Tag Archives: downy woodpecker

A Prairie Valentine

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

*****

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.

*****

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.

Transformed by Prairie Snow

“How is it that the snow amplifies the silence, slathers the black bark on limbs, heaps along the brush rows?”–Robert Haight

Love it, hate it, delight in it, complain about it—it’s here. Snow. A blizzard dropped almost eight inches of snow on  the western Chicago suburbs overnight this week.  According to our Chicago weather guru Tom Skilling and friends, this month is now tied for the third snowiest November on record here.

A snowfall can transform the prairie in a matter of hours.  Brittle grasses and spent wildflowers, under the influence of snow, become something otherworldly.  Magical, even.

Trees are down, cracked and slung to the ground by the weight of the wet white stuff.  On the prairie, the tallgrass is broken and smothered, reshaped  by wind and weather. Snow has given the prairie sharp new geometric angles; while at the same time softened some of the rough edges.

The blizzard-strength gusty winds, greater than 35 mph, pounded snow into the bird feeders by my backyard prairie patch. As the storm slowed Monday morning, hungry birds began lining up at the feeders like planes at O’Hare Airport. This downy woodpecker, below, was working hard to get peanuts without much success until my husband, watching the bird hammer fruitlessly on the snowed-over tube, took pity and trudged outside to chip the ice off.

In nearby forest preserves and natural areas, coyotes took advantage of the weather to go for a stroll and admire their tracks.

These coyotes, birds, and other fauna of my backyard and the regional prairies are grateful for temps that hover in the low thirties. Ponds and streams, limned by snow, none-the-less stay open. Drinking water is secure. The dark open water of my backyard prairie pond is an inkblot in the bright, white snow.

Under periodic sun, the snow-sprayed prairie sparkles. It’s impossible not to marvel, especially this early in the season when a snowfall hasn’t lost its power to enchant us. Later in the winter, of course, we’ll become less captivated by its charms. Does snow have its downsides? Sure. Ask those who threw out their backs shoveling driveways, or  my neighbor whose tree crumpled under the heavy white stuff and smashed her family room window. The family who is—24 hours after the storm—waiting for power to be restored to their neighborhood. Those whose flights are cancelled. The drivers who wait for a tow truck, after sliding off the icy roads.

Snow can be dangerous, and at a minimum, an inconvenience.

But, as you scrape off your car windshield this morning, or add those extra scarves, gloves, and warm layers to prepare for your morning commute, take a moment to consider the grace of snow. How it transforms the familiar to the unfamiliar.  How it takes the prairie and the rest of our world by storm, then gives it a makeover.

After a snowfall, I see the world differently.  The transformation of the November prairie overnight by snow jolts me out of the ordinary;  gives me pause. If this large-scale transformation of the landscape can happen in such a short time, are there other transformations, less visible, that are possible for myself?

This massive snowfall, which altered everything I see around me, reminds me of how much change is possible in only a day. How everything can be renewed, on a large scale as well as small. I’m prompted to see—again—that the world is a beautiful place; full of wonder. 

I needed this encouragement, here at the end of November. You too?

*****

Robert Haight, whose thoughtful words about snow begin this blog,  is a writer and environmentalist who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan. Among his books of poetry are Feeding Wild Birds and Water Music. You can read the full poemHow is it that the Snowhere.

Robert Haight is a writer who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.  Among his books of poetry are 

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) at the  feeder by the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna with coyote (Canis latrans) at sunset a few years ago at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild grape vine (Vitis unknown species) in winter, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.