Category Archives: dragonfly

Prairie Dragonfly Mysteries

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” ― Agatha Christie

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I’m a big fan of mysteries. As a teenager, I burned through all of Agatha Christie’s classics, and I still love to pick up an occasional thriller that keeps me guessing. As a naturalist, part of my attraction to the outdoors revolves around a different sort of mystery. Science has a lot of answers. But there are many unsolved questions out there.

I like that. Perhaps nowhere is mystery so evident as when I try to understand dragonfly migration.

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This week, I’m prepping training workshops for two groups of dragonfly and damselfly monitors at the prairies where I’m a steward. We’re all volunteers, all citizen scientists collecting data that we hope will help future researchers learn more about these incredible insects.

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During the workshops, we’ll discuss the life cycle of the dragonfly. It begins with a little rough and tumble dragonfly romance and then, ovipositing or egg laying.

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Ouch! That’s got to hurt.

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At the two workshops, we’ll share ID tips for differentiating among the 100 or so dragonfly species in Illinois and the almost 50 damselfly species, plus the various variations among male, female, and immature individuals. Pretty straightforward stuff, for the most part.

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We’ll touch on the cultural history of dragonflies as well; their use in cuisine, art, and literature. I like this haiku by Basho: “Crimson pepper pod/add two pairs of wings and look/darting dragonfly.” You can see why he was inspired!

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Dragonfly cultural history and much of dragonfly natural history is explainable, at least to some degree. But dragonfly migration! That’s where it gets difficult.

Dragonfly migration is less understood than that of the monarch butterfly, whose travel habits have been exhaustively studied, immortalized in novels, and  whose migration journey continues to fascinate the general public.

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Or consider bird migration, the topic of many books like Scott Weidensaul’s excellent Living on the Wind, and the subject of countless research projects. Sure, there’s still mystery in avian migration. But plenty of information out there.

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Dragonfly migration? Not so much. The process remains veiled in mystery.  We do know a few things: at least four dragonfly species in Illinois (green darner, black saddlebags, wandering glider, and variegated meadowhawk) head south for the winter, and probably some damselfly species as well.

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But why these species? Why not others? Where do they go? What tells them to mass at the end of summer and fly, often in large swarms, to another place?

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The Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to discover what we do know about the science of dragonfly migration. As an organization dedicated to protect invertebrates and their habitats, they are a good clearing house for insect migration information. Got some extra time? Click through the link here and read more about how citizen science volunteers are contributing to our understanding about dragonfly migration.

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We do know that some dragonflies in North America may travel almost 2,000 miles south in the late summer and early fall. They often join raptors migrating south. Dragonfly offspring will travel the same distances, often with raptors, back north in the spring. Look around in science journals and on dragonfly websites and you’ll find comical images of green darners wearing tiny transmitters to track their movements; or complex studies of isotopes in dragonfly wings which help researchers determine their general place of emergence.

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But once you start reading, you realize just how little we know about these dazzling creatures. You get to the end of the dragonfly migration studies pretty fast. It’s a good PhD project for some future researcher! Learning more about what makes some dragonfly species born with an itch to travel.

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In April, we’ll begin to see the first battered and worn out dragonflies head north and arrive in the Midwest, heirs of those stalwart flyers who fled south last year. As dragonfly monitors, we’ll scribble about these early arrivals—and later, summer flyers and dragonfly departures—as hash marks on our data sheets. We’ll report the information to staff at our local prairies and natural areas. Then, in Illinois, we’ll upload it to www.illinoisodes.com, our state repository for this information. All very logical and linear isn’t it?

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At some point in the season, most of us will put our pencils down and pause for a moment. Overcome with wonder. How amazing that this tiny creature logged those miles and survived birds, weather, and traffic to be here, on this prairie! How incredible that we can bear witness to this phenomenon, even for a moment.  How satisfying to be a small cog in the wheel of the research that is being done for the future!

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And most of us will acknowledge this: Despite the data we’ll collect, despite all the facts we know, it’s that unknown that makes it so exciting to be a part of this citizen science project. The quest is part of the fun.

And we’ll marvel, in awe of the mystery of dragonfly migration.

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Agatha Christie (1890), whose quote opens this post, is the author of 66 mystery novels and 14 short story collections. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in the English language, and just as many in translation. My favorite quote of Christie’s: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

Scott Weidensaul (1959-), who is mentioned in this post, is a Pennsylvania naturalist and writer. My favorite of his books, Living on the Wind,  examines the amazing world of bird migration. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; damselflies in tandem, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), ovipositing in Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly, male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum, unknown species), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI; great egret (Ardea alba) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wandering glider dragonfly (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; river bluet damselfly (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raw data sheet, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, check out some other dragonfly resources at the links referenced above and this excellent blog post from a few year’s ago: Cool Green Science’s “Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve.” 

Local friends: If you’re interested in exploring more about dragonflies, join me at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  Friday, March 30, 2018 for a dragonfly workshop. Register by e-mailing me at phrelanzer@aol.com.

Basho haiku is taken from Forrest Mitchell and James Laswell’s marvelous book, A Dazzle of Dragonflies.

Leaving Home

“Migration is a blind leap of faith… .” Scott Weidensaul

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September.

In a prairie pond, a turtle and a few ducks snooze in the late afternoon sun.

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A baby snapper ventures slowly out to explore the rocks.

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The last great blue lobelia flowers open and bloom amid the goldenrod. September’s colors.

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Deep in the tallgrass, a grasshopper takes a hopping hiatus from the heat.

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A cool breeze stirs. The tree leaves begin to rustle, then rattle. A sound like waves rushing to shore sweeps through the prairie. It ripples in the wind. Tall coreopsis sways.

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The prairie whispers, Go.

The black saddlebags dragonfly feels restless, deep down in its DNA. Orienting south, it joins the green darners, variegated meadowhawks, and wandering gliders to swarm the skies. Go. Go.

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The meadowhawk dragonfly hears, but doesn’t respond. It will be left behind. Only a few species of dragonflies answer the migration call. Why?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery.

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A flash of orange and black, and a monarch nectars at the zinnias that grow by my prairie patch.  Mexico seems a long way off for something so small. But this butterfly was born with a passport that includes a complimentary GPS system. This particular monarch will go. Just one more sip.

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A viceroy butterfly delicately tastes nectar from goldenrod. No epic trip for this look-alike. Although its days are numbered, the butterfly bursts with energy, zipping from prairie wildflower to wildflower. Go? I wish!

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A turkey vulture lazily soars through the air, headed south.  These Chicago buzzards won’t drift far. Once they hit the sweet tea and BBQ states, they’ll stay put until spring.

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Go? The red-tailed hawk catches the whispered imperative. She stops her wheeling over the prairie for a moment and rests on top of a flagpole, disgruntled. Go? NO! So many birds heading for warmer climes! She ignores the command. She’ll winter here,  in the frigid Chicago temperatures. Wimps, she says, disdaining the pretty warblers, flocking south.

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Meanwhile, the last blast of hummingbirds dive-bomb my feeders, slugging it out for fuel. Think of the lines at the pump during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s –that’s the scene. Destination? Central America. You can feel their desperation as they drink deeply, then buzz away.

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Saying goodbye is always the most difficult for those left behind. Seeing those we know and care about leave home is bittersweet, fraught with loss.

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But, as the prairie brings one chapter to a close–with all of its colorful and lively characters…

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…another chapter is about to begin.

Meanwhile, we watch them go. Bon voyage. Safe travels.

 

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The opening quote is by Scott Weidensaul, the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and mallard ducks ((Anas platyrhynchos) on the  prairie pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; baby snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasshopper (species unknown), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Glen Ellyn Public Library prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), James “Pate” Philip State Park, Illinois DNR, Bartlett, IL;  meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) , author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset at Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

A Walk on the Spring Prairie

Every spring is the only spring — a perpetual astonishment. ~Ellis Peters

 

A cold wind blows through Illinois, then relents. The hot sun unleashes heat on the world. It suddenly feels like spring.

Early wildflowers press their way into view around the edges of the prairie.

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The last pasque flowers open, then fade in the heat.

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Squirrels munch withered crabapples, gaining strength for the new season ahead. The mamas tend their babies, born just weeks ago.

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The prairie ponds are freed from their scrims of ice. The water, released, stands open and clear.

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The first dragonflies and damselflies emerge from their underwater nurseries. Green darners, mostly, but Halloween pennants…

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…and violet dancers are not too many weeks behind.

 

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If you’re patient enough–and lucky enough– you can see the dragonflies emerge to their teneral stage; not quite nymph, not quite adult. Slowly, their fragile new wings pump open. Then, they take on colors, warm to their new lives, and fly.

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As you walk the prairie, a butterfly or two may stir the air with its wings. Only the early ones are out–the commas, the mourning cloaks, a cabbage white or two. But they remind  you that a whole kaleidoscope is on the way. Like this swallowtail.

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There’s not much for them to sip now on the prairie, but more nectar-rich flowers are coming. The tallgrass will soon be ablaze with color and light.

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Soon, you whisper.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogtooth violet/yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower fully opened (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) fading, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; squirrel, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake with prairie plantings, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer,  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly, teneral stage, Busse Woods, Forest Preserve of Cook County,  Schaumburg, IL;  Canada swallowtail, John Deere Historic Site, Grand Detour, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa); prairie at Fermilab, Batavia, IL.

Ellis Peters, whose quote begins this essay, is the author of the “Brother Cadfael” medieval mystery novels.

Tolkien’s Prairie

Although they weren’t written about a prairie, these hopeful words from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring,  part of “The Lord of the Rings” epic trilogy, seem especially fitting.
All that is gold does not glitter,
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Not all those who wander are lost,

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The old that is strong does not wither,

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Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
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From the ashes a fire shall be woken
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A light from the shadows shall spring;
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Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
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The crownless again shall be king.
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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): October on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; full moon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; grasses at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; visitors to Autumn on the Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) east side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie grasses in the early morning fog, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens)  blooming after the prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) blooming after a prescribed burn, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly on ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL:  eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Quote is from The Fellowship of the Ring, from “The  Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Stories from the Tallgrass

Walk with me on the prairie.

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Listen. For the prairie is a storyteller.

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After a baptism by fire each spring…

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…it appears to be defeated. And yet.

 

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It reminds us that resurrection from the darkest night of the soul is possible.

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We learn from the prairie about reliance. The grasses and flowers depend on prescribed burns each season to keep the tallgrass open. The frequent fires make make the prairie the best it can be: over the long haul.

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The prairie tells us stories of resilience.

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The prairie grasses and wildflowers plunge their roots deep into the black soil. Anchored and nourished through drought, wind, fire, and flood, they survive–and thrive.

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The prairie tells us about the value of diversity. That nothing is too small, ignored, or overlooked to be important.

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We need every grass and flower.  Each shaggy mammal.

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Every tiny insect. 

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There is violence and suffering on the prairie…

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but we see the bigger picture. Redemption.

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Listen to the prairie. Draw from it strength and the courage to keep moving forward.

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Discover what stories the prairie has for you. 

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And in the listening, find comfort and peace.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge with Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum),  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Glen Ellyn, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild white indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie willow (Salix humilis humilis), Schulenberg Prairie right before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie plantain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; regal fritillary, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  12-spotted skimmer, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloud break over the author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; boardwalk over prairie fen, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; path through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Prairie Metamorphosis

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Have you seen them yet?

As they begin their journey upward

From the bottoms of ponds,

the streams, the creeks that edge the tallgrass.

Will you be there?

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When they surface,

Clamber out of the water, then, trembling,

Grasp grass blades while

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The sun pulls itself over the horizon and

Illuminates, their dark, drab bodies

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Which split open and become something new.

Have you seen them yet?

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Those ferocious denizens of the deep,

Now in transition, they

Pump tensile strength lace into wings

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While those eyes, those amazing eyes,

Move in a thousand directions and finally

Turn their gaze on you.

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Have you seen them yet?

Suddenly,

They rise into the air, everywhere,

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Dazzling damselflies and

dragonflies.

Note on Dragonflies and Damselflies. They begin life as eggs, which are laid in the water. Then, they hatch into ugly, drab, beetle-looking nymphs;  dragonflies and damselflies live in this stage for as long as eight years in ponds, streams and other wetlands. Responding to many different signals we don’t fully understand, they pull themselves out of the water and their bodies turn from drab and unattractive into the beautiful flyers we know. This process is called incomplete metamorphosis. As adult dragonflies and damselflies, they may live for as little as a few minutes if snatched by a passing bird, or as long as several months here in Illinois.

All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top to bottom: American rubyspot, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum; Carolina saddlebags, SP; Teneral stage dragonfly, Busse Woods Forest Preserve, Schaumburg, IL; mating green darners, BWFP; Violet dancer,  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  Black saddlebags, SP; White-faced meadowhawk, NG;Ebony jewelwing, NG.)