Flights of (Prairie) Imagination

“…words are all we have of wings.” — Mark O’Connor

***

There’s nothing like an air travel delay to offer hours of unplanned time to ponder the miracles of flight. This week, I traded Illinois’ tallgrass prairies for Gulf Coast beaches, with about a break-even in temperature (it’s 98 down south; 96 on the prairie as I type this).  It might be easy to get snarly about a three hour delay on the flight home and easily undo all the tranquility of a week’s vacation. Tranquility can be only surface deep sometimes; with tension lurking just under the surface.

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But instead,  I decide to think over the past week. One of the great aspects of displacement is exposure to unfamiliar flora and fauna.  It offers you a chance to see the world with new eyes. It reminds you what a diverse and delightful place the world can be.

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I miss the tallgrass prairie wildflowers, which I know are spectacular this week.

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I remind myself of this as I admire the neon hues of Florida hibiscus.

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In Florida, the familiar jostles against the unfamiliar. Across the beaches; over the ponds and mangrove pools, dragonflies and damselflies tirelessly patrol for mosquitoes.  A new place means new species of tropical dragonflies. This gives me an excuse to peruse Odonata websites, in search of names.  Such glorious colors! Like this scarlet skimmer.

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And funky patterns….

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… like the ones on this four-spotted pennant. (Could have guessed the name of this one, right?) . I feel a bit nostalgic for the dragonflies and damselflies that are patrolling the prairies back home—just a two-and-a-half hour jet flight away.

But it’s the birds that demand my full attention. Shorebirds. Herons of every possible description and hue.

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Yellow-crowned night herons in full breeding plumage.yellowcrownednightheronbreedingplumageDingDarlingWM618.jpg

Some are familiar visitors to the prairie during migration or in the summer. These white pelicans, for example. You’d think this photo was taken in Florida…

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… but in fact, these white pelicans were ones I saw at Nachusa Grasslands at the end of last month. Down south now, I wonder about their migration patterns.  What do they think of the change from beach to prairie and back again? Is it as jolting for them as it is for me?

Beach birds like the pelicans will find the company they keep in Illinois a little different.  Although the tallgrass prairie birds have some startling color combinations…

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…Florida’s roseate spoonbill’s bright pink screams for your attention.

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Hard for our little prairie Henslow’s sparrow to compete, isn’t it?

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Despite all the color and sizzle and “gee-whiz-look-at-me” that the Gulf Coast beaches and their birds and dragonflies have to offer…

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…there is truly (as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz) “no place like home.”

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I can’t wait to be back on the prairie.

***

Opening quote is from the poem, “The Mutton Birds,” by Australian Mark O’Connor (1945-), in “The Olive Tree: Collected Poems.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): alligator (Aligator mississippiensis) in lily pond, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron in breeding plumage (Nyctanassa violacea),  J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, unknown species), Sanibel Island, Florida; scarlet skimmer dragonfly (Crocothemis servilia), Captiva Island, Florida; four-spotted pennant dragonfly (Brachymesia gravida), Captiva Island, Florida; juvenile tri-colored heron (Egretta tricolor), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) in breeding plumage, J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bob-o-link (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida; Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset on Captiva Island, Florida; sunset on Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL.

Prairie Streams of Consciousness

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” — Pema Chödrön.

****

If you want to get a fresh perspective on life, jump into the water.  That’s where I find myself this week, monitoring dragonflies and damselflies on the prairie. So much of insect life on the prairie is virtually invisible. To really see some of the damselflies requires full immersion.

It’s sunny—one of the few dry days this week.  Out on the prairie, the white wild indigo is in full celebration mode.

spma6918wm.jpgThe bumblebees are making the most of bloom time.

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Honeybees busily buzz around the wild asparagus blossoms.

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The gorgeous prairie wildflowers are offering a show in early June that would put Las Vegas to shame. Scurfy pea (what a great name!) throws purple all over its silvery tumbleweeds.

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Prairie sundrops earn their name, splashing light where they lie knee-high, barely keeping up with the grasses and wildflowers growing lushly all around.

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There’s plenty of dragonfly action on the prairie trails. Calico pennant dragonflies—red males, yellow females—might be mistaken for butterflies by the non-initiated.

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And who could blame someone for thinking so? Each year the pennants’ fluttering appearance seems magical. I could get easily get distracted from the morning’s task at hand.

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But today is for the prairie stream. I pull on my hip waders and get down to business. It’s a bit windier than I’d like for dragonfly monitoring, but the brook is nestled into a low spot on the prairie and there, the breeze doesn’t do as much as ruffle my hair. However, getting into a stream in waders is a challenge. Especially when the sides of the bank are steep and your knees aren’t what they used to be.  I sit and clumsily scoot-slide down the steep sides of the bank.

It’s a different world, down in the stream. The prairie above recedes from my view and my thoughts. All that exists is the water. It’s surprisingly high, well up to my hips.  I cautiously test my footing. Streams are always dicey; sometimes the bottom muck sucks your boots into it unexpectedly, leaving yourself in a bad predicament. Other times an unexpected hole opens up as you take a step and you lose your footing. I’ve never fallen—yet—but I fully expect that is in the cards at some point.

All it takes is a glint of color or motion out of the corner of your eye to distract you. You glance up. Ebony jewelwings! The white spots tell me this one’s a female.

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The males aren’t far off; spaced evenly along the stream. Perched on the grasses.

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Look down, and there’s a violet dancer damselfly in all its shocking variations of purple.

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Just to the side is a newly-emerged American rubyspot damselfly in the teneral stage, abdomen drooping, its colors in the process of brightening. Its wings look newly-minted.  I’ve been watching for this species, which hasn’t appeared along my stream-side route this month. Like clockwork, they knew when it was time to emerge.

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There you are.  I’ve been wondering when you’d show up.

Picking my way down the stream, I test each step. The process gives “mindfullness” fresh meaning.  I stumble at one point, where a drop-off is invisible in the murky water, and grab at the closest vegetation. For the first time in my life as a prairie steward, I’m grateful for the invasive reed canary grass lining the shore.

As I regain my sense of balance, I notice a new form of a blue-fronted dancer damselfly—a blue morph female, rather than the more common orangey-tan— enjoying a protein-packed lunch of unknown bug. I’ve seen plenty of blue-fronteds over the course of my monitoring, but not this variation. Cool! I thought I knew this species. It’s another reminder that there is so much I don’t know.

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The stream is the romantic hot spot of the prairie for dragons and damsels.  All around me are various stages of damselfly mating in progress.  In the early stages, the male (like this blue male stream bluet, below) grabs a likely-looking female behind the head…

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…and the two dragons or damsels form  “the wheel,” which often looks like a heart. Two ebony jewelwings make a beautiful one, don’t they?

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The male guards the female (either by hovering in the air, or continuing his death-grip behind her head) until her eggs are safely deposited in floating mats of vegetation, grasses, old wood, or directly into the water. Take a look below as a pondhawk female (green) dragonfly taps her eggs into the surface of the water, while the male (powdery blue) hover guards just above.

 

The whole process of ovipositing—egg laying—moves fast, doesn’t it? But a dragonfly or damselfly’s life is a matter of weeks, sometimes days, or even hours. To keep life moving forward, they don’t mess around.

Unlike the dragonflies, there’s nothing fast about my work today. The rewards of stream wading are these: Reminding myself how it feels to move quietly and slowly. Learning that what I think I know isn’t always the whole story.  Finding new perspectives on places I thought I knew well. Surprises at every bend of the brook. Realizing that when I don’t jump in I miss so much. And most of all, perhaps, the mind-clearing effort of paying attention to every step, punctuated by new delights all around.

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When I’ve finished wading my short stretch of stream, I’m exhausted.  The  careful focus on footing. The watchful parsing of shoreline vegetation for a flash of color, a glimmer of motion. The sheer energy exerted to get from point A to point Z in the water that is getting to be more of a challenge each season.

But the bombardment of marvels all around me in the stream fills up my “inner well.” You know that “well;” the one that is depleted by meetings and noise and front-page news and angry drivers and toxic people.  I always leave the stream feeling more at peace. Like the world is a beautiful place.

I don’t wade every pond and stream where I dragonfly monitor; it takes too much time. But there’s not a day when I don’t wish I could.  There are joys and revelations I’m missing because I stay high and dry on the shore, counting dragonflies where it’s easier. But I’ll always see less than I would from the sidelines than if I fully commit myself to the water.

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Think about it. Every pond, every lake, every stream is filled with rhythmic dances of   life going on each moment. So many amazing things happening in the world!

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All we have to do is look. And keep our sense of wonder.

******

The opening quote is by Pema Chödrön (1936-), an American Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her books include,  When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with unknown bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) with an unknown honeybee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly female (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), male, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), teneral, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) (female, blue morph), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis)  as seen from my kayak in Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumberg, IL; green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands Beaver Pond Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Walt Whitman’s Prairie

“…While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and the Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”–Walt Whitman

*****

Spring merges into meteorological summer on the prairie. The days yo-yo between cloudless humid afternoons in the 90s and beautiful breezy days in the 70s.  It’s a deceptively cool morning. None-the-less, it promises heat as I set out on my hike. I leave my old blue Honda on the two-track and make my way up a rocky hilltop.

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The prairie puts on growth right now like a toddler outgrowing clothes. You feel as if  sitting and watching the grass grow is a literal possibility.

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Pale purple coneflowers press in on all sides in every possible stage of bloom. Fibonacci, anyone?

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The prairie offers us the most when we offer it our time and our presence. Sit. Look. Look some more. Not everything has as much pizzazz as the coneflowers. The downy yellow painted cup makes up for what it lacks in vibrant color with originality.

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It rubs shoulders with the uncommon short green milkweed, one of more than a dozen native milkweed species in Illinois—and a perfect “10” in Flora of the Chicago Region. 

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Homely, you say? No glamour other than its conservation value? Perhaps. Yet this milkweed is as welcome to a weary monarch butterfly looking to lay its eggs as its flashier counterpart, the orange butterfly weed, just about ready to bloom on the prairie.

Sure, the prairie has its share of eye-popping color right now.

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But that’s not what necessarily draws us to it. The prairie satisfies us for the long haul with its interplay of wind and weather, pollinator and patterns. Grasses and gradients of color, birdsong and blooms.HenslowssparrowNG53118wm.jpg

It is deceptively simple.

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As you spend time with the prairie, you begin to understand just how very complex it is.

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Other stunning landscapes may wow you for a short while, but quickly lose their appeal. The prairie moves into your soul over time, sets up housekeeping, and endlessly satisfies you with its nuances. Look again. Listen.

As many have observed, the prairie doesn’t shout. But listen closely. It whispers.

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And a whisper can be a powerful thing.

****

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) delivered the opening quote in this blogpost in a speech he prepared (but never gave) for a speaking engagement in Kansas on a trip out west in 1879-80. You can read more of his essay in “America’s Characteristic Landscape,” included in John T. Price’s edited collection of nature writing, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014, University of Iowa Press, Bur Oak Books). 

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with Halictidae (sweat bee) (Agapostemon splendens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; downy yellow painted cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; short green milkweed (Aslepias viridiflora) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) Henslow’s sparrow (Passerculus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly, male (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video of prairie ponds with dragonflies and birdsong, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trail through Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grateful thanks to Susan Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, who generously gave me the gift of her time.

Finding Joy on the Prairie

“…It is time for a different, formal defense of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is its ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.” –– Michael McCarthy

*****

May draws to a close. June bugs beat against the porch lights in the evening. An almost “Full Flower Moon” rises on Memorial Day, not quite technically “fully-full” but looking complete.

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The sun intensifies its gaze after dawn. It’s hot.  In my backyard, the garden blazes into bloom. Giant allium attracts some tiny pollinators.

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The poppies open their crinkled blooms. Just in time for Memorial Day week.

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Their knock-out color is only matched by the screaming scarlet of the prairie’s Indian paintbrush. The hummingbirds rejoice to see so much red!

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Speaking of scarlet, the red-winged blackbirds, wearing their red and yellow epaulettes, sing territorial warnings. Get too close to a nest, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.

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The prairie puts away its spring wardrobe in exchange for summer. Goodbye to the smooth wild blue phlox along the shaded prairie edges.

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Hello, shaggy little fleabane!

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The asparagus-like spears of white wild indigo unfurl their leaves. Soon their white flower spikes will turn heads on the prairie. For now, they bide their time.

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Golden Alexanders begin to fade in the suddenly intense heat. The ants frantically work the blooms, knowing their time with this flower is getting shorter.

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The sedges humbly make their presence known, mostly overlooked by people wowed by all the new prairie blooms.

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It’s the annual transition from spring to summer. So much joy! So much anticipation. What will happen next, here on the prairie?

I can’t wait to find out.

*****

The opening quote is from Michael McCarthy’s (1947-) “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.” By turns it is poignant memoir, elegy, and a passionate call to fall in love with the natural world.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: May’s “Full Flower Moon,” about 12 hours before it is “fully full;” giant allium (Allium giganteum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), DuPage County, IL; Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), DuPage County, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; marsh fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common wood sedge (Carex blanda), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.  Thanks to Sherry Rediger and Andrew Hipp for helping make this blog post possible this week.

The Fault in Our (Shooting) Stars

“Cherish your science but understand it as a finite guide to the immensities of time and space…Look far. Dance with the world rather than try to explain it away. Consider the boat, not just the planks. Seize knowledge. Ask hard questions. But know, too, that your intellect is a small window and that its views can be surprisingly incomplete. Feel deeply.” — William J. Broad.

******

What a week it is shaping up to be on the tallgrass prairie! Rain and cool weather are bringing out the blooms. Small white lady’s slippers are in their full splendor. Like tiny white boats floating in a sea of grass.

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The first bright pops of hoary puccoon show up along the trail.

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Nearby, another pop of orange. An immature female eastern forktail damselfly. So common—and yet so welcome right now.  Emergence of dragonflies and damselflies has been slow this spring, due to the cool, wet weather.

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Cream wild indigo doesn’t mind the cool conditions. It jumps right into its opening act.

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The wild hyacinths add their delicate scent and good looks in washes of lavender across the prairie.

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So many beautiful prairie wildflowers blooming this week, you hardly know which way to look. And oh, the juxtapositions! This blue-eyed grass is swirled into an embrace by wood betony.

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While nearby, a butterfly conducts surveillance runs across the low grasses and forbs.

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But the literal star of the prairie stage this week is Dodecatheon meadia. The shooting star.

 

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Its pink clouds of flowers are so unusual. Look at that bloom shape!

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Now, think “tomato blossom.” Or the blooms of eggplants and potatoes. Similar, no?

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Shooting star is a tease. She beckons bumblebees with her good looks. They zip by, then pause, perhaps shocked by all that floral abundance. Buzz in for a closer look.

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What the bumblebees don’t know right away is this: Shooting star has no nectar reward. The only “fault” in this star to speak of! Nonetheless, you can see this bumblebee in the photo below stick out its tongue. Looking for nectar? Grooming itself? Or perhaps letting me know it is time to quit taking photos?

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As the bumblebee clings to the underside of the bloom, it vibrates its strong wing muscles. They emit a high-pitched buzz. This causes the pollen to be shaken out of the anthers onto the underside of the bee. The process is known as “buzz pollination” or “sonication.” Honeybees can’t do it. Their muscles aren’t strong enough.  Which emphasizes the need for native bee conservation, doesn’t it?

Can you see the pollen in the photo below? Like yellow dust.

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As the bumblebee moves on, it carries some of the pollen with it, cross-pollinating other shooting star flowers as it visits each one. Bumblebees also eat pollen, and feed to their bumblebee young.  Click on  this great video for more info that’s been helpful to me in understanding the process.

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Watch the shooting stars. Listen to what they have to tell us.  They are another reason to care about the natural world and all its creatures.

Then pause.

“Dance with the world rather than try and explain it.”

Make a wish.

*****

The opening quote from William J. Broad’s The Oracle was taken from Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha.

All photos and video this week are from The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (top to bottom) small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum);  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), female; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); cream indigo (Baptisia bracteata) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the background; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) with wood betony (Pedicularis candadensis); possibly American snout butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) although the “snout” isn’t clear;  constellation of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee performing buzz pollination (note the tongue sticking out!); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee (unknown species) vibrating out the pollen; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) close up; video of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) waving in the breeze. 

10 Reasons to Hike the Prairie This Week

“The pleasure of a walk in the woods and the fields is enhanced a hundredfold by some little knowledge of the flowers which we meet at every turn.”–Mrs. William Starr Dana

*****

Buckets of rain have doused the prairie to life in the Chicago region. Color it technicolor green. Even under cloudy skies.

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In the neighboring savanna, oaks leaf out and invite exploration to see what’s emerging. They seem to say: “Go deeper in.”

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So much new life all around us! Still need a push to get outside? Here are 10 reasons to hike the prairie this week.

10. Pasque flowers are going to seed, as marvelous in this new stage as they were in bloom. Maybe even more beautiful.

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9. Prairie violets are out in profusion.  Not your ordinary lawn violet. These are something special.

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8. Bastard toadflax spangles the landscape with white. The name alone is worth going to see it!

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7. Wood betony is spiraling into bloom. Looks like a carnival has come to the prairie, doesn’t it?

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6. There’s nothing quite like the smell of wild hyacinth opening in the rain. Breathe deep. Mmmm.

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5. New Jersey tea—a prairie shrub—spears its way through the soil and bursts into leaf.

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4. Common valerian is in full bloom this week. Such a strange little wildflower! Supposedly, it smells like dirty socks, but I’ve never gotten a whiff of any unpleasant fragrance.

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3. Jacob’s ladder covers whole patches of the prairie, adding its bright baby blues.

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2. Wild coffee is about to flower. Its other quirky nicknames, “tinker’s weed” and “late horse gentian” are as odd as the plant’s unusual leaves, blooms, and later, bright orange fruits.

 

  1. Shooting star blankets the prairie in low-lying, pale-pink clouds. You don’t want to miss these wildflowers!  Like their name implies, they’ll be gone before you know it.

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Ten very different reasons to take a hike. But I could find a hundred reasons (and not just the wildflowers) to put on a rain jacket, get out of the house, and go for a  walk on the spring prairie this week.

What about you?

***

The opening quote for this post is from How to Know the Wild Flowers (1893) by naturalist Francis Theodora Parsons, aka “Mrs. William Starr Dana” (1861-1952), a book I have long coveted and which my wonderful husband gave me for Mother’s Day.  Parsons was educated at a school taught by Anna Botsford Comstock, who is noteworthy for her role in establishing the Nature Study Movement and especially, empowering women to explore the natural world. Parsons’ life was marred by several tragedies. After the loss of her first husband, Parsons went walking with her friend, the illustrator Marion Satterlee, for comfort. From those walks, the book came about. My 1989 edition has 100 lovely black and white drawings from Satterlee, plus 25 rich color illustrations from paintings by the artist Manabu C. Saito.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum (top to bottom): Rainy May day on the prairie; oaks (Quercus spp.) leafing out; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) going to seed; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) in bloom; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) in bloom; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) in two different stages; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans); wild coffee from afar and close up, sometimes called tinker’s weed or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum);  shooting star  (Dodecatheon meadia).

Prairie by the Numbers

“It was, at last, the time of the flowers.” — Paul Gruchow

****

Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!

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Spring has arrived in the Chicago region—at last, at last! The savannas and prairies are awash in color and motion. Warblers and butterflies everywhere you look…

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…garter snakes sashaying out in the bright light to sun themselves…

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…and of course the wildflowers, in all their amazing complexity.

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My Tuesday morning prairie team is busy updating our plant inventory, a daunting task that has run into its second season. This spring, we are looking for a hundred or so plants out of the 500 from the inventory that we couldn’t find in 2017. The last complete prairie inventory was wrapped up in 2005, so we need a check-in on what’s still here, and what has disappeared or moved into the prairie. Knowing the plants we have will help us make better decisions on how to care for the site.

This is a high-quality planted 100-acre prairie, wetland, and savanna, which is almost in its sixth decade. Some call it the fourth oldest planted prairie in North America! So we feel the heavy weight of responsibility to get our numbers right.

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Its a prairie with some beautiful blooms—and some quirky ones as well. This week, our “oohs” and “ahhs” are for common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), a high-quality—and despite its name—uncommon prairie plant. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it the highest possible plant score — a perfect “C” value of “10.”

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We’ve been hot on the trail of three more common but elusive plants that we’d missed in the spring of 2017: skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, and rue anemone.  Some adventurous members of the team discovered the skunk cabbage in April, poking through the muck in a deep gully. Now, two weeks later, it is much easier to see.

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The marsh marigold listed on our 2005 inventory, a beautiful spring native wildflower…

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…turned out to be a single plant, hiding among some fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) a pernicious, non-native invasive wetland species. We’ll remove the fig buttercup so it doesn’t spread across the waterway.

The missing rue anemone went from invisible to visible last week after storms moved through the area and greened up the savanna. Such a delicate wildflower!  Easy to miss unless you find a large colony.

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Looking for specific plants as we’re doing now results in some serendipity. Our plant inventory team found harbinger of spring for the first time in our site’s history while looking for the marsh marigold. A new species for our site —and so tiny! Who knows how long we’ve overlooked it here.

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In addition to the inventory, most of us are weeding garlic mustard, a persistent invasive plant that infests disturbed areas around the prairie. One of the perks of weeding is we make other discoveries, such as wild ginger blooms. You might flip hundreds of wild ginger plant leaves over before you find the first flower. Pretty good occupation for a warm and windy afternoon, isn’t it?

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The rains also prompted large-flowered trillium to open. These won’t last long.

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Look closely below behind the trillium and you’ll see the white trout lily gone to seed. All around, blooms are throwing themselves into bud, bloom, and seed production. Sometimes, seemingly overnight.

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Updating a plant inventory plus a little judicious garlic mustard weeding will teach you how little you know about what is happening in your little corner of the plant world. I see plants that look familiar, but their name eludes me. It takes numerous trips through my favorite plant ID guides to get reacquainted. I also look in vain for old favorites which seem to have disappeared. (Where, oh where, is our birdfoot violet?)

Spring keeps you on your toes. It reminds you to be amazed. It constantly astonishes you with its sleight of hand; prolifically giving new species and flagrantly taking them away. And as always, there are a few surprises.

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Ah. The “elusive, rare” red tulip! Where did that come from? Huh.

Just when you think you know a flower, it turns up a a little different color, or gives you a new perspective on its life cycle. To see the wood betony at this stage always throws those new to the prairie for a loop. Almost ferny, isn’t it?

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Barely a hint now of what it will be when it grows up. Same for the prairie dock, tiny fuzzy leaves lifting above the ashes of the burn.

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Or the hepatica, most of its petal-like sepals gone, but the green bracts now visible. Looks like a different plant than when it was in full bloom.

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Pasque flower is now past bloom. As stewards, we turn our thoughts toward the first seed collection of the season and propagation for the next year. If a species is gone, or seems to be dwindling, we’ll consider replanting to maintain the diversity of the prairie.

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We tally up the numbers, check off plant species. Update scientific names which have changed. But no matter how the spreadsheets read, we know one thing for certain.

What a glorious time of year it is! Spring on the prairie is worth the wait.

*****

The opening quote is from Journal of a Prairie Year by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Worth re-reading every spring.

***

Unless noted, all photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): thunderhead moving in over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) sunning itself on the prairie; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); gravel two-track greening up in the rain; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides); harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflora); prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum); red tulip (Tulipa unknown species); wood betony (Pendicularis canadensus); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) emerging; hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba); pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) fading.