Tallgrass Prairie Dragons

“One dragonfly—even the most silent of ponds comes alive.”—Scott King


They’re here. All around us. In the prairie wetlands. Scattered in the tallgrass ponds.


Sterling Pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Dragonflies, that is. When the sun shines on cold days. While the ice is deep on the prairie ponds.

Bison track (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

“What?” you might say. “Cindy, there aren’t any dragonflies flying through the snow.” Truth. And yet…under the water’s surface, rumbling across the substrate of silty river bottoms, dragonfly nymphs are going about their business. They look a bit different in their larval stage, don’t they?

Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymph (Somatochlora hineana), Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL. (2019)

These tiny nymphs eat. Grow. Molt. Eat some more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Until that magical day when nature tells each species GO!

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

They emerge, exchanging a life in the water for a short life in the air.

Teneral dragonfly gaining its coloration, unknown species, Busse Woods, Schaumburg, IL. (2016)

Their lives will flare into color, channeling sunlight. And then, all too soon, their time is up. It might end with the snap of a bird bill. The splash of a fish, as it snatches the dragonfly in motion. Or a bullfrog, tonguing the dragonfly out of its flightpath.

Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), Crosby’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2018).

Now you see it.

Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019).

Now you don’t.

Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) wings, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Or, if a dragonfly is lucky, it will live a few weeks before dying its natural death.

Calico pennant (Celithemus elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2020)

A life so short! Shouldn’t we admire them while we can?

And then, there are the migratory dragonflies. Big, bright, and ready to return to the Midwest this spring.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020).

Not all dragonflies migrate. But the ones that do—common green darners, wandering gliders, black saddlebags, and other migratory species—left in the autumn en masse, bound for warmer climes. The Gulf of Mexico, perhaps, or even Central America. And now, their progeny return singly. We’ll see them as early as March in Illinois, ready to complete the remarkable cycle.

The wandering glider, found on every continent but Antarctica, is known to travel more than 8,000 miles!

Wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2016)

Dragonflies don’t have the excellent press agents that monarch butterflies do, so it’s up to citizen scientists, researchers, and organizations such as The Xerces Society to collect data and learn more about these far-ranging insects.

Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2020)

For most of us, it’s enough to know dragonflies will soon be back in the Midwest to brighten our gardens and enliven our world. Returning migrants and also, the nymphs living in the water here, will appear. They’ll zip around stoplights, catch bugs at ballparks, and pose on wildflowers.

Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) , Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2016)

Such motion!

Common green darner (Anax junius), Turtle Ponds, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2021)

Such color.

Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), Ware Field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Such pizzazz.

Eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Children’s Garden, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2022)

Though snow still flies in the Chicago region, my dragonfly “EDS”—early detection system—is on high alert. What species will I see first? When will I spot it? Where?

Great blue skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2021)

From that moment on, my days will see constant attention on the skies and wetlands. I can’t wait.

Let the dragonfly chasing season begin!


The opening quote is from Scott King (1965-2021) in his book with Ken Tennessen and Kobayashi Issa, Dragonfly Haiku (Red Dragonfly Press, 2016). King, an engineer who grew up in northern Minnesota, was also a naturalist who wrote several books about insects. He was the founder of Red Dragonfly Press, which relied on vintage typesetting and printing equipment, and he hand-bound the poetry chapbooks he published with needle and thread. In a tribute to Scott in the Minnesota Star Tribune, he was lauded by one friend as “that rare combination of technical genius and poetic soul.” Said another friend, “He was constantly drawing your attention to what is around you that you might not be seeing or noticing.”


Requiem for Bell Bowl Prairie

On March 9, 2023, despite public opposition, one of Illinois last prairie remnants was bulldozed by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. Once a prairie remnant is lost, we are unable to replicate it. Let this travesty be a wake-up call for all of us who love and care for tallgrass prairies anywhere. Wherever you hike, volunteer, or see a prairie, ask yourself—is this prairie legally protected? If not, advocate for its protection now. Let this be the last prairie remnant we lose in what we’re so proud to call “The Prairie State.”


Join Cindy for a Class or Program in March

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information here.

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.

Literary Gardens — In Person —– Saturday, March 18, 9am-12:30 pm. Keynote for “Ready, Set, Grow!” Master Gardeners of Carroll, Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties through The Illinois Extension. Dixon, IL. Registration ($25) is offered here.

The Morton Arboretum’s “Women in the Environment Series”: The Legacy of May T. Watts— (in person and online)—with lead instructor and Sterling Morton Librarian extraordinaire Rita Hassert. March 24, 10-11:30 a.m., Founders Room, Thornhill. Registration information available here.

Literary Gardens–In Person — Wednesday, March 29, 7-8:30 p.m. La Grange Park Public Library, LaGrange, IL. (free but limited to 25 people). For more information, contact the library here.

See Cindy’s website for more spring programs and classes.

17 responses to “Tallgrass Prairie Dragons

  1. Barbara Werner

    Good morning! Thank you for another enlightening start to my day!
    I learn something new each week from your writings. I enjoy passing
    it on to my family and friends. Like to perhaps brighten their day and make them more aware of delights around our wonderful outdoors!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cindy I never tire of your photographs!! You’ve not only got a great eye but also obviously have a good understanding of the camera to get these shots!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful. I always learn so much and thank you for…
    “constantly drawing [my] attention to what is around [me] that [I] might not be seeing or noticing.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cindy, I’m so sorry about the Bell Bowl Prairie. This must be especially heartbreaking for you (and all of us). We have had trouble here preserving some G1(critical imperilment on a global basis) flora in a 600 acre patch behind our mailboxes. It is still in flux, but recently signs are in favor of its preservation.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a whole new perception of dragonflies. Thank you! What a disappointment about the Bell Bowl Prairie. What a loss!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So good to hear from you, Maggie! I’m grateful for your readership. And yes — what a loss. A good reminder that protected areas can easily be lost, if we are not vigilant. Thank you! Cindy 🙂


  6. Dragonfly EDS, I love it. I have a personal google calendar that shows me early flight dates in my area, and I see three species on it for the first week of April…green darner, eastern forktail and citrine forktail. Can’t wait to find my first ones each year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love it that you have the dates logged! I need to be more intentional about that. April will be here soon…. and who knows? Maybe we’ll see some dragonflies in March! The weather is just crazy enough for it to happen. Happy chasing! Cindy 🙂


  7. Cindy,  I just returned from Kingston, Jamaica where I spent a good part of every morning in my dauighter’s pool.  A friend joined me everyday — a beautiful bright blue dragonfly came and flitted back and forth just above my head with each walking turn I took around the pool.  It stayed just over the water the whole time I was in the water.  So exciting!!  Thought of you as this special time occurred. Marj Dolbeer PIM vice president Crane Centre vice president cell # 630-888-0341

    Liked by 1 person

    • How wonderful, Marj! That sounds like a great encounter. I hope you see many more dragonflies this summer. Thank you for dropping me a note, and keep your eyes to the skies! Cindy 🙂


  8. Cindy, I look forward to every Tuesday’s post – both words and pictures! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and vision of the prairie. I know about your dragonfly fascination and wondered if you have ever ventured to The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harhor, WI (on the Lake Michigan side of Door County). While the Ridges is not a prairie, their scientists and volunteers have been actively engaged in Emerald dragonfly research for years. Here’s a link to their dragonfly information: https://www.ridgessanctuary.org/research/heinz-emerald-dragonfly/
    Happy spring!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! What a nice note. The Ridges is on my must-see list — their interpretive plan was one of my guides for my own master’s work at Nachusa. I love what they are doing with orchids, and with the Hine’s Emerald. Thank you for the reminder, and I hope you have a wonderful week! Cindy 🙂


  9. Hope you get to The Ridges for the Dwarf Lake Michigan irises – it’s a wonder for the eyes and soul to see these tiny little flowers! We go every year between mid-May and the first week of June. They’re throughout the sanctuary but most visible along the Range Light boardwalk and the ridges/swales closest to the lake. Happy Iris sighting!

    Liked by 1 person

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