Hilltop Farm Preserve in the Summer – West Harrison, Indiana

The decision to revisit Hilltop Farm in the summer was made last November, when we first visited this outstanding Oak Heritage Conservancy venue. On that hike we witnessed the standing carcasses of many summer meadow wildflowers and we wanted to see what the 15 acre rejuvenated prairie looked like at peak flowering.

At the time of the previous visit I was stumped identifying these seed heads, and in fact used the image as our title photo.

On this outing nature gave me the answer, as seen in the title photo above – Bergamot, our native Bee Balm. That was a fun puzzle to solve.

For this visit we planned to hike the southern segment of the Upper Loop Trail, which we missed last time, and revisit the Lower Loop Trail that encircles the prairie meadow that we studied in a dormant stage last year.

The trail starts atop a hill in an old pasture undergoing succession, with grasses being replaced by younger Black Locust, Honey Locust, and Black Walnut.

Along the path we saw many fruiting plants displaying the bounty of the season. Perhaps most obvious were the wild grapes. The wildlife will eat well this winter.

Soon we reached the path for the Upper Loop Trail that we were interested in. This entered into an Oak and Hickory wood that featured 3 massive White Oaks. There was a well placed bench to let you bask in the serenity of the setting.

For the most part the wood was somewhat open, allowing for some flowering plants to thrive, including nice groupings of Brown-eyed Susans. They can be differentiated from Black-eyed Susans as their flower heads are smaller, 1.5-2 inches versus 2-3 inches, they have less flower petals, 8-12 petals versus 10-20, and finally, as seen in the second photo, the flower petal is notched at its tip.

We also saw some Woodland Sunflowers in this section of trail.

Eventually we worked our way down the hillside, crossed a stream, and climbed a small slope to the 15 acre meadow of the Lower Loop Trail. The mowed path ran along a fence to our right that separated us from a 1950s or 1960s housing development. But to our left was this view on a glorious sunny day.

We enjoyed watching the Goldfinches and butterflies dance above the plants, but never stopping long enough to give us a chance for a photo.

And then the photographer saw this – just two feet off the ground and on the right edge of the trail – a hornets’ nest.

Uncharacteristicly for the photographer, she moseyed up for a better view.

And then the telephoto did its job.

This allowed us to identify the classic Bald-faced Hornets.

The nest is constructed of chewed wood fibers and saliva – called “hornet spit”. It will last for the season before succumbing to the winds and precipitation of winter. By summer’s end the colony will consist of 100 to 400 hornets. In the fall males and new queens are produced and will leave the nest to mate. The fertilized female will hibernate over the winter and begin a new nest in April.

After the hornet adventure we were glad to let the meadow wildflowers be the less threatening stars of the hike. I particularly liked this pairing – the contrasting images of an open Queen Anne’s Lace, and one in the process of opening. Queen Anne’s Lace is a “wild carrot” and is edible.

Some of the new performers, not seen on our previous summer adventures included:

Cardinal Flower – with its bright red it stood out. Interestingly, this was the only specimen that we saw in the large meadow.

Obedient Plant – named such because if its flowers are bent they will stay in the new position for a while, as if they were attached with a thin wire.

Thistle – differentiating the thistles when they are not right along the trail can be challenging as one can not touch the leaves. This one is either Field Thistle, whose leaves are soft, or Bull Thistle, whose leaves feel pointy, but their appearance from a distance is similar. The non-native Nodding Thistle blooms earlier in the season and its flower head “nods” over.

Small-headed Sunflower – the flowers are smaller than most sunflowers, measuring 1 to 1.5 inches.

Wild Senna – was more prominent here than anywhere else that we have seen it in the past. I particularly liked this setting where it was coexisting with some Big Bluestem grass.

But on a close up view it gives one a sense of chaos – something uncommon in the wildflower world, where usually things are quite symmetrical. Symmetry appeals to me.

Eventually the legume seed pods begin to form.

That was the way we identified it late last fall when we were here.

This time of year nature is transitioning from the summer wildflowers to the “fall” ones. They will typically bloom till the heavy frosts arrive.

Ox-eye Sunflower – unlike many sunflowers its petals will remain on the flower well after seed formation.

Frostweed Aster – it almost appears naked as its leaves are small and narrow.

New England Aster – usually pink or purple in color, they have the most flower petals of all the asters – frequently about 50. This plant had a single flower that appeared to have just opened that morning.

Ironweed – though we have mentioned it on previous Footpaths postings, we will feature it here due to its prominence in our fall landscape.

Some of the repeat performers (Glade Coneflower, Grey-headed Coneflower, Partridge Pea, Yellow Wingstem, and Bergamot/Bee Balm)

One of the iconic plants of the American prairie is Big Bluestem grass and it plays a featured role in the meadow at Hilltop Farm Preserve. You can see where it gets its name when you study the stem.

On this date it was already towering over 6 feet.

The maroon of the flowering structure provided a subtle hue to the meadow. And yes, grasses have flowers.

We have spent a lot of time this summer looking over Milkweed plants hoping to find some Monarch larvae and we finally had some success. Here are two.

Odds and Ends:

This time of year, when you are outdoors, you will frequently here the call of the annual Cicada. It is not the overwhelming chorus of the periodical Cicada that appears every 17 years or so, but a more understated solo performance. The annual variety is similar in appearance but have a more greenish coloration.

When I have had the Merlin Bird ID app on during our hikes one species that frequently pops up is the Acadian Flycatcher. Well, on this hike we met one.

The photographer caught this great photo of a mushroom on a bed of woodland moss. Somehow it exudes peace.

Lastly, I have zero training in entomology (the study of insects) but this guy, who found itself a shady spot on a panic grass just intrigued me.

In summary, this was a fun follow up visit to Hilltop Farm Preserve. It is interesting to experience the same venue in different seasons: The things that catch your eye change. The late fall and winter visit featured the architecture of the mature trees, the textures of barks, and the spent carcasses of the meadow flowers. This late summer hike was all about the flowers, the bounty of nature, and the animation brought to the meadow by the insects and birds. Each visit was stimulating and fascinating, but in different ways. But they both appealed to my left brain (scientific) and right brain (artistic). Maybe that is why I feel so complete when on a trail.

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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – 26 miles from downtown Cincinnati, in West Harrison, Indiana.

Parking – gravel lot for 4 cars.

Trail Conditions – meadow trails are mowed grass and woodland trails are bare dirt. We walked approximately 1.8 miles on this outing. Both trails together in their entirety would be approximately 3 miles. I classified this as a moderate hike due to the climb from the meadow back to the parking area.

Map Link – none needed.

Benches – a few in the woodland walks but none noted in the meadow area.

Picnic Tables – none noted.

Kids – 6 and older should do well here.

Dogs – welcomed on a leash.

Suggested Paired Hikes – Miami Whitewater Forest with it numerous trails is relatively nearby.




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