Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Dragonfly Chasers

If you are old and you wish to be young again, if only for a moment, try and identify a dragonfly. — Simon Barnes

***

In the prairie ponds, streams, and wetlands, they wait. Dragonfly nymphs are about to emerge.

Last summer, I watched the scene below from my kayak. Female dragonflies lay eggs in water or vegetation. The male pondhawk dragonfly (powdery blue) “hover guards” the female (green) so no other males disturb her. Tapping her abdomen into the water, the female ensures another generation of dragonflies, as the male protects her from above. It all happens fast. So fast.

The eggs may hatch in a matter of weeks. In their nymph or larval stage, dragonflies (looking like ferocious beetles) cruise the water, sometimes for years. Then, one morning, these denizens of the deep scramble up a blade of grass and commence the difficult work of change. “Teneral” is the scientific term for the transformation stage. Each dragonfly nymph sheds its ugly husk, and exchanges it for a beautiful winged body.

IMG_2656

No longer a water-breather. The dragonfly is now a creature of the air. She takes flight.

Dragonflies dazzle us with their agile antics as they fly; stun us into silent admiration as they bask in sunlight.

eastern amberwing2 sp 2015.jpg

This April, I’ll join citizen scientists at Nachusa Grasslands and other prairies in hiking the tallgrass, looking for dragonflies and their close kin, damselflies.

Wandering Glider -SP72316.jpg

A “citizen scientist” is an amateur who contributes information to a scientific body of knowledge. My academic background is in art, journalism, and natural resource interpretation. I have no background in the hard sciences, or specifically, entomology (the study of insects). Yet, the fieldwork I and others do helps build our collective scientific knowledge of  the dragonfly world.

SPMA-halloweenpennant62516.jpg

Dragonfly monitors hike routes through the prairie and pencil hash marks on species lists, ticking off each dragonfly we discover. Green darner? Check. Halloween pennant? Check. Oohhhh… Jade clubtail! Check.

IMG_8247 2.JPG

As I monitor dragonflies,  I pay attention to anything that lifts off from the tallgrass at my approach. Is it a dragonfly? I watch closely.

carolinasaddlebags-sp2014.JPG

Yes! I log it on my list. Bonus: I observe other critters–such as bees and butterflies– as I walk. I note their presence in my journal, and alert site managers if I see something unusual.

monarch 2014.jpg

How does observing dragonflies and damselflies benefit us? The violet skimmer damselfly (below) and other species are complex and colorful. But besides the aesthetics, why should we care?

BLOGviolet dancer SP2015 copy.jpg

Here’s why. Because dragonflies spend the biggest part of their lives in the water, the changes in health and populations of dragonflies and damselflies tell us a lot about how the quality of water changes over time. Clean water is essential to life and our well-being. Clean water is also a non-negotiable resource for future generations.

IMG_9293

And so, this summer, you’ll find me in the tallgrass, wandering along shorelines, or deep in a prairie stream, chasing dragonflies. Netting some for a closer look; photographing others. Carefully checking for identifying field marks.

IMG_8180.jpg

Sure, it’s citizen science. But it’s art as well. Those colors! Those wing patterns! Their names are poetry. Ebony jewelwing.

NG Ebony Jewelwing 2014.JPG

Calico pennant.

IMG_5286

Springwater dancer.

Springwater Dancer NG71816.jpg

Their names help form the vocabulary of the prairie community.

If you love the natural world as I do, dragonfly monitoring is one enjoyable and simple way to make a small contribution to keeping it in good shape. Wherever you live, the dragonflies are waiting for you to notice them. Learn a few of their names. Make time to sit and watch them.

P1050709.jpg

It will be time well spent.

***

Simon Barnes (1951-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is a British sportswriter and wildlife columnist. Once employed by the London Times, he was fired from the newspaper after more than 30 years, supposedly for angering hunters with his remarks in an opinion column about saving an endangered bird. His 16 books include Birdwatching with Your Eyes Closed and How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video of eastern pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis) at Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; jade clubtail (Arigomphus submedianus), Warrenville Grove, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; close up Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on new England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; little dragonfly chaser, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing sculpture (Sculopterayx metallicaea), Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL. 

Finding our Story on the Prairie

“Stories are compasses and architecture; …to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions. Place is a story, and stories are geography….” -Rebecca Solnit ***

It’s spring.  The geography of the early spring prairie is an unfolding story. It’s a good place to think about where you’ve been and where you are at now.  Where you’re headed next.

P1050719 (1)

There’s  evidence of what has passed on the March prairie. Bison tracks, filled with ice, glitter under the cold, clear sky.

P1050878.jpg

You may find an icy stream rearranging itself in the sunshine. Change.

 

The last — or will it be the last? –snowfall melts under the focused blaze of the sun.

P1050898.jpg

Old attitudes begin to thaw along with the snow and the ice. You feel pliable, flexible, more comfortable with ambiguity.

P1050885.jpg

 

There’s still plenty of the old prairie grasses, untouched by fire, to remind us of last season.

P1050905.jpg

On other prairies, the newly-scorched earth is witness to how life can drastically change within moments.

IMG_9329.jpg

In early March, the remains of last year’s prairie seem fragile; transient. Poised on the edge of something new.

P1050717.jpg

On the first day of spring, a thunderstorm rumbles through. Hail taps against the tallgrass. Who knows what the week ahead will bring? Sunshine or snowflakes; sleet or heat, mud or slush. Then, rewind to winter again. Anything is possible.

P1050890.jpg

Despite the calendar’s confirmation of spring, on long strings of gray days, it’s easy to feel stuck. Mired in the old.

P1050872.jpg

But the return of migrating birds; the heightened colors of our regular year-round visitors at the backyard feeders and on the prairie, are a reassurance that something new is coming. Another chapter in the prairie story is beginning. How will our own story be different this time around?

P1050659

Spring, with its wildflowers and floods of green, slowly moves onstage; a series of stops and starts.

IMG_9348

We’re impatient to embrace it all. This season, we vow, we’ll be more intentional. Risk  a little, love more, adventure out where we’re uncomfortable. Speak up instead of be silent. Pay attention.

In her book, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit offers this thought: Will your story be largely an account of what has happened to you? Or will it be an account of what you did?  It’s so easy to stay with what works. Go with the flow. Let the days pass as they always have.

P1050862.jpg

Take a long hike on the prairie. Think about its story of growth, of testing by fire, of resurrection. Reflect on what you really want to do with the time you have just ahead.

P1050695.jpg

How will you be intentional about your story this season? What will your story be?

Go, and find out.

***

The opening quote is from The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than a dozen books about the nature of place,  and our place in the world. Another good book from Solnit is Wanderlust: A History of Walking. She is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wetland, Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL: iced bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice melt video, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; beaver (Castor canadensis) dam on the prairie wetlands, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) tracks in the mud, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, local prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL; iced bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in a willow (Salix viminalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; moon over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; wildflower street sign, Rochelle, IL; deer (Odocoileus virginianus) at The Morton Arboretum oak savanna, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

 

A March Prairie Tempest

“In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” — Mark Twain

***

Tempest  ‘tem~pest’ (noun):  a violent windstorm, especially one with rain, hail, or snow.

Temperamental March comes in like a lion in Illinois, all twisters and high winds. Perhaps not a true tempest in the purest sense, but certainly leaning toward tempestuous.

The tallgrass ripples and blurs  in 50-mph gusts.

P1050700.jpg

Prairie managers consult weather forecasts. What is the wind speed? Wind direction? Humidity? March in Illinois is a season of prescribed fire.  In prairies and woodlands; savannas and wetlands, invasive plants are knocked back as the flames blacken the ground. Warming it for new life to come.

 

Up, up, up goes the smoke. Particles practice hangtime long after the burn is over. The smoke particles filter out the wavelengths of certain colors, but reds, oranges, and pinks come through. The  result? Vivid sunsets. As if the flames have leapt into space. Motorists slow, marveling at the skies.

sunset 392017.jpg

Just when spring-like weather seems here to stay, March hits the rewind button. Snow fills the  forecasts. Flakes fall overnight, covering prairies like sifted sugar. Or…

Saul Lake Bog March 3, 2017 (about 1 p.m.).jpg

… slathered on like heavy frosting.

IMG_1497

Deer move through the savannas, looking for browse.

P1050865.jpg

In the icy air, sundogs–bright patches of iridescence–tint the clouds just after sunrise and right before sunset.

P1050585.jpg

 

March is mercurial. A month of hellos and goodbyes. Farewell to the last thimbleweed seeds…

Tellabs 217 NG.jpg

…goodbye to the Indian hemp seeds.

P1050763.jpg

March is also a month of hellos. Mosses stand out in the savanna, bright green and scarlet. Chlorophyll is in the air. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a whisper: Grow! Grow!

P1040598.jpg

Small leaves spear through old grass and leaf litter. Such welcome color! We greet each new prairie plant shoot like an old friend we haven’t seen in a while.

P1050773.jpg

Try to describe the month of March on the prairie, and you may find the exact terms elude you; move in and out of focus.

P1050801.jpg

Why? The March prairie is a changeling child–the offspring of wind, fire, snow, hail, rain, and sun. Of opposites. Hot and cold; push and pull; destroy and grow.

P1050793.jpg

A prairie tempest. Within that tempest brews a new season.

Something to anticipate.

***

The opening quote  is from Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He was born and raised in Missouri, then later lived in New York and Connecticut. Twain’s writing was noted for its satire and humor. Among his greatest works are  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: high winds, Nachusa Grasslands, Thelma Carpenter Unit, The Nature Conservancy,  Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed fire, wetlands around Klein Creek, Carol Stream, IL;  rush hour after a day of local prescribed burns, Glen Ellyn, IL; tallgrass with snow, Saul Lake Bog, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; snow on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; young white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sundog, Lake Michigan; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; dogbane/Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; moss in the savanna, Nachusa Grasslands, Tellabs Unit, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; goldenrod (Solidago, species unknown), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL.

 

A Little Prairie Bog Magic

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

****

The word apokatas’tasis–from the Greek–means to “restore.” I hold this word in my mind on a cold sunny day, hiking one of Michigan’s off-the-beaten-path gems: Saul Lake Bog Preserve in Rockford, Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids.

The original tallgrass prairie range stretches into Michigan further than one would think. Since 2000 at the preserve, old pasture near the bog is being slowly restored to prairie. One acre at a time.

P1050539.jpg

The preserve is a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands, and prairie.  Occasional bird calls provide a soundtrack as  I hike the two-track through the woods on my way to the prairie. It’s quiet. So quiet. A welcome contrast to the noisy Chicago suburbs I call home.

 

The two-track that leads to the prairie is riddled with snow-filled potholes. Each is shadowed with images of  the last dry leaves that still cling to the overhanging tree branches above.

P1050571.jpg

The dirt two-track ends in a parking lot and trailhead. Through the trees, a boardwalk leads to the bog.

P1050430 (1).jpg

I ease across the wood planks, listening to the ice underneath the walkway crackle and break at every step.

P1050450.jpg

Nearby, the willows show off their soft furry catkins. A sure sign of spring on the way.

P1050498.jpg

Even in early March, the bog has bright sweeps of color.

P1050440.jpg

P1050455 (1).jpg

Admiring the russets and golds of the leatherleaves–and the occasional cottony tuft of tawny grass here and there–I’m grateful for the sunshine and the solitude. But as I walk back to the prairie, I realize I’m not alone.

P1050469.jpg

I hike around the prairie loop as the sky swings back and forth between bright blue and dull gray. A chilly wind rattles the stalks of last season’s grasses and wildflowers.

P1050508.jpg

A turkey vulture circles; checks me out. It decides I’m still healthy. Then glides away.

P1050545.jpg

At Saul Lake Bog Preserve, prescribed fire helps keep the prairie healthy, and helps hold invasive plants at bay. Seed collecting, followed by seed sowing, increases plant diversity.

P1050522.jpg

Each year, volunteers expand the prairie. It is slow labor, with little in the way of a quick payoff.  The work of restoration– apokatas’tasis–of any kind, prairie or personal, is difficult and often slow. It can be painful. The results may not be apparent for years. But Saul Lake Bog Preserve’s prairie reminds me: The end result is worth it.

***

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a naturalist, historian, adventurer, and at age 42, our 26th (and youngest) president of the United States. A sickly child, he found joy in the natural world. Later in life, after losing his wife and his mother, he lived in the Dakotas and found solace in the “wilderness” of the American West. His later adventures in the Amazon River Basin are chronicled in the riveting book, River of Doubt, by Candace Millard. Roosevelt helped shape many of the original conservation policies that help protect our national parks and nature preserves today.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan; Rockford, MI:  sky over restored prairie; video clip of forest with tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) calling; pothole shadows; boardwalk into Saul Lake Bog; fence shadows on boardwalk snow; flowering furry male catkins of willows (Salix, unknown species); Saul Lake Bog; leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) leaves;  mink (Neovision vison) tracks; mixed prairie plants in early March; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura); bluebird house in the tallgrass.