“In June, as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.”
— Aldo Leopold
Almost cloudless skies, with a few swirls of cirrus. Cool breezes. Warm sunshine.
This past week has been near perfect weather-wise here in Illinois—about as beautiful a June as we could wish for. A good time to hike the tallgrass prairie. Why? Here are 10 good reasons to consider getting out there.
10. Butterflies. Tiger swallowtails, red-spotted purples, and even friendly little cabbage whites are aloft now, often flying tantalizing just out of reach. The meadow fritillary (below) gets its name, appropriately, from the meadows it likes to inhabit. It’s a regular visitor to the prairies in Illinois. This adult is nectaring on white clover.
Viceroy butterflies are often mistaken for monarchs, but are smaller with a different wing pattern. They occasionally hybridize with the red-spotted purple butterfly, with stunning results — click here to read more about this interesting phenomenon. This viceroy is soaking up a little sunshine on a cool afternoon.
The numbers and diversity of butterflies will accelerate this month, just as the prairie explodes into bloom. Which brings us to…
9. Wildflowers on the prairie are spectacular this month as referenced by Aldo Leopold’s quote that opens this post. You may see the first pale purple coneflowers, barely opened…
…or wild quinine, its pearled flowers bright in the sunshine…
…or white wild indigo, unfurling its asparagus-like stalk into those blooms so characteristic of legumes…
…. or indigo bush, sometimes called “false indigo,” abuzz with bees.
June is the month when the prairie continues its crescendo toward July fourth, known as the height of bloom time on the tallgrass prairie. Difficult to believe that holiday is only a few weeks away! There is so much to look forward to.
8. A Prairie Wetland Serenade –that’s what the frogs and birds give us in June. Listen. Can you hear the “broken banjo string” sound of the green frogs?
So many layers of sound! Try to find a frog, and you’ll hear “plop-plop-plop” as they disappear in the water ahead of you with only a ring left on the water as evidence they were sunning themselves on the edge moments before.
7. Bison. When you are lucky enough to visit a tallgrass preserve that has bison, you get a sense of what prairies once were, long ago. And why they seem incomplete without these shaggy behemoths and their little mini-mes.
Although the Illinois tallgrass prairie didn’t have vast herds of bison, as the Great Plains once did, bison still performed critical functions such as wallowing, grazing, and leaving fertilizing dung on the prairie. By the early 1800s, bison had mostly vanished from the state. Their restoration today, such as the ones shown at Nachusa Grasslands, is a triumph for species. conservation.
6. Tiny critters, in contrast to the thousand-plus pound bison, aren’t always as noticeable on a prairie.
And yet, without these little creatures—many whose names I’ll never learn—the prairie would not function as a healthy system. Easy to overlook. But no less important than bison.
5. Dragonflies depend on many of these little creatures for food, and how can anyone fail to miss them? Common green darners fill the skies. Black saddlebags fly up out of the grasses at our approach. Sparkling gems everywhere, perched on twigs and branches. This male calico pennant has a row of tiny hearts on his abdomen.
The female repeats the pattern, only in gold.
This common white-tail (below) basks in the sunshine on a cool afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-70s F. Dragonflies practice thermoregulation, so rely on a combination of body and wing positions to keep their temperature warmer or cooler.
4. Damselflies, the kissing cousins of dragonflies, are often overlooked…but why? They are glamour writ miniature. The ebony jewelwing damselflies are some of my favorites — the first damselfly name I learned was this one. This male (below), lounging by a stream, is resplendent in the sunshine. A showstopper worthy of his name.
The female is similar, except it appears someone touched her wing with white-out.
Variable dancer damselflies are smaller, but no less spectacular when seen up close. The male has an unmistakable violet coloration.
Think of how many other damselflies, with their unusual markings and gorgeous coloration, are waiting for you to notice them! Stop as you walk and peer into the grasses by the side of the trail. Sit quietly by a stream or pond. Damselflies are smaller than you might think. But watch patiently. You’ll see them.
3. Trails through the prairie are an invitation to adventure. Do you feel your heart lift as you set off to stride down a familiar path? Do you anticipate what wonders are waiting?
You never come back from a prairie hike unchanged. Perhaps it’s a new plant you see, or the sight of an indigo bunting shattering all that green with its bright blue. The trail is your free ticket to the unknown.
2. Moths are not something we think about on a prairie hike so much, as many of them are creatures of the night. And yet a few of them are day-trippers. Stumble across a reversed haploa moth (yes, that’s really its name) and tell me you don’t have an extra few minutes to stop, and to marvel.
This celery looper moth (below), barely visible in the shade of stiff goldenrod leaves, hints at a mostly hidden world; a world we have to show up at night to really see.
Yet another dimension of prairie to be discovered.
1. Rest and Reflection are always part of being on the prairie. And yet. As I chased dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands this weekend, I stumbled across this carnage.
Four dragonfly wings, doubtless the remains of a bird’s breakfast. The wings glittered with morning dew. Gently, I picked one up. It was clear, likely belonging to a luckless teneral dragonfly whose wings were pumped full of hemolymph, but wasn’t yet strong enough to fly. I see many of these teneral dragonflies and damselflies as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes. They are almost ready to fly; the coloration is not quite fully complete.
So fragile. Such brief lives! After emergence from the water, dragonflies may live a few minutes (which may have been the fate of the owner of the snipped off wings) or in some parts of the world, several months. Here in Illinois, a long-lived adult dragonfly marks time as a matter of weeks. Yet dragonflies are survivors, still around in much the same form as they were hundreds of millions of years ago. I find solace in that thought.
Time spent on a prairie is one way to make room for reflection. It’s a time to rest and unplug.
A time to explore. A time to discover. A walk on the prairie is a reminder that the world is a complex and beautiful place.
All we have to do is make time to be there. Then, pay attention.
Why not go see?
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is the author of A Sand County Almanac; his environmental ethics articulated in this book helped frame the Wilderness Act in 1964 after his death. His book has sold more than 2 million copies.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): skies, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona) on white clover, a non-native (Trifolium repens); viceroy (Limenitis archippus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea –species names vary, including “alba,” I am using Wilhelm’s Flora as my source); false indigo or indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa); video of wetlands in June; bison and calves (Bison bison, photo from 2017); unknown insect on foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis); male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia); male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); female ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); male variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reverse haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; celery looper moth (Anagrapha falcifera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; teneral dragonfly wings (unknown species); teneral dragonfly; reading and relaxing on the tallgrass prairie; June at Nachusa Grasslands.
Join Cindy for her online upcoming book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes!
“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara, artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.
“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Pre-order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Or, order now direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.
Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.