Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

 “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

******

If there’s one phrase my family knows I can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be so. Why waste a moment?

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I think of this as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie this week. The wind has come up. Instead of gazing over my head for patrolling green darners and black saddlebags, I’m looking lower, in the grasses and prairie wildflowers. There, many of the regular high flying dragonflies hunker down, sheltering from the breezy heat.

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Each season, dragonfly monitors—people like you and me—go to a city park, prairie restoration, forest preserve pond, or local wetland with the intention of regularly collecting data about Odonates. Monitors—dragonfly chasers—spend a good chunk of their summer hours in mosquito-filled areas, counting dragonflies and damselflies and making hash marks on a clipboard. We note what species we see, and how many of each species appears on a certain day in a particular place.

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It sounds a little nutty, perhaps, to spend our days counting insects. But dragonflies and damselflies are a good thermometer for the state of our waterways. Their numbers and species diversity have messages for us about the health of our natural world. All we have to do is listen. Pay attention. Show up.

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Speaking of thermometers: It’s hot. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. I check my phone and see the temperature is 88 degrees. The relative humidity of the Midwest makes it seem even hotter, keeping most visitors off of the prairie trails.

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The dragonflies, which maintain body temperature through thermoregulatory behavior, have various gymnastics to help them stay cool.  This female eastern amberwing dragonfly below is obelisking.

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By positioning her abdomen straight up, she reduces some of the direct summer heat hitting her body. Sometimes, you’ll see dragonflies point their abdomens downward for the same reason. Or, if it’s cooler, they’ll use their wings as solar collectors, like this 12-spotted skimmer below. Gathering sunshine.

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This season, I find the blue-fronted dancer damselfly population has erupted out of all imagining. I walk, and I look, and I try to keep track of what I’m seeing. Hash mark, hash mark, hash mark… . I can barely keep track of them, emerging from the grasses on both sides of the prairie trail; a virtual ambush of bright blue insects. Under my feet. Hovering knee high. Blue-fronted dancer damselflies everywhere! Hash mark. Hash mark. I finally quit tallying them at 88 individuals.

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So much dazzling blue! The danger is that as I see so many of one species, I overlook some of the other species that aren’t as prolific. Like this violet dancer, mixed in with the blue-fronteds.

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Or an American rubyspot damselfly, hanging out by the stream.

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Damselflies are so darn tiny. Part of the day’s adventure is to slow down and really look. Carefully. Closely. But I’m always aware of what I’m missing, even as I see so much. All these incredible dragonflies and damselflies! But–that bee over there. What species is it? And what about that butterfly? What’s moving in the grass by the stream? The July prairie explodes with wildflowers all around me as I hike. How can I focus?

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It’s easy to be diverted. On one route,  I narrowly avoid stepping on a bee fly sunning itself on the gravel two-track.

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On another trail, I kick up little puffs of butterflies—maybe pearl crescents? Tough to ID. They rise, then settle back into the clover as I pass.

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I stop to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird swoop across the trail, then hover, sipping nectar from the dark reddish-brown flowers of a tall late figwort plant, towering over my head.  I didn’t know hummingbirds visit these tiny blooms! In the gusty breeze, the oddball flowers rocket wildly back and forth, but the hummingbird maneuvers right along with them. Later, I visit the Prairie Moon Nursery website and read more about this wildflower’s value to butterflies, bees, and—yes—hummingbirds. Who knew?

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There’s always something different and exciting to learn as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie. Always a small adventure of some sort, waiting to happen.

In rain-rutted puddles, bullfrogs leap across the water with an EEK!”

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The common yellowthroat sings his wichety-wichety-wichety from the walnut tree by the wooden bridge over Willoway Brook. I inhale the scent of a hundred thousand wildflowers and grasses; the smell of prairie soil that’s alternately been baked in a hot summer oven and soaked with rain.

As I finish my route near the stream, a red-winged blackbird hovers menacingly over my head, daring me to come closer. Are they still nesting? Must be! He shrieks loudly as I cover my head with my clipboard—just in case—and hurry a bit toward the path leading to the parking lot.

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So much to think about. The writer Paul Gruchow once observed, “Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” One of the pleasures of dragonfly monitoring is the practice of paying close attention to everything on the July prairie. Flexing the muscles of my imagination. Resisting the urge to become jaded and cynical—all too easy in the world we find ourselves in today. Trying to choose where I focus.

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Even a simple hike on the prairie, counting dragonflies, can be an adventure. The writer Annie Dillard penned one of my favorite quotes: How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  I think of this as I watch a black saddlebag dragonfly cruise over my backyard prairie patch, or admire the way the cup plants cradle water in their joined leaves after a torrential downpour, inviting goldfinches to take a drink. I try to ask myself regularly: How am I spending my hours? How am I spending my life?

Every day I struggle to be intentional. To make room for curiosity. Imagination. The life of the spirit. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

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Instead of “killing time,” I want to cultivate a sense of wonder. To look at every moment as an adventure. To make room for reflection. To walk, and always—always! —be astonished at what I see.

And how can we not be astonished? Look at those dragonflies, those wildflowers!  Listen to that birdsong. Watch the tallgrass ripple in the breeze.

What a beautiful world.

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British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) penned the opening words in this blog from The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of classic children’s books. My favorite book in the series (although it is tough to choose!) is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and part of a writers group known as The Inklings. The books are great for read-aloud, if you have children or grandchildren elementary age and up.

Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) who wrote one of the quotes that appears in this post, is one of my favorite writers about the natural world. If you haven’t read Gruchow, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both terrific reads. I also love his Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.

The late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) penned the beautiful poem, When Death Comes, quoted at the end of this post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook at the end of July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) with unknown grass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eyrngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), author’s backyard and prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL;  blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet (or variable) dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis  var. violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly (possibly Bombylius major), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tough to ID, but possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Culver’s root in mid July (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; looking back at a dragonfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

More about Cindy’s speaking and classes at www.cindycrosby.com 

20 responses to “Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

  1. Debbie Anderson-Phillips

    I too was amazed at the swarms of blue fronted damselflies last week. Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Debbie — I love it that you noticed! Wow, what a year for the blue-fronted dancers…. thank you for reading and for taking time to comment. Most of all, thank you for your love of prairie. — Cindy 🙂

      Like

  2. An outstanding blog, and every week at that! And now the Odonates have arrived. Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful photos interlaced with literary, philosophic thoughts. A truly model blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cindy

    Nice pictures! Thank you.

    Cordially

    Chuck Tollefsen

    Cel (313) 398-1981 Toll Free (855) 881-8655 Tollefsen.co

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That beefly! Zounds what a beautiful critter.

    Thanks for showing us some of the results of your dragonfly ramble. Amazing, the things they do. I like the way they make me think they are taking me into account, returning the favor. Sometimes it is nice to be noticed.

    Merwin wrote a lovely poem about dragonflies which Carol Rumens writes about for The Guardian. Here is the link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/oct/10/poem-of-the-week-after-the-dragonflies-by-ws-merwin.

    I’m not smart enough to make this easier but it is worth copying (my view) into the great search engine which in less time than you can say dragonfly or almost, once you click enter there you are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Ed — I am so glad to meet another bee fly aficiando. There are many of us! Such a cool creature. Thank you for noticing the dragonflies on your own rambles, and taking time to care. Merwin is such an amazing poet — nice to share poetry, as well as Odes. Grateful for that mention, and the chance to revisit his work. Enjoy the last day of July, and thank you again for reading and taking time to comment! Cindy 🙂

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  5. Aha, you are much smarter than me. I just noticed after posting that the link i pasted in is hot. Thanks. Sorry about not knowing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. How did I miss the fact that you are also an ode monitor?! I walked my ode transects today too, and could have written a post much like this one. (I did write a brief story on my blog from today’s monitoring.) I can relate to the trouble focusing when there’s so much interesting stuff going on out there — today I was distracted by a young double-crested cormorant sitting high in a tree, craning his neck every direction while I stood below him undetected. And I was also wondering where in the world all the blue-fronted dancers came from today!! It was just crazy as I walked along the banks of the Maumee River in Toledo — they were popping up left and right faster than I could count them. Luckily this wasn’t in my count area, so I didn’t have to count them, LOL. But my route was exploding with Eastern Amberwings today — I think I had about 80 or 90 of them in my half-mile loop around a small lake. I loved this post, Cindy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Kim — I love your blog “Nature is my Therapy” (check it out, folks, and subscribe! https://natureismytherapy.com/) and am fascinated knowing you are seeing the Blue-fronted Dancer eruption in Ohio. Crazy, isn’t it? I am wondering if they are pushing out Eastern Forktails on my routes –I didn’t count a single EF Sunday on that route (I have, gulp, 8 routes on two different sites — crazy, I know, but I can’t resist!). A very strange and wonderous year indeed. 90 Eastern Amberwings would be a glorious day — they are one of my faves. Your license plate is awesome! All I have is a bumper magnet. Thank you for all you do for the dragonflies — and thank you for reading and taking time to post! — Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. love this natural high….!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Beautiful post with beautiful pictures!

    I like what you wrote about staying curious. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. But still, I’m often “killing time”, or too tired or stressed to notice things.
    But you’re so right, that the world is wonderfull and we should take notice!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Discovering — thank you for your kind note and for reading the blog. There’s a lot that demands our attention, isn’t there? It’s a beautiful world. I have to remember that too, when I’m stressed, and some days are better than others. A good hike outdoors (for me, the prairie, for others woodlands, wetlands, or just a stroll down the street) always seems to clear my head and help me remember to be grateful. Hope your week ahead is peaceful and less stressful. — Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Beautiful, Cindy. As always!

    Marilyn

    On Tue, Jul 30, 2019 at 7:11 AM Tuesdays in the Tallgrass wrote:

    > Cindy Crosby posted: ” “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall > fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis ****** If there’s one phrase my family knows I > can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s > irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be” >

    Liked by 1 person

    • So lovely to hear from you, Marilyn. Thank you for reading the blog and taking time to leave such a kind and encouraging comment. Sending you and the Hoosier folks a hug! — Cindy 🙂

      Like

  10. Your photos are becoming more beautiful, if possible!
    Plus now, when I am walking around the arb, I am noticing
    many more of the dragonflies. Their colors are amazing.
    Out in nature is the place to be!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kathy, and I’m so delighted to hear you are finding the blog helpful as you hike the Arboretum! Aren’t the dragonflies beautiful this year? As always. But every season seems to bring them into closer focus for me as well. Thank you for reading, and for taking time to comment. I’m grateful.

      Like

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