Tag Archives: Biesecker Prairie

Bison Hike at Kankakee Sands

“Even then, I sensed that the buffalo signaled something profound….”–Dan O’Brien

******

We followed the sandhill cranes south this weekend…

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and sun halo, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016).

…as we traveled to central Indiana. The morning skies were an ever-changing source of awe, from the moment we started our drive at sunrise…

Sunrise over the interstate, just outside DuPage County, IL (cell phone image).

…to the beautiful morning cloud formations over the corn fields of the northwestern corner of the Hoosier state.

Headed south down Interstate 65 in Indiana. (Cell phone photograph).

And a lunar eclipse! Still to come.

A favorite stop when we travel this way is Kankakee Sands in Indiana’s northwest corner. This past Saturday, we celebrated “National Bison Day” honoring our official United States mammal, so it seemed like a no-brainer to carve out a few extra miles to see if we could get a glimpse of this charismatic megafauna.

Bison viewing area, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Kankakee Sands is a beautiful mosaic of wetlands and prairie, part of a greater conservation effort that includes about 20,000 acres. Within its acres are 86 rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We don’t always see the bison when we stop, but this time, we were in luck.

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

What awe-inspiring creatures! Two young bison stuck close to their mama, while keeping an eye on us.

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

We watched another part of the herd run by in the distance. Bison can attain speeds of up to 35 mph. How can animals that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds move so quickly? What made them hurry to the other end of the prairie?

No idea. But they were fun to watch.

We took a few moments to walk the hiking trail at less-than-bison speed…

Trailhead at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

…and stretched our legs after the long car journey. From the trail, we could observe some of the prairie plants in their full fall glory.

Hiking the trails at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Little bluestem is at its peak.

Little bluestem (Schizachryrium scoparium), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

What a glorious grass! Those rust hues. Those seeds, which spark the sunlight! It’s a lovely grass for home plantings, as well as on the larger landscape of the tallgrass prairie. I was reminded that I have three little bluestem plugs still waiting to be planted at home, sitting on my porch. Ha! Better get those in soon.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Tufted thistle swirled its seeds into the wind as we watched.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The wind had also broken off mullein’s tall spikes…

The non-native common or great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The native—but weedy—seedheads of evening primrose swayed in the breezes.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

On the hill at the end of the trail, a tall tree, denuded of most of its leaves, loomed in the dying light. Very November-esque.

Tree at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

In the distance, white tailed deer mingled with the bison. They seemed content to share the prairie. Although we didn’t hear birdsong, we saw evidence of birds that were long gone south.

And then suddenly…a northern harrier cannonballed out of the grasses. Wow!

Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We watched it soar over the prairie; a fast-moving blur. It was quickly lost in the dying light.

Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While we were startled by the owl-like northern harrier, the mama bison and her young ones placidly grazed in the tallgrass. For them, it was just another part of a normal evening on the prairie.

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

What a peaceful scene, yet full of surprises. I felt myself relax. The prairie has a way of reminding me what contentment feels like.

The most difficult part of going to Kankakee Sands is making the decision to leave, and face the last leg of traffic entering Chicago. So much beautiful prairie here, all around. What an worth-while place to stop for a hike.

Dusk at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

On the drive home, closing out our Sunday, we watched an almost-full moon rise over the 34-acre Biesecker Prairie as we waited at a stoplight for the light to change in St. John, Indiana. The prairie is right at the intersection.

Almost-full moon rise over Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN (cell phone photo).

It was a sneak preview of the moon marvels ahead. Early this Tuesday morning, before we headed out to vote, we watched the “Beaver Blood Full Moon Total Lunar Eclipse” .

Full Beaver Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse, 4:09 am, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It was worth setting the alarm for. Pretty spectacular.

Full Beaver Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse with stars, 4:58 am, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Bison. A lunar eclipse. Prairies. What a wonderful way to begin the week. Who knows what other treats are in store?

I can’t wait to find out.

*****

The opening quote is from Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien (1966-). The New York Times notes O’Brien has a “keen and poetic eye” as he writes about his struggles to raise bison on a Black Hills ranch. Read more about his life and work here.

*****

Close out 2022 by Joining Cindy for a Class or Program

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. In-person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the garden club’s website here.


Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

A very happy birthday to Trevor Dean Edmonson, site manager at Kankakee Sands, whose birthday is today! Thank you for the work you do!

Skipping Spring; Planting Prairie

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… to bi-colored…

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

…to pink.

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To do what I can.

*****

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

*****

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

****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

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

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

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

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

*****

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

A Tale of Two Prairies

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit… .” E. O. Wilson

*****

Sunday, my family and I braved the traffic out of Chicago to celebrate Christmas together in northwestern Indiana. There were a surprising number of commuters.

birdsoutsidepeetscoffee121619WM.jpg

Probably the holidays.

Any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to see prairies. As we drove toward the Indiana state line, making good time, Jeff suddenly veered off I-294 at the exit for Highway 6. “Let’s revisit Gensburg-Markham Prairie!” he offered. We had dropped by this prairie several years ago, and impressed, always vowed to return.

Oh no! The entrance gate, at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac, seemed to be locked.

gensburgmarkhamprairie121519WM.jpg

Determined, I squeezed through the opening between the fence and the chain-closed gate. Later, I read that the chain is merely draped over the top of the fence. Ha! I could have lifted it off and opened the gate, it seems. Perhaps it was more of an adventure my way.

On the other side, this remnant prairie is full of treasures, even in December.

GensburgMarkham PrairieWM 121519 (1).jpg

Drifts of prairie dropseed swirled through the prairie.

gensburgmarkhamprairie121519WMprairiedropseedtwo.jpg

Mountain mint seeds were mostly gone, but no less beautiful for that.

gensburgmarkhamprairie121519mountainmintWM.jpg

Deep in the grasses I found prairie dock leaves. This is my favorite time of year for them. Like “swiss dots” fabric.

gensburgmarkhamprairiedock121519WM.jpg

Its Silphium cousin—compass plant—wasn’t far away.

compassplant121519GensburgMarkhamPrairieWM.jpg

A few purple prairie clover seedheads remained. I struggle, sometimes, to distinguish the white prairie clover from the purple at this time of year, when the seeds are partially gone. One is grittier, and one is softer and lighter colored. Hmmm.

gensburgmarkhamprairieclover121519WM.jpg

White vervain, which occurs in every county of Illinois, curtained the edges of the prairie.

gensburgmarkhamwhitevervain121519WM.jpg

I walked the mowed trail and listened. Not far away, the Tri-State Tollway traffic roared and billboards signed their temporary depressing messages. Legal services. Gambling. Fast food. Strip clubs.

 

gensburgmarkhamprairiewithbillboardsand294.jpg

But the magic of the switchgrass…

gensburgmarkhamswitchgrass121519WM

…and the remains of the tall coreopsis and other prairie plants gone to seed were enticing enough to propel me deeper into the prairie, wondering what else I might see. Alas! There wasn’t nearly enough time to explore. We needed to get back on the road.

gensburgmarkhamtallcoreopsis121519WM

After our family gathering in Indiana, Jeff and I headed home via some back roads through St. John, avoiding the traffic on the Tri-State Tollway as much as possible. Gray skies promised an early dusk and perhaps, snow on the way. On this route, we always watch for the Shoe Corner, at the intersection of 109th and Calumet—an odd tradition in this part of the Hoosier state of dropping shoes along the roadway. As we braked at a stoplight, Jeff pointed. “Look!”

Bieseckerprairie121519WM.jpg

We immediately signaled and drove slowly along the edges of the prairie, looking for an entrance. The best spot seemed to be a parking lot with an abandoned building.

beisklerprairieoldruinWM121519.jpg

This, I thought, was more forbidding than the locked gate to Gensburg-Markham. I doubted we were at the correct entrance. But a trail mowed along the edge of the prairie offered a way in. As I walked into the grasses, I wondered about the history of this place. Indiana once was about 15 percent tallgrass prairie, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Later, I learned that this 34.2 acre remnant was saved from development and dedicated in 1992.

beisklerprairie121519WM.jpg

Reading more at home, I found that according to the DNR, at least 175 species of native plants are here; one federally threatened. Three rare animals. Several rare moths and insects. Biesecker Prairie is also an introduction site for the  federally-threatened Mead’s milkweed; an unusual milkweed that no longer occurs naturally in Indiana. I promised myself to come back in the summer, when we had more daylight and knew where to park and hike.

Beisecker Prairie is a gem in a rough-cut setting. We could have so easily missed it! A defunct business nearby had piled refuse, boats, and old electronics along the far edge of the area. It’s so easy to focus on what is broken and ugly; to only see the damage we’ve done to the beautiful natural areas we once had in Indiana and Illinois.

refusebeiseckerprairie121519WM

But often, beauty and restoration are just around the corner. Literally.

Despite its surroundings, Biesecker Prairie seemed….tranquil. Peaceful, despite the traffic flying by. A little oasis. Like Gensburg-Markham by the Tri-State Tollway.

Beisecker Prairie 121519WM full landscape.jpg

I wonder what Biesecker Prairie will look like in spring. From different vantage points at this time of year, you could see common milkweed; tall coreopsis, prairie dropseed, perhaps a little cordgrass. Native prairie plants.  Someone cared enough to preserve and protect this little corner prairie remnant. Someone realized its value.  Its history. And because of this, it survives.

 

beisklerprairie121519donotspraymowWM.jpg

This small prairie remnant in Indiana—and others like Gensberg-Markham Prairie, a remnant carefully preserved in Illinois—still stand despite the odds.  We find these prairies juxtaposed between golf courses and highways. Sandwiched  into neighborhoods, defunct businesses, and Interstates. These precious few acres of tallgrass prairie remain because people paid attention. They cared enough to protect them. Kudos to the volunteers, stewards, and agencies that made it happen—and who continue to steward these tallgrass prairie preserves today.

Two urban prairies. Two different states. Two stories.

Hope for the future.

*****

The opening quote is by E. O. Wilson (1929-), Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, from Biophilia (1984). Wilson is considered the world’s foremost authority on ants. Blinded in one eye as a child in a fishing accident, he learned to focus on “little things” he could see up close, or under a microscope. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice; once for On Human Natureonce for The Ants (with Burt Holldobler). He is sometimes called “the Father of Biodiversity,” and is known for his theory of island biogeography (with Robert Macarthur).

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): possibly cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Naperville, IL; gate to Gensburg-Markham Prairie; Gensburg-Markham Prairie in December, Markham, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; I-294 and Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; corner of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.abandoned business close to Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN; edges of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN: Biesecker Prairie in December, St. John, IN; Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

******

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.