Category Archives: winter prairie

Three Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.” —Barry Lopez

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I heard the cardinal’s spring song this week for the first time this year. Maybe it was practicing. Maybe it was dreaming. Snow is still piled on the ground and my little pond is frozen, but now I listen for that cardinal song anytime I step outdoors. February is half over. There is plenty of snow and cold ahead. Yet the thought of spring persists.

Wildflowers and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter in the Midwest has a lot to recommend it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Really?

Oh yes. Let’s get outside and discover three reasons to hike the February prairie.

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  1. Interesting Plants

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of the temporal nature of life.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere are remnants of what was once a vibrant wildflower, now aged and gone to seed.

Carrion flower (Smilax sp.) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Along the trail is wild bergamot, still redolent with thymol.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Dried grasses are broken and weighted with snow.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet, life is here, under the ground. Emergence is only weeks away.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Pollinators are a distant memory. What will a new season bring?

Indian Hemp/Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

These are the prairie’s closing chapters. The hot breath of prescribed fire whispers. Soon. Soon. When conditions are right. By April, this will have vanished in smoke.

Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Take in every moment of winter. While it lasts.

2. The Joy of Tracking

Who moves across the winter prairie? It’s not always easy to tell.

Along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Follow the streams and you’ll see signs of life. I know a mink lives along Willoway Brook—are these her prints?

Tracks along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who took a frigid plunge?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The freeze/thaw freeze/thaw over the past week has blurred and slushed the tracks, adding to the mystery.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who is it that prowls the tallgrass prairie in February? Who swims its streams?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m not always sure, but it’s enough to know that life persists in February.

3. The Exhilaration of Braving the Elements

Hiking the prairie in February involves a little bit of risk, a little bit of daring.

Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Bundle up.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

See these prairie skies, how they change from moment to moment? Bright—then dim—then bright? What a joy to be outside!

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Sure, the temperatures are in the teens. Wrap that scarf a little tighter around your neck. Breathe in that cold, clarifying prairie air.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sometimes, you may arrive, only to turn back when the trail has iced beyond acceptable risk.

Iced-over trail at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

But isn’t it enough to be there, even if only for a few minutes?

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I think so. Why not go see? It won’t be winter much longer.

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Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was an American writer who loved the Arctic and wolves, and wrote 20 books of fiction and non-fiction exploring our relationship to the natural world. The opening quote for today’s blog is from his National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams (1986), which is still my favorite of his works.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program as part of all-day events)

Gold Medal Prairie Days

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” – John Steinbeck

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‘Tis the season for the winter Olympics; the perfect way to spend February’s frigid days. We cheer for the skiers and snowboarders, admire the elegance of the figure skaters, get rowdy with the hockey players, and puzzle over the curling competition. “Hog Line”? “Pebble”? Curling is a mystery. The Olympics remind me of our collective resilience. So much dedication! So much drive.

PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Outside my back door, the squirrels practice Olympic moves at the bird feeders. Flocks of juncos and goldfinches bump each other from the thistle tubes. Woodpeckers (red-bellied, hairy, downy) fly in for the suet, while the chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches peck at the sunflower and safflower seed. This week—at the recommendation of our birding friends—I add two finch “socks” to our smorgasbord. A day later, half a dozen common redpolls showed up. Our first!

Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Despite their name, they are anything but common. We have an irruption in our area this winter. I’ve not paid much attention to redpolls in the past, so I take a few moments to read up on them at Cornell’s All About Birds. Redpolls may make tunnels in the snow—up to a foot long—to stay warm, I learn. While they will eat sunflower seeds, redpolls love thistle socks (like the ones pictured).

Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

These Arctic tundra and boreal forest birds can survive cold spells of up to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, I discover. Yikes! And I thought it was cold in Illinois.

Prairie grasses and wildflowers, PrairiePond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Despite the lure of our backyard bird feeder Olympics and the 24/7 coverage of the ongoing competition in Beijing, Jeff and I left the house to hike PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, a small park in Lisle, IL.

PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It feels good to be outside. The air is cold; much more frigid than the temperatures would suggest. But there is plenty to take our minds off the bitter weather. The looped path we hike is planted with prairie natives in various degrees of winter decomposition. Age has its own sort of loveliness.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Dragonflies patrol the pond in the warmer seasons. I know that under that frozen surface, the nymphs wait for spring. But on this day, it’s all about the snow.

PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

February skies. Icy paths. I’m grateful for my Yaktrax that keep me from sliding around. The snow-covered pond provides a backdrop for the silhouettes of prairie natives.

Indian hemp.

Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The colors of the Indian hemp pods and stems remind me of the redpolls. Subtle—with a dash of scarlet.

Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane, (Apocynum cannabinum), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Switchgrass, the color of caramel, gets me thinking about lunch. Or maybe just dessert. Or dessert instead of lunch.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It’s a frozen landscape. Yet there is motion in the sway of a vine…

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with an unknown vine, PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…the sprays of prairie cordgrass…

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…and the peel of bark on a tree planted alongside the path.

Birch tree (Betula sp.), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There is movement in the explosive form of a rosette gall…

Rosette gall, PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…and in the chorus of gray-headed coneflower seeds along the shoreline.

Grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Every winter walk is full of surprises. Is it worth missing a few Olympic events for?

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

You be the judge.

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The opening quote is from Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (1902-1968), the author of 33 books—many of which were required reading in my high school. His book, The Grapes of Wrath, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and the National Book Award. Steinbeck also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the 2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program)

March 3Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –enjoy this online class with assignments over 60 days and one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.

***Thank you John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for the thistle sock recommendation for redpolls. It worked!