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Prairie Streams of Consciousness

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” — Pema Chödrön.

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If you want to get a fresh perspective on life, jump into the water.  That’s where I find myself this week, monitoring dragonflies and damselflies on the prairie. So much of insect life on the prairie is virtually invisible. To really see some of the damselflies requires full immersion.

It’s sunny—one of the few dry days this week.  Out on the prairie, the white wild indigo is in full celebration mode.

spma6918wm.jpgThe bumblebees are making the most of bloom time.

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Honeybees busily buzz around the wild asparagus blossoms.

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The gorgeous prairie wildflowers are offering a show in early June that would put Las Vegas to shame. Scurfy pea (what a great name!) throws purple all over its silvery tumbleweeds.

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Prairie sundrops earn their name, splashing light where they lie knee-high, barely keeping up with the grasses and wildflowers growing lushly all around.

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There’s plenty of dragonfly action on the prairie trails. Calico pennant dragonflies—red males, yellow females—might be mistaken for butterflies by the non-initiated.

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And who could blame someone for thinking so? Each year the pennants’ fluttering appearance seems magical. I could get easily get distracted from the morning’s task at hand.

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But today is for the prairie stream. I pull on my hip waders and get down to business. It’s a bit windier than I’d like for dragonfly monitoring, but the brook is nestled into a low spot on the prairie and there, the breeze doesn’t do as much as ruffle my hair. However, getting into a stream in waders is a challenge. Especially when the sides of the bank are steep and your knees aren’t what they used to be.  I sit and clumsily scoot-slide down the steep sides of the bank.

It’s a different world, down in the stream. The prairie above recedes from my view and my thoughts. All that exists is the water. It’s surprisingly high, well up to my hips.  I cautiously test my footing. Streams are always dicey; sometimes the bottom muck sucks your boots into it unexpectedly, leaving yourself in a bad predicament. Other times an unexpected hole opens up as you take a step and you lose your footing. I’ve never fallen—yet—but I fully expect that is in the cards at some point.

All it takes is a glint of color or motion out of the corner of your eye to distract you. You glance up. Ebony jewelwings! The white spots tell me this one’s a female.

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The males aren’t far off; spaced evenly along the stream. Perched on the grasses.

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Look down, and there’s a violet dancer damselfly in all its shocking variations of purple.

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Just to the side is a newly-emerged American rubyspot damselfly in the teneral stage, abdomen drooping, its colors in the process of brightening. Its wings look newly-minted.  I’ve been watching for this species, which hasn’t appeared along my stream-side route this month. Like clockwork, they knew when it was time to emerge.

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There you are.  I’ve been wondering when you’d show up.

Picking my way down the stream, I test each step. The process gives “mindfullness” fresh meaning.  I stumble at one point, where a drop-off is invisible in the murky water, and grab at the closest vegetation. For the first time in my life as a prairie steward, I’m grateful for the invasive reed canary grass lining the shore.

As I regain my sense of balance, I notice a new form of a blue-fronted dancer damselfly—a blue morph female, rather than the more common orangey-tan— enjoying a protein-packed lunch of unknown bug. I’ve seen plenty of blue-fronteds over the course of my monitoring, but not this variation. Cool! I thought I knew this species. It’s another reminder that there is so much I don’t know.

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The stream is the romantic hot spot of the prairie for dragons and damsels.  All around me are various stages of damselfly mating in progress.  In the early stages, the male (like this blue male stream bluet, below) grabs a likely-looking female behind the head…

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…and the two dragons or damsels form  “the wheel,” which often looks like a heart. Two ebony jewelwings make a beautiful one, don’t they?

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The male guards the female (either by hovering in the air, or continuing his death-grip behind her head) until her eggs are safely deposited in floating mats of vegetation, grasses, old wood, or directly into the water. Take a look below as a pondhawk female (green) dragonfly taps her eggs into the surface of the water, while the male (powdery blue) hover guards just above.

 

The whole process of ovipositing—egg laying—moves fast, doesn’t it? But a dragonfly or damselfly’s life is a matter of weeks, sometimes days, or even hours. To keep life moving forward, they don’t mess around.

Unlike the dragonflies, there’s nothing fast about my work today. The rewards of stream wading are these: Reminding myself how it feels to move quietly and slowly. Learning that what I think I know isn’t always the whole story.  Finding new perspectives on places I thought I knew well. Surprises at every bend of the brook. Realizing that when I don’t jump in I miss so much. And most of all, perhaps, the mind-clearing effort of paying attention to every step, punctuated by new delights all around.

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When I’ve finished wading my short stretch of stream, I’m exhausted.  The  careful focus on footing. The watchful parsing of shoreline vegetation for a flash of color, a glimmer of motion. The sheer energy exerted to get from point A to point Z in the water that is getting to be more of a challenge each season.

But the bombardment of marvels all around me in the stream fills up my “inner well.” You know that “well;” the one that is depleted by meetings and noise and front-page news and angry drivers and toxic people.  I always leave the stream feeling more at peace. Like the world is a beautiful place.

I don’t wade every pond and stream where I dragonfly monitor; it takes too much time. But there’s not a day when I don’t wish I could.  There are joys and revelations I’m missing because I stay high and dry on the shore, counting dragonflies where it’s easier. But I’ll always see less than I would from the sidelines than if I fully commit myself to the water.

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Think about it. Every pond, every lake, every stream is filled with rhythmic dances of   life going on each moment. So many amazing things happening in the world!

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All we have to do is look. And keep our sense of wonder.

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The opening quote is by Pema Chödrön (1936-), an American Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her books include,  When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with unknown bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) with an unknown honeybee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly female (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), male, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), teneral, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) (female, blue morph), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis)  as seen from my kayak in Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumberg, IL; green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands Beaver Pond Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Walt Whitman’s Prairie

“…While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and the Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”–Walt Whitman

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Spring merges into meteorological summer on the prairie. The days yo-yo between cloudless humid afternoons in the 90s and beautiful breezy days in the 70s.  It’s a deceptively cool morning. None-the-less, it promises heat as I set out on my hike. I leave my old blue Honda on the two-track and make my way up a rocky hilltop.

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The prairie puts on growth right now like a toddler outgrowing clothes. You feel as if  sitting and watching the grass grow is a literal possibility.

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Pale purple coneflowers press in on all sides in every possible stage of bloom. Fibonacci, anyone?

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The prairie offers us the most when we offer it our time and our presence. Sit. Look. Look some more. Not everything has as much pizzazz as the coneflowers. The downy yellow painted cup makes up for what it lacks in vibrant color with originality.

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It rubs shoulders with the uncommon short green milkweed, one of more than a dozen native milkweed species in Illinois—and a perfect “10” in Flora of the Chicago Region. 

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Homely, you say? No glamour other than its conservation value? Perhaps. Yet this milkweed is as welcome to a weary monarch butterfly looking to lay its eggs as its flashier counterpart, the orange butterfly weed, just about ready to bloom on the prairie.

Sure, the prairie has its share of eye-popping color right now.

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But that’s not what necessarily draws us to it. The prairie satisfies us for the long haul with its interplay of wind and weather, pollinator and patterns. Grasses and gradients of color, birdsong and blooms.HenslowssparrowNG53118wm.jpg

It is deceptively simple.

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As you spend time with the prairie, you begin to understand just how very complex it is.

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Other stunning landscapes may wow you for a short while, but quickly lose their appeal. The prairie moves into your soul over time, sets up housekeeping, and endlessly satisfies you with its nuances. Look again. Listen.

As many have observed, the prairie doesn’t shout. But listen closely. It whispers.

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And a whisper can be a powerful thing.

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Walt Whitman (1819-1892) delivered the opening quote in this blogpost in a speech he prepared (but never gave) for a speaking engagement in Kansas on a trip out west in 1879-80. You can read more of his essay in “America’s Characteristic Landscape,” included in John T. Price’s edited collection of nature writing, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014, University of Iowa Press, Bur Oak Books). 

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with Halictidae (sweat bee) (Agapostemon splendens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; downy yellow painted cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; short green milkweed (Aslepias viridiflora) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) Henslow’s sparrow (Passerculus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly, male (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video of prairie ponds with dragonflies and birdsong, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trail through Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grateful thanks to Susan Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, who generously gave me the gift of her time.

Spring Fever on the Prairie

“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want— but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” –Mark Twain

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Spring? It’s giving us the cold shoulder on the prairie.

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What a wacky, wicked April. Many prescribed burns were done late or not at all. Snowy days. Frigid nights. Wild winds. Plants stubbornly stay put under the blackened soil of the burned prairies. They know what’s good for them.

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On the edges of the prairie, the trees look dormant and colorless. What happened to the flush of green buds, the chatter of birds? Looking and listening, you’d think it was November instead of April.

It’s enough to make you weep.treesatkankakeeS41518watermark.jpg

 

There’s hope.

Look carefully, under the fallen autumn leaves moldering in the woodlands and savannas surrounding the prairie. You’ll see the seasons are changing.  Spring beauties tentatively open in the infrequent sunny hours, pinstriped with pink. Euell Gibbons, best known for his books on wild food foraging and for appearing in  Grape-Nuts commercials, lauded the joys of the edible tubers, known as “fairy spuds.” He also cautioned that they were much too pretty to eat. I agree.

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Spring is in the half-dressed bloodroot blooms, unfurling cautiously, testing the air.

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If you look hard, you may find some blooms.  In the past, various concoctions of bloodroot have been used medicinally, including to control dental plaque, but today, those uses come with a lot of cautionary talk.

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Spring is in the hepatica blooming along the edges of the prairie, its persistent leaves worn and ragged after being nibbled during the winter. First the furry buds appear.

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And then…

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Wow, that color!

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We need hepatica in bloom this week! It’s a morale booster.

Spring is in the tender new leaves of Dutchman’s breeches.

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The fringed growth promises delicate flowers, just days away.

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Spring is in the pasque flowers which escaped the flames of a prescribed burn. The buds look furred against the cold.

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In my backyard prairie planting, shooting stars green up, ready to take off…

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…and skyrocket into bloom. Imagine that pink! Soon.

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Sure, the April skies are gloomy. And we’re winter-weary.

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Hang on to hope.  Look for the clues. Bright spots in the landscape—if you pay attention.

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Everything is about to change. Do you feel it? Spring is coming.

Believe it.

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Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose quote opens this post, is the pen name for Samuel Clemens, an American writer, riverboat pilot, failed gold prospector, and inventor.  He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and his pen name, Mark Twain, is steamboat slang for “twelve feet of water.” One my favorite Twain quotes: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor) in the April snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just-burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bare trees in April with an unknown hawk, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) in bloom, Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla pantens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) emerging, author’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands in the middle of April, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.  Note: Please don’t pick, consume, or use wildflowers without permission and/or expert knowledge. Many are toxic and almost all are best left alone for us to conserve and enjoy. Happy spring! 

Rumors of Spring

“Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…” –Woody Guthrie

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There’s a rumor in northern Illinois that it’s spring. But not a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it. Talk to anyone and you’ll hear the usual early April grouching about gray days, unexpected snow, and temps barely nudging 30 degrees.

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Natural areas managers scramble to get in their last prescribed burns before spring commences in earnest.

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On most prairies,  fire has kissed the tallgrass and gone, leaving the earth stripped and covered with ash. If you don’t look closely, it can all seem a bit melancholy.

But look again.

The prairies are awakening. You can see it in the juxtaposition of what was lost, and what is green and new.

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Listen as April releases her icy grip on the tallgrass and wakes up the streams and springs.

The prairie knows it’s time to get moving.

Wake up, wood betony!

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Just one glimpse of your crinkly maroon leaves reminds me that your lemon-colored blooms are not far behind.

Come on, April wind and rain! Topple the old compass plant stalks that escaped the fires; let them meld with the earth, covered by new growth.

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Wake up, Virginia bluebells!

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I can’t wait until you color the woodlands around the prairies with your impossible blue.

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Pincushion the burned ground with green, prairie dropseed.

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Let’s get this season underway!

I want a front row seat…

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…as the prairie swings into a slow crescendo…

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… as the spring frogs chorus their approval…

…as from the ashes, the prairie is renewed.

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It’s time. Wake up!

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“Wake Up,” the lyrics of which open this post,  was written in 1954 by folk musician Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967). During his Oklahoma childhood, Guthrie’s older sister died in an accident, his family became bankrupt, and his mother was institutionalized. These tragedies—and later, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl—gave him empathy with people who suffered, and heavily influenced his music. Guthrie, who died of Huntington’s Disease, wrote everything from children’s tunes to political protest songs. Read more about him here.

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All photos and videos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): gray skies on the prairie, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video–the prairie greens up, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; snail shell and unknown green sprout on the prairie, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; video–water running through the prairie, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) leafing out, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) leafing out, West Side Woodland, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bench on Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; frog calls at Crowley Marsh, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands at the end of March, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Prairie Shadows; Prairie Promise

“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

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It’s “shadow season” on the prairie, a time where everything seems a ghost of its former, vibrant self. I find it one of the most difficult times of the year in the tallgrass. Everything that remains at the turn of March to April is seemingly brittle. Ruined. Grasses are flattened. The prairie seems worn out.

Waiting for fire.

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Or maybe I’m just projecting my own winter-weary self on the prairie. The prairie—as always—has its gifts to give.  These gifts just aren’t that in-your-face, “wow-look-at-that-color!” good looks. No wildflowers. No juicy grasses. Few returning grassland birds.

There is a whole lot of animal scat and mud. Trash, small mammal bones, and flotsam and jetsam left behind after the snow melt.

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It’s discouraging. But sometimes, to see hope for the future—or even, just to give yourself a mental boost to get to next week—you have to look a little closer. Dig a little deeper. Take more time. Sit with things.

When you do, you find that with the prairie’s maturity comes a different sort of beauty. It’s nuanced.

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Some plants are crumpled and twisted. This one caught a plant virus. See that thick stem? It’s frayed a little around the stress points, but not broken…

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Prairie dock leaves are so wrinkled you have to look twice to recognize them.

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Much different from their beginnings just a year or so ago.

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All the knowledge of the past prairie season is encapsulated here in March. A shadow of what once was. You can’t help but be reminded of our own fleeting presence here.

 

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There’s promise. That promise will be more evident after the prescribed fires, when the prairie is once again lush and green and beginning to bloom.

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Despite the stands of dead foliage, what is important to the prairie is still here. Even if unseen. It’s right where you’re standing. Down deep where the fire can’t touch it, in the roots that plunge up to 15 feet or more into the earth.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Everything we see is but a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about the prairie, but his words are applicable. Those unseen deep roots that grip the soil so tenaciously–and will remain untouched by fire—are the prairie’s future. They hold the history of the prairie–the soil—in their grasp. While the life of the prairie above the ground is finished—that fleeting shadow of wildflowers, grasses, and color—there is more to consider than what is visible to our eyes.

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Some prairies have already been burned as March comes to a close. But, without the right weather conditions, many of our local prairies are still in a state of anticipation. Waiting for the flames. For the prairie to flourish—for color and life and motion to be kindled again in the tallgrass—calls for something harsh, extravagant, and radical to happen.

There’s not much time left. March is almost over.

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Bring on the fire.

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*****

The opening quote is by dark romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville (who dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne), and Louis Agassiz. To support his writing, and later his family, Hawthorne did everything from working as a surveyor to shoveling manure. He’s known for his short stories and his novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass produced books in America, and required reading when I was in high school. Writer D.H. Lawrence said of The Scarlet Letter, “There could be no more perfect work of the imagination.” Hawthorne is buried at Authors Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in March before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown mammal bones, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; spoon in the tallgrass, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) (probably infected with a virus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL; Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; wrinkled prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; green prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Aldo Leopold Prairie Visitor Center prairie planting, Baraboo, WI; feather on prairie plant (both unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)  at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; ball gall, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; unburned savanna and burned prairie at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn in the distance, viewed from The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Dragonfly Mysteries

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” ― Agatha Christie

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I’m a big fan of mysteries. As a teenager, I burned through all of Agatha Christie’s classics, and I still love to pick up an occasional thriller that keeps me guessing. As a naturalist, part of my attraction to the outdoors revolves around a different sort of mystery. Science has a lot of answers. But there are many unsolved questions out there.

I like that. Perhaps nowhere is mystery so evident as when I try to understand dragonfly migration.

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This week, I’m prepping training workshops for two groups of dragonfly and damselfly monitors at the prairies where I’m a steward. We’re all volunteers, all citizen scientists collecting data that we hope will help future researchers learn more about these incredible insects.

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During the workshops, we’ll discuss the life cycle of the dragonfly. It begins with a little rough and tumble dragonfly romance and then, ovipositing or egg laying.

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Ouch! That’s got to hurt.

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At the two workshops, we’ll share ID tips for differentiating among the 100 or so dragonfly species in Illinois and the almost 50 damselfly species, plus the various variations among male, female, and immature individuals. Pretty straightforward stuff, for the most part.

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We’ll touch on the cultural history of dragonflies as well; their use in cuisine, art, and literature. I like this haiku by Basho: “Crimson pepper pod/add two pairs of wings and look/darting dragonfly.” You can see why he was inspired!

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Dragonfly cultural history and much of dragonfly natural history is explainable, at least to some degree. But dragonfly migration! That’s where it gets difficult.

Dragonfly migration is less understood than that of the monarch butterfly, whose travel habits have been exhaustively studied, immortalized in novels, and  whose migration journey continues to fascinate the general public.

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Or consider bird migration, the topic of many books like Scott Weidensaul’s excellent Living on the Wind, and the subject of countless research projects. Sure, there’s still mystery in avian migration. But plenty of information out there.

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Dragonfly migration? Not so much. The process remains veiled in mystery.  We do know a few things: at least four dragonfly species in Illinois (green darner, black saddlebags, wandering glider, and variegated meadowhawk) head south for the winter, and probably some damselfly species as well.

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But why these species? Why not others? Where do they go? What tells them to mass at the end of summer and fly, often in large swarms, to another place?

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The Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to discover what we do know about the science of dragonfly migration. As an organization dedicated to protect invertebrates and their habitats, they are a good clearing house for insect migration information. Got some extra time? Click through the link here and read more about how citizen science volunteers are contributing to our understanding about dragonfly migration.

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We do know that some dragonflies in North America may travel almost 2,000 miles south in the late summer and early fall. They often join raptors migrating south. Dragonfly offspring will travel the same distances, often with raptors, back north in the spring. Look around in science journals and on dragonfly websites and you’ll find comical images of green darners wearing tiny transmitters to track their movements; or complex studies of isotopes in dragonfly wings which help researchers determine their general place of emergence.

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But once you start reading, you realize just how little we know about these dazzling creatures. You get to the end of the dragonfly migration studies pretty fast. It’s a good PhD project for some future researcher! Learning more about what makes some dragonfly species born with an itch to travel.

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In April, we’ll begin to see the first battered and worn out dragonflies head north and arrive in the Midwest, heirs of those stalwart flyers who fled south last year. As dragonfly monitors, we’ll scribble about these early arrivals—and later, summer flyers and dragonfly departures—as hash marks on our data sheets. We’ll report the information to staff at our local prairies and natural areas. Then, in Illinois, we’ll upload it to www.illinoisodes.com, our state repository for this information. All very logical and linear isn’t it?

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At some point in the season, most of us will put our pencils down and pause for a moment. Overcome with wonder. How amazing that this tiny creature logged those miles and survived birds, weather, and traffic to be here, on this prairie! How incredible that we can bear witness to this phenomenon, even for a moment.  How satisfying to be a small cog in the wheel of the research that is being done for the future!

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And most of us will acknowledge this: Despite the data we’ll collect, despite all the facts we know, it’s that unknown that makes it so exciting to be a part of this citizen science project. The quest is part of the fun.

And we’ll marvel, in awe of the mystery of dragonfly migration.

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Agatha Christie (1890), whose quote opens this post, is the author of 66 mystery novels and 14 short story collections. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in the English language, and just as many in translation. My favorite quote of Christie’s: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

Scott Weidensaul (1959-), who is mentioned in this post, is a Pennsylvania naturalist and writer. My favorite of his books, Living on the Wind,  examines the amazing world of bird migration. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; damselflies in tandem, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), ovipositing in Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly, male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum, unknown species), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI; great egret (Ardea alba) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wandering glider dragonfly (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; river bluet damselfly (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raw data sheet, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, check out some other dragonfly resources at the links referenced above and this excellent blog post from a few year’s ago: Cool Green Science’s “Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve.” 

Local friends: If you’re interested in exploring more about dragonflies, join me at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  Friday, March 30, 2018 for a dragonfly workshop. Register by e-mailing me at phrelanzer@aol.com.

Our Inland Prairie Sea

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”—Isak Dinesen

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To refer to the tallgrass prairie as a “sea of grass” is almost cliché.

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And yet, when you juxtapose sea and prairie, you understand why the image comes so readily.

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Like many suburban Chicago prairie lovers, in the mud season of the year—late February to mid-March—I do my best to migrate south for a few days. Sunshine, salt water, and sandy beaches are restorative.

The sky over the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the sky of the tallgrass prairie; open, limitless.

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The flattened waves of prairie grasses and wildflowers, weathered by wind and rain…

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…with blue-shadowed pockets of snow…

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…are in my mind as I watch waves slap the shore.

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Funny, isn’t it? Even when we leave the landscape we call home, it haunts us.

It’s not that everything is similar—far from it! The birds are different from those of the prairie in so many ways. The food they eat.

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The way they move.

 

 

Even their attitude.

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Many of the Gulf Coast birds I see are readying themselves for a long flight north. Soon, migration will bring them and others through the flyways of the Chicago region.

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No matter where I look in Florida, I find unexpected reminders of my life as a prairie steward.

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As much as I enjoy getting away from the Midwest in early March, my mind keeps wandering from the beach back to what’s going on in the tallgrass up north. Am I missing out on a prescribed burn? Has the skunk cabbage leafed out yet? What new birds are singing along Willoway Brook?

After five days in Florida, I’m ready to dive back into my prairie work.

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One great thing about traveling: At the end of the day…

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…sometimes a little displacement makes you appreciate the place you call home.

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Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) (1885-1962) authored Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast. Both were adapted as movies, and won Academy Awards.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Captiva Island sunset, Florida; Captiva Island beach, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue-shadowed pockets of snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; waves on the beach, Captiva Island, Florida; willet (Tringa semipalmataeating a crab (species unknown), Sanibel Island, Florida; video of sanderlings (Calidris albaand other shorebirds, Sanibel Island, Florida; great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), Sanibel Island, Florida; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Buckthorn Lane street sign, Sanibel Island, Florida; brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalisdiving for fish, Sanibel-Captiva causeway, Florida; sunset with birds, J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sanibel Island, Florida.