The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“…this spring morning with its cloud of light, that wakes the blackbird in the trees downhill…”—W.S. Merwin

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On March 1, Jeff and I celebrated the first day of meteorological spring by hiking the 1,829-acre Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, IL.  March came in like a lamb.

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From its unlikely spot smack in the middle of subdivisions and busy shopping centers, Springbrook Prairie serves as an oasis for wildlife and native plants. As part of the Illinois Nature Preserves and DuPage Forest Preserve system…

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… it is (according to the forest preserve’s website) “a regionally significant grassland for breeding and overwintering birds and home to meadowlarks, dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, woodcocks and bobolinks as well as state-endangered northern harriers, short-eared owls, and Henslow’s sparrows.” Some of these birds stick around during the winter; others will swing into the area in a month or two with the northward migration.

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That’s quite a list of birds.  Shielding our eyes against the sun, we see something unexpected.

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A bald eagle! From its “grave troubles” in the 1970s (as the Illinois Natural History Survey tells us), it is estimated that 30-40 breeding pairs of bald eagles now nest in Illinois each year. We watch it soar, buffeted by the winds, until it is out of sight. As we marvel over this epiphany, we hear the sound of a different bird. Oka-lee! Oka-lee!

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We first heard them a week ago as we hiked the Belmont Prairie. Their song is a harbinger of spring.  Soon, they’ll be lost in a chorus of spring birdsong, but for now, they take center stage.

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A few Canada geese appear overhead. Two mallards complete our informal bird count. Not bad for the first day of March.

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The scent of mud and thaw tickles my nose;  underwritten with a vague hint of chlorophyll.

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Strong breezes bend the grasses.

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The temperature climbs as we hike—soon, it’s almost 60 degrees. Sixty degrees! I unwind my scarf, unzip my coat.

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Joggers plod methodically along the trail, eyes forward, earbuds in place. They leave deep prints on the thawing crushed limestone trail. Bicyclists whiz through, the only evidence minutes later are the lines grooved into the path.

Our pace, by comparison, is slow. We’re here to look.

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Bright light floods the grasslands. Mornings now, I wake to this sunlight which pours through the blinds and jump-starts my day. In less than a week—March 8—we’ll change to daylight savings time and seem to “lose” some of these sunlight gains. Getting started in the morning will be a more difficult chore. But for now, I lean into the light.

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What a difference sunshine and warmth make!

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Families are out in groups, laughing and joking. Everyone seems energized by the blue skies.prairieskiesspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Grasslands are on the brink of disappearance. To save them, we have to set them aflame. Ironic, isn’t it?  To “destroy” what we want to preserve? But fire is life to prairies. Soon these grasses and ghosts of wildflowers past will turn to ashes in the prescribed burns.

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Mowed boundaries—firebreaks—for the prescribed burns are in place…

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…a foreshadowing of what is to come. We’ve turned a corner. Soon. Very soon.

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The prairie world has been half-dreaming…

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…almost sleeping.

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It’s time to wake up.

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All the signs are in place. The slant of light. Warmth. Birdsong. The scent of green.

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Spring.

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The opening quote is part of a poem “Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud” from Garden Time by W.S. Merwin (1927-2019). My favorite of his poems is “After the Dragonflies” from the same volume. Merwin grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister; he later became a practicing Buddhist and moved to Hawaii. As a child, he wrote hymns. He was our U.S. Poet Laureate twice, and won almost all the major awards given for poetry. I appreciate Merwin for his deep explorations of the natural world and his call to conservation.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County/Illinois Nature Preserves, Naperville, IL (top to bottom):  March on Springbrook Prairie; sign; prairie skies (can you see the “snowy egret” in the cloud formation?); bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus); red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus); possibly a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nest (corrections welcome); mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiker; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); prairie skies; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum); mowed firebreak; curve in the trail; snowmelt; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); grasses and water. “Lean into the light” is a phrase borrowed from Barry Lopez —one of my favorites —from “Arctic Dreams.”

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Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. For details and registration, click here. Sold out. Call to be put on the waiting list.

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact phrelanzer@aol.com for more information,  details will be sent with registration.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

12 responses to “The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

  1. I am forwarding this post to my sister and her husband, as well as my nieces and nephew (now young adults), who have lived two blocks from Springbrook since 1990. I’m not sure that they ever walked the trails there. So your post can introduce them to the treasures that have been waiting for them all these years!

    Liked by 1 person

    • How lovely of you, Paula!! Thank you for sharing the post. Springbrook Prairie is such an amazing place–and so big! We are fortunate to have it in DuPage County. I appreciate you reading the blog this week, and taking time to let me know. Happy hiking, and thank you again. Cindy 🙂

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  2. William Nettelhorst

    Cindy do you burn every Prairie every year?

    Liked by 1 person

    • So good to hear from you, and thank you for reading this week! Really appreciate that. I was on the burn crew for a number of years, but have mostly taken myself out of that task (we have a fine burn crew both at the Schulenberg Prairie where I am a steward, and at Nachusa Grasslands, where I am a steward–but haven’t worked on their fire crew. ) I can only speak for the Schulenberg Prairie— we burn at least a portion of the prairie each season, sometimes in rotation (leaving areas unburned), other times the full prairie. These decisions are made by someone other than myself, with management goals in mind. How often do you burn? I know there are different schools of thought about the percentage burned and the timing (based on nesting birds and overwintering insects). Fire is something we continue to learn more about. It’s an exciting time! — Thank you again for reading, and taking a moment to drop me a note. I always appreciate it! — Cindy 🙂

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  3. William Nettelhorst

    Cindy, the government requires me to burn every 5 years. CRP contract runs 10 years. So year 1 and year 6. I have to burn the whole thing. If things are too wet that’s a problem. I think the requirement is 75%. They put timing on it as well. Before nesting or in the fall.
    I was asking because I was thinking about invasive plants and whether others have specific knowledge about burns. I hear the comment we are still learning. Some how I don’t trust the government’s info as being the best for the prairie.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If I had a prairie, I would burn half of it every year in the fall. I would back burn the whole thing with a low intensity burn.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qf9MXtVFMjX3NyTHc2vS9YufpoQTWiL2/view?fbclid=IwAR3RETLJjhO546SsLL1zN751zTPf0H5rwqomjDy35-KdcpOvsjapWITqOgI

    If you wait five years in between burning your prairie is going to start turning into a forest.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It will be a while before we experience these kind of days here (MN) so this preview was especially appreciated. However, after the return of light, heat has returned. I knew I had read a poem about RW Blackbirds but couldn’t remember it, something Google is very, very good at. Cheers and thanks.

    ( )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ed, for reading so faithfully and taking time to share a bit.Google is my go-to when I can’t remember a poem also.
      Spring is coming! I think we are all ready for it. Grateful!
      Cindy 🙂

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  6. The poem is Redwing Blackbird by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke.

    I make another try at leaving a link otherwise Google.

    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53910/redwing-blackbird

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahhhh! This is so lovely. I particularly gravitated toward the line “Silver Maple samaras…” wow. So specific and evocative. I hope readers will click through and take a look. The Poetry Foundation is a gem, isn’t it?
      Grateful, Ed.
      Cindy 🙂

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