A Prairie Summer Solstice

“The month of June trembled like a butterfly.” —Pablo Neruda

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Mother Nature ushered in the summer solstice Sunday with plenty of drama; severe drought here in my part of Illinois, followed later that night by wicked thunderstorms and a tornado touchdown nine miles from our house. If it was March, we’d say the solstice “came in like a lion.” Our hearts go out to those affected by the storm.

Nachusa Grasslands in June, Franklin Grove, IL.

Weather aside, it’s been a week full of wonders in the tallgrass.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

While chasing dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I spotted a dozen or so regal fritillary butterflies, flying through the pale purple coneflowers, prairie coreopsis, and white wild indigo.

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Listed as “threatened” in Illinois, the regal fritillary occupies less than 5 percent of its original range in the Chicago region. The regal fritillary caterpillars feed on prairie violets such as the Birdfoot violet. When the prairie disappeared, so did the violets. And the regal fritillaries lost their food source.

Birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

What about those common blue violets in our yard? Won’t they use them? Evidently not. You can read more about Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s regal fritillary recovery efforts here.

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Although I’d seen the regal fritillary butterfly at Nachusa Grasslands before, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly was a lifer.

Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Then, I spotted another Baltimore checkerspot, nectaring on Indian hemp (sometimes called dogbane). A bonus.

Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) on Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Isn’t that the way it is? You go in search of one thing, and you discover so much more. So often when I go in search of dragonflies, I find so many other marvels.

This week, while hiking the prairies, I spotted the first open compass plant flower of the summer.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first biennial gaura, flaunting its palest pink.

Biennial Gaura (Gaura biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

A prairie clover, its ruffle of white newly opened. The first one I’ve seen this summer.

White prairie clover (Dalea candida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It doesn’t matter what prairie I’m hiking. There is always something compelling to demand my attention. Look down—-a six-spotted tiger beetle glistens on the prairie path.

Six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look up! A dickcissel sings me along with its buzzy chirps.

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

And almost always—a dragonfly. Seeing them is often the stated motivation for so many of my summer prairie hikes.

Blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

But even when I’m monitoring, clipboard in hand, my prairie hikes are about so much more than counting dragonflies. I go for the solace I feel under a wide-open prairie sky.

Climbing a hill at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The joy of discovery. The delight of the unexpected.

Redheaded woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) on the edge of the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

My body is tuned to “prairie time.” The signs of summer are there to be read in the opening of wildflowers, the arrival of birds, the explosion of insects, the shifts of weather. The prairie tells us we are closing in on the Fourth of July. How? Lead plant lights its floral fireworks.

Lead plant (Amorpha canescens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The orderly unfolding of summer on the prairie is a reassurance in a time where we crave normalcy. The tallgrass is a spendthrift; it keeps on giving. Brimming with bugs, overflowing with wildflowers.

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There is so much to take in.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So much to be grateful for.

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The opening quote is from the poem “The Month of June” by Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1971) and is known for his passionate love poems.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.

Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join us on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.

8 responses to “A Prairie Summer Solstice

  1. Wow, the regal fritillary is beautiful — I’d never even heard of them before. And congrats on your lifer Baltimore checkerspot! There have been only a few sightings of them here in my county, and one was two days ago, so I went out yesterday hoping for my own lifer, but it was really windy and cloudy and not conducive to butterflies flying. I’ll try again the next chance I get though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kim —
      One of the greatest joys of dragonfly monitoring for me (other than the Odes themselves) is seeing so many other interesting and amazing plants and insects. We are lucky to have those Regals at Nachusa. Keep looking for that Baltimore Checkerspot — I’m almost 60, and that’s the first one I’ve ever been lucky enough to encounter. Thanks for all you do in your blog — folks, be sure and check out “Nature is My Therapy” — it’s wonderful! Take care, and thank you for keeping in touch. — Cindy 🙂

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  2. I’ve been dying to see both of those butterflies- hope they stick around! Gorgeous photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you see them, Karen! They are so unusual. We’re lucky to have you sharing them through your artwork! (Folks check out Karen’s Nature Art online — you’ll love her prairie stuff!). Thanks for reading, and for dropping me a note — so grateful. Cindy 🙂

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  3. Thank you for the lovely photos especially of the butterflies. We are seeing lots of Monarch eggs on the underside of prairie milkweeds in our garden. The milkweeds aren’t very tall this year but otherwise in perfect condition despite the drought. Thankful for recent 2.2″ of rain!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marcy — I’m so glad to hear of those monarch eggs on your milkweed! I’ve been watching mine, and still …. nothing. I’ll keep looking! We finally got some rain here, and I’m hoping the milkweeds will soak it up. Grateful for your note — thank you! Cindy 🙂

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  4. If people want to see regal fritillary butterflies, then they should attend one of Dee Hudson’s workdays at Nachusa. She is having one this Thursday.

    https://www.signupgenius.com/go/5080945afa82baafb6-nachusa8

    A few days ago, I was able to get my first picture of a great spangled fritillary in my garden. They live in forest preserves several miles from my house. However, it was a real treat to have one visit my garden. I have lots of violets. The fritillaries are welcome to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, James, for sharing the workday information, and for all you do for prairie! I’m so glad you have violets. They are one of my favorites, despite being (as so many people say) “Common!” Keep up that great work! Thanks for reading, and taking a moment to write me a note. Cindy 🙂

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