High evaporative demand and periodic drought characterize the growing season in midwestern grasslands relative to deciduous forests of the eastern US, and predicted climatic changes suggest that these climatic extremes may be exacerbated. Despite this less than optimal environment for tree seedling establishment, deciduous trees have expanded into adjacent tallgrass prairie within the last century leading to a dramatic land cover change. In order to determine the role of light and temperature on seedling establishment, we assessed carbon and water relations and aboveground growth of first-year Quercus macrocarpa seedlings exposed to one of three conditions: (1) intact tallgrass prairie communities (control), (2) aboveground herbaceous biomass removed (grass removal), and (3) shade plus biomass removal to reduce light (PFD) to levels typical of the grassland-forest ecotone (shade). In the 2000 growing season, precipitation was 35% below the long-term average, which had a significant negative effect on oak seedling carbon gain at midseason (photosynthesis declined to 10% of maximum rates). However, net photosynthesis and stomatal conductance in the shade treatment was ca. 2.5 and 1.5 times greater, respectively, than in control treatment seedlings during this drought. During this period, leaf and air temperatures in control seedlings were similar whereas leaf temperatures in the shade treatment remained below air temperature. A late-season recovery period, coincident with decreased air temperatures, resulted in increased net photosynthesis for all seedlings. Increased photosynthetic rates and water relations in shaded seedlings compared to seedlings in full sun suggest that, at least in dry years, high light and temperature may negatively impact oak seedling performance. However, high survival rates for all seedlings indicate that Q. macrocarpa seedlings are capable of tolerating both present-day and future climatic extremes. Unless historic fire regimes are restored, forest expansion and land cover change are likely to continue.