“The world’s favorite season is the spring…” — Edwin Way Teale
Hail pocks the windows. Then, a deluge. The first big storm of the season rolls in Sunday evening. It’s over in an hour or so, with a double rainbow chasing the retreating clouds into the dark. Heading for bed, we crack the bedroom window open, letting the rain-washed air blow in. So quiet.
Then, I hear it.
It’s a lone western chorus frog, calling for a mate. All winter, I wondered if they’d reappear in our backyard prairie pond. The water thawed completely this weekend, and the marsh marigolds put out their first tentative blooms. It’s time.
I’m not sure where our little frog will find a mate; it’s a ways from here to the DuPage River which limns our neighborhood to the east. How far can another frog travel? Did this frog overwinter under the ice? I wish I knew more about frogs! Putting down my book, I listen to it calling in the dark. The sound of spring!
After about ten minutes of admiration, however, I wonder if I can sleep through this ear-splitting serenade. Creeeak! Creeeak! Creeeak! The lone western chorus frog’s vocalizations can be heard a half mile away.
I believe it.
There was no shortage of frogs calling, chorus and otherwise, at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin where Jeff and I traveled this weekend. Here, our chorus frog would go from solo artist to part of a massive choir, with leopard frogs chiming in and plenty of wind instruments. Plenty of potential mates.
Our trip to Horicon Marsh was rich for the short hour we had there, hiking in the rain. A mosaic of tallgrass prairies and woodlands…
…and oh, those wetlands!
I could have spent hours watching the muskrats building their lodges.
Or trying to ID ducks and other waterfowl, as well as various migrating birds. The splattering rain made it difficult, but there was no way to miss waterfowl like this guy.
I later read that the wingspan for a trumpeter swan may be up to six feet. Wow! They’re the largest waterfowl in North America, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The swans look huge in the pelting rain, as they float across ponds and pull up aquatic vegetation.
Along the highway, a little outside Horicon Marsh, we see movement through an old field. Pull over!
A family of sandhill cranes! We watch them stalk the grasses. I’ve seen sandhill cranes on the ground in the Chicago region, but it’s an unusual treat. We admire their size; those rusted-metal wings, those scarlet caps.
We watch them until they fly away.
While we were in Wisconsin, spring came with a rush in northeastern Illinois this weekend. The same storm that rattled my windows Sunday evening soaked the prairie. New plants, like crinkly wood betony, popped up across the scorched earth.
The first shoots of rattlesnake master, compass plant, and pale Indian plantain have emerged, distinctive even in miniature. Turtles are out in nearby lakes and ponds, basking in the sunshine.
On Monday, I walked my dragonfly monitoring route along Willoway Brook for the first time this season, looking for green darners migrating back from the south. It’s 74 degrees! At last. Several of my dragonfly monitors report seeing green darners flying at ponds and lakes at the Arboretum, but I come up empty on my prairie route.
I do discover a red-winged blackbird, looking balefully at a toy ball which has floated downstream. Perhaps he sees it as competition?
Red-wings are tireless protectors of their spring nests, attacking anyone—or anything– that gets too close. I mind my steps accordingly.
Hanging over Willoway Brook are the remains of dogbane plants, sometimes called Indian hemp. They’ve escaped the prescribed fire of a few weeks ago.
Dogbane was valued by Native Americans, who wove it into textiles, cords and string. I enjoy the plants for their seed pod ribbons and silken seed floss.
Last year’s plant remnants are juxtaposed with this year’s earliest blooms. In the prairie savanna, I see the first bloodroot in flower. Hooray!
Ants, flies, and the occasional bee are out and about, looking for wildflowers. The earth hums with activity. Not much floral matter here, yet. But it won’t be long. Soon, the prairie and savanna hillside will be covered in blooms. The singular will give way to the aggregate. The bloodroot will be no less lovely for being more common and prolific.
Before I leave the prairie, I take a quick look at the area where I seeded in pasque flowers last season. Nope. Nothing. It’s bare and rocky, and at first glance, I find only mud. And then…
Another pasque flower plant is up! Is it from seed? Or perhaps it’s an existing plant that took a year off last season? Either way, I feel my spirits lift. Now, we have two plants in situ. This pasque flower, along with the remaining mother plant and its siblings grown from seed, cooling their roots in the Arboretum’s greenhouse, may be the start of a pasque flower revival on the prairie.
Elation! My joy stays with me on the drive home, through dinner, and as I get ready to turn in.
As I’m about to I put down my book and turn off the light, I hear it. The “Creeeak! Creeeak!” of the lone chorus frog. But—is that a reply?
Yes! There are two chorus frogs in the pond.
Happiness. I turn off the lights, and go to bed.
The opening quote is from Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980), an American naturalist born in Joliet, IL. He was a staff writer for Popular Science, and the author of numerous books about the natural world. Pulitzer-prize winning writer Annie Dillard said of Teale’s book, The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects, that it is “a book I cannot live without.” Enough said.
All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): western chorus frog, author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; soundtrack to Horicon Marsh (wind, frogs–western chorus (Pseudacris triseriata) and northern leopard (Lithobates pipiens)–and various birds), Dodge County, WI; tallgrass prairie and woodlands, Horicon Marsh, Dodge County, WI; Horicon Marsh in the rain, Dodge County, WI; muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Horicon Marsh, Dodge County, WI; trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator), Horicon Marsh, Dodge County, WI; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) family, Green Lake County, WI; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake County, Wisconsin; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake County, Wisconsin; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; my turtle ID is sketchy, but possibly painted turtles? or red-eared sliders? ID correction welcome (Chrysemys picta or Trachemys scripta elegans), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) and ball (Roundus bouncesis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane/Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:
Join Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean for a talk and book signing at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, IA, April 22, 7-9 p.m., for Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.
Spring Wildflowers! Join me on two woodland wildflower walks this month at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, April 18 and 26, and a prairie and savanna wildflower walk on May 4. Click here for more information.
April 23: “Frequent Flyers of the Garden and Prairie: Dragonflies and Damselflies,” Villa Park Garden Club, Villa Park, IL, 7:30-8:30 p.m. See www.cindycrosby.com for details.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” online continues through May through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.