Category Archives: nature photography

Backyard Prairie Mothapalooza

“The night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” — Vincent Van Gogh

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Sunshine, thunderstorms, and wind. The heat index tips over 100 one day, then temperatures drop into the 60s the next.

The tallgrass prairie doesn’t blink. It adapts. Then adapts again. The prairie was made for these wild swings of weather.

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By day, the prairie explodes with blooms. July is its zenith for wildflowers.

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So many interesting flowers to see on a hike through the tallgrass!

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So many interesting creatures in my backyard prairie.

SilverSkipperwithbeebalmWMGEbackyard72520And that’s just in the daytime.

Just think of what goes on…after dark.

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Last week was National Moth Week, In the spirit of celebration, Jeff and I put on a “mothapalooza” near our backyard prairie patch. I knew, as a prairie steward, that moths depend on specific associated plants for their caterpillars to survive and thrive. Would the native (and non-native) plants in my backyard be enough of a draw to nurture a thriving moth population?

I didn’t know what moths were nearby, beyond the occasional gray-ish ones that banged away at our front porch light and a sighting of a Beautiful Wood Nymph last summer which stuck around by the front door for a few days. Armed with a Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths, we were about to find out.

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As I read up on moths, I learned there were between 150,000 to 500,000 different species in the world. New moths are discovered all the time. While most are creatures of the night, some fly during the daytime. That made sense. I see the snowberry clearwing moths nectar at the Schulenberg Prairie’s  bee balm blooms….snowberryclearwingWM hummingbird sphinx moth SPMA71419.jpg

…and the hummingbird moths nectar at my native bee balm —- and not-so-native hanging basket of petunias.

But after dark….that was a mystery. Other than a few moths I had seen on my nocturnal front porch visits,  what else might I discover? it was time to find out.

Two of our grandkids, age 4 and 7, were spending the night with us this weekend. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce them to moths. First we built a moth trap. There are many good instructions for inexpensive moth traps online; we adapted one from this video by a precocious young British kid — check it out. After watching it, we were able to pull a moth trap together mostly from odds and ends I had in the garage, and some donated egg cartons from our friend, Hinsdale Prairie Steward Kath Thomas. The egg cartons are stacked inside the bucket for the moths to rest in, like rows of tiny cubicles.

The whole effect is not pretty, but as it turned out, it was functional. It is also catch and release, so the moths can return to the backyard in the morning.

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We also painted a board with moth bait, a stinky concoction of brown sugar, stale beer, and bananas. Some moths, it seems, like this better than lights.

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The UV light was the most expensive part of the set-up, and was a birthday gift from Jeff ordered from Bioquip, where I get my dragonfly supplies. (Thanks, Jeff!) We decided to combine the moth trap and baited board with a moth sheet that we hung on the porch.

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Waiting for dark was made a little easier by setting up our backpacking tent and reading stories to the little ones.

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Then, about the time the fireflies lit up, we began seeing moths.

Small ones, like this Orange Wing moth.MothNightWMorangewing72520GEBackyard

Beautifully colored ones, like this Woody Underwing.

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Seriously cute ones, such as this Giant Eucosma. Its host plant is cupplant. Our prairie patch has plenty of it!

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From time to time, we’d leave the backyard and check the front porch to see what had shown up under the porch light. Most of our photos were taken with my cell phone. Even so, you can see how beautiful this little Venerable Dart moth was. Those fuzzy antennae! Those beautiful wings. We looked in the field guide and saw its host plants include chickweed and tomato plants. Yup! We have both.

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Most moths show up a little later than bedtime for little ones. They didn’t last past 10 p.m. After tucking them in, I kept things going outside until about 1 a.m., when I finally left the moth trap to work its magic and went to bed.

In the morning, still in our PJs, we rushed out to check the trap. Not a lot in there; mostly very tiny moths and a lot of night insects. I can see our moth trap is going to need some work. But one find at the bottom of the trap that wowed the grandkids: a Harnessed Tiger Moth, nestled into one of the cups of an egg carton.

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I’ve seen tiger moths on the prairies, but never in my backyard! I read in my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths that this species depends on dandelions and clover as host plants for its larvae–or caterpillars. Another reason to not treat our yard with chemicals.

The four of us gently lifted the egg carton out of the bucket and watched as it flew into the gray-headed coneflowers.BackyardGE72520WMgrayheadedconeflowerliatris.jpg

Moth identification is tricky; I’m learning a lot from the Moths of the Eastern United States Facebook Page and my field guide. Buguide.net is also a terrific resource, and iNaturalist, a free app for my phone, did a lot of legwork getting my moths identified—at least to genus. But like learning dragonflies or damselflies or any insect, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

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Such an exciting adventure—the realization that a lifetime will not be  long enough to discover all there is about moths.

Each moth needs a particular plant or several specific plant species in order to survive. Every time I choose to put a host plant in my garden for moths—or leave a “weed” that they depend on for survival like clover or dandelions—I increase the chances of a more healthy and diverse moth population in my little corner of the world.BlackeyedSusanHinsdalePrairieWM72520.jpg

The night is full of amazing creatures. Now, I’ve met a few more of them. Just think of what you might find in your backyard prairie patch or your favorite prairie….after dark.

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Artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) whose quote opens today’s blog is considered one of the  most influential painters of all time. His paintings have commanded some of the highest prices at auction in the world, and his painting, “Starry Starry Night” inspired a song by musician Don McLean. Listen to it here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in Cindy’s backyard, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Hinsdale Prairie remant, Hinsdale, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus); Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) with non-native petunias (Petunia sp.); homemade moth trap; moth board with painted stinky bait; sheet moth lighting for mothapalooza; REI half-dome tent; Orange Wing moth (Mellilla xanthometata); Woody Underwing moth (Catocala grynea); Giant Eucosma moth (Eucosma gigantica); Venerable Dart moth (Agrotis venerabilis); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); blazing star (Liatris sp.) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium); black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

Thanks to Trevor Dean Edmonson who is my moth mentor! Any moth mis-identifications will be happily corrected; I am a rank beginner with moths, and delighted to learn whatever I can.

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Join Cindy for an online class!

Last call for “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

Just released! 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 and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through the end of July. 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.  

A Little Tallgrass Tranquility

“June comes with its own tranquility, predictable as sunrise, reassuring as the coolness of dusk.”– Hal Borland

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Peace, quiet, and tranquility sound appealing right now.  As meteorological summer arrives, the prairie is a good place to find all three. Let’s take a look.

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The dragonflies and damselflies are out at Nachusa Grasslands. Common green darners aimlessly work their way across the pond. A few common whitetail dragonflies hunt for prey in the cool, overcast day.

It’s quiet.

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I slosh through what was prairie last season; now a new wetland created by beavers. The dammed pond overflows with water, which runs into the grooves on the dirt two-track alongside it.

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These small, ephemeral water-filled ruts teem with life. So many tadpoles!

On the edges, immature eastern forktail females flutter weakly, still in the teneral stage.

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Their color gradually comes into focus, like a Polaroid picture. Later, they’ll mature from orange and turn powdery blue.

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The male eastern forktails are everywhere, looking for females to mate with.

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I watch the females lay eggs—oviposit—into a vegetation mat floating in the pond. Eastern forktails are usually the first damselfly I see each year, and–with a few season’s exceptions–the most numerous species of damselfly I see at both my prairie monitoring sites. They are easy to dismiss, because they are so common. When I first began learning dragonfly and damselfly ID, I was confused by their different appearances. How could one species of damselfly be three different colors? And that’s not including their teneral stage. The most common damselflies have incredible complexity.

In the quiet, the stress of the last few days fades. I hear a bird that I don’t know–a gallinule, a friend tells me later. A new one for me!

I watch the dragonflies and listen a bit longer before I turn and go back to my monitoring. The wildflowers hum with activity.

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I can still hear well, but my eyes are weaker as I’ve gotten older. As I’m scribbling data on my clipboard, I notice one of the “forktails” is moving differently — floating, instead of fluttering. Another seems a bit off-color for a eastern forktail. But I can’t make out the details, even with my binoculars.

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It’s not until I’m home and sorting through blurry photo after blurry photo of my “eastern forktail” damselfly photos, that two crisp photos jump out at me.

Sedge sprite! Nehalennia irene. The first time I’ve seen one. They’ve been found at two sites at Nachusa, but this is the first time I’ve found it— and it’s new for this particular area. Sedge sprites are rare and uncommon in Illinois.  The scientific name almost always tells a good story, and Nehalennia, I discover, is the name of a Rhein River goddess. Appropriate for something so lovely.

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This male’s length is from the tip of my baby finger to the knuckle. Its lack of eyespots–little color markers on top of the eyes–sets it apart from other damselflies, notes Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan. So tiny. So beautiful.

And then—oh! Look. Another species. Fragile forktail damselfly. Ishnura posita. I’ve seen it here before, but only once. I thought the color looked wrong for an eastern forktail when I was sloshing through the pond perimeter and logging it on my data sheet as such, and I was right. The pale green exclamation mark on the thorax is the tip-off.

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The fragile forktails fly from May to September, so I should see them again here as I walk my route this summer. I had to go back and revise my data submission. Next time, I’ll pay more attention. I’ll wait to log it until I review the photos.

Later, Jeff and I hike and marvel at the smallest wildflowers in bloom. Long-leaved bluets.

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Blue toadflax, so minuscule I struggle to get my camera to focus on the flower.

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Rushes—so many to try and name—are woven into the wildflowers and grasses. The light casts them into silhouettes.

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Small moths lay in the tallgrass like winged ghosts.

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A flycatcher—possibly an alder flycatcher but likely a willow flycatcher—talks to me from a scrubby shrub. As I wrote this, I tried to remember the exact call, as this is one of the ID markers between the two.  Cornell’s All About Birds website describes the sound of a willow flycatcher as someone quickly zipping up a jacket. Alder flycatcher is described as free-beer! I wish I had paid more attention so I’d be sure of my identification.

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These fleeting moments are easy to miss. I try to remember to listen attentively. What else am I overlooking today?

Pale beardtongue’s bright flowers are difficult to pass by without pausing.

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Up close, they are surprisingly hairy.

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A contrast to the pea-like blooms in the tapered spikes of violet lupine, the color of summer’s last light on the clouds at dusk.

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The startlingly clear purple-blue of the spiderwort always fails description. Such a color!

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I soak it all up.

For a while, I forget the outside world.

Thank you, prairie.

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The opening quote is by Hal Borland (1900-1978) from Sundial of the Seasons, a selection of 365  outdoor essays that follow the days of the year. Born in Nebraska, he wrote more than 1,200 essays, many published in the New York Times, often about the passing of the year on his Connecticut farm.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom):  Clear Creek Knolls; beaver pond; new pools in the gravel two-track; video of tadpoles in the ephemeral pools and tire track ruts; eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis)); eastern forktail  damselfly (Ischnura verticalis); eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis); video of pond; unknown bee on common yarrow (Achillea millefolium); great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea): sedge sprite damselfly (Nehalennia irene); fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita); long-leaved bluets (Houstonia longifolia); blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis); unknown rushes (correction — Juncus spp.); unknown moth (possibly one of the Scopula genus); possibly a willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii, they are difficult to tell apart from alder flycatchers except by song); pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus); pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus); wild lupine (Lupinus perennis); Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? 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.