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Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

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On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

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At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

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And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

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When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

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Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

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Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

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Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

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The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

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These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

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I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

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Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

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The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

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The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

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To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

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Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

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Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Bugs, Blooms, and Butterflies

“Adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension.” — Sharman Apt Russell

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There’s something good to be said for mosquitoes. Yup, you read that here. I remind myself of this as I pull on my head net. There’s not a soul on the prairie at the end of this July afternoon, and selfishly, I’m glad to have the prairie all to myself. Bugs plus heat plus humidity=A Quiet Hike.

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Well, not exactly quiet. A red-winged blackbird erupts in a cacophony of sound. His volume increases as make my way down the trail. Too close to his nest? I move on a little quicker than I had planned. A common yellow-throat is singing his “wichety-wichety-wichety;” the birdsong soundtrack to this particular prairie in summer. Nearby, a ruby-throated hummingbird stops to rest on a tree branch, silhouetted against the blindingly blue sky.

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July is the steamy month that the Illinois prairie begins to make its move to earn its name: tallgrass.  Big bluestem is tassling out. Other grasses are waist-high. Suddenly this month, compass plants spike the prairie, like hundreds of periscopes erupting from a sea of rippling green. As I draw closer to one plant, I see the silphium weevils have carefully sliced the top flowers off. On the stem is a sticky, glittering wound, which oozes plant resin.

silphiumweevilcompassplantSPMAwm7918.jpgI pull off a dab of the sticky stuff and taste it. Refreshing! Native American children reportedly chewed this sap like Wrigley’s spearmint gum. I’m more cautious. It tastes good, but it is tough to scrape off my teeth. Once it’s on your fingers, you stick to everything you touch in the next hour.

Brushing past the compass plants, I wade through Culver’s root, lush after the long season of rain and heat. The bees love it.

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And so do the butterflies.

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A nectaring viceroy butterfly performs a series of gymnastics to get every last drop from a Culver’s root stand.  Sideways…

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…wings backlit by the lowering sun…

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…upside down.

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I watch it until it flies away.

Nearby, on whorled milkweed, it’s a black bug bonanza. How many do you see in the photo below? The whorled milkweed tolerates a lot of disturbance, and we have a nice stand of it here in one of the more degraded prairie areas.

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It boggles my mind to think this is only one milkweed plant, on one prairie. So much activity!  So many insects here that are likely invisible to my eyes. All going about their business of keeping the prairie healthy and thriving.

Speaking of which…The bright patches of butterfly weed are true to their name today.  This bloom has a coral hairstreak butterfly and a fritillary—plus a bee—all competing for real estate. The bedraggled fritillary, doubtless frayed by birds trying to get a nibble of its wings, looks like it is winning the battle for supremacy. What a tough customer for such a fragile insect! As I watch, the bee and the coral hairstreak are forced off the flowers.

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And at last, I spot a monarch. Ah. I was hoping to see you.

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As I finish the trail, something yellow catches my eye. The first goldenrod buds. Already? Summer just started! Or so it seems.

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The goldenrod is a reminder to enjoy every moment of this time on the prairie. Autumn will be here before we know it. Difficult to believe on this steamy July afternoon.

So for now, I’m going to enjoy the butterflies, bugs, and blooms of July.  Store up the colors, sights, and sounds of summer. While they last.

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The opening quote is by Sharman Apt Russell (1954-)  from her book, “An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect.”

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom lopped off by weevils, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) ) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias virticillata) with some unknown bugs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with two butterflies (left, probably a coral hairstreak, Satyrium titus; right, a fritillary, Speyeria,  although she’s pretty dinged up by  bird nibbles to tell as to species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepis tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Vision for Prairie

“What are we made of? How did the universe begin? What secrets do the smallest, most elemental particles of matter hold, and how can they help us understand the intricacies of space and time?”–Fermilab

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I’m pondering some the above questions as I hike Fermilab’s prairies and natural areas. It’s 95 degrees with a heat index of about 110. Outside is not where the rational part of me wants to be. But today, I have a chance to explore some of the iconic prairie plantings at Fermilab. I don’t want to miss the opportunity.

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Fermilab is a 6,800 acre particle physics laboratory about an hour west of Chicago, established in 1967.  Their stated vision is to “solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time for the benefit of all.” I admire Fermilab’s drive to know. But as someone who barely passed physics in high school and dropped out of calculus, I’m not here for the  particle accelerators and neutrino science. I’m here for their prairie.

And what beautiful sweeps of tallgrass are all around me.

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The compass plant flowers (above) wave over my head, their periscope-like blooms splashing the prairie with yellow. Waist-high Culver’s root (below) is in the early stages of bloom. Its white candles are luminescent in the tallgrass.

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To restore prairie in this place is an act of creativity and the imagination, as well as an act of science. Biochemist Dr. Robert Betz had a vision for the vast acreage that surrounds Fermilab’s accelerator ring and the grounds around the various research labs and buildings. Today, the results of that vision and the tireless work of volunteers, with leadership by ecologist Ryan Campbell, are almost 1,000 acres of planted tallgrass prairie. The prairie, along with other natural areas, encompasses “high-quality aquatic habitats, rare orchids, and even nesting Osprey”.

All around me is evidence of a successful outcome. Butterflies are puddling along the two-track, including this pretty little tailed-blue. They’re attracted to the salts and minerals in the dirt.

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Impressive oak savannas edge the prairies. Their cool shade is a welcome contrast to the blazing heat. The wetlands along the two-track gravel road are home to myriad dragonflies, water birds, and other aquatic life. The wetlands are lush. Brimming with water after the rain of previous weeks.

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Speaking of dragonflies! They are out in full force on my hike, despite the fierce heat. As I walk,  at least half a dozen Halloween pennant dragonflies are stationed in the tallgrass at regular intervals. Although much about dragonfly body temperature regulation is unknown, we do know that when it is hot they use strategies to lower their body heat. This one has its abdomen pointed downward to cool off.

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Other times you’ll see dragonflies doing handstands across the prairie in hot weather, a thermoregulatory practice called obelisking that helps deflect heat.

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I need some strategies of my  own to get out of the hot, sticky weather—strategies that don’t involve standing on my head or other gymnastics. Time to find my air-conditioned car. Whew!

Each prairie has its own delights. On the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum where I’m a steward supervisor, bunchflower is in eye-popping bloom this week. BunchflowerSPMA7218CROSBYwm.jpg

The lilies make me want to sit for an hour and just look. (Mosquitoes quickly put an end to that notion.)

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Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m also a steward,  is carpeted with wildflowers of all descriptions this month. Like an impressionist painting, isn’t it?

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These two prairies both have some beautiful butterflies. Like this black swallowtail at the Schulenberg Prairie, which flew erratically across the flowers and led me on a merry chase for a closer view.

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Sometimes, as I’m busy tending to my responsibilities on these two sites, it’s easy to forget how many other astonishing prairies there are all around me.  The last time I hiked Fermilab this year, it had just been burned. Look at it now!

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There is joy in the familiar. But delight in new discoveries.  Although I’ve been coming to Fermilab Natural Areas off and on now for years, today’s short road trip is a mental post-it note reminder to myself to not get in a “prairie rut.” Visit new prairies.  Discover the delights of seeing prairie restoration in all its variations. Expand my perspective. Learn from what other stewards are doing. Hit the road and see what new tallgrass adventures await.

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Where will your next prairie adventure take you?

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The opening quote is from Fermilab’s website. If you want to learn more about Fermilabs Natural Areas, click here to read more about their work and volunteer program.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with Wilson Hall in the background, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; wetlands at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  meadowhawk dragonfly–probably a white-faced  (Sympetrum obtrusum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; road through Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Grateful thanks to art gallery curator Georgia Schwender who (despite ferocious heat) offered me a tour of some of Fermilab’s natural areas. Check out Fermilab’s Art Gallery on the second floor of the Wilson Building in all seasons. Look for Fermilab’s “Seeing the Prairie” exhibit July 27-September 28, 2018. 

Wings, Stings, and Prairie Things

“Every living creature on the earth is special.”–Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
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So many flying creatures. So little time to learn them all.
That’s how I felt after US Fish & Wildlife trained us this week to monitor the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). This fuzzy bug’s presence has declined almost 90 percent in the Midwest in the past 20 years. As a result? It’s now federally endangered. As a prairie site steward—and someone who loves the natural world—I want to understand what I can do to help bring it back.
But the first step —learning bee ID—is a daunting proposition. So many color, size, and pattern variations in bees!  Who knew?
I have a few scraps of knowledge about honey bees after taking a bee-keeping class, and can usually ID a honey bee. The key word being “usually.” Like this one below.
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And, I like insect identification.  I’ve  been a dragonfly monitor for a baker’s dozen years or so—chasing dragonflies and damselflies, walking my routes on the prairie, collecting data. I marvel at every new species I find (Wow! Red damsel!). I also enjoy the regulars (another day, another widow skimmer) for their familiarity.  Like this blue dasher dragonfly.

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And I never get tired of the eastern amberwings, a dragonfly so tiny you barely see it in the tallgrass.
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Dragonflies usually get good press. Butterflies as well, and who can blame us for loving them? As I monitor dragonflies, I often see butterflies in the same areas. This regal fritillary, a threatened butterfly species (below), was puddling around in the mud on one of my regular dragonfly routes this week.
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But bees. Hmmm…..they haven’t been on my radar screen until lately. There are about 4,000 native bees in North America;  400-500 species of native bees in Illinois. Whew! That makes learning 99 or so species of dragonflies in Illinois seem like child’s play.
Honeybees, I learn, are not native to North America. They were brought here during European settlement. Guess what critters were here first? The native bees—sweat bees, bumble bees, cuckoo bees, mason bees. And other bees as well. But 50% of our Midwestern bees have disappeared from their historic ranges over the past 100 years, according to Wired Magazine.   This matters. Bees and other pollinators (birds, bats, butterflies, beetles, and more) are responsible for one out of every three bites of food you eat.  Imagine a world without bees! Tough to do.
With these sobering statistics in mind, I’ve been looking at bees differently. Trying to learn some of their names. Teaching myself some of their field marks.
These three bumblebees below look pretty similar, don’t they?
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But—yup, you guessed it—they are three different bumble bee species. From top to bottom: Bombus griseocollis–the brown-belted bumble bee; Bombus auricomus–the black and gold bumblebee; and the one directly above this paragraph, Bombus fervidus—the golden northern bumblebee. Aren’t they pretty?
I learned these bumble bees with an ID chart and initial help from the good folks at beespotter.org. If you haven’t checked out this site, take a look. It’s a great way to learn bee ID, and also to contribute to research on where bees still are, what flowers bees are using; which bees are in decline, and which bee species are thriving.
Just when I think I’m starting to get a handle on the bumble crowd, I see these pretty little metallic green sweat bees everywhere on the prairie. Oh boy.
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And so many other bees I’m puzzling over! Looks like a honey bee (below)…. I think. Still a lot of ID work ahead.
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Learning something new takes time and attention to details. Bee ID means re-learning patience.
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One of the first things we ask someone to tell us is their name. It helps us really see a person; it helps give that person greater meaning and significance. I want to do the same for the native bees. Learn a few names. Notice them. Pay attention.
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After all, it’s these bees that help make the prairie such a beautiful place! And all it takes is for me to make a little extra time to see them. And—the patience to realize there is going to be a lot that I won’t know. A lot.  I’ve always loved a good mystery! This bee ID challenge should be just that.
I’m going to make learning a few bee names a priority this summer. Get to know them. Then, try to make some changes in my backyard and on the prairie site I manage to help them thrive.
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How about you?
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The opening quote is from Sue Monk Kidd’s (1948–) novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002).  This coming of age story, a book club favorite which takes place during the civil rights movement in 1964, was later adapted as a film.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): European honey bee (Apis mellifera) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie in late June, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly, male (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) on Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; golden northern bumble bee (Bombus fervidus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; halictid bee on lead plant (Amorpha canadensus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on fringed yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on black-eyed Susan, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Flights of (Prairie) Imagination

“…words are all we have of wings.” — Mark O’Connor

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There’s nothing like an air travel delay to offer hours of unplanned time to ponder the miracles of flight. This week, I traded Illinois’ tallgrass prairies for Gulf Coast beaches, with about a break-even in temperature (it’s 98 down south; 96 on the prairie as I type this).  It might be easy to get snarly about a three hour delay on the flight home and easily undo all the tranquility of a week’s vacation. Tranquility can be only surface deep sometimes; with tension lurking just under the surface.

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But instead,  I decide to think over the past week. One of the great aspects of displacement is exposure to unfamiliar flora and fauna.  It offers you a chance to see the world with new eyes. It reminds you what a diverse and delightful place the world can be.

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I miss the tallgrass prairie wildflowers, which I know are spectacular this week.

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I remind myself of this as I admire the neon hues of Florida hibiscus.

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In Florida, the familiar jostles against the unfamiliar. Across the beaches; over the ponds and mangrove pools, dragonflies and damselflies tirelessly patrol for mosquitoes.  A new place means new species of tropical dragonflies. This gives me an excuse to peruse Odonata websites, in search of names.  Such glorious colors! Like this scarlet skimmer.

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And funky patterns….

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… like the ones on this four-spotted pennant. (Could have guessed the name of this one, right?) . I feel a bit nostalgic for the dragonflies and damselflies that are patrolling the prairies back home—just a two-and-a-half hour jet flight away.

But it’s the birds that demand my full attention. Shorebirds. Herons of every possible description and hue.

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Yellow-crowned night herons in full breeding plumage.yellowcrownednightheronbreedingplumageDingDarlingWM618.jpg

Some are familiar visitors to the prairie during migration or in the summer. These white pelicans, for example. You’d think this photo was taken in Florida…

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… but in fact, these white pelicans were ones I saw at Nachusa Grasslands at the end of last month. Down south now, I wonder about their migration patterns.  What do they think of the change from beach to prairie and back again? Is it as jolting for them as it is for me?

Beach birds like the pelicans will find the company they keep in Illinois a little different.  Although the tallgrass prairie birds have some startling color combinations…

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…Florida’s roseate spoonbill’s bright pink screams for your attention.

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Hard for our little prairie Henslow’s sparrow to compete, isn’t it?

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Despite all the color and sizzle and “gee-whiz-look-at-me” that the Gulf Coast beaches and their birds and dragonflies have to offer…

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…there is truly (as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz) “no place like home.”

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I can’t wait to be back on the prairie.

***

Opening quote is from the poem, “The Mutton Birds,” by Australian Mark O’Connor (1945-), in “The Olive Tree: Collected Poems.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): alligator (Aligator mississippiensis) in lily pond, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron in breeding plumage (Nyctanassa violacea),  J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, unknown species), Sanibel Island, Florida; scarlet skimmer dragonfly (Crocothemis servilia), Captiva Island, Florida; four-spotted pennant dragonfly (Brachymesia gravida), Captiva Island, Florida; juvenile tri-colored heron (Egretta tricolor), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) in breeding plumage, J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bob-o-link (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida; Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset on Captiva Island, Florida; sunset on Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL.

Prairie Streams of Consciousness

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” — Pema Chödrön.

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If you want to get a fresh perspective on life, jump into the water.  That’s where I find myself this week, monitoring dragonflies and damselflies on the prairie. So much of insect life on the prairie is virtually invisible. To really see some of the damselflies requires full immersion.

It’s sunny—one of the few dry days this week.  Out on the prairie, the white wild indigo is in full celebration mode.

spma6918wm.jpgThe bumblebees are making the most of bloom time.

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Honeybees busily buzz around the wild asparagus blossoms.

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The gorgeous prairie wildflowers are offering a show in early June that would put Las Vegas to shame. Scurfy pea (what a great name!) throws purple all over its silvery tumbleweeds.

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Prairie sundrops earn their name, splashing light where they lie knee-high, barely keeping up with the grasses and wildflowers growing lushly all around.

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There’s plenty of dragonfly action on the prairie trails. Calico pennant dragonflies—red males, yellow females—might be mistaken for butterflies by the non-initiated.

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And who could blame someone for thinking so? Each year the pennants’ fluttering appearance seems magical. I could get easily get distracted from the morning’s task at hand.

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But today is for the prairie stream. I pull on my hip waders and get down to business. It’s a bit windier than I’d like for dragonfly monitoring, but the brook is nestled into a low spot on the prairie and there, the breeze doesn’t do as much as ruffle my hair. However, getting into a stream in waders is a challenge. Especially when the sides of the bank are steep and your knees aren’t what they used to be.  I sit and clumsily scoot-slide down the steep sides of the bank.

It’s a different world, down in the stream. The prairie above recedes from my view and my thoughts. All that exists is the water. It’s surprisingly high, well up to my hips.  I cautiously test my footing. Streams are always dicey; sometimes the bottom muck sucks your boots into it unexpectedly, leaving yourself in a bad predicament. Other times an unexpected hole opens up as you take a step and you lose your footing. I’ve never fallen—yet—but I fully expect that is in the cards at some point.

All it takes is a glint of color or motion out of the corner of your eye to distract you. You glance up. Ebony jewelwings! The white spots tell me this one’s a female.

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The males aren’t far off; spaced evenly along the stream. Perched on the grasses.

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Look down, and there’s a violet dancer damselfly in all its shocking variations of purple.

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Just to the side is a newly-emerged American rubyspot damselfly in the teneral stage, abdomen drooping, its colors in the process of brightening. Its wings look newly-minted.  I’ve been watching for this species, which hasn’t appeared along my stream-side route this month. Like clockwork, they knew when it was time to emerge.

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There you are.  I’ve been wondering when you’d show up.

Picking my way down the stream, I test each step. The process gives “mindfullness” fresh meaning.  I stumble at one point, where a drop-off is invisible in the murky water, and grab at the closest vegetation. For the first time in my life as a prairie steward, I’m grateful for the invasive reed canary grass lining the shore.

As I regain my sense of balance, I notice a new form of a blue-fronted dancer damselfly—a blue morph female, rather than the more common orangey-tan— enjoying a protein-packed lunch of unknown bug. I’ve seen plenty of blue-fronteds over the course of my monitoring, but not this variation. Cool! I thought I knew this species. It’s another reminder that there is so much I don’t know.

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The stream is the romantic hot spot of the prairie for dragons and damsels.  All around me are various stages of damselfly mating in progress.  In the early stages, the male (like this blue male stream bluet, below) grabs a likely-looking female behind the head…

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…and the two dragons or damsels form  “the wheel,” which often looks like a heart. Two ebony jewelwings make a beautiful one, don’t they?

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The male guards the female (either by hovering in the air, or continuing his death-grip behind her head) until her eggs are safely deposited in floating mats of vegetation, grasses, old wood, or directly into the water. Take a look below as a pondhawk female (green) dragonfly taps her eggs into the surface of the water, while the male (powdery blue) hover guards just above.

 

The whole process of ovipositing—egg laying—moves fast, doesn’t it? But a dragonfly or damselfly’s life is a matter of weeks, sometimes days, or even hours. To keep life moving forward, they don’t mess around.

Unlike the dragonflies, there’s nothing fast about my work today. The rewards of stream wading are these: Reminding myself how it feels to move quietly and slowly. Learning that what I think I know isn’t always the whole story.  Finding new perspectives on places I thought I knew well. Surprises at every bend of the brook. Realizing that when I don’t jump in I miss so much. And most of all, perhaps, the mind-clearing effort of paying attention to every step, punctuated by new delights all around.

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When I’ve finished wading my short stretch of stream, I’m exhausted.  The  careful focus on footing. The watchful parsing of shoreline vegetation for a flash of color, a glimmer of motion. The sheer energy exerted to get from point A to point Z in the water that is getting to be more of a challenge each season.

But the bombardment of marvels all around me in the stream fills up my “inner well.” You know that “well;” the one that is depleted by meetings and noise and front-page news and angry drivers and toxic people.  I always leave the stream feeling more at peace. Like the world is a beautiful place.

I don’t wade every pond and stream where I dragonfly monitor; it takes too much time. But there’s not a day when I don’t wish I could.  There are joys and revelations I’m missing because I stay high and dry on the shore, counting dragonflies where it’s easier. But I’ll always see less than I would from the sidelines than if I fully commit myself to the water.

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Think about it. Every pond, every lake, every stream is filled with rhythmic dances of   life going on each moment. So many amazing things happening in the world!

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All we have to do is look. And keep our sense of wonder.

******

The opening quote is by Pema Chödrön (1936-), an American Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her books include,  When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with unknown bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) with an unknown honeybee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly female (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), male, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), teneral, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) (female, blue morph), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis)  as seen from my kayak in Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumberg, IL; green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands Beaver Pond Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Walt Whitman’s Prairie

“…While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and the Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”–Walt Whitman

*****

Spring merges into meteorological summer on the prairie. The days yo-yo between cloudless humid afternoons in the 90s and beautiful breezy days in the 70s.  It’s a deceptively cool morning. None-the-less, it promises heat as I set out on my hike. I leave my old blue Honda on the two-track and make my way up a rocky hilltop.

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The prairie puts on growth right now like a toddler outgrowing clothes. You feel as if  sitting and watching the grass grow is a literal possibility.

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Pale purple coneflowers press in on all sides in every possible stage of bloom. Fibonacci, anyone?

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The prairie offers us the most when we offer it our time and our presence. Sit. Look. Look some more. Not everything has as much pizzazz as the coneflowers. The downy yellow painted cup makes up for what it lacks in vibrant color with originality.

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It rubs shoulders with the uncommon short green milkweed, one of more than a dozen native milkweed species in Illinois—and a perfect “10” in Flora of the Chicago Region. 

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Homely, you say? No glamour other than its conservation value? Perhaps. Yet this milkweed is as welcome to a weary monarch butterfly looking to lay its eggs as its flashier counterpart, the orange butterfly weed, just about ready to bloom on the prairie.

Sure, the prairie has its share of eye-popping color right now.

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But that’s not what necessarily draws us to it. The prairie satisfies us for the long haul with its interplay of wind and weather, pollinator and patterns. Grasses and gradients of color, birdsong and blooms.HenslowssparrowNG53118wm.jpg

It is deceptively simple.

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As you spend time with the prairie, you begin to understand just how very complex it is.

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Other stunning landscapes may wow you for a short while, but quickly lose their appeal. The prairie moves into your soul over time, sets up housekeeping, and endlessly satisfies you with its nuances. Look again. Listen.

As many have observed, the prairie doesn’t shout. But listen closely. It whispers.

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And a whisper can be a powerful thing.

****

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) delivered the opening quote in this blogpost in a speech he prepared (but never gave) for a speaking engagement in Kansas on a trip out west in 1879-80. You can read more of his essay in “America’s Characteristic Landscape,” included in John T. Price’s edited collection of nature writing, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014, University of Iowa Press, Bur Oak Books). 

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with Halictidae (sweat bee) (Agapostemon splendens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; downy yellow painted cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; short green milkweed (Aslepias viridiflora) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) Henslow’s sparrow (Passerculus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly, male (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video of prairie ponds with dragonflies and birdsong, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trail through Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grateful thanks to Susan Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, who generously gave me the gift of her time.