Tag Archives: bison

Backyard Prairie Reflections

 “Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.”–Mary Lawson

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Thunderstorms move through the Chicago region, offering blessed relief for prairies and backyard gardens. The cracked concrete earth soaks up the rain; fuel needed for seed creation and the last pumps of blooms ahead. You can feel the relief in the air.

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Pumpkin spice latte signs appear in coffee shop windows. The afternoon light slants lower; a little pixelled, a little grainy.  In stores, school supplies jostle with unicorn costumes and Halloween candy for shelf space. The first school buses cruise the streets, slowing traffic. Where did summer go?

Late summer and fall wildflowers show up: snakeroot, New England aster, goldenrod, blue vervain, boneset.  There is a last flush of swamp milkweed in the wetter areas.

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Green darner dragonflies move in clouds over the tallgrass; sometimes with black saddlebags and wandering glider dragonflies mixed in. Migration season is underway. My ear is tuned for the first northern birds moving south, but so far, it’s the usual suspects at the backyard feeders.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison calves have put on weight. Adult bison lounge in the grasses, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. August is about slowing down. Making time.

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Bunch galls, like alien wildflowers, appear on the goldenrods. This seems to be an especially good year for them. The goldenrod bunch galls, like the one below, are made by a tiny midge which feeds on the plant. The abnormal tissue forms a leafy rosette. Pretty, isn’t it? A harbinger of autumn.

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You’ll see other galls on the prairie if you look closely around you: ball galls, elliptical galls, blister galls. They all have different insect artists, busy at work on their creations. Bugguide.com has an excellent overview here.

The damselfly populations are beginning to taper off; but the violet dancers will hang around on the prairie until the end of the month. Common? Yes.  But no less special for their predictability. That violet!

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So much is happening on the tallgrass prairie in August. It’s difficult to miss a moment of it.

This past week, I’ve been regulated to the house for a bit to recover after some unexpected surgery. I’ve been trying to look at this enforced rest as an opportunity to slow down, catch up on reading,  and to enjoy the view from my back porch.  But with August in full swing on the prairie—and at the cusp of dragonfly migration season—it’s been a challenge. Without my prairie work and prairie hikes—or my natural history classes to teach—my backyard prairie patch, garden full of zinnias and tomatoes, and small pond have all been solace.

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You’d think a suburban backyard prairie patch and garden would be predictable and quiet. But I’m discovering the action never stops. From my vantage point on the porch, I see—for the first time—a great spreadwing damselfly. In my backyard pond! I’ve never seen them in the forest preserve where I once monitored, or the two prairie sites where I walk my dragonfly routes. And here in my backyard —right under my nose—he is.

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We look at each other for a bit.

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I admire his reflection in the pond until the wind fingers the water and ripples erase the image.

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He flies from perch to perch around the pond, then finally lands out of sight. Wow. Sometimes the biggest surprises are in your own backyard.

From the porch I watch the butterflies flap over the tomatoes. An eastern tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia mixed in with the gray-headed coneflowers. Zinnias mingle with my prairie plants. Although the zinnias are native to Mexico rather than Illinois, they are welcome in my garden as a magnet for pollinators.

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The same zinnia is quickly commandeered by a monarch. I haven’t found many caterpillars in my backyard this summer, but there are a lot of adults.

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Nearby, a painted lady takes her turn nectaring on the flowers.

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She floats to the rangy smartweed growing up through the rattlesnake master plants and rests for a bit on some leaves, letting me admire her soft, open wings. I’ve always struggled with the differences between a painted lady butterfly and the American lady butterfly. So similiar! And yet, different, if you know what to look for.  This bugguide.net side by side comparison has really helped me (click on the link). Take a look and see what you think.

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The Joe Pye weed in the backyard prairie patch is also a butterfly magnet. Bees work each individual petal; tiny dusty rose-pink tassels towering over my head. Moths love it too! An Ailanthus webworm moth competes with the bees for nectar, its bright geometric patterns a startling contrast.

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Bumblebees move from the Joe Pye blooms to buzz the ironweed. So many bees! I’ve tried to learn a few species without much success. Maybe now, I’ll have time.

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As I slowly walk through my backyard, I feel my frustration at not being able to go for a prairie hike dissipate.  Maybe….just maybe…this enforced rest and recovery will be an eye-opener. There’s a lot to see, right in front of me, just off my back porch. A lot to pay attention to. Goldfinches, sipping rainwater from the cup plants. The Cooper’s hawk lurking in a nearby maple, watching my birdfeeders for a snack. Cicadas tuning up. The smell of bee balm, the taste of mountain mint. So much color, music, fragrance, taste, and motion here. In the 20 years we’ve lived in the suburbs, I’ve never been more grateful than today that I planted a prairie patch; dug a small pond. I have a feeling the recovery time will fly.

Summer’s not over yet.

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Adventures await. Both in the backyard prairie and beyond.

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The opening quote is from Canadian novelist Mary Lawson (1946-) in her prize-winning first book, Crow Lake (2002). It’s one of my favorite novels about pond communities, rural life, academia, and northern Canada.  I re-read it every year.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: thunderstorm over the backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; adult bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bunch gall on goldenrod made by a midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), Fermilab prairies, Batavia, IL; pond in author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Arhilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; reflection of great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and grey-headed coneflowers (Ritibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Cut and Come Again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) with brown-belted bumblebee (Bombis griseocollis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s classes and speaking are on www.cindycrosby.com   

Prairie Fireworks

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”–David Attenborough

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It’s summer in the tallgrass; almost the Fourth of July. The bison go about their business of raising young calves.

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White wild indigo continues its magical year. I’ve never seen anything like the profusion of this wildflower on the prairie in the past two decades I’ve been hiking the tallgrass.

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And those pale purple coneflowers! Unbelievable.

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Anecdotally, the most beautiful time on the prairie is supposedly the Fourth of July.  I love all four seasons in the tallgrass: the blue and black palette of winter, the golds and rusts of autumn, the first green shoots needling up through the ash of a prescribed burn in spring. But this year, from the white wild indigo and coneflowers, to the prairie lilies…

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….to the black-eyed Susans…

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…it’s easy to make a case for this as the most lovely season of all.

It’s not only the plants that are striking. Deep in the prairie wetlands, a calligrapher’s fly hangs out in the big bur reeds. The blooms it explores seem a foreshadowing of fireworks later this week.

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Soft spiky explosions of foxtail barley grass line the prairie trails. I read up on it, and discover it’s also called squirrel-tail grass. What great names!  I love this silky grass, even though it is a bit on the weedy side. More “fireworks” to enjoy.

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The leaves of mountain mint and bee balm, crushed between my fingers, envelope me in their sharp fragrance as I hike.  I chew a few of the leaves, enjoying the taste. While admiring the wildflowers and prairie grasses this summer, I also monitor dragonflies and damseflies—counting the different species and their numbers on the prairies and in the wetlands.

Ethereal damselflies have shown up. New ones I’ve not seen before like the one below. Sweetflag spreadwing? I’m not sure. I pore over my field guides, looking at photos and parsing through identification marks.

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This lyre-tipped spreadwing, with its metallic body sizzling in the sunlight, stopped me in my tracks.

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Both spreadwings are new to me this summer, after chasing dragonflies for more than a dozen years.  Cascades of wildflowers, a profusion of spreadwing species…perhaps the rainy deluge the past three months has brought these about? It’s nice to think so.

There are many different bluets on the prairie, but this azure bluet damselfly in the prairie savanna grasses is a new discovery for me, and for our site.

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Marla Garrison’s wonderful Damselflies of the Chicago Region taught me to look for the “bat” image on the lower part of the azure bluet’s abdomen (most people call it “the tail”). Can you see it? Right above the blue segments.

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More familiar dragonflies are also out and about. Eastern amberwing dragonflies, like this female, do handstands to try and cool off in the sweltering heat.

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I never tire of the widow skimmer dragonflies, even though they are ubiquitous in my region.

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Ebony jewelwings, like this pair (the female with a white dot on her wings) are the essence of summer. They fly loops in and out of the reed canary grass along Willoway Brook, snatching insects and looking for mates.

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I’m looking forward to celebrating the Fourth of July with my family this week. But the best fireworks happen all summer long on the prairie. Explosions of wildflowers. The pop of color from a new dragonfly or damselfly. Unusual insects to discover.

So many new adventures to anticipate.

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So much to be grateful for.

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David Attenborough is the narrator for the original episodes of Planet Earth, which I have had the joy to watch with four of my little grandkids, Ellie, Jack, Anna, and Margaret. If you haven’t checked out this award-winning series of documentaries about life on our planet, take a look here at Planet Earth II.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison) and wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisa alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie lilies (Lilium philadelphicum andinum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calligrapher’s fly (Toxomerus  — either the marginatus or geminatus) on big bur reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; foxtail barley grass or squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly sweetflag spreadwing damselfly (Lestes forcipatus) although it may also be slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis)–and so I continue learning!; prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL;  lyre-tipped spreadwing (Lestes unguiculatus), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly monitoring at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Odonata of the Eastern United States FB group and Joyce Gibbons for help on damselfly ID this week! Grateful.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events

Friday, August 2, 8-11:30am — Prairie Ethnobotany at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Discover how people have used prairie plants throughout history. Register here.

Monday, August 12, 7-8 p.m., Fox Valley Garden Club –The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies –Aurora, IL. Free and open to the public. For details and directions, click here.

August 10-13, online and in-person: Intensive Master Naturalist Training at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (sold out).

August 19-22, 8am-5pm daily, M-TH — Certified Interpretive Guide training with National Association for Interpretation at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Earn your credential as a naturalist or cultural history interpreter! Details and registration here.

Thursday, August 29, 7-8:30 p.m.—Summer Literary Series: On the Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL– Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, book signing, drinks, and tram ride with a lecture on the Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest planted restoration in the world. Register here. 

See more on http://www.cindycrosby.com

Showers of Prairie Flowers

 

Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.– John Updike

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So much rain. Will it ever end?

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Rain or shine, it’s migration week on the prairie. New birds arriving daily.

Egrets stalk the prairie streams, or perch high on dead snags.

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Red-tailed hawks keep their own vigils, alert for unwary prey.

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Resident bluebirds intensify their coloration to deepest sapphire and rust,  busy about the business of home building and finding mates. No holding still. See ya later.

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In the savanna, the early spring ephemerals are beginning to wane, but there are plenty of exciting flowers if you know where to look. Wild ginger holds its maroon flowers close under its leaves, a secret to all but those in the know. And now that’s you.

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The Virginia bluebells cover the woods and savannas in sheets of pinky-purple-periwinkle. This plant has a tiny pollinator.

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Not to be outdone, the wild blue phlox pinwheels bloom under rain-washed skies. Wow. That fragrance! Sweet, without cloying.

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On the prairie, more blues: Jacob’s ladder, just coming into full flower. Like chips from a pale sky.

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Two partially-parasitic prairie wildflowers, bastard toadflax…

bastardtoadflaxWM5619.jpg …and wood betony (pictured below) are just beginning to flower. The “parasitic” part sounds forbidding in name, but is actually a plus. As a prairie steward, I value these two plants as they create openings for wildflowers and damp down the grasses a bit when the grasses threaten to monopolize the prairie. Read more here for additional info.

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On a less scientific note, some Native Americans carried the root of wood betony as a love charm, or used it in various ways to bring feuding couples together. No word on how well it worked for those purposes. But I love the idea that a prairie plant could be so powerful, don’t you?

The new kid blooming on the block this week is hoary puccoon. So unexpected…that orange! A punch of color in the middle of all this rain-inspired green.

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And look—common valerian, Valeriana edulis ciliata. A very high quality plant on the spring prairie–Wilhelm’s Flora gives it a “10” out of a possible “10.” Love seeing it throw its “stinky socks” scent into the prairie air. The leaves are edged with thick white hairs, giving them a distinctive silver edge. Valerian’s thick stalks and bunchy flowers remind me a bit of sprigs of cauliflower.

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These blooms, these birds, those skies —- alternating between thunder and sunshine, rain and rainbows, cumulus and cirrus—announce that the fast-paced spring life of the prairie is underway. It’s nonstop now. From the tiniest crayfish in its burrow, living their lives mostly unnoticed…

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…to the powerful bison, a charismatic megafauna that rules the prairie in all seasons…

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…to the familiar field sparrows, now in steep conservation decline—trilling from prairie shrubs, trees, and utility wires….

 

…the days begin to fill with birdsong, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, new life.

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Get ready, the prairie seems to whisper. Fasten your seatbelt. I’ve got so many surprises in store for you.

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So much to see now.

So much to anticipate.

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The opening quote is by John Updike (1932-2009),  an American writer. Most readers think of him as a novelist (Rabbit, Run; The Witches of Eastwick), but I prefer his poetry. If you haven’t read Seagulls or November, click through and see what you think.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rain over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans);  bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), DuPage County, IL; devil crayfish (Cambarus diogenes), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)— a species in steep decline–Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; discovering the spring prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

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November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

*****

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

A Season of (Prairie) Change

“Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.”  — Robert Gallagher

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When you think of change, how does it make you feel?  Excited? Confused? A sense of dread? Or, perhaps you feel as one of my adult natural history students does. She walked in on the second day of class, saw I had rearranged our seating, and her face fell. Annoyed, she grumbled: “I HATE change!”

Love it, hate it, try to ignore it—-change is inevitable (except as where noted in our opening quote). October smacks us with this fact, then teases us with changes in color and texture, sounds and scents. See-saw temperatures and strange weather phenomena.  Autumn is already flirting with winter here in the Chicago region. Hey, what happened to Fall? Where’s the transition?

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In my backyard, the first freeze of the season—-followed by an unexpected snowfall and high winds, with a side helping of graupel-–has put “paid” to the gardening account for the year.  Basil? Should have gotten out there to pick it last week. Too late now. The only tomatoes I’ll have onward are the ones I threw from my garden into my freezer, ready for chili and spaghetti sauce over the winter.  But I’m not quite ready to trade my iced coffee for hot. My short sleeves for sweaters. My long sunny days for short.

It doesn’t matter what I want.  Change is oblivious to my personal preferences. Ready or not, here the cold weather comes. My backyard prairie patch still sports a sizzle of asters but most of the zing has gone out of them. For the rest of the month, I’ll find pleasures in the structures; the white puffs of silk from Joe Pye weed and little bluestem; the contrasts of stem and seed.

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The rich tapestry of October is already hurtling toward the bleak starkness of November.

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Contrasts, I tell myself. Think about seasonal simplicity. A winter landscape free from distractions like wildflowers, or the dazzle of bright-colored birds in breeding plumage. It’s easier to focus in winter. Worthwhile to consider the forthcoming season as a time to reflect. I’ll catch up on my reading and  make my garden and prairie steward to-do lists for next year. I’ll scribble: Take out the honeysuckle coming into the north side of the prairie. Check pasque flower seeds—did they germinate? Try a new method to get rid of the birds-foot trefoil along Willoway Brook. Issue an ultimatum to the reed canary grass. Plan a teaching display garden at the Prairie Visitor Center. 

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The tallgrass is no stranger to transitions; the prairie dock leaves changing from chlorophyll green to brittle brown remind me of this. Change means possibilities. Gaining new perspectives on old problems. Transition seasons like October keep me  from getting too comfortable, too complacent in my routines. Mostly, this season means moving from doing to observing and reflection.

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Visible life drains from the supple juicy prairie plants, as the leaves crisp into new patterns and textures. The prairie slowly becomes something different. Kind of a Dorothy entering the land of OZ—but in reverse.

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The tallgrass has gone to seed; a blizzard of white silk in a sea of grass. The bison pull on their winter coats as autumnal cues signal winter ahead. As I watch the bison drift across the prairie in strong winds that toss the seedheads and swirl the grasses, I’m reminded, once again, why so much of the prairie literature compares tallgrass to the ocean. Bison NG 10-20-18WM.jpg

The prairie decrescendos. Butterflies? Dragonflies? Bright memories, mostly, although a few linger on.  Now that the last prairie wildflowers are mostly bloomed out, the solitary mated queen bumble bees are looking for their wintering sites, ready to out-last the coming cold until spring.  Just a month ago, the bumble bees amused me as they foraged in the gentians. I miss the bumble bees’ frenetic activity on the prairie. I guess I’ll have to content myself with listening to bumble bee-inspired music until spring.

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Meanwhile, bird activity has stepped up to fill in the insect gaps. Migrating flocks move through, stripping the backyard birdfeeders; invasive starlings perform their choreography each day, schooling across the skies in black particles like those old Etch-a-Sketch tablet drawings. Eerily beautiful.  Pert chickadees rap out their signature songs. Canada geese drag chains of “V’s” across the slanted light of October skies. Everything seems a little surreal; a little otherworldly.

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The warblers have done their autumn clothes shopping and appear at my bird feeders in disguise. Even the goldfinches have taken on the color of olive oil. Remember when they were a dazzling yellow?

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Crows ink their way around the prairie, a welcome sight after the dramatic population decline of a decade or so ago due to West Nile virus.  I never thought much about crows until they disappeared for a few years, then rebounded. The prairie skies were emptier for their absence.

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As the earth tilts toward the winter solstice, the prairie puzzle pieces rearrange themselves into new images. I give myself a pep talk. Change can be positive. Why not invite it in, rather than resist it?

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If nothing else, I can say that the changes October brings keep me on my toes as I try to  pay attention. Notice the change of light; the ebb and flow of the community of the natural world. Listen to the hush of grasses bending in the strong winds, and the tap-tap-tap of the first snowflakes pelting the prairie. Breathe in occasional bursts of the metallic tang of cold prairie air, beginning to replace the scent of autumn decay.

October is a post-it note to myself: Embrace change. Enjoy each moment as it comes. After all, without change, life would be pretty predictable and stale.

And who wants that?

****

Robert C. Gallagher, whose quote opens this post, is a sportswriter and author of The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. He lives in Virginia.

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) road marking transition from agriculture to prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tree line and prairie transition at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebird house on the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) in October, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebee (Bombus) in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October skies, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; bison corral gates, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL.

Fall Comes to the Prairie

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”–George Eliot

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The Canada geese are quarreling. I watch them elbow each other out of the way in mid-flight; honking and diving. Maybe they are arguing the mysteries of matter, or particle physics? After all, they’re at Fermilab, a government facility for particle physics and an accelerator laboratory just down the road from my house. The facility grounds are a  mosaic of beautiful natural areas, including prairies and wetlands. fermilabWMwilsonhall10118.jpg

The bison grazing nearby on the grounds seem more placid than the geese, untroubled by neutrino experiments or accelerator science.

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You can almost imagine their thoughts. Hey geese! Keep it down. What’s all the fuss about? At any rate, I’m not here to bison watch, and I have little patience for quarrels today, geese or otherwise. My destination is a prairie trail.pathatfermiprairie10118WM.jpg

Approximately one thousand acres of Fermilab Natural Areas, surrounding the government world of equations and physics, promises endless adventures. And today, there’s not a soul on the prairie path. Although it’s obvious I’m not alone.

Overhead, green darner dragonflies hover high above the tallgrass. Are they migrating south? Or waiting out their lives here? Hard to tell. But this late in the season I suspect they’re on their way to warmer places. Lately, a black saddlebags dragonfly, also migratory, has hung around my backyard, slow and torpid in the colder weather. Imagine those wings taking it thousands of miles! Close up the wing veination reminds me of ferns.

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I continue hiking, stepping in coyote scat on the trail. Oops! Better watch where I’m going. An insect sings a single note, as if struck from a tuning fork. Everywhere, there are tiny crackling sounds. Mice eating seeds? Birds rustling in the grasses? Leaves drying in the  sun? Part of the prairie’s mystery.

The dogbane or Indian hemp, as it is sometimes called, is gone to seed in places. Its soft silks contrast with the crisp, browning leaves of neighboring prairie plants and their tinker-toy stems.dogbaneindianhemp10118WM.jpg

Wildflowers are mostly of the goldenrod and aster variety, with a few exceptions. Some mountain mint. A last pale prairie Indian plantain bloom or two.

The stiff gentians, those party girls of the fall, are out in full regalia. Looks like a weevil might be crashing the fun.

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So many gentians! They are abundant here, like amethysts scattered deep in the tallgrass. Nearby, goldenrod galls create their own sort of green “flowers” everywhere I look.  Sometimes called “bunch galls” or “rosette galls,” they are formed by insects. Check out more about goldenrod galls here.

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You could enjoyably spend several hours searching for the different goldenrod galls (ellipse, ball, rosette, small bunch…), and reading up on their buggy creators. See one bunch gall, and suddenly the others come into focus.

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The rosin weed blooms are past, but their seedheads look like floral bouquets, don’t they? As pretty in seed as in flower.

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Everywhere there are riots of asters; including many species of white aster that I struggle to name. More easily ID’d is the ubiquitous New England aster, poised on the prairie like a satellite dish with fringe.

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It’s not all prettiness and pleasantry.  The tall coreopsis is in seed, towering over my head, and  I can’t resist pulling down a seedhead and digging into it with my fingernail even though I know I’ll be repelled. And I am. It oozes a smelly, oily substance—and I quickly let the stem spring back. Of all the seeds we collect each fall on the prairie, this is my least favorite. So pretty in bloom! So stinky in your hands.tallcoreposisWMFermi10118.jpg

Rot and decay, the calling cards of October, are juxtaposed with these last flushes of bloom and seed. A giant puffball lies shattered and corrupt, broken up by small mammals and now fodder for insect life.

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And in proportion to the slow decline of plants, the insects seemingly flourish. You don’t notice them so much at first, except for the mosquitoes who won’t be ignored. But take a moment and look—really look—at the grasses and flowers, and all at once, you realize they are teeming with insect life. So much diversity!

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Decay can be beautiful. The turn of the prairie dock leaf…

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The compass plant seedheads, dry and full of promise for new life.

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Wild quinine, its silvered seeds perhaps more lovely than the flowers themselves were.wildquinineWMFermi10118.jpg

In autumn, the balance of light to dark shifts, tipping ever-so-slowly toward darkness as the days go by. Change is in the air. Bloom to seed. Flourishing to decline. All this change is in evidence here this morning.

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So much to see in one short morning hike here! Who knows what other adventures will unfold this October on the prairie?

*****

The opening quote about autumn is from Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a Victorian-era English novelist and poet who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name to escape being thought of as a romance writer. Among her books are Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.

*****

All photos taken at Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL, unless otherwise indicated: Wilson Hall and prairie grasses; bison (Bison bison); prairie trail; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), author’s backyard pond and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum):  stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) seedhead; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads; decayed puffball (possibly Calvatia gigantea); partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and an unknown species of ant; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceeum) leaf; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seeds; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); sky and grass in October. 

The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford

***

The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.

We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route.  A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.

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As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight.  All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.

Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another.  And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…

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A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

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The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.

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Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later,  I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.

 

Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.

So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!

Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…

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…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!

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The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.

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Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.

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But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.

This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.

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This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

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This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the  prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.

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This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.

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This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.

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And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.

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William Stafford (1914-1993)  is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”

***

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN;  trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN:  video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.