Six Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“The prairie is bountifully utilitarian.  But it is lovely too, in a hundred thousand ways and in a million details, many of them so finely wrought that one must drop to one’s knees to appreciate them.”– Paul Gruchow

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Yes, it’s hot. Okay, more than hot. It’s downright scorching. Hike the prairie? You’ve got to be kidding.

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I kid you not. Let’s go! Why? Here are half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in July. Go ahead–dress light, hydrate, slather on that bug spray and sunscreen—and let’s go.

#1. Oh those butterflies! Big ones, like this common but yet oh-so-uncommonly-beautiful Spangled Meadow Fritillary, nectaring at false sunflower in the prairie savanna.

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Or the tiny ones, like this Eastern Tailed Blue, barely visible in the tallgrass.

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You might see the Pearl Crescent, fluttering ahead on the path.

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Wait! I think it is a pearl crescent, but I’m not completely sure. Evidently they are almost indistinguishable from the Northern Crescents. Some folks say they are both the same species, rather than two distinct ones. Ah, well. At least I know for sure when I see a Monarch, like this one nectaring on butterfly weed, one of our native milkweeds in Illinois.

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Not into butterflies? Consider hiking to admire the wildflowers. Why?

#2. July’s prairie wildflowers are show-stoppers. Wow-oh-wow. So much orange. There’s the native Turk’s Cap Lily, just coming into bloom.

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Not to be confused with the invasive daylilies, escaped from tamer plantings in gardens and along roadsides.

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Although they often find a seat in our gardens, we weed them out of prairie restorations when they show up. Otherwise, they’d take over the prairie.

More orange: The aforementioned butterfly weed screams its hues in infinite color variations of  neon orange across the prairie.butterflyweedJuly52020SPMAWM

Other native milkweeds are more nuanced, like this swamp milkweed.

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Even the much-maligned common milkweed, which is—well, weedy,—has a scent that has to be sniffed to be believed. Some sprang up in my clematis just off the back patio. When my husband Jeff passed it the first time it opened this summer, he stopped in his tracks. What’s that great smell?

Mountain mint is in bloom, barely visible in the tallgrass unless you know where to look. A chewed leaf is a guaranteed breath freshener on a hot day.

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Glade mallow, the only member of its genus that occurs in Illinois, is in full bloom.

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It’s difficult to miss, towering over my head. Much easier to walk by without noticing is the fringed loosestrife, a modest little plant with its flowers pointing downward.

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Not to be confused with purple loosestrife,a rampant invasive, fringed loosestrife is a desirable native. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “7” for its coefficient of conservatism. Its anther surface “fluoresces brightly” (or glows) when seen under long-wave ultraviolet light, Wilhelm writes, and it appears “otherworldly.” I’d love to see this for myself.

Nearby is white wild indigo; some plants still emerging, other bloom stalks mature and withering in the heat. A male red-winged blackbird finds indigo the perfect perch to warn me off its nest.

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I also love the wild petunia for its seeming tenacity, although its coefficient of conservatism is an “8”.  It pops up every year in the same general location on the mowed prairie paths.

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Buckeye butterfly caterpillars are big fans of this wildflower. It’s also attractive to numerous pollinators, especially different bee species.

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You might know many of the wildflower names. But do you know their stories?

3. Got ethnobotany? Got—what? Ethnobotany is just a term we use to talk about how humans have used plants throughout history (and today!). The prairie is full of plants that are both beautiful and utilitarian, and as the wonderful prairie writer Paul Gruchow once said in a chapter from his book: Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, there need not be any contradiction between the two. A good example is Wild Quinine, in full bloom now.

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Some people know it as “feverfew,” which tells you how confusing common names can be (there are several other plants with this nickname). That’s why it’s always good to look at the scientific name, in this case, Parthenium integrifolium. Daniel Moerman, in his amazing book, Native American Ethnobotany, tells us that one Native American tribe used a poultice of fresh leaves of this plant to dress burns. Another tribe believed the leave’s ashes were a veterinary treatment for sore backs in horses.

And look at its value for insects! Wavy-lined emerald moth larvae occur in the inflorescences, according to Wilhelm and Rericha. Butterflies such as the American Lady, Pearl Crescent, and Common Wood-Nymph visit the flowers, they tell us. As I read, I learn that bees that visit the flowerheads when the staminate florets are blooming become coated with white pollen and “resemble little ghosts.” I’ve not seen this! Obviously, I need to sit for a while with this plant and pay more attention.

Another plant in bloom is Elderberry, which Illinois Wildflowers tells us occurs in every county of Illinois. Its small, edible fruits—somewhat poisonous when raw—have none-the-less been used (when cooked correctly) in jellies, wine, and pies, and are often used in homeopathic remedies for flu and colds. Native Americans used plants in the same genus for everything from making whistles to using infusions of the blossoms for upset stomachs, Moerman writes in Native American Ethnobotany.

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I particularly love New Jersey Tea, a prairie shrub whose blooms cover parts of the prairie like a foamy cappuccino in July. The Dakota used the leaves to make a tea-like beverage, although as I understand it, there is no caffeine. I have a small New Jersey tea plant growing in my prairie garden this season, and although it didn’t bloom this summer, I have high hopes for next year.

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Each prairie plant has an ethnobotanical story to tell us. All we have to do is invest a little time into learning that story, and then, share it with others. It’s a non-stop adventure! I particularly love Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethobotany as a venue to discover some of these stories. Check it out, if you love stories as I do! Although many of the plant remedies and uses are not considered valid today, your prairie hikes will open you up to these stories that will fill you with gratitude for the utility of these beautiful plants over time, and the place they earned in the lives of people who depended on the prairie as their pharmacy, grocery store, and craft shop.

Still need more reasons?

#4. Find a respite from the news.  Tuck your phone away where you can’t reach it easily, put all thoughts of politics and pandemics away, and let the tallgrass prairie clear the cobwebs from your mind. Admire the tall bellflowers that edge the tallgrass.

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Soak up the sunshine of false sunflowers, having a banner season despite the blistering heat.

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Marvel over the smooth phlox with its hairless stems and vivid color. Moths, bees, and butterflies all love this plant, a harbinger of summer.

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And then, look deeper into the tallgrass. So dainty and silent, you’ll see these… .

#5. Learn the names of some damselflies. Aren’t they beautiful creatures worth your time and attention? Their very names seem to sing.

Variable dancer.

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Ebony jewelwing.

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Powdered dancer.

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The American Rubyspot can be found along the river and stream edges in the Chicago Region. Their bright wing spots make them unmistakable.

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One of the most common damselflies in the Chicago region is the blue-fronted dancer. Last season, at Nachusa Grasslands, it was our most numerous damselfly.

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And once you see the damselflies, consider…

#6. Dragonflies, too! While you’re learning damselflies, why not discover a few names for dragonflies?

Male eastern amberwings.

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And their counterparts, the female eastern amberwings.

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The female calico pennants are charming, no matter what angle you see them at.

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These are only half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie this week. Grab your water bottle, swipe on some sunscreen…

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…and why not go see?

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who loved the Boundary Waters and tallgrass prairies. If you haven’t read his writing, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL this week (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele); eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas);  possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) with fleabane (Erigeron); common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva); butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); common mountain mint  (Pycnanthemum virginianum); glade mallow (Napaea dioica); prairie loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia ); trail with wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) with unidentified bee; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); elderberry ((Sambucus nigra canadensis)); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); tall bellflower (Campanula americana); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior); variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis); ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta); American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana); blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa); one of the rudbeckias, still working on this ID. It was part of a planting into our prairie display strip with a commercial “native” mix–or it has escaped into it. Pretty! But is it one of our natives? Still working on that. What do you think? (Rudbeckia spps.).

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Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes this summer:

REGISTER BEFORE MIDNIGHT TONIGHT! “Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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. 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. 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.  

Prairie Bugs and Blooms

“Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine.” — E.O.Wilson

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As the curtain falls on June, rains and heat coax the prairie into luxuriant growth.

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Pale purple coneflowers, white wild indigo, and carrot-colored butterfly weed along with a suite of June’s other familiar wildflowers rampage across the prairie. I marvel at them as I hike. More unusual finds, like bunch flower and its suite of tiny flies and beetle pollinators, are a reason to drop to my knees in wonder.  Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “10” as its coefficient of conservatism.

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Not far from the bunchflowers, the prairie lilies are in bloom. Another “10!” Such startling color. Somehow, the deer have missed munching on them this season. See if you can find the tiny crab spider.

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An umbrella paper wasp ignores me as it concentrates on an architectural project.

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Prairie coreopsis is a magnet for pollinators. Bees, wasps, moth caterpillars, flies, and beetles can’t resist its bright flowerhead, brimming with nectar and pollen. I love its sunny yellow flowers, a lift for my spirits.

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Wildflowers are the main event on the tallgrass prairie at the end of June. But today, I’m looking for dragonflies and damselflies.  Bugs? Pollinators? Not exactly.  Although they are in the Class Insecta, dragonflies and damselflies aren’t true bugs (Hemiptera)-–rather, they are part of the order Odonata. Although they don’t pollinate plants, dragonflies and damselflies are an important part of the prairie. I don’t have to look hard for them; the prairie is alive with different species in myriad patterns and colors. Some fly up out of the grasses as I hike. Others quietly perch, motionless.

Hello, Halloween pennants! Good to see you back on the prairie again.

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The black saddlebags dragonfly patrols in circles, silhouetted against the summer sky…

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…but I caught this one in a moment of rest.

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Common green darners are….well…common, but I still admire the patterns—that bull’s eye spot!—and coloration that makes them so distinct from any of their kind. Some say green darners look like cyclops. This female is unmistakable.

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In Willoway Brook, the ebony jewelwing damselflies flutter; looping in and out of the tallgrass to swipe smaller insects for breakfast.

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Every wildflower and grass stalk is a potential perch for an Odonate.  Widow skimmers. The blue you see on their wings is pruinescence, and gives it that startling contrast.

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Eastern amberwings hang out on leadplant. This one’s a female! Pretty.

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Male blue dashers watch for prey.

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A 12-spotted skimmers dragonfly basks in the sunshine, trying to regulate its body temperature, which it takes from the temperature around it.

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So many wonders! And summer on the prairie has only just begun.

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It’s going to be an amazing season.

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The opening quote is from E.O. Wilson’s  (1929-) Naturalist. His blindness in one eye from a childhood fishing accident led to his study of ants, which as “little things” were easy for him to focus on. Today, Wilson is recognized as the world’s leading authority on ants. He won several Pulitzer Prizes (1979, 1991) and the U.S. National Medal of Science (1976) among many other awards; he was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in 1995. Thank you, John Heneghen, for loaning me Naturalist. A very enjoyable read.

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All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bunch flower (Melanthium virginicum); prairie lily (Lilium philadelphicum); umbrella paper wasp–dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus); prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata); halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); common black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata); common black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata); common green darner dragonfly, female (Anax junius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa); eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis);  12-spotted skimmer  dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and daisy fleabane (one of the Erigeron species, probably strigosus but possibly annuus). Note that many people consider daisy fleabane a weed; although common, it is a cheerful little native with many benefits to insects.

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Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes:

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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. 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 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

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.  

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

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With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

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Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

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Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

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To barely open…

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…to just opening…

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…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

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Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

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Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

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I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

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Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

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Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

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Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

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Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

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This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

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So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

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The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

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In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

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I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

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Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

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Why not go see?

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John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for her upcoming online book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes:

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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. 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 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

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.  

10 Reasons to Hike the June Prairie

“In June, as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.”
— Aldo Leopold

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Almost cloudless skies, with a few swirls of cirrus.  Cool breezes. Warm sunshine.

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This past week has been near perfect weather-wise here in Illinois—about as beautiful a June as we could wish for. A good time to hike the tallgrass prairie. Why? Here are 10 good reasons to consider getting out there.

10. Butterflies. Tiger swallowtails, red-spotted purples, and even friendly little cabbage whites are aloft now, often flying tantalizing just out of reach. The meadow fritillary (below) gets its name, appropriately, from the meadows it likes to inhabit. It’s a regular visitor to the prairies in Illinois. This adult is nectaring on white clover.

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Viceroy butterflies are often mistaken for monarchs, but are smaller with a different wing pattern. They occasionally hybridize with the red-spotted purple butterfly, with stunning results — click here to read more about this interesting phenomenon. This viceroy is soaking up a little sunshine on a cool afternoon.

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The numbers and diversity of butterflies will accelerate this month, just as the prairie explodes into bloom. Which brings us to…

9. Wildflowers on the prairie are spectacular this month as referenced by Aldo Leopold’s quote that opens this post. You may see the first pale purple coneflowers, barely opened…

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…or wild quinine, its pearled flowers bright in the sunshine…

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…or white wild indigo, unfurling its asparagus-like stalk into those blooms so characteristic of legumes…

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…. or indigo bush, sometimes called “false indigo,” abuzz with bees.

IndigoBush61420NachusaGrasslandsWM

June is the month when the prairie continues its crescendo toward July fourth, known as the height of bloom time on the tallgrass prairie. Difficult to believe that holiday is only a few weeks away! There is so much to look forward to.

8. A Prairie Wetland Serenade –that’s what the frogs and birds give us in June. Listen. Can you hear the “broken banjo string” sound of the green frogs?

So many layers of sound! Try to find a frog, and you’ll hear “plop-plop-plop” as they disappear in the water ahead of you with only a ring left on the water as evidence they were sunning themselves on the edge moments before.

7. Bison.  When you are lucky enough to visit a tallgrass preserve that has bison, you get a sense of what prairies once were, long ago. And why they seem incomplete without these shaggy behemoths and their little mini-mes.

bisongrazing-NG2017WM

Although the Illinois tallgrass prairie didn’t have vast herds of bison, as the Great Plains once did, bison still performed critical functions such as wallowing, grazing, and leaving fertilizing dung on the prairie. By the early 1800s, bison had mostly vanished from the state. Their restoration today, such as the ones shown at Nachusa Grasslands, is a triumph for species. conservation.

6. Tiny critters, in contrast to the thousand-plus pound bison, aren’t always as noticeable on a prairie.

Tiny critter on penstemon NG61420WM

And yet, without these little creatures—many whose names I’ll never learn—the prairie would not function as a healthy system. Easy to overlook. But no less important than bison.

5. Dragonflies  depend on many of these little creatures for food, and how can anyone fail to miss them? Common green darners fill the skies. Black saddlebags fly up out of the grasses at our approach. Sparkling gems everywhere, perched on twigs and branches. This male calico pennant has a row of tiny hearts on his abdomen.

CalicoPennant Male61520 SPMAWM

The female repeats the pattern, only in gold.

Female Calico Pennant SPMA61520WM

This common white-tail (below) basks in the sunshine on a cool afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-70s F. Dragonflies practice thermoregulation, so rely on a combination of body and wing positions to keep their temperature warmer or cooler.

commonwhitetail61420NGPLPonds

4. Damselflies, the kissing cousins of dragonflies, are often overlooked…but why? They are glamour writ miniature. The ebony jewelwing damselflies are some of my favorites — the first damselfly name I learned was this one. This male (below), lounging by a stream, is resplendent in the sunshine. A showstopper worthy of his name.Ebony Jewelwing Beaver Pond NG61420

The female is similar, except it appears someone touched her wing with white-out.

ebonyjewelwingfemaleBeaverPondNG61420WM

Variable dancer damselflies are smaller, but no less spectacular when seen up close. The male has an unmistakable violet coloration.

VariableDancerSPMA61520WM

Think of how many other damselflies, with their unusual markings and gorgeous coloration, are waiting for you to notice them!  Stop as you walk and peer into the grasses by the side of the trail. Sit quietly by a stream or pond. Damselflies are smaller than you might think. But watch patiently. You’ll see them.

3.  Trails through the prairie are an invitation to adventure. Do you feel your heart lift as you set off to stride down a familiar path? Do you anticipate what wonders are waiting?

SPMAtrail6520WM

You never come back from a prairie hike unchanged. Perhaps it’s a new plant  you see, or the sight of an indigo bunting shattering all that green with its bright blue. The trail is your free ticket to the unknown.

2. Moths are not something we think about on a prairie hike so much, as many of them are creatures of the night. And yet a few of them are day-trippers. Stumble across a reversed haploa moth (yes, that’s really its name) and tell me you don’t have an extra few minutes to stop, and to marvel.Reversed Haploa Moth SpMA61520WM

This celery looper moth (below), barely visible in the shade of stiff goldenrod leaves, hints at a mostly hidden world; a world we have to show up at night to really see.

Celery Looper Moth SPMA61520WM Yet another dimension of prairie to be discovered.

1. Rest and Reflection are always part of being on the prairie. And yet. As I chased dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands this weekend, I stumbled across this carnage.

dragonflywingsNGPLponds61420WM

Four dragonfly wings, doubtless the remains of a bird’s breakfast. The wings glittered with morning dew. Gently, I picked one up. It was clear, likely belonging to a luckless teneral dragonfly whose wings were pumped full of hemolymph, but wasn’t yet strong enough to fly. I see many of these teneral dragonflies and damselflies as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes. They are almost ready to fly; the coloration is not quite fully complete.Teneral Dragonfly NG61420WM

So fragile. Such brief lives! After emergence from the water, dragonflies may live a few minutes (which may have been the fate of the owner of the snipped off wings) or in some parts of the world, several months. Here in Illinois, a long-lived adult dragonfly marks time as a matter of weeks. Yet dragonflies are survivors, still around in much the same form as they were hundreds of millions of years ago. I find solace in that thought.

Time spent on a prairie is one way to make room for reflection. It’s a time to rest and unplug.Jeff at NG 61420WM

A time to explore. A time to discover. A walk on the prairie is a reminder that the world is a complex and beautiful place.

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All we have to do is make time to be there. Then, pay attention.

Why not go see?

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is the author of A Sand County Almanac; his environmental ethics articulated in this book helped frame the Wilderness Act in 1964 after his death. His book has sold more than 2 million copies.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): skies, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona) on white clover, a non-native (Trifolium repens); viceroy (Limenitis archippus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea –species names vary, including “alba,” I am using Wilhelm’s Flora as my source); false indigo or indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa); video of wetlands in June; bison and calves (Bison bison, photo from 2017); unknown insect on foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis); male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia); male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); female ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); male variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reverse haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; celery looper moth (Anagrapha falcifera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; teneral dragonfly wings (unknown species); teneral dragonfly; reading and relaxing on the tallgrass prairie; June at Nachusa Grasslands.

Join Cindy for her online upcoming book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes!

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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. Pre-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. Or, order now direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

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 Prairie Homecoming

“There’s nothing in the world so strong as grass.” — Ellis Peters

*****

The last few months seem like a dream.

This past week, restrictions in Illinois have lifted enough that I’ve been able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie for the first time since April 1. I go early, when the sun is still climbing the eastern sky and the spider’s thrown webs dazzle with drops of dew.

It’s a bit surreal to be out here again, especially since the prairie remains unburned—and will remain so this season. Without fire, the wild prairie roses are tall and glorious.

The bumblebees work the blooms, joined by other insects.

Carrion flower towers over the prairie, its other-worldly tendrils and seedheads adding to the surreal feeling.

Closer to the ground, prairie phlox—beaded with dew drops—splatters the grasses with lavender, white, and pink in a multitude of hues and tiny patterns.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think the photo above and below were different species. But they are colorful variations of the same.

Near by, I lift up the smooth Solomon’s seal leaves.

Every square inch of prairie holds something to discover.

Me and my prairie volunteers have been absent these past months, but the life of the prairie continued unfolding. A tiny Hobomok skipper nectars at the red clover which hugs the edges of the gravel trail.

I don’t see any monarch butterfly caterpillars on my hike, but this week they showed up in my backyard prairie on my butterfly weed plants. They are likely here as well, but invisible to my eyes in the tallgrass.

Dragonflies are everywhere. Common green darners. Baskettails. A black saddlebag dragonfly or two. A common whitetail dragonfly flutters in front of me on the path, then stops to rest. Warming up.

Deep in the grasses on each side of the trail are teneral damselflies, still not fully colored or able to fly very far. Eastern forktails and stream bluets, like this one below, respond to the warming day with more activity near Willoway Brook.

Because dragonfly monitoring work has not resumed at the Arboretum, I don’t have the pressure—and pleasure!—of counting these species today, or jotting down hash marks on a clipboard to submit data. Yes, I miss it. But I realize I am also free to relax and enjoy my hike, without worrying about my surveys. Accepting this, instead of letting it be frustrating, is a good challenge.

I think about this pause in my normal steward and monitoring work as I hike and reacquaint myself with the wildflowers. The white wild indigo is in its first tentative flush of bloom.

Soon it will flood the prairie with white. The purple meadow rue is open, as are the tiny flowers of prairie alum root. The first pale purple coneflowers are opening. All blessedly normal.

And yet. So much is still dream-like, off-kilter. Other hikers pass me wearing masks. We step off the path, six feet apart. The prairie goes on, but we are changed.

My band of prairie volunteers and monitors hope to resume our data gathering and prairie work soon. We will be different than we were last season. And like all changes, it will take a while to adapt to this “new normal.”

As I pass our prairie planting display beds, overgrown now without us to care for them, I’m caught by something yellow. Moth mullein, a rather benign non-native, enchants me with its resemblance to a moth’s antennae. I’ve seen it with white flowers, as well as the yellow flowers. Because of its charm, I always find it difficult to pull, even when it pops up in one of our planting beds. Today I can leave it in good conscience and enjoy it.

Delayed gratification. My prairie volunteer work here—-and my dragonfly work— will have to wait. Nothing about the tallgrass prairie ever moves quickly, I remind myself. The prairie will be here, waiting for us, when the time is right.

Today, all that remains is to relax…and enjoy being here. At last.

*****

The opening quote is from Ellis Peters’ Father Cadfael Chronicles, An Excellent Mystery, one of 20 books in the series. Ellis Peters was the pen name for Edith Pargeter (1913-1995). Her books were adapted for radio, and later for a television series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted: mixed grasses with dew; spiderwebs with morning dew; smooth rose (Rosa blanda) with unknown bumblebee; smooth rose (Rosa blanda) with unknown bumblebee and (possibly) the margined calligrapher fly (Toxomerus marginatus); carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa); prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa); smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum); Hobomok skipper (Lon hobomok); monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus); common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; stream bluet (Enallagma exsulans); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea –species names vary, including “alba,” I am using Wilhelm’s Flora as my source); panic grass or rosette grass (Dichanthelium spp.); bench overlooking the prairie; moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria).

Thanks to Butterflies of the Eastern United States Facebook group for the confirmation on the skipper ID.

*****

Join Cindy for a class online this summer!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field. Register here.

Coming soon in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Pre-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. Or, order now direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.

Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

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.

A Little Tallgrass Tranquility

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

******

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.

ClearCreekKnollsNG53020WM

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.

Immature Female Teneral Eastern Forktail NG Pwlpds53020WM

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

EasternForktailFemalePLPsNG53020WM

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

EasternForktailPLPsNG53020WM

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.

YarrowCCNG53020WM

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.

GreatAngelicaCC53020WM

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.

SedgeSpritePLPondsNG53020WM

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.

Fragile Forktail NG PowerlinePonds53020

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.

LongleavedbluetsNGFFK53020WM

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

ToadflaxCCNG53020

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.

MothScopula spp. NG53020WM

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.

Pale PenstamonBeardtongue NGFFK53020WM

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.

LupineNGCC53020WM

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.

******

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.

*****

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).

*******

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.

A Belmont Prairie Stroll

“Look carefully and look often” — John Weaver

******

May. The spring greens are coming in; the garden overflows with spinach, onions, kale, radishes and the first flush of potato growth.

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Meals now include salads with a mish-mash of whatever looks good or needs a little thinning.

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Severe weather this week poured rain on the garden, making the plants happy. The clouds put on a show that could compete with anything on Broadway. Tornadoes to the north. Tornadoes to the south. Heat that topped 90 degrees.

Spring in Illinois.

Clouds over Backyard Prairie 52020WM

In between the raindrops, heat, and storms, Jeff and I find a sunny evening to hike the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

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The rains and heat hurry along the new growth, emerald under last year’s dry grasses in the evening light.

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The prairie is spangled with blue-eyed grass…so much blue-eyed grass. It mingles with orange hoary puccoon.

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Blue-eyed grass is such a tiny flower, neither a grass nor blue-eyed. It’s in the iris family. These flowers at Belmont Prairie are bright white, although you can find this species in blue, ranging to violet.

BlueEyedGrassBelmontPrairieWMWM52020

Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a 6 out of 10 as its coefficent of conservatism score, simply meaning it is moderate in its ability to flourish in degraded areas. Some of its neighbor, the hoary puccoon, is beginning to fade. Soon—in a matter of weeks—these two spring prairie standouts will forgotten in the onslaught of high summer prairie wildflowers and tallgrasses.

HoaryPuccoonBlueEyedGrassBelmontPrairie52120WM

As I walk, I notice the changes a few weeks have brought to this prairie.  Spittlebug froth is everywhere, as if a hiker had spat at plants along the trail.

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I gently lift the mass of foam onto my finger, then tease it apart.

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Hello, spittlebug nymph! Click here to see what it will look like as an adult. The nymph blows these “bubbles” out of its backside, so it isn’t technically “spit.”  In its nymph stage and adult stage, it feeds on plant sap but don’t cause much damage.

There are patches of bubbly spit everywhere, but this isn’t the only white I see. This is the season of white flowers. Pearl buds of bastard toadflax are opening.

BastardToadflax52120WMCloseupBelmontPrairie

Bedstraw is in flower, its tiny pale blooms almost invisible.

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The first meadow anemone buds show promise of what is to come.

AnemoneWM52120BelmontPrairie

Yarrow, a weedy native with coefficient of conservatism score of “0” out of “10” (according to Flora of the Chicago Region, where Wilhelm calls it “one of the more common plants of our region”) will open any day now. Butterflies and several moths visit the flowers.

YarrowBelmontPrairie52120WM

Another weedy native, Philadelphia fleabane, is everywhere in the wetlands of the preserve. Common? Yes. But cheerful. I love its”fringe.”

fleabane52120BelmontPrairieWM

I notice the prairie violets are less prominent now, although still in bloom; common blue violets with their more heart-shaped leaves are scattered among them. The false strawberries—also called “Indian strawberries” or “mock strawberries” —are out for the first time, sunny splashes of yellow flowers across the prairie.

False StrawberryWM BelmontPrairie52120

Their fruit is not at all tasty, as I’ve found from sampling it in my yard where it pops up from time to time. This non-native is only found in about a dozen counties in Illinois. Another cheerful non-native in bloom is dames rocket, which skims the edges of the prairie.

Dames RocketWMBelmontPrairie52120

It’s one we pull from restorations, but I can’t help but admire it this afternoon for its tenacity and its pretty color. I leave it, but feel my fingers itch to yank! yank! However, the parking lot is full of teens congregating, doubtless anxious for some time with friends. To pull something as pretty as dames rocket and carry it out would doubtless be misunderstood and I’m not feeling up to long explanations. Later, I promise myself. I’ll be back for you.

Summer’s tall floral denizens, such as compass plant, are only leaves right now. But such leaves!CompassPlantBelmontPrairieWM52120

So green. So graceful. I imagine the yellow flowers towering over me, up to 12 feet tall this summer.

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Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a butterfly—-is it a black swallowtail? I’m not sure. I chase it for a while, and it teases me, lighting on a plant here, then as I focus my camera, fluttering off out of reach of my lens. On Memorial Day, Jeff and I saw the first monarch cruise our backyard in the sweltering heat, although it didn’t linger. I think of the monarchs, and how they’ve brightened so many summers before this one. The monarchs will be glad to see the yarrow in bloom this coming week.

CROSBY Monarch 816 My backyardWM

Discovering these butterflies lifts my spirits. So many more to come.

As of last week, the first ruby-throated hummingbirds are coming to the backyard feeders. As the prairie wildflowers progress, I’ll watch for them in the tallgrass, working the bee balm and royal catchfly and late figwort. For now, I enjoy their company at home, and look forward to seeing them on the prairie.

Hummingbird GE 2016WM

There’s a lot of promise on the prairie right now. The promise of new discoveries, each time I visit. The promise of more wildflowers unfolding, and their associated pollinators appearing each time I hike here. The promise of learning some new plants, and reacquainting myself with some ones I know well. All I have to do is show up. Pay attention. Be curious.

The summer stretches ahead, with all of its unknowns.

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I’m glad the prairies will be here to offer their own kind of certainty, in a year that is turning out to be full of ambiguity. The certainty of new wildflowers. The certainty of emerging insects and butterflies. The certainty of migrating birds and dragonflies and monarchs.

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The certainty that every hour spent hiking a prairie is an hour well spent.

****

John Weaver (1884-1956) was a world renowned prairie ecologist and an expert on grasses. Weaver published the first American ecology textbook and was a faculty member at University of Nebraska.

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All photos taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted: (top to bottom): author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; salad from the garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; clouds over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie; trees at Belmont Prairie; common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); spittlebug foam (possibly from Philaenus spumarius); spittlebug nymph (possibly Philaenus spumarius); bastard toadflax (Comandra unbellata); bedstraw (possibly catchweed bedstraw, Galium aparine); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus); mock strawberry (Potentilla indica); dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) taken in the authors backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) taken in the author’s backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); trees at Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie.

*******

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.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum: Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — 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.

A Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

*****

It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

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The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

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As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

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Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

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Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

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A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

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The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

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And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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Compass plants.

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Wild strawberries.

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Tall coreopsis.

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Prairie dropseed.

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All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

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We look in.

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Wow.

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So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

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Among the shooting star is wood betony…

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..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

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I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

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This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

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Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

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I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

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It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

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It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

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I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

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I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

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So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

****

James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

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All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

***

Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June 7 class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — 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.

May on the Prairie

“In May one simply can’t help being thankful . . . that they are alive, if for nothing else.” — L.M. Montgomery

******

It’s been a wild ride this week, from weather so warm I itched to plant my tomatoes (but heroically resisted) to hail—or was it graupel?—and snow-ish flurries, then a freeze warning that sent me to the garden beds with armfuls of sheets.  Chives pop up in every crack in the patio, ready to explode into bloom. We’re pulling the first green onions for omelets, and the promise of radishes and spinach are only days away.

A pair of male Baltimore orioles have whistled up spring in the backyard this the past week, but stayed invisible. This weekend, lured by the promise of half an orange and cups of grape jelly, they made an appearance and brightened up a rainy Mother’s Day.

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In the backyard prairie patch, my queen of the prairie is up…

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…its unusual leaves fanned fully open. Last year, it grew to almost five feet tall.

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Later this summer, its plumes of cotton candy pink flowers will drift through the prairie.

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Tallgrass summer wildflowers tend toward purples, yellows, and white. A little pink is a welcome change. I’m looking forward to it.

Less showy, perhaps, is my two-year-old prairie alum root which sends up bud spikes along the patio. Its flowers won’t be as spectacular as those of queen of the prairie, but its leaves are beautiful, aren’t they?

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Sometimes, you’ll hear it called “coral bells,” for its resemblance to the familiar garden plant that’s in the same genus.The name “alum root” refers to its use as a substitute for alum in pickling.  The hummingbirds  nectar at the flowers—another great reason to grow it. I imagine alum root, mingling with the prairie phlox, shoots of lead plant, and sedges this month on the still-closed Schulenberg Prairie where I’d usually be spending my spring hours. I miss seeing it there, but having alum root at home helps alleviate my sadness.

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And look! The first leaves are showing on New Jersey tea. I purchased this pricey shrub last season at a native plant sale, and there was the “will it make it? will it not?” anxiety as it went through the first winter.

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Unlike garden shrubs such as forsythia which bloom on old wood, prairie shrubs, such as New Jersey tea and leadplant, flower on first year wood. It’s an adaptation strategy that allows it to survive prairie fires and still set seed. This summer, I’ll hope to see the first flowers.  Like a foamy cappuccino, don’t you think?

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Or maybe I just need more coffee.

Purple meadow rue’s layered leaves unfold toward the sun. They appreciate my wet backyard, and often tower up to six feet high in the prairie.

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Its distinctive seeds in the fall are different than anything else in my prairie patch.

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Later in the day, a white-crowned sparrow picked at the birdseed scattered across the patio. Its not as flashy as the orioles. But perhaps just as beautiful, in its own way.

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*******

This past Friday, Jeff and I went for a hike at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve to see hoary puccoon, a high-quality prairie wildflower. Hoary puccoon! Hoary puccoon. Everywhere on this remnant is hoary puccoon. What a treasure trove of orange flowers.

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“Puccoon” is an oddball kind of word, and one which Native Americans assigned to plants that were useful for dyes. “Hoary” simply refers to the hairs that fur the plant. Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa tell us in  Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest that Native American children blended the red dye from the roots with compass plant resin to create a red chewing gum. The hoary puccoon flower petals (probably dried) could also be used for a yellow-orange colored chewing gum.

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At one time the seeds, Runkel and Roosa tell us, were made into beads by Native Americans for ceremonial use. Today, we value this plant for its beauty and its relative scarcity, rather than any practical use. The seeds of hoary puccoon are difficult to germinate, which makes this plant doubly more precious in the field and highly valued for its place in the prairie community. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a coefficient of conservatism score of 8 out of 10.

The flowers make me think of my backyard Baltimore orioles.

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As I stroll the Belmont Prairie, I wonder. What’s happening on the Schulenberg Prairie? Is the common valerian in bloom?

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Are the shooting star flooding the prairie with pink?

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There’s no way to know.

But I do know that had I been able to access the Schulenberg Prairie this week, I might not have spent so much time getting to know this Belmont Prairie remnant. And what a joy that has been. Seeing its spring treasures, such as the hoary puccoon and this violet wood sorrel, has been a consolation.

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I stop for a moment at a drift of violet wood sorrel; then think about how its flowers and leaves fold together at night and in cloudy weather. Its tiny, shamrock leaves remind me of origami. Violet wood sorrel leaves Belmont Prairie 5820.JPG

Just off the trail…

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…the tiny prairie violets offer more than just pretty flower faces.

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Here, at Belmont Prairie, there are endless possibilities for investigation and observation this spring. Plenty of prairie to satisfy my soul. Whenever I feel discouraged or stuck…

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A walk here puts the world to rights for the moment.

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Thank you, Belmont Prairie.

****

The opening quote by Lucy Maud Montgomery is from her book Anne of Avonlea (1909), from her Anne of Green Gables series.  When she was less than two years old, she lost her mother to tuberculosis, and was mostly raised by her grandparents on Prince Edward Island in Canada. She was a lonely child, and surrounded herself with imaginary friends. It’s not a stretch to see how Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of the series, came into being. Montgomery published 20 novels and numerous short stories and poems.

All photos and video from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve unless marked otherwise (Schulenberg Prairie photos are from previous seasons), copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn;  queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ) with prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; crab spider on prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), kite in a tree, on the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL in early May.

*******

Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — 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.

Early May at Nachusa Grasslands

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”–J.R.R. Tolkien

******

Spring. At last! It’s come to the prairies and savannas in full flush.  Welcome back, prairie trillium.

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Hello, Virginia bluebells!

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A few days of warmth and sunlight followed by rain and cool nights keep the wildflowers fresh and vibrant. And as always, there is the promise of more to come.

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*****

With the first days of May come good news. Our dragonfly data collection efforts at Nachusa Grasslands, restricted in April because of COVID-19,  could now—cautiously—begin. Saturday, Jeff and I drove to Franklin Grove, IL, so I could walk several of my regular routes and see what was flying.Nachusa Fame Flower Knob 5220 rocks WM.jpg

The day started out fair and sunny but gradually turned overcast and windy as we traveled. Yet the thought of being back at Nachusa–taking on a task that felt “normal” for spring—was a lift to our spirits. It felt odd to travel an Interstate highway again. Strange to stop and put gas in the car—our Suburu has gotten about eight weeks to the gallon lately. It’s bizarre to see many businesses shuttered; to pass a shopping outlet mall turned COVID testing center, lined with cars. What was so familiar only months ago is now changed.

Arriving at Nachusa, I hop out of the car to maneuver the heavy metal bars of the bison gate open and drive into the bison unit,

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Jeff and I scan the prairie ahead. The bison are noticeably absent. How such massive animals can disappear into the prairie is a mystery. I know that this spring, at least nine bison calves have been sighted. I look again. Nada. I remember previous summers and the joy I felt when the mamas and new babies appear.

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We continue to look for bison—and dragonflies—as we travel the gravel two-track to one of my route locations. Normally, the first dragonfly monitoring hike of the season is in April, although not much is flying at that time. Common green darners (Anax junius) will have arrived from the south. Freshly-minted  dragonflies and damselflies should be emerging from the ponds and streams, ready to participate in the ancient dance of pairing up and creating new life.Cattails NG PowerlinePonds5220WM.jpg

Although we’ve driven this two-track many times, it looks different this spring. Nachusa is known for prescribed fire; this is the first time I’ve seen its approximately 3,500 acres untouched by flames at this time of year. If you didn’t know it was May—and ignored the temperature —it could easily be January. But look closer, and you see that underlying carpet of emerald.

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Our first stop is a large pond I’ve monitored since 2013. But wait!

Where is it?

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What? It’s gone! Oh no…I can’t bear looking.

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It was in this pond that I saw my first Northern pintails, migrating through Illinois and stopping for a quick paddle and a bite to eat. It was here I had my one and only face-off with a mama bison; me, carelessly walking my route without paying attention to their movements. This pond is where the great egret would stop to rest on its hunting expeditions. So many memories. What could have caused such a change?

I remember the pond as it was in previous years.

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I look again. Wow.

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Later, I learn what’s happened. Beavers! They’ve spent the past months re-sculpting the prairie landscape to be more to their liking. Who would have thought? At Nachusa, I usually think about the thousand pound-plus bison and the changes they may make to the places I frequent. Amazing what a few 50-pound beavers can do in a matter of months. Such a big changes from a small animal. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”: “It’s not size, but surge that tells us when we’re in touch with something real…” Although the beavers’ work was slow and gradual; the end result brings about a surge of emotion. The beavers have upended my idea of a place I thought I knew. I feel unsettled.

Onward! Next monitoring route. Once a stream, then re-shaped by beavers several years ago as a pond, now a stream again. It’s fascinating to see the different types of dragonfly and damselfly species change over time with the habitat changes; some dragonflies prefer running water, others choose still water.  Jeff sets up his camp chair and pulls out a book while I pick my way alongside the stream, watching for any insect movement.

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The skies fill with clouds as the wind picks up, although the temperature remains in the 70s. A great blue heron flies over.

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After 30 minutes, it’s clear no Odonates are out and about; at least none I can find. Not surprising at this time of year. I log my times and mark the data sheet with a big fat zero. We pack up, and move to the next route.  Around a curve, over a bridge, and across the prairie on the gravel two-track.  Still no bison. But—stop the car!— I shout. Jeff quickly pulls over, and we get out and marvel over a carpet of wood betony—Pedicularis canadensis—more than I’ve seen in all my years as a prairie steward.

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Wood betony is a hemiparasite which can draw nutrients from other plants, especially prairie grasses. For this reason, it is coveted by prairie stewards who want to open grass-dominate areas for prairie wildflowers. I love this wildflower for its crazy flowers and crinkly leaves.

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The bumblebees are working the pinwheeled blooms, sampling one after another.

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I read on Illinois Wildflowers website later that long-tongued bees are the primary pollinators, including queen bumblebees and mason bees.

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We watch the bees for a while, then clamber back into the car and continue to the next site, a small pool I call the “Power Line Pond.”

Except…not so small anymore.

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The beavers strike again!

This pond is flooded almost beyond recognition.

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When bison came to Nachusa Grasslands, their hooves changed the shoreline of this watering hole, making it difficult to get close to the water in places. Last year, I re-rerouted my data collection hikes in an ever-widening arc to stay on solid footing. Today, I’m grateful for my knee-high rubber boots. Looks like I’ll be wading.

As I slosh through the water, I see them. Common green darners!

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My first dragonfly data for the season. Delighted, I mark my tally sheet.  Jeff and I watch them zip across the expanded pond, occasionally stopping to oviposit, then flying to a new spot to start again. Another common green darner appears, flying solo. One of the best moments of dragonfly season is making the first hash mark on your data sheet. Today is that day. The season is off and running. At last.

There are several small ephemeral pools nearby, perhaps bison-made, that sometimes shelter damselflies of various species. Today, all I see are a few water-striders, admiring themselves in the mirror of the sky-reflected water.

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One of my all-time favorite novels, Crow Lake, tells the story of three children unexpectedly orphaned in rural Canada. The oldest son, about to leave for college, chooses to invest in his siblings and stay home so they won’t be parceled out to various relatives. By doing so, he comes to terms with his losses, including a promising future derailed. Mary Lawson uses the life of a pond—-in particular, its surface tension—as a way to consider how sudden change may re-route our plans; cause us to reinvent ourselves. The outcomes aren’t always what we’d expected, or even hoped for. It’s how we choose to respond to sudden change that shapes us and our future, she shows through her story.

This trio of common green darners  turned out to be all we’d see for the day. A spatter of rain begins, and our hopes of more sightings disappear. We drive out of the bison unit, and head for home. But on the way, we pass Clear Creek, one of my routes I’ve not gotten to today. We swing in and park. The chances are slim to none to see any dragonflies or damselflies, but who can resist one more hike?

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As we walk, we glimpse the quick touch-down of a mourning cloak butterfly. This spring, I’ve only seen the cabbage white butterflies and red admirals. Mourning cloak butterflies are unusual in that they often overwinter, then mate in the spring. This one refused to turn around and give us the full glory of its coloration.

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But I had seen this species in bright sunlight the previous spring, and marveled.

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It is exciting to see the first butterflies of the season. But I want dragonflies. I wade into Clear Creek and scrutinize the shoreline, slowly walking the edges. Later in the season, Clear Creek is populated by ebony jewelwing damselflies and springwater dancer damselflies and shadow darner dragonflies. But today, no damselfly or dragonfly is stirring under the steel gray skies.Clear Creek NG 5220WM

I pull a few garlic mustard plants, then wade back to the trail. Jeff has already hiked to the top of  Fame Flower Knob, overlooking the creek.

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I follow the trail to the top, scrutinizing the new growth as I hike. No dragonflies on the trail…but look!

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Sand phlox. An unexpected delight. And over here…pussy toes.

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Such unusual flowers. Like a cluster of shaggy Q-tips.

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And over here….a small patch of birdfoot violet. So tiny!

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I spend some time admiring them up close. Then, I join Jeff.

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Together we’re silent, taking in the view. It’s familiar, yet changed by circumstances — the lack of prescribed fire, the work of prairie creatures such as bison and beavers, the temporary lack of stewardship activity over the past weeks during Illinois’ quarantine. Witnessing these changes to a place I care about is part of building a relationship with it.

What other changes will 2020 bring?

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There’s no way to know. But I do know this. I’ll be back here, to watch them unfold.

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J.R.R. Tolkien is best loved for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the delightful prequel,  The Hobbit. The lines that kick off this post are spoken by the dwarf Thorin to young dwarves in The Hobbit as they look for shelter in a rainstorm on their way to burgle treasure from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Instead of shelter, the dwarves find… well, if you haven’t read the book in a while, this is a great time to revisit it. Read more here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob;  Nachusa in early May; bison (Bison bison) with their little ones (taken in a previous year); pond in early May; Nachusa Grasslands in early May; dried out pond in May; great egret (Ardea alba); pond in 2017; former pond in 2020; stream; great blue heron (Ardea herodias); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis)); wood betony ((Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.);  wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) ; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.)’ Power Line Pond; Power Line Pond; common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) at Busse Woods (taken in a previous season), Forest Preserve of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; water strider (possibly Aquarius remigis); two-track gravel road to Clear Creek; mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa); mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Clear Creek in early May; Fame Flower Knob in early May; sand phlox (Phlox bifida); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); birdfoot violets (Viola pedata); Fame Flower Knob in early May, red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Thanks to the Kleimans for their help in understanding how beavers are changing Nachusa Grasslands.

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Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

If you enjoyed the “Wild and Wonderful Illinois Wildflowers” webinar, please join me for the new Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers, an online webinar this Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Spring on the prairie is a story of color, pollinator pizazz, and native  plants that shaped North American history through their value as  edibles, medicine, and even love charms! Enjoy colorful  photos of some of Illinois’ most beautiful blooms—and a few native  grasses, too!  Click here to register.  

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online on May 4 through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   See more information and registration for our June class  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.

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