Tag Archives: Citizens for Conservation

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard

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We haven’t seen the last of winter. Snow is in the forecast this week in the Chicago region. But this weekend, spring seemed a little closer. Why? Thaw. Can you smell it in the air? Can you hear the trickle of snow melt, percolating through the frozen earth?

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Sunday, Jeff and I hiked Springbrook Prairie, an 1,829 acre nature preserve in Naperville, IL, drawn outside by the rising mercury in the thermometer, the sunshine, and—yes—the thaw.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

We’re getting closer to the vernal equinox on Sunday, March 20. Soon, the hours of light and dark will balance on the seasonal scale.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

We’re not quite there yet. In the bright sunlight, we can almost imagine it is late March. But February is still winter, by both meteorological and astronomical calendars.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Despite the ice and snow that claim the tallgrass, the signs of spring on the horizon are evident. Red-winged blackbirds sing on the edges of the wetlands at Springbrook Prairie. Soon they will be dive-bombing us in defense of their nests.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

From its perch, the red-wing has a prime view of the prairie. I’d love to have that vantage point! I’d watch the pond with its icy den. Who is home? Muskrats? Beavers? I’m not sure. I bet the red-wing knows.

Pond at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

I wish I could sail high and spy on the ubiquitous white-tailed deer.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus borealis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Or cruise the prairie, watching the bicycles and joggers thread their way through the tallgrass on the sloppy-wet trails. What I wouldn’t give for a birds-eye view from the sky today!

Instead, we’re deep in the thaw. A fine limestone slurry coats our boots.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Dog walkers trot past, their pooches splattered and patched with gray. I wonder what clean-up will be done before the ride home.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Thimbleweed lifts its seed puffs trailside.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

The sun tracks low, illuminating the native grasses.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Wildflowers turn bright against the backlight.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Suddenly, two sundogs appear! It’s my first glimpse of this phenomenon this year. Sundogs are difficult to photograph. But how wonderful to stand on the trails and admire those two outrider prisms, equal distances from the sun in the sky. Can you spot them, just over the horizon line?

What a joy to experience sundogs and thaw; redwings and snowmelt. As we head for the parking lot, a hawk—maybe a juvenile redtail?—monitors our progress.

Possibly a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

She–or he—flies off into the sunset at our approach, finished with the day’s business.

Possibly a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Jeff and I are finished with our hike. Ready for dinner. And home.

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By Monday, our backyard prairie is lank and wet, all soggy grasses with pools of snowmelt. The sun works diligently all morning to erase any traces of winter. As I soak up the light pouring through the kitchen window, thinking about spring burns (and how much my backyard needs one), there’s a flurry of wings. Redpolls!

Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So many common redpolls. Just in time to close out the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is the first winter we’ve seen these feisty birds in our backyard, thanks to a tutorial by our birding friends on what field marks to look for and what seeds redpolls love.

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Redpolls swarm the sock feeders, mob the seed tubes, line the tray feeder and gobble the nyjer thistle tossed on the porch. I call Jeff to the window. Together, we attempt to count them. Ten. Thirty. Fifty. Seventy—and so many others in the trees! A group of redpolls, I’ve learned, is called “a gallop of redpolls.” We certainly have a herd of them!

We estimate almost a hundred, perched in trees, loitering at the feeders, hopping around on the roof. Where did they come from? Are they on their way…where? Back to their Arctic habitat, perhaps? It’s difficult to know. I hope this isn’t goodbye for the season. But if it is goodbye, that’s okay. What a dramatic finale it would be.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

Nature has a way of surprising us with wonders.

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL.

All we have to do is show up and pay attention.

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The opening quote is one of my all-time favorites by the writer Annie Dillard (1945-). I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek every year. Wrote Eudora Welty in the New York Times Book Review, “The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing.” It’s a good one.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11:30 am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Cindy’s afternoon program is part of the all-day events)

Grateful thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery, who gave us the redpolls tutorial and are always ready to help with bird ID.

Three Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.” —Barry Lopez

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I heard the cardinal’s spring song this week for the first time this year. Maybe it was practicing. Maybe it was dreaming. Snow is still piled on the ground and my little pond is frozen, but now I listen for that cardinal song anytime I step outdoors. February is half over. There is plenty of snow and cold ahead. Yet the thought of spring persists.

Wildflowers and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter in the Midwest has a lot to recommend it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Really?

Oh yes. Let’s get outside and discover three reasons to hike the February prairie.

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  1. Interesting Plants

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of the temporal nature of life.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere are remnants of what was once a vibrant wildflower, now aged and gone to seed.

Carrion flower (Smilax sp.) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Along the trail is wild bergamot, still redolent with thymol.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Dried grasses are broken and weighted with snow.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet, life is here, under the ground. Emergence is only weeks away.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Pollinators are a distant memory. What will a new season bring?

Indian Hemp/Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

These are the prairie’s closing chapters. The hot breath of prescribed fire whispers. Soon. Soon. When conditions are right. By April, this will have vanished in smoke.

Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Take in every moment of winter. While it lasts.

2. The Joy of Tracking

Who moves across the winter prairie? It’s not always easy to tell.

Along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Follow the streams and you’ll see signs of life. I know a mink lives along Willoway Brook—are these her prints?

Tracks along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who took a frigid plunge?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The freeze/thaw freeze/thaw over the past week has blurred and slushed the tracks, adding to the mystery.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who is it that prowls the tallgrass prairie in February? Who swims its streams?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m not always sure, but it’s enough to know that life persists in February.

3. The Exhilaration of Braving the Elements

Hiking the prairie in February involves a little bit of risk, a little bit of daring.

Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Bundle up.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

See these prairie skies, how they change from moment to moment? Bright—then dim—then bright? What a joy to be outside!

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Sure, the temperatures are in the teens. Wrap that scarf a little tighter around your neck. Breathe in that cold, clarifying prairie air.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sometimes, you may arrive, only to turn back when the trail has iced beyond acceptable risk.

Iced-over trail at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

But isn’t it enough to be there, even if only for a few minutes?

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I think so. Why not go see? It won’t be winter much longer.

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Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was an American writer who loved the Arctic and wolves, and wrote 20 books of fiction and non-fiction exploring our relationship to the natural world. The opening quote for today’s blog is from his National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams (1986), which is still my favorite of his works.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program as part of all-day events)