Tag Archives: honeybee

5 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

The frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star.” — Sylvia Plath

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First frost. We woke up to a silvered backyard, pond, and prairie patch on Monday. The sheet-covered raised beds were strange looking striped and plaid beasts, wrapped against the chill.

Under this mishmash of bedding, cherry tomatoes, okra, zucchini, green beans, celery, and peppers emerged later that morning, a little worse for wear but game to continue their production a week or two longer. Basil and the larger tomatoes left to the frost roulette sagged and browned as the sun warmed them. Goodbye. It’s October, and the days of fruit and flowers are passing swiftly.

In my backyard prairie patch and out in the tallgrass, there are wonders to be seen. Different than those of summer. More nuanced. There are rewards for those who spend time on the October prairie and pay attention. Will you?

Here are five reasons to take a hike this week. Let’s go look.

1. Those Astonishing Asters: Smooth blue asters are in full bloom, and wow-oh-wow that unusual color! There’s nothing like it on the tallgrass in any other season. Feel the leaves, and you’ll see where this aster gets its name. Seeing this beautiful lavender-blue washed through the prairie is one of the perks of hiking in October.

Heath asters—Symphotrichum ericoides—spin across the prairie in small clouded constellations. I love their tiny, perfect flowers. You can see why the name “aster” means “star.”

New England asters bloom fringed purple—so much purple—intense and alluring for bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and several species of moth caterpillars, which feed on the plant. It needs pollinators to ensure the resulting seeds are fertile.

2. Leaves Beyond Belief: Sure, there might be a bad pun in there (couldn’t resist) but trees, shrubs, and the leaves of wildflowers, grasses, and vines intensify in hue as the month progresses. Carrion flower, that unusually-named vine, shows off its bright autumn coloration.

Staghorn sumac flames scarlet rainbows among the grasses.

Shagbark hickory, standing sentinel to the entrance of the prairie, is a shower of gold.

Wild plum, growing where I wish it wouldn’t on the Schulenberg Prairie, is none-the-less a pretty foil for tall boneset with its pale flowers.

3. October Skies: There’s something about the sky this month; is it the color?

The clouds?

Maybe it’s that particular slant of the sun as it seems to cling closer to the horizon on its daily swing through the sky. Or the reflection of the afternoon in a cold prairie stream.

Whatever the reason, these prairie skies are worth our attention in October.

4. Sensational Silhouettes: Now the prairie moves from the flash and glamour of blooms toward the elegance of line and curve.

There is beauty in October’s stark architecture as the prairie plants wrap up their season of bloom.

The cup plants no longer hold the morning dew or night rains; their joined leaves sieved by age and decay.

But the promise of 2021 is here in the tallgrass in its seeds. The promise of a future, full of flowers and lush growth.

5. Discovering the Unexpected: What will you see and experience when you hike the tallgrass prairie in October? Perhaps you’ll discover something small—-but eye-catching.

Maybe it’s a familiar plant you see in a new way.

Or perhaps it’s the song of a migrating bird that stops you in your tracks. What was that? Or the familiar whisper of wind through the tallgrass; the rattle of white wild indigo pods blowing in the breeze.

Will you feel your spirits lift at the sight of the last sawtooth sunflowers, turning their faces to the low-slanting sun?

I hope so. And that whatever adventures are ahead in these last months of the chaotic and unpredictable year of 2020…

… I hope you’ll find the courage and strength you need for them.

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Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was best known for her poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After her suicide, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; the first person to win the award posthumously.

All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): author’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); trail through the prairie; smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL, with honeybee (Apis spp.); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) with wild plum (Prunus americanus); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Schulenberg Prairie in October; Willoway Brook; rainbow, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum); white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophyllia); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); bridge over Willoway Brook.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn and winter.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

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. 

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

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With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

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Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

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Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

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To barely open…

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…to just opening…

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…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

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Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

purplemilkweed61720WMSPMA We don’t have much of it on the prairie where I’m a steward, so spotting its bright buds is a delight. It’s a fine contrast to the first blush orange that washes across the butterfly weed. Monarch caterpillars in my backyard and on the prairie seem to prefer this milkweed species.

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Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

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I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

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Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

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Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

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Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

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Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

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This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

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So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

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The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

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In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

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I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

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Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

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Why not go see?

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John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for her upcoming online 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 a new session 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. 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. Order 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.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

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.  

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

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A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

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Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

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Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

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It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

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The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

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Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

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At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

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I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

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Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

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Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

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.

Wonders on the Prairie’s Edge

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

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If you want to get to know a flower, sit with it for an hour. Put down your camera and break out a sketchpad. I reminded myself of this truism as I marveled at the bloodroot in bloom this week. There is a large colony, right on the edges of the prairie proper. Before the prairie becomes a riot of wildflowers later in the spring, there is a chance to really focus on single species.

Little on the prairie is in flower right now, other than the pasque flowers beginning to fade, in their dreamy sort of way of saying goodbye…

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…and the wood betony crinkling into the promise of bloom—soon!

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Meanwhile, bloodroot is throwing a party on the prairie edges. In one sunny patch, I counted more than 500 blooms. I’ve always thought the best way to really get to know a plant is to sit with it for a while. So, I found a little bare patch in the colony and settled in for an hour with my sketchpad.

When you draw a plant –regardless of your artistic skill–you see it with new eyes.

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As I sketched, I thought about some reading I did about bloodroot recently in preparation for teaching my spring wildflower classes. I ran across a scholarly, yet charming, article for the Virginia Native Plant Society from W. John Hayden at University of Richmond. The bloodroot’s life strategy, Hayden says, is “Hurry, wait, and hedge against uncertain fate.”

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Because bloodroot blooms so early in the spring, Hayden tells us, it has some fascinating ways to ensure pollination. Flowering so early is risky. Bloodroot flowers close during cold, drizzly spring weather and also at night, making it tough for insects (mostly bees) to pollinate the plant.

bloodrootclosedEWMA42718.jpgSo bloodroot hedges its bets. The third day a flower is open, Hayden says, the stamens of the flower bend inward, bringing the anthers and pollen into direct contact with the stigma. In other words, if all else fails, the flower can pollinate itself and seeds will be produced.  I looked closely at a few older bloodroot blooms, and saw what Hayden was talking about.

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Pollinators were busier on this sunny day than jets over Chicago O’Hare International  Airport. Honey bees from our prairie hives regularly dropped in, probably disappointed to discover the bloodroot flower is devoid of nectar. Pollen, however, it has in spades.

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Bee flies—fuzzy flies that imitate bees—were frequent visitors as well.

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Plus a host of other insects that moved too fast for me to try and ID them.

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As I sketched different plants in various stages of emergence and bloom, I looked closely for the first time at the way they held their leaves.

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Jack Sanders, author of The Secrets of Wildflowers, compares emerging bloodroot to a mother protecting her baby with her cloak (the veiny scalloped leaf wrapped around flower stalk and bud). Apt description, isn’t it?

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As I sketched one bloodroot bud, I was astonished to see it begin to unfold! I grabbed my camera. In less than 60 seconds, it went from almost closed to completely open.

 

As the bloodroot seeds drop to the ground, ants pick them up and carry them back to their nests. The seeds hold a fleshy treat called elaiosome, which the ant will enjoy. Try saying that word out loud! It sounds like a secret password for something exciting, doesn’t it? (Elaiosome!)

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The discarded seed is dispersed away from the mother flower, and has fertile ground—the ant nest—to sprout from. The second vocabulary word for me of the day was myrmecochory, a tongue-twister which means simply means “seed dispersal by ants.”

In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

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The complexity and relationships of just one species of wildflower are a good reminder of Muir’s observation.

I put away my sketchpad and marvel.

How can we not?

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Artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-)  grew up in Wisconsin, one of seven children. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and also in New York. She married Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and art dealer. Known for her renderings of flowers, O’Keeffe died in 1986, almost completely blind at 98, but still finding ways to paint.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with bee fly (Bombyliidae family) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with unknown flying pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) opening, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Winging It

The rhythm of the prairie

Hums and sings

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To the beat of the tallgrass

All aflutter with wings

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Wings, wings,

Everywhere wings

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Flappin’ and buzzin’

They’re colorful things

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Bee wings

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Moth wings

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Dragonfly wings

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From flowers and grasses

They zing like bling

Electric blue folded

damselfly wings

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The beautiful  black on

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butterfly wings

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Some are graceful

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Some pack a sting

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Either way — in July —

I’m grateful for wings.*

 

*Mosquitoes notwithstanding

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): (July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; yellow sulphur butterflies puddling on mud, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; dickcissel, NG: fritillary, SP; bumblebee on pale purple coneflower, SP; reversed haploa moth, SP; 12-spotted skimmer dragonfly, SP; trio of damselflies, SP; black swallowtail on flowering spurge, NG; common sooty wing butterfly on tall coreopsis, SP; widow skimmer dragonfly on leadplant, SP; honeybee, SP.