The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford


The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.

We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route.  A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.


As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight.  All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.

Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another.  And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…


A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

WMTrio of monarchs on stiff goldenrod KS91418.jpg

The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.


Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later,  I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.


Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.

So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!

Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…


…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!


The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.


Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.


But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.

This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.


This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

pvsburn copy

This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the  prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.


This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.


This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.


And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.


William Stafford (1914-1993)  is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”


All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN;  trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN:  video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.

16 responses to “The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

  1. Your blog today leaves me breathless in anticipation of the
    continual renewal process. May the bounce back begin!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Missed you at AOTP. I went over to Thelma Carpenter for a butterfly hike trying to find Regals with no luck. I did get a big surprise thought as I found a Pipevine Swallowtail!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John — I’ve seen regals this summer, but not in that area. Hope you had fun! Wow — a pipevine!!!! That is super cool. We saw some buckeyes, a black swallowtail, and a whole lot of cabbage whites, sulphurs, and pearl crescents on our dragonfly/wildflower hike. A beautiful day! Sorry I missed you.


  3. A most inspiring post! Thank you for the beauty and knowledge you share!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Even though I volunteered this morning at Tuesdays on the Prairie, after reading this it makes me want to go right back and do it again. Now!!! Lol Thank you Cindy for this wonderful blog!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeanne, it feels like you’ve been a part of the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass Team a whole lot longer than just one season! Grateful for your words, and grateful for your inspiring work on the prairie.


  5. Maryella Mosele Fox

    Oh Cindy! How I wish I could have seen them all with you! We scouted the countryside for milkweed earlier in hopes of “growing” some butterflies again but unfortunately the county mowing machines were out ahead of us and there was none to be cut. We did see two Monarchs on our marigolds and wondered how they could find any nectar in them as I thought they were deterrents. I hope to plant a butterfly garden next spring. Love your posts.
    Aunt Micki

    Liked by 1 person

    • So good to hear from you, Aunt Micki, and so delighted you are looking for milkweed! I’ve had luck growing it in my backyard; both the common weedier kind but especially the swamp milkweed and butterflyweed, which are good food sources for the caterpillars. I wonder if your county would consider changing their mowing schedule? I know we’ve had a lot of press here about cities waiting to mow until the monarchs were finished with the milkweed. My non-native sedum and zinnias seem to be good for the monarchs, and the native Joe Pye (very tall), goldenrods, liatris (blazing star) and especially, the butterfly weed have all been full of butterflies. Good luck! Can’t wait to hear more about your butterfly garden! Thank you so much for reading, and taking time to catch me up on your butterfly work in Indiana. Yay!


  6. Just lovely, thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Breath-taking and full of hope for the future of our prairies.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So lovely — thank you, Constance! I appreciate you taking time to read and to comment.


  9. I missed commenting on this a few weeks ago, but this is my favorite blogpost yet (and not just because the super cute baby at the end!). We wish we could have seen the butterflies with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is one cute baby…. totally agree! You, me, and the kiddos and butterflies — I see some real-time butterfly watching in our future together! Love to you all! Thanks for taking a moment to write. xox


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