Monthly Archives: March 2018

Prairie Shadows; Prairie Promise

“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

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It’s “shadow season” on the prairie, a time where everything seems a ghost of its former, vibrant self. I find it one of the most difficult times of the year in the tallgrass. Everything that remains at the turn of March to April is seemingly brittle. Ruined. Grasses are flattened. The prairie seems worn out.

Waiting for fire.

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Or maybe I’m just projecting my own winter-weary self on the prairie. The prairie—as always—has its gifts to give.  These gifts just aren’t that in-your-face, “wow-look-at-that-color!” good looks. No wildflowers. No juicy grasses. Few returning grassland birds.

There is a whole lot of animal scat and mud. Trash, small mammal bones, and flotsam and jetsam left behind after the snow melt.

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It’s discouraging. But sometimes, to see hope for the future—or even, just to give yourself a mental boost to get to next week—you have to look a little closer. Dig a little deeper. Take more time. Sit with things.

When you do, you find that with the prairie’s maturity comes a different sort of beauty. It’s nuanced.

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Some plants are crumpled and twisted. This one caught a plant virus. See that thick stem? It’s frayed a little around the stress points, but not broken…

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Prairie dock leaves are so wrinkled you have to look twice to recognize them.

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Much different from their beginnings just a year or so ago.

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All the knowledge of the past prairie season is encapsulated here in March. A shadow of what once was. You can’t help but be reminded of our own fleeting presence here.

 

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There’s promise. That promise will be more evident after the prescribed fires, when the prairie is once again lush and green and beginning to bloom.

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Despite the stands of dead foliage, what is important to the prairie is still here. Even if unseen. It’s right where you’re standing. Down deep where the fire can’t touch it, in the roots that plunge up to 15 feet or more into the earth.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Everything we see is but a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about the prairie, but his words are applicable. Those unseen deep roots that grip the soil so tenaciously–and will remain untouched by fire—are the prairie’s future. They hold the history of the prairie–the soil—in their grasp. While the life of the prairie above the ground is finished—that fleeting shadow of wildflowers, grasses, and color—there is more to consider than what is visible to our eyes.

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Some prairies have already been burned as March comes to a close. But, without the right weather conditions, many of our local prairies are still in a state of anticipation. Waiting for the flames. For the prairie to flourish—for color and life and motion to be kindled again in the tallgrass—calls for something harsh, extravagant, and radical to happen.

There’s not much time left. March is almost over.

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Bring on the fire.

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The opening quote is by dark romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville (who dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne), and Louis Agassiz. To support his writing, and later his family, Hawthorne did everything from working as a surveyor to shoveling manure. He’s known for his short stories and his novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass produced books in America, and required reading when I was in high school. Writer D.H. Lawrence said of The Scarlet Letter, “There could be no more perfect work of the imagination.” Hawthorne is buried at Authors Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in March before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown mammal bones, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; spoon in the tallgrass, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) (probably infected with a virus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL; Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; wrinkled prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; green prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Aldo Leopold Prairie Visitor Center prairie planting, Baraboo, WI; feather on prairie plant (both unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)  at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; ball gall, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; unburned savanna and burned prairie at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn in the distance, viewed from The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Transformations

“The world of dew is the world of dew. And yet, and yet…” — Kobayashi Issa

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It’s cold. I’m tired. But I push myself out the door.

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The sun is just beginning to flood the world with light.

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The burned prairie is flocked with white. An intersection between fire and ice.

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As the cold earth warms under the rising sun, fog settles…

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…casting prairie plants, covered with ice crystals, in sharp relief.

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Once familiar to us…

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…the grasses and wildflowers become something alien, exotic.

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The Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa, wrote: “Dew evaporates…

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…and all our world is dew…

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…so dear, so fresh, so fleeting.”

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This moment will quickly vanish. And no other morning will be quite like this one.

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A good reason to keep showing up.

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Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), whose haiku opens this post, was a Japanese poet who is regarded as one of the great Japanese haiku masters. His life was marked by various tragedies: the loss of his first wife and children, a later, unhappy marriage; a house that burned to the ground. Another one of my favorite poems of his: “Reflected in the dragonfly’s eye—mountains.” And, “Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Prairiewoods tallgrass prairie and savanna, Hiawatha, Iowa: common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) unknown prairie plant covered with ice crystals;  burned prairie covered with ice; fog over burned prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) covered with ice in the fog; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) covered with ice, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)  covered with ice, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with fog droplets; unknown oak leaf on burned prairie with ice crystals; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with fog droplets; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on frosted prairie.

Prairie Dragonfly Mysteries

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” ― Agatha Christie

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I’m a big fan of mysteries. As a teenager, I burned through all of Agatha Christie’s classics, and I still love to pick up an occasional thriller that keeps me guessing. As a naturalist, part of my attraction to the outdoors revolves around a different sort of mystery. Science has a lot of answers. But there are many unsolved questions out there.

I like that. Perhaps nowhere is mystery so evident as when I try to understand dragonfly migration.

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This week, I’m prepping training workshops for two groups of dragonfly and damselfly monitors at the prairies where I’m a steward. We’re all volunteers, all citizen scientists collecting data that we hope will help future researchers learn more about these incredible insects.

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During the workshops, we’ll discuss the life cycle of the dragonfly. It begins with a little rough and tumble dragonfly romance and then, ovipositing or egg laying.

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Ouch! That’s got to hurt.

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At the two workshops, we’ll share ID tips for differentiating among the 100 or so dragonfly species in Illinois and the almost 50 damselfly species, plus the various variations among male, female, and immature individuals. Pretty straightforward stuff, for the most part.

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We’ll touch on the cultural history of dragonflies as well; their use in cuisine, art, and literature. I like this haiku by Basho: “Crimson pepper pod/add two pairs of wings and look/darting dragonfly.” You can see why he was inspired!

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Dragonfly cultural history and much of dragonfly natural history is explainable, at least to some degree. But dragonfly migration! That’s where it gets difficult.

Dragonfly migration is less understood than that of the monarch butterfly, whose travel habits have been exhaustively studied, immortalized in novels, and  whose migration journey continues to fascinate the general public.

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Or consider bird migration, the topic of many books like Scott Weidensaul’s excellent Living on the Wind, and the subject of countless research projects. Sure, there’s still mystery in avian migration. But plenty of information out there.

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Dragonfly migration? Not so much. The process remains veiled in mystery.  We do know a few things: at least four dragonfly species in Illinois (green darner, black saddlebags, wandering glider, and variegated meadowhawk) head south for the winter, and probably some damselfly species as well.

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But why these species? Why not others? Where do they go? What tells them to mass at the end of summer and fly, often in large swarms, to another place?

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The Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to discover what we do know about the science of dragonfly migration. As an organization dedicated to protect invertebrates and their habitats, they are a good clearing house for insect migration information. Got some extra time? Click through the link here and read more about how citizen science volunteers are contributing to our understanding about dragonfly migration.

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We do know that some dragonflies in North America may travel almost 2,000 miles south in the late summer and early fall. They often join raptors migrating south. Dragonfly offspring will travel the same distances, often with raptors, back north in the spring. Look around in science journals and on dragonfly websites and you’ll find comical images of green darners wearing tiny transmitters to track their movements; or complex studies of isotopes in dragonfly wings which help researchers determine their general place of emergence.

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But once you start reading, you realize just how little we know about these dazzling creatures. You get to the end of the dragonfly migration studies pretty fast. It’s a good PhD project for some future researcher! Learning more about what makes some dragonfly species born with an itch to travel.

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In April, we’ll begin to see the first battered and worn out dragonflies head north and arrive in the Midwest, heirs of those stalwart flyers who fled south last year. As dragonfly monitors, we’ll scribble about these early arrivals—and later, summer flyers and dragonfly departures—as hash marks on our data sheets. We’ll report the information to staff at our local prairies and natural areas. Then, in Illinois, we’ll upload it to www.illinoisodes.com, our state repository for this information. All very logical and linear isn’t it?

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At some point in the season, most of us will put our pencils down and pause for a moment. Overcome with wonder. How amazing that this tiny creature logged those miles and survived birds, weather, and traffic to be here, on this prairie! How incredible that we can bear witness to this phenomenon, even for a moment.  How satisfying to be a small cog in the wheel of the research that is being done for the future!

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And most of us will acknowledge this: Despite the data we’ll collect, despite all the facts we know, it’s that unknown that makes it so exciting to be a part of this citizen science project. The quest is part of the fun.

And we’ll marvel, in awe of the mystery of dragonfly migration.

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Agatha Christie (1890), whose quote opens this post, is the author of 66 mystery novels and 14 short story collections. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in the English language, and just as many in translation. My favorite quote of Christie’s: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

Scott Weidensaul (1959-), who is mentioned in this post, is a Pennsylvania naturalist and writer. My favorite of his books, Living on the Wind,  examines the amazing world of bird migration. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; damselflies in tandem, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), ovipositing in Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly, male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum, unknown species), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI; great egret (Ardea alba) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wandering glider dragonfly (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; river bluet damselfly (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raw data sheet, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, check out some other dragonfly resources at the links referenced above and this excellent blog post from a few year’s ago: Cool Green Science’s “Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve.” 

Local friends: If you’re interested in exploring more about dragonflies, join me at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  Friday, March 30, 2018 for a dragonfly workshop. Register by e-mailing me at phrelanzer@aol.com.

Our Inland Prairie Sea

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”—Isak Dinesen

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To refer to the tallgrass prairie as a “sea of grass” is almost cliché.

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And yet, when you juxtapose sea and prairie, you understand why the image comes so readily.

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Like many suburban Chicago prairie lovers, in the mud season of the year—late February to mid-March—I do my best to migrate south for a few days. Sunshine, salt water, and sandy beaches are restorative.

The sky over the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the sky of the tallgrass prairie; open, limitless.

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The flattened waves of prairie grasses and wildflowers, weathered by wind and rain…

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…with blue-shadowed pockets of snow…

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…are in my mind as I watch waves slap the shore.

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Funny, isn’t it? Even when we leave the landscape we call home, it haunts us.

It’s not that everything is similar—far from it! The birds are different from those of the prairie in so many ways. The food they eat.

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The way they move.

 

 

Even their attitude.

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Many of the Gulf Coast birds I see are readying themselves for a long flight north. Soon, migration will bring them and others through the flyways of the Chicago region.

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No matter where I look in Florida, I find unexpected reminders of my life as a prairie steward.

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As much as I enjoy getting away from the Midwest in early March, my mind keeps wandering from the beach back to what’s going on in the tallgrass up north. Am I missing out on a prescribed burn? Has the skunk cabbage leafed out yet? What new birds are singing along Willoway Brook?

After five days in Florida, I’m ready to dive back into my prairie work.

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One great thing about traveling: At the end of the day…

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…sometimes a little displacement makes you appreciate the place you call home.

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Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) (1885-1962) authored Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast. Both were adapted as movies, and won Academy Awards.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Captiva Island sunset, Florida; Captiva Island beach, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue-shadowed pockets of snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; waves on the beach, Captiva Island, Florida; willet (Tringa semipalmataeating a crab (species unknown), Sanibel Island, Florida; video of sanderlings (Calidris albaand other shorebirds, Sanibel Island, Florida; great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), Sanibel Island, Florida; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Buckthorn Lane street sign, Sanibel Island, Florida; brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalisdiving for fish, Sanibel-Captiva causeway, Florida; sunset with birds, J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sanibel Island, Florida.