Wolf Road Prairie Monarchs: A Wing and a Prayer

“Coming in on a wing and a prayer, what a show…”–Harold Adamson


Sunday morning dawns bright, windy, and clear. A lone green darner dragonfly zips away as Jeff and I step onto the crumbling sidewalk—one of many sidewalks that run through the 82-acre Wolf Road Prairie remnant in Westchester, Illinois.

Sidewalks? In a prairie? It’s a part of Wolf Road Prairie’s heritage. The sidewalks were built on this remnant prairie as part of a planned development. The prairie was subdivided into almost 600 lots in the 1920s. Then, the Great Depression hit, and ended the project before more construction was completed. A lucky break for the tallgrass.

Later, proposed development in the 1970s was thwarted by the conservation-minded Save the Prairie Organization. Thanks to their work, and the work of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Salt Creek Greenway Association, and Forest Preserve District of Cook County, we have this amazing designated Illinois Nature Preserve to hike through this morning.

Although there are more than 360 native plant species as part of Wolf Road Prairie’s mosaic of prairie, wetland, and savanna for us to admire and identify…

…we are here today to hike and see what dragonflies are out and about.

What you look for isn’t always what you find.

Monarch! Jeff points to a butterfly nectaring on one of the sawtooth sunflowers that floods the prairie with color. We enjoy the contrast of the butterfly’s bright orange and black against the yellow for a moment, and then…Another one over here!

A monarch over our heads. I point. Here’s another one! A monarch brushes my shoulder on its way to the goldenrod. Suddenly, we see monarchs everywhere.

As we hike, butterflies pop up from the prairie wildflowers, disturbed in the act of fueling up for the long journey south to Mexico.

Others dance their butterfly ballet across the sky, sometimes singly, other times in twos. As we hike, we are hit with the realization. This is monarch migration.

In my almost six decades, I’ve only seen this phenomenon once before — at Kankakee Sands at dusk in northwestern Indiana. On September 18 in 2018, we had stopped on the way home from visiting family in Indiana with hopes to see The Nature Conservancy’s new bison herd. Instead, we saw monarchs. Hundreds of them. (Read about that experience here.)

Now, on Wolf Prairie, we hike and we count. Then, we give up. Too many monarchs. We just enjoy them. After an hour, we reluctantly head home. But the images of butterflies and wildflowers linger.

Jeff and I talk about the monarch migration off and on all day. Finally, around dinner time, we look at each other and nod. Let’s go back. We decide to”borrow” two of the grandkids for the trip. We want them to see this epic gathering—one we have talked about with them since they were born.

But—will the monarchs still be there, hours later?

They are.

Nectaring on sunflowers.

Juicing up on tall boneset.

Dining on pasture thistle.

Sipping from goldenrod.

Monarchs in motion. Seeing them on so many different wildflowers is a good reminder that monarchs need more than milkweed. A lot more. They need fall blooming plants that will provide nectar as they travel thousands of miles to their final destination.

They need what we find on a healthy tallgrass preserve like Wolf Road Prairie. It’s these preserved natural areas that help ensure the monarch’s survival.

There are such wonders to be found in the world.

But you have to go look.

When you do, maybe you’ll feel as we did after seeing the monarchs.

Hopeful for the future.


The opening quote is from Coming in On a Wing and a Prayer, a song popular during World War 2. It was written by Harold Adamson with music composed by Jimmy McHugh, and made the top 20 bestselling songs of 1943.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Wolf Road Prairie (top to bottom): Wolf Road Prairie September 13; sidewalk through the prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); monarch leaving sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) after nectaring; Jeff hikes Wolf Road Prairie during monarch migration; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); hiking Wolf Prairie during monarch migration; monarch sailing over Wolf Road prairie; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosserratus); counting monarchs (Danaus plexippus); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); exploring the prairie; mixed blooms; hiking Wolf Road Prairie; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); finding monarchs at Wolf Road Prairie.


SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch Project is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.

“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

10 responses to “Wolf Road Prairie Monarchs: A Wing and a Prayer

  1. Now I know more about why Sue Halpern called her book on monarch migration Four Wings and a Prayer. Great post! Many years ago I saw this same phenomenon at one of our local nature preserves. Still remember it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Eileen — I love that book! Thank you for reading, and for your kind words. So grateful we have this shared experience — both in books and in observation! I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget the times I’ve seen it — they are etched in my mind. Great to hear from you! –Cindy 🙂


  2. How nice to bring your grandchildren to experience this wonder! I will make a trip to this prairie today or tomorrow…
    Brings back memories of driving near Wellington, Ontario, along Lake Ontario in September in Prince Edward County, which juts into Lake Ontario.
    Because of its location, it is a prime staging area for monarchs. They gather there and then wait for a north wind to help them fly across the lake to Upstate New York near Rochester. Initially I thought that orange leaves were blowing in front of my car, but when I stopped, I realized they were monarchs! Point Pelee, east of Detroit and Windsor, ON, is also a big staging area for the same reason – less distance to cover when flying over Lake Erie.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello, Paula — Thank you for reading and for taking a moment to share your amazing experience with the monarchs. Wow! I would love to see them in Canada, on their way south. Amazing to think they travel so far! Grateful for your note. — Cindy 🙂


  3. Great stuff. I especially liked the text accompanying your grandchild on the prowl for Monarchs: “There are such wonders to be found in the world.” Indeed – and what greater wonder than that of a young person discovering the beauty and mystery of butterflies!

    My brother-in-law, Joel Sheesley turned me on to your work after I casually mentioned that dragonflies were my favorite insect of all time. I’m hoping to get a copy of your book on them soon.

    Steve stevevanatta@gmail.com 360-509-7703

    On Tue, Sep 15, 2020 at 4:49 AM Tuesdays in the Tallgrass wrote:

    > Cindy Crosby posted: ” “Coming in on a wing and a prayer, what a > show…”–Harold Adamson ***** Sunday morning dawns bright, windy, and > clear. A lone green darner dragonfly zips away as Jeff and I step onto the > crumbling sidewalk—one of many sidewalks that run through ” >


    • Hello, Steve — Thank you (and thank you Joel!) for reading and for taking a moment to drop me a note. It is always great to meet another dragonfly fan. Now that I have six grandchildren, I feel an urgency to share the natural world with them. However, often, they are the ones with the keen vision and focus that share something amazing in nature with me! 🙂 Thanks again — Cindy 🙂


  4. love love love this! Someday I want to happen upon the migration! Thanks for sharing and for inspiring the next generation (grandkids)!!


    • Cathy, you are such an encouragement to me! Thank you for reading and for your enthusiasm about monarchs. They need us to continue to work for their health and future. Grateful for your continued readership. Enjoy the week! — Cindy 🙂


  5. If my heart had wings, it couldn’t soar higher at this moment. What a beautiful post this is, Cindy! What an experience you had, witnessing monarch migration not once, but twice in a single day, on vast acres of remnant prairie. How sublime…. I’m glad you brought your grandchildren back to witness the miracle. What lucky children they are. Your photos from the day are exquisite… Thank you, Cindy, for sharing this treasure! ~Amy xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy, you are so kind! What a lovely note. Thank you for taking a moment to write this bit of encouragement. I hope you are seeing all the miracles of fall this September. Grateful!!! — Cindy 🙂


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