Tag Archives: Canada geese

Summer Magic on the Tallgrass Prairie

“May I not be permitted…to introduce a few reflections on the magical influence of the prairies? Their sight never wearies…a profusion of variously colored flowers; the azure of the sky above. In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated…I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.” ——Joseph Nicollet, 1838

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I followed Chance the Snapper—Chicago’s renegade alligator—south to Florida this week.

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The tallgrass has often been compared to the ocean, and it’s easy to see why. As I sit on the sand under the hot sun, the ripples on the Gulf remind me of the wind-waves that pass through the spiking grasses and wildflowers.

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It’s difficult to be away from the prairie, even for a few days in July. So much is happening! It’s a magical time. The gray-headed coneflowers pirouette into lemon confetti.

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Purple and white prairie clover spin their tutu skirts across the tallgrass; bee magnets, every one.

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Rosinweed’s rough and tumble blooms pinwheel open. Rosinweed is part of the Silphium genus, and perhaps the most overlooked of its more charismatic siblings.

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Cup plant, another Silphium sibling, is also in bloom. as are the first iconic compass plant flowers. Prairie dock, the last of the Silphiums to open here in Illinois, won’t be far behind.

The last St. John’s wort blooms seem to cup sunshine.

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The smaller pale blooms, like llinois bundleflower…

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…and oddball wildflowers, like Indian plantain, add complexity to the richness of the July prairie.

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Wild bergamot, or “bee-balm,” buzzes with its namesake activity. I’m always astonished each year at how prolific it is, but this season, it floods the prairie with lavender. Wow.

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The scientific name for bee balm is Monarda fistulosa; the specific epithet, fistulosa, means “hollow” or “pipe-like.” If you pay attention to a single flower in all its growing stages…

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….its intricacy will take your breath away. Look closer. Like fireworks!

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I love to chew its minty leaves; a natural breath freshener. Bee balm’s essential oil, thymol, is a primary ingredient in natural mouthwashes. Tea made from the plant has also been used as a  remedy for throat infections; its antiseptic properties made it historically useful for treating wounds.beebalm719SPMAWM

The hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, as well as the bees and butterflies, find it irresistible.

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Not only a useful plant, but beautiful.

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The air reverberates with sound on the July prairie: buzzing, chirping; the sizzling, hissing chords of grass blowing in the wind. Overhead, ubiquitous honking Canada geese add their familiar notes.

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In Florida, ospreys wake me each morning with their piercing cries. I see them soaring over the tallgrass prairie occasionally at home and at Fermilab’s prairies down the road in Batavia, IL, where they’re a rare treat. Here in Florida, they’re just another common note in the island’s soundtrack.

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It’s bittersweet to leave the tallgrass prairie in July for a week and miss some of its seasonal magic. The wildflowers are in full crescendo. The grasses unfold their seedheads and head skyward. The slow turn of the season toward autumn begins. You see it in the change in dragonfly species on the prairie, the sudden appearance of bottlebrush grass and Joe Pye weed flowers. To leave the Midwest for even a few days is to miss a twist or turn in the prairie’s ongoing story. Miss some of the magic.

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But displacement gives me perspective. A renewed appreciation for what I’ve left behind.

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The magic will be waiting.

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Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), whose quote begins this post, was a French mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who led explorations in what now is the Dakotas and Minnesota. His whose accurate maps were some of the first to show elevation and use regional Native American names for places. Nicollet’s tombstone reads: “He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future.” Read more about him here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; St. John’s wort ( likely shrubby —Hypericum prolificum); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie, Glenview, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunflowers (probably Helianthus divaricatus) and wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, Florida; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida.

Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

Find more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

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Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

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A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

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Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

BelmontPrairiesnowmelt21019WM.jpgLook closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds.  In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty.  As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows.  The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color.  Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

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Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

Under the Prairie Ice

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”–Aldo Leopold

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Polar Vortex! In the Illinois prairie region, all the chatter is about the week’s forecast: wind chill temperatures of 50-plus degrees below zero. Brrr! It’s a good time to dream a little bit about the summer to come.

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One of my favorite tasks as a prairie steward is monitoring dragonflies.  People often ask me in the winter, Where are the dragonflies now? How do they survive the brutal cold? 

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Some, I tell them, like the green darners and black saddlebags, have migrated south to reproduce. Later generations journey back north again, much like the well-publicized monarch butterfly. But most of our dragonflies are still here—in the nymph stage—under the surfaces of streams, ponds, and pools of prairie wetlands, waiting for spring and warmer temperatures. Under the prairie ice.

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Dragonflies and their population changes tell us a lot about our water quality. Dragonfly responses to climate also help us understand what we see happening in the see-sawing temperatures and weather changes in the world around us. Good reasons to care! With this in mind, citizen scientists monitor dragonflies of all species, tracking their numbers each year.

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We need our dragonflies. I’ve spent a lot of time kayaking and looking for dragonflies and damselflies on Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Illinois, just for fun.  But now, in this January cold, the lake is full of ice fisherman.

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Just across the preserve, not far from the ice fishing houses, is my destination—the Urban Stream Research Center. Here, one of our most vulnerable insect species, the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, is being reared.

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Some people dream of meeting sports heroes. Others, their favorite rock star. Me, I dream of seeing the Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) winging its way through a prairie preserve. It’s our only federally-endangered dragonfly. Finicky? Yes! It has a lot of special requirements, including shallow flowing water and time spent in burrows made by the devil crayfish. 

During the winter months, I pore over my favorite dragonfly field guide by Kurt Mead part of the North Woods Naturalist Series

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… and open it to the Hine’s emerald dragonfly spread. Then, I think what it would be like to see the real thing.

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Today, I’ll get part of my wish.

Heading up the project in its third year in the Chicago Region is DuPage County Forest Ecologist Andrés Ortega. His enthusiasm for dragonflies and passion for the project are evident from the first moment of my arrival at the center.

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Andrés reaches into a refrigerator, and pulls out a dozen vials of tiny Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs.

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The dragonfly nymphs are in “diapause,” just as nymphs are outdoors. These nymphs enjoy cool refrigerator temps of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit;  their normal overwintering temperature, Ortega tells me.

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The eggs were gathered from gravid female dragonflies at known breeding sites in DuPage and Cook Counties, Andrés tells me.  Once netted, the tip of the female dragonfly’s abdomen is dipped into water—a process that simulates ovipositing—causing her to release her eggs. After the eggs are harvested, they are taken to a research laboratory in South Dakota. Here, they hatch and are cared for through their first months or even years of nymph life.

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Then, they are driven to Illinois and hand-delivered to Ortega at the Urban Stream Research Center.

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These are ferocious little critters. Andrés tells me they keep similar-sized nymphs with other similar-sized nymphs, as larger ones will enjoy the smaller ones for dinner if thrown together. Cannibalism! It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there. Staff carefully control the water quality (which should not be too clean) and water temperature.

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In the spring, the nymphs will be released into the research center’s indoor raceways. These are long pools that mimic stream-like conditions. The temperature of the water in the raceways is carefully calibrated to reflect the rising temperatures outdoors.

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Raceways are custom made by employees expressly for the dragonfly rearing. Sand, rocks, frayed rope pieces, and plastic aquarium plants offer hiding places for the nymphs. In about mid-May, the nymphs will begin feeding from a menu that includes small crustaceans and midge larvae. The screens and netting will keep midges from escaping and interfering with other research work at the center, such as mussel propagation.

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It will take the dragonfly nymphs about four to five years to reach maturity, from the egg stage to the beautiful creatures of the air I see in my field guide. When ready to emerge, they will be released into suitable nature preserves in the state.

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Ortega tells me that less than one percent of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs survive in the wild. Pretty slim odds, aren’t they?  I’m grateful to people like Andrés Ortega. He is one of our unsung heroes, doing the hard work of keeping part of the natural world from vanishing forever.

The next time you see a frozen prairie stream or pond this winter, think of the many different species of dragonflies waiting to emerge, just underneath the surface. Who knows? This might be the year we see more of the Hine’s emerald dragonflies, cruising through prairie wetlands. I’m planning to show up and look.

How about you?

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The Aldo Leopold quote that opens this essay is from Round River. Leopold is often referred to as the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. Please visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website to learn more about Leopold and his work, which is carried on today.

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Grateful thanks to Andrés Ortega for his tour of the Urban Stream Research Center; his patient answers to all my questions;  his reading and suggested edits for this blogpost (all remaining errors are my own); and his terrific work with dragonflies. Contact him at aortega@dupageforest.org.

Many thanks to super nice guy Kurt Mead, author of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition (2017), and Sparky Stensaas, co-owner of Kollath+Stensaas Publishing, who approved using the cover and pages with the Hine’s emerald dragonfly for this post (and also thanks to photographer Troy Hibbitts whose Hine’s emerald images (thehibbets.net) appear on those pages. If you are interested in dragonflies, you should own this beautiful guide–it is indispensable for Midwestern dragonfly chasers, even if you live a little further south of the North Woods (I live in Illinois).  Order from your favorite local bookseller, or online here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Mt. Hoy, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; cold day at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; hundreds of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) on open water of Springbrook Creek at Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL:  ice fishing shacks on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Cover of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead; interior spread, Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead. Andrés Ortega (Homo sapiens), ecologist, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; vials of Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymphs, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph,Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; water system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; raceway system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; life support system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Tallgrass Ice Magic

“Everything is always becoming something else.” — Gretel Ehrlich

***

January’s vivid prairie sunsets remind me of the black light posters I had in the early ’70s. Pow! Unbelievable colors. You wouldn’t expect this in a landscape you thought had gone all taupe grasses and gray skies.

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What amazements winter keeps pulling out of her bag of tricks! The whims and vagaries of weather brought about both ice and thaw this week. My backyard prairie pond glassed in plants and leaves.

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Down in the still-frozen shallows of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, the broken stalks of white wild indigo lay tangled up in blue snow shadows.

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Along the shoreline, milkweed pods stand ready to serve as makeshift boats. Spilled of their floss, they could float downstream in a thaw; sailing a million miles away. My mind seems to drift off that far in January sometimes as well. Anything seems possible.

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Along the brook where the current runs deep, there’s thaw. So much tension! The muscle of ice against water, the push and pull of solid to liquid.

Transitions.

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I always find transitions difficult. But they often signal some sort of breakthrough. January is a good moment to pause and reflect on this. Be encouraged, instead of discouraged by these passages, these changes.

Meanwhile, Willoway Brook wrestles with its own transitions. Ice splinters and fractures. Shards tumble downstream. The water sings of spring on the way. Soon. Soon.

The ice, cold and slick, is a foil for the other sensory pleasures of the prairie this month. Today, it’s bright sun.  Tomorrow, it might be a shroud of fog across the grasses. Breathe in, and you inhale the taste of evaporating snow in the air.

Lean down, and touch a rasp of sandpapery compass plant leaf…

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…or listen to the castanet rattle of milkvetch pods, holed by insects, each with its cache of dry seeds beating time in the breeze. In the clear air of January, sound seems to travel a little farther than other months.

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The brittle and the rough stand in sharp contrast to the last soft brushes of little bluestem, still holding rich color in the otherwise bleached-out grasses.

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All of these pleasures add their joy to these January days. The ever-present geese honk their lane changes, flying across the jet contrails which criss-cross the sky.

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And each day—as the sun burns its way up through the east and then falls in flames to the west—you know the January cycle of freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, is bringing spring a little bit closer.

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But for now…

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…enjoy every moment of the magic of ice and snow.

*****

Gretel Ehrlich’s quote, which opens this essay, is from her book, The Future of Ice, written about her love for winter and the perils of climate change. My favorite of her books is The Solace of Open Spaces. If you haven’t read her writing, it’s good company for a cold January evening.

All photos/video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  authors backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway brook thaw video, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and contrails, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, edge of the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

How to Spark (Prairie) Wonder

“While we are born with curiosity and wonder, and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned into flame again by awareness and an open mind.”–
Sigurd Olson

***

I’m thinking about the above quotation as I hike through prairie snow. The temperature? Below zero. Not an optimal day for outdoor adventures. But after more than five decades of wanderings—and at the beginning of a new year—I’ve been wondering. How do I keep my sense of curiosity and wonder in a cynical world? How do I “fan the flame;” “stay aware” as Olson writes? It’s so easy to become insular.

Then, I look around.

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Time outdoors. Perhaps that’s always the answer.

 

SPMAwasharea123117.jpgEven a short walk in the brutal cold is a mental palate cleanser. It sweeps clean the heavy holiday fare. Too much travel. Noise. Not enough time to think.

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I breathe in. The air sears my lungs; seeps into my gloves, painfully nips my hands. Then all feeling recedes.

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Above me, the wild geese fly in formation over the prairie, calling to each other. The sound carries clearly in the cold, crisp air. I inhale again, and feel the fuzziness in my mind begin to dissipate.

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I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” When I worked as a ranger on a wilderness island, one of my many non-glamorous tasks was sweeping the visitor center floor at the end of the day. As I’d push the broom, back and forth, back and forth, I’d try memorizing a new poem each week, written on a card in my pocket. It made the task more pleasant. “Wild Geese” was one poem I memorized that became a favorite.

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Lost in remembrance, I almost miss what’s under my feet. The prairie and meadow voles have been busy tunneling through the snow, on a seed-finding mission.

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The short winter list of prairie birds and animals are easier to name than the lengthy  roll call of plant species. Winter plant ID is a guessing game. The once-familiar wildflowers have shed their leaves and bleached their colors. Some I can be fairly certain of, like these thimbleweeds, with their tufts of seeds in various stages of blow-out along a sheltered edge of the prairie.

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Or the pasture thistle, in its familiar spot next to the path.

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The compass plant leaf, even when cold-curled like a bass clef, is unmistakable.

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But other wildflowers, sans identifying colors, scents, or leaf shapes, are a mystery. Is this one an aster? Sure. But which one? I realize how limited my naturalist skills are every winter.

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Such a jumble of seasonal botanical leftovers! All in various stages of decay. Monarda? Check. Blackberry canes? Check. And is that tiny curl a bit of carrion flower vine? But which species?

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Hours could be spent in this fashion; looking, listening, hypothesizing, thinking, remembering. It takes so little to rekindle the spark of curiosity and wonder. To wake up. To be refreshed.

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Just a short hike. A moment’s attention toward what’s happening around your feet. A glance at the sky.

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And suddenly, you feel it: the embers of curiosity and wonder begin to glow again.

***

Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) wrote nine books, including my favorite, The Singing Wilderness.   Many of his essays are about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and North Woods, and a few are about the prairie. Some include beautiful scratchboard illustrations from artist Francis Lee Jaques,  who was born in Illinois. Olson was a conservation activist and one of the greatest advocates for natural areas in recent times. The quote that begins this blog post is from his book, Listening Point.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): West Side bridge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL;  Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; fence line at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), or meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) tunnels, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; aster (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blackberry canes (probably Rubus argutus), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and carrion vine (Smilax, unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Saul’s Lake Bog and Prairie, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.