Avon Ridge

Avon Ridge is the most recent acquisition managed by the Prairie Bluff Chapter, a 16.5 acre parcel purchased by The Prairie Enthusiasts in 2015 that features hundreds of pale purple coneflowers, a threatened plant in Wisconsin.  Compass plant, prairie sunflower and Carolina rose are other plants commonly found on this scenic spot with a panoramic view southwest over the valley of Sugar River into Illinois.  The ridge is part of a complex of mostly riverine grasslands and floodplain forest known as Avon Bottoms.

Site stewards
Nick Faessler (608-214-3852 or email nfaessler@wildblue.net) and the Prairie Bluff Chapter

Access & directions
Visitors should park in the small gravel parking lot off Beloit-Newark Road, a half-mile east of Nelson Road, in the Rock County town of Avon, which is west of Beloit and southeast of Brodhead.  Take Highway 81 out of Brodhead a few miles and turn south on Nelson Road, then east on Beloit-Newark.  The nearest fire number is 15347 W. Beloit-Newark Road for our neighbor to the west.  From the parking lot walk south along the fence line, up the hill and over the ridge to the south-facing one-acre prairie.  Only maintenance vehicles are allowed to drive beyond the parking lot.

Further information

Volunteers


Work crews from Prairie Bluff Chapter removed most of the trees and brush from the western portion of the remnant prairie during the winter of 2015-16.  Sawyers took out cedars, mulberries, cherries, apples, sumac and buckthorn, and then Nick Faessler hauled them to the burn pile with a skid steer.  The chapter conducts periodic weed patrols in spring and summer; we collect seed in summer and fall.

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Usage policies

Avon Ridge was purchased with matching dollars from the Wisconsin Nelson-Knowles Stewardship Fund, so it is open to the public for hiking, hunting, birding and wildlife photography.  Access is limited to foot traffic only.  Camping, picnics and horseback riding are not allowed.

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Description & significance

Prairie Bluffer past president Rob Baller remembers that he first visited this site along with a neighbor, Brad Paulson, during the 1980s.  Prairie Bluff Chapter was interesting in purchasing the land from the chapter’s beginning, but the land changed hands.  Then again in 2004 the chapter attempted to raise money to buy some of the prairie, but the agreement fell apart.  In 2014 we noticed the land was again for sale, so we approached the owners and negotiated to purchase the remnant, a buffer and access.  The shape of the parcel resembles a flagpole, with a long quarter-mile access lane (pole) from Beloit-Newark Road leading to the rectangle (flag) that is mostly warm season native-ecotype grasses that were planted in 1998.  The prairie is along the south edge of the property.
 
The salient feature of Avon Ridge is its remnant prairie with an amazing display of pale purple coneflowers, Echinacea pallida, a protected plant that is toward the northern edge of its range.  Botanical range maps show this coneflower primarily in Rock, Green, Dane and Grant Counties but extending south and west.   Cochrane and Iltis in their Atlas of Wisconsin Prairie & Savanna Flora describe this plant as a “southern midwest prairie and plains species, once common and now rather rare.”  
 
Pale purple coneflower is an iconic plant of our dry prairies with its inch-long pale purple drooping rays surrounding a conical spiny head.  It flowers in June and July, but the plant’s silhouette persists into the fall and winter months.  A related plant, purple coneflower, Echinacea purpura, is not native to Wisconsin; but it is sold in nurseries, is popular with gardeners, and has now either escaped or been introduced into some natural areas.
 
Baller compiled a plant list for this Avon complex in the summer of 2001 while making an inventory of Rock County natural areas.  Besides pale purple coneflower, he found another listed plant, round-fruited St. John’s wort, Hypericum sphaerocarpum.  Asters – heath, smooth blue, aromatic, sky blue, frost and silky – are present along with hoary and fringed puccoon, rosin weed and compass plant.  Also found at Avon are big and little bluestem, Indian grass, needle grass, prairie dropseed, panic grasses, Mead’s sedge, side-oats grama, purple prairie clover, violets, prairie coreopsis, lead plant, pussytoes, false toadflax and thimbleweed. 
 
Visits to Avon Ridge by prairie enthusiasts to view these blooming plants kept the property on our radar for decades until we were able to apply for the stewardship funds and raise the other half of the purchase price from our generous membership.

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Natural history

Avon Ridge is a composite of our one-acre, never plowed and never grazed dry hill prairie, plus unplowed ground to the south and west that is privately-owned but contains similar native grasses and uncommon forbs.  The ridge is capped with limestone, a hard rock that resists erosion, underlain by sandstone, a softer rock that has eroded into sloping side hills.  The ridge is part of a larger landscape known as Avon Bottoms, the lowland along the Sugar River that stretches from Green into Rock County and south into Illinois, comprising thousands of acres of state owned and leased land.
 
Fishing, hunting, trapping, birding and canoeing are popular sports in Avon, which is the name of a small unincorporated village and the name of the Rock County township.  The principal habitat here is floodplain forest with some wet-mesic prairie, bur oak savanna and old fallow cropland.   
 
The Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area comprises 2,835 acres in the floodplain of the meandering Sugar River bottoms with numerous sloughs and old ox-bows.  The lowland hardwood forest contains swamp white oaks, silver maples, black willow, shagbark hickory, hackberry, green ash, cottonwood, bitternut hickory, bur oaks, basswood and sycamore trees.
 
There are two Wisconsin State Natural Areas embedded in Avon Bottoms:  40-acre Swenson Wet Prairie SNA and 168-acre Avon Bottoms SNA.   Avon Bottoms has been declared a Wisconsin Important Bird Area for its breeding populations of the Cerulean and Yellow-throated warblers, Acadian Flycatcher and Yellow-crowned night-heron.

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Management

Next to our one-acre remnant prairie is 14 acres of grasslands that is enrolled in the federal set-aside Conservation Reserve Program.  This provides additional habitat for grassland birds.  Our management of the prairie and planted grasslands will most likely include prescribed fire. A troublesome invasive plant, crown vetch, is present in a small area of both the CRP and prairie, but the entire property is remarkably free of weeds and brush.

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