Category Archives: Kankakee Sands

Skipping Spring; Planting Prairie

“Nor does frost behave as one expects.” — Eleanor Perényi

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Spring? We seemed to have missed it this year. Rather, it appears we are jumping from winter to summer in a week. Migrating birds are moving through, including this jelly-loving scarlet tanager. A first for our backyard!

Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With temperatures steady and warm—even hot—in the next few days, there is the annual gardener’s dilemma. To plant the tomatoes? Or not? It’s tempting. Meanwhile, they harden off on my covered front porch. I’m particularly excited about a new tomato called “Three Sisters,” which promises three types of tomatoes on one plant. Sort of a gee-whiz kind of thing, but that’s part of the fun of gardening.

Mixed vegetables, herbs, and bedding plants, ready for the garden.

Woodland wildflowers waited until the last possible moment to bloom this season, then threw themselves into the process. “Ephemeral” is right. Here today, gone tomorrow. So I go look. And soak up everything I can see to file away in my memory. Later, after they’ve disappeared, I’ll recall each one with joy.

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I especially admire the native Virginia bluebells, now bursting into bloom in the woodlands. What a week for this wildflower! They vary in hue from a bluebird blue…

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

… to bi-colored…

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…to pink.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Supposedly, this color variation is common with members of the borage family (of which bluebells are members). I imagine there is some normal color variation too, just as there are with other wildflower species. Depending on what you read, the color changes have to do with the acidity of the soil or whether or not the flowers have been pollinated. Hmmm. I’m not sure what to believe. All of these plants shown above were in the same general spot.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) with a pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2019).

I can’t see Virginia bluebells without the lines of writer Anne Brontë ‘s charming poem The Bluebell running through my head (written in the early 1800s). She was likely writing about the English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but I’ve appropriated her poem for our American species, Mertensia virginica.

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

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On our Mother’s Day weekend journey to the Indianapolis area, we made a quick detour to Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana. Imagine—8.400 acres of prairie, wetlands, and savannas. Those big skies! The bison there are always a magnet for our attention.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And we almost—literally—ran into another member of the prairie community as we bison-watched.

Bull snake (Pituophis catenifer), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Why did the snake cross the road? Likely to find some toads for dinner. I followed this one into the tallgrass until it disappeared into a watery ditch. I wasn’t brave enough to go any further.

Overhead, a flock of birds—perhaps a murmuration of starlings?—formed and reformed in the sky. But I’m not sure they were starlings. Aren’t those white wings in the center? Cornell says there is often a falcon near the edge of a murmuration.

Flock of unknown birds, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I wasn’t able to ID these birds in the photo above, but the next ones (below) were unmistakeable. Turkey vultures! They checked us out, then decided we were too lively to be of much interest.

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We left Kankakee Sands and continued driving home on backroads home to Chicago, with a brief get-out-and-stretch at the Biesecker Prairie in St. John, IN.

Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

Someday, I’d love to spend time at this 34-acre remnant with someone who knows and loves it. We only had time for quick look around. Traffic cruised by, but the preserve was mostly empty, except for a red-winged blackbird that kept us company.

Red-wing blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

Amazing to think these wonderful prairies are less than two hours away from Chicago’s western suburbs. I’m grateful.

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Mother’s Day. One of my garden goals is to have prairie represented in the front yard. It’s embarrassing to have our “Conservation at Home” sign among the hostas and daffodils. With that in mind, my Mother’s Day gift this year was a new prairie plant plot for pollinators. (Thank you, Jeff!)

Crosby’s front yard prairie pollinator plot, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’re starting small, with less than two dozen prairie plugs: three golden alexanders (now in bloom), three pale purple coneflower plugs…

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…one pint-sized pot of flowering spurge—barely up. Three blazing star, three Ohio goldenrod, three sky blue aster, and three showy goldenrod. I hope to add some butterfly milkweed from a native plant sale this week, and perhaps move some of my Culver’s root from the backyard to the front. Neighbors are already asking about it. Hopefully, this little patch will spark more conversations about native plants with dog walkers, parents with strollers, and our community.

Crosby’s front yard prairie plot, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I love new beginnings, no matter how small. We put our prairie pollinator garden where we can expand it a little bit each year. And now our “Conservation at Home” sign looks more “at home.” A little less turf grass. A better use of the space we’re responsible for. Of course, native prairie plantings in our suburban yard will never have the grandeur of wide open skies, such as we saw at Kankakee Sands, or the wildlife that these large-scale landscapes can provide for. But I think of Ray Schulenberg, an expert in prairie restoration who reconstructed the fourth oldest institutional prairie planting at The Morton Arboretum, 60 years ago.

Ray Schulenberg, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Photo circa 1970s, courtesy of The Morton Arboretum archives.

In an interview before his death in 2003, Ray talked about the despair he felt over world events. He didn’t think anything would halt the destruction of our planet. But, he said, “I don’t let that stop me from doing what I can.”

Confederate violet (Viola sororia priceana), Glen Ellyn, IL.

That’s stuck with me in a week filled with news about war, Covid stats rising, inflation, and other woes. For now, I’m going to try to emulate Ray’s motto.

To do what I can.

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The opening quote is from Eleanor Perényi (1918-2009) from Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. She gardened on an estate in the present day Vynohradiv, Ukraine —formerly, Nagyszőlős, Hungary—and later, in her new home in Connecticut. Green Thoughts is an arrangement of short essays from “Annuals” to “Weeds,” and her wildly-ranging views as an amateur gardener. Many of her ideas on plants are not for us Midwestern gardeners (she mentions buckthorn as good for hedges, which will strike horror into the heart of any prairie steward), but I enjoy her take on everything from annuals to chicory to gardening failures. Perényi worked as managing editor at Mademoiselle and editor at Harper’s Bazaar, plus as a contributor to Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. Later in her life, she lived and gardened on the Connecticut coast. She is also the author of a biography of Franz Liszt (nominated for a National Book Award) and More Was Lost, a memoir of her marriage to a Hungarian baron. Green Thoughts is a charming classic, although I’m more a fan of her prose than her gardening advice.

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Thank you, Dulcey Lima, for passing on the article about Ray.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

May 18, 12:30-2 pm: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.

May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. More information coming soon.

June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

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Time is running out for one of Illinois’ last prairie remnants. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org

A Prairie Hike at Kankakee Sands

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”–John Burroughs

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Jeff and I are returning from visiting family near Indianapolis. What makes a long car trip from Indianapolis to Chicago better? Our eyes meet. Bison!

We get off of I-65 with its semi trucks and heavy traffic, and slip over to U.S. 41. We need a hike on the prairies and savannas of Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Towering cumulonimbus pile up like cairns on the horizon. A few raindrops splat the windshield. The prairie sky seems to stretch forever.

Rainy day at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Sections of the prairies have been recently burned. A mullein’s soft, fuzzy leaves are a contrast to the scorched earth. Look! Jeff points. A mourning cloak butterfly flutters by, so quick we almost miss the ID.

Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

It seems as if you could hike for hours and never come to the end of the tallgrass.

Hiking trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Today, we hope to get a glimpse of the largest members of the tallgrass prairie.

Bison viewing directions, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

When we reach the bison overlook, it’s quiet. Not a bison in sight. Just a big stretch of prairie and sheets of storm clouds.

Bison overlook trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We hike a bit, then jump in the car to drive around, hoping to spot them.

Road through Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And then, there they are.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We pull over, get out of the car, and watch them for a while.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

In the distance, sandhill cranes begin to call. A bird sings from a nearby tree, but as much as I try, I can’t identify it. The bison slowly move off to the west. We hop in the car and head for home.

But we’re not done yet. Jeff, who is a history buff, wants to take a quick hike at Conrad Station, a nature preserve trail through a savanna nearby. We’ve hiked it before in the autumn, but we’ve never seen it in the spring. We try to remember exactly where the road is, leading to it, but get lost on back roads. It begins to rain. We turn the windshield wipers on. Swish. Swish. Things don’t look promising.

Driving through the rain near Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Then, we see the sign marking the ghost town.

Entrance to Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The rain has tapered off to dull pewter skies. We find the trailhead.

Trail through Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

Here in the savanna, the old town of Conrad Station once stood. Ruins of shattered buildings are everywhere. Jeff’s a history buff, and is writing an essay about the history of this place for a journal. He walks, looks, and takes copious notes. I’m here for the hike and the plants. Cleft phlox is everywhere, sprinkled across the savanna in various hues of palest lavender, white, and purple.

Cleft phlox (Phlox bifida), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While Jeff explores the old ruins, I try to ID the lichen on the logs. Even with iNaturalist, my trusty phone ID app, I can’t make a positive ID.

Unknown lichen, Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

The wild lupine leaves are other-worldly, sparkling with raindrops.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

History and plants. A good way to spend an hour. We are both so excited about our twin pursuits that we lose track of time. But as we drive back to the highway to return home in heavy traffic, we have no regrets.

An afternoon well spent.

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John Burroughs (1837-1921) whose quote kicks off this post, was a conservationist, writer, and naturalist. The seventh of ten children, he grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he fell in love with the rural life and the natural world. His father refused to send him to college, so Burroughs taught school to earn money to further his education. The John Burroughs Medal is awarded each year in April to a distinguished book of natural history (rarely fiction). I’m trying to read through them all, beginning with the most current. It’s a very diverse collection of medal-winners, and I’m enjoying the journey.

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Join Cindy for an upcoming program!

Online: Chasing Dragonflies: A Quick LookThursday, April 15, 12:30-1 p.m., Glen Ellyn Rotary Club. For information, visit www.glenellynrotary.org

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

SPRING WILDFLOWERS OF PRAIRIES AND WOODLANDS ONLINE, Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford

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The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.

We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route.  A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.

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As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight.  All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.

Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another.  And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…

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A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

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The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.

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Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later,  I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.

 

Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.

So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!

Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…

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…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!

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The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.

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Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.

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But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.

This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.

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This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

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This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the  prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.

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This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.

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This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.

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And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.

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William Stafford (1914-1993)  is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN;  trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN:  video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.

Advice from John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

 

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You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.

What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.

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Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers  and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.

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Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.

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A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.

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Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?

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Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.

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Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.

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There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?

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These kinds of questions  will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.

Moss spangles the trail.

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Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.

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Open one,  and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.

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On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.

You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.

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Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?

Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”

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John Muir (1838-1914)  is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.

Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/placesweprotect/conrad-station-history.xml

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens).