of the park—the oak savanna restoration project.
Oak savanna, a prairie community marked by the presence of bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) trees was once a common site in the stateline. The thick, corky bark of the bur oak trees protected them from the fires that would rage across the open prairies. Settlers often called these oases from the open prairie oak openings or groves. They offered the rich soils of the prairie along with the familiarity of the Eastern forests the families had just left behind. To see where these prairie ecosystems once thrived, just look at a map for towns named for this feature, like Cottage Grove and Poplar Grove.
The oak savanna restoration project in Beckman Mill County Park is a labor of love shared by the Friends of Beckman Mill and the Welty Environmental Center, and is spearheaded by the tireless efforts of Val and Dick Dunagan. Volunteers working with these two organizations are helping transform brush, bramble and a host of invasive species into the richly-diverse native oak savanna ecosystem.
A spring walk along the interpretive trail highlights such early wildflowers as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), and jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). As the year turns to summer, the deep-rooted prairie species come into their glory. Forbs like cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and a rainbow of other species bloom through the big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). You can almost feel the cool water from the 10-foot-and-deeper root systems as you walk among them on a hot summer day. Asters (Aster sps.) and goldenrods (Solidago sps.) signal the coming of autumn. Each season brings new discoveries.
The fauna of this restoration project is equally as rich. Butterflies of numerous species flit through the summer and fall flowers. A faint karoo from the surrounding fields is the only obvious clue that the sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are in the area. Bring your binoculars, and you may be lucky enough to see them on their nest across the mill pond. Songbirds of the forest, wetland, and prairie meet in this part of the park. If you stay for dusk, be ready for a show as the little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) emerge from their daytime roosts in the trees to feed on insects.
The oak savanna restoration, with the help of countless volunteer hours, is a work in progress. As you walk, you will see restoration began in the southern section, and continues northward. A footbridge and crushed limestone path (construction planned for this summer and fall) will connect the oak savanna with the wetlands and upper woodlands of the park, and will bring even more opportunities to connect people with nature in this unique Rock County park. Enjoy your visit to the Beckman Mill County Park as a gateway to the 15 parks and more than 920 acres in the Rock County Park system!
Directions to Beckman Mill Park: Take Highway 81 west out of Beloit, Wis. Turn left on County Road H about 7 miles west of Beloit. The main parking lot for Beckman Mill County Park is about 1 mile south on County Road H, on your right.
For Information about environmental education and parks in Rock County:
Welty Environmental Center: www.weltycenter.org, (608) 361-1377
Rock County Parks Division: www.co.rock.wi.us (click on Departments, and scroll down to the Parks link), (608) 757-5450.
From the May 19-25, 2010 issue