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Three Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock

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Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.

August at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.

1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.

Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.

Spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) with (possibly) a potter wasp (Parancistrocerus leinotus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.

Cream gentians (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:

The maples flare among the spruces,
                   The bursting foxgrape spills its juices,
                   The gentians lift their sapphire fringes
                   On roadways rich with golden tenges,
                   The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers,
                   The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers,
                   The squirrels scurry, never stopping,
                   For all they hear is apples dropping
                   And walnuts plumping fast and faster;
                   The bee weighs down the purple aster —
                   Yes, hive your honey, little hummer,
                   The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”

I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!

Blazing star (possibly Liatris pycnostachya), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.

2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with unknown bees, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.

Pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium) with an unknown bee, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.

Late figwort ( Scrophularia marilandica) with an unknown insect, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.

This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.

Least skipper (Ancyloxpha numitor) on blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?

Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.

Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.

So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…

3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.

Dragonfly migration swarm, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2014).

In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…

Wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2016).

…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.

Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.

Bison unit, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?

*****

The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event, and for current event updates.

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

A Prairie Hike at Kankakee Sands

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”–John Burroughs

******

Jeff and I are returning from visiting family near Indianapolis. What makes a long car trip from Indianapolis to Chicago better? Our eyes meet. Bison!

We get off of I-65 with its semi trucks and heavy traffic, and slip over to U.S. 41. We need a hike on the prairies and savannas of Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Towering cumulonimbus pile up like cairns on the horizon. A few raindrops splat the windshield. The prairie sky seems to stretch forever.

Rainy day at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Sections of the prairies have been recently burned. A mullein’s soft, fuzzy leaves are a contrast to the scorched earth. Look! Jeff points. A mourning cloak butterfly flutters by, so quick we almost miss the ID.

Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

It seems as if you could hike for hours and never come to the end of the tallgrass.

Hiking trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Today, we hope to get a glimpse of the largest members of the tallgrass prairie.

Bison viewing directions, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

When we reach the bison overlook, it’s quiet. Not a bison in sight. Just a big stretch of prairie and sheets of storm clouds.

Bison overlook trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We hike a bit, then jump in the car to drive around, hoping to spot them.

Road through Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And then, there they are.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We pull over, get out of the car, and watch them for a while.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

In the distance, sandhill cranes begin to call. A bird sings from a nearby tree, but as much as I try, I can’t identify it. The bison slowly move off to the west. We hop in the car and head for home.

But we’re not done yet. Jeff, who is a history buff, wants to take a quick hike at Conrad Station, a nature preserve trail through a savanna nearby. We’ve hiked it before in the autumn, but we’ve never seen it in the spring. We try to remember exactly where the road is, leading to it, but get lost on back roads. It begins to rain. We turn the windshield wipers on. Swish. Swish. Things don’t look promising.

Driving through the rain near Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Then, we see the sign marking the ghost town.

Entrance to Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The rain has tapered off to dull pewter skies. We find the trailhead.

Trail through Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

Here in the savanna, the old town of Conrad Station once stood. Ruins of shattered buildings are everywhere. Jeff’s a history buff, and is writing an essay about the history of this place for a journal. He walks, looks, and takes copious notes. I’m here for the hike and the plants. Cleft phlox is everywhere, sprinkled across the savanna in various hues of palest lavender, white, and purple.

Cleft phlox (Phlox bifida), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While Jeff explores the old ruins, I try to ID the lichen on the logs. Even with iNaturalist, my trusty phone ID app, I can’t make a positive ID.

Unknown lichen, Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

The wild lupine leaves are other-worldly, sparkling with raindrops.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

History and plants. A good way to spend an hour. We are both so excited about our twin pursuits that we lose track of time. But as we drive back to the highway to return home in heavy traffic, we have no regrets.

An afternoon well spent.

*****

John Burroughs (1837-1921) whose quote kicks off this post, was a conservationist, writer, and naturalist. The seventh of ten children, he grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he fell in love with the rural life and the natural world. His father refused to send him to college, so Burroughs taught school to earn money to further his education. The John Burroughs Medal is awarded each year in April to a distinguished book of natural history (rarely fiction). I’m trying to read through them all, beginning with the most current. It’s a very diverse collection of medal-winners, and I’m enjoying the journey.

*****

Join Cindy for an upcoming program!

Online: Chasing Dragonflies: A Quick LookThursday, April 15, 12:30-1 p.m., Glen Ellyn Rotary Club. For information, visit www.glenellynrotary.org

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

SPRING WILDFLOWERS OF PRAIRIES AND WOODLANDS ONLINE, Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Prairie Skies in March

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”–Aldo Leopold

*****

High winds. First green growth. Warm sunny days, alternating with blustery snowstorms. It’s migration season.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and a sun halo over Cindy’s backyard prairie this weekend.

This week, Jeff and I walk the Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois, a 10-acre remnant hemmed by homes, soccer fields, highways and railroad tracks.

More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.

But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.

Blue flag iris (Iris virginica shrevei), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.

A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.

Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.

All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.

At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN (2016)

Sandhill cranes can be found in North America, all the way to the extremes of northeastern Siberia. Three subspecies live in Cuba, Mississippi, and Florida year-round, according to Cornell University. These cranes are omnivores, changing their diet based on what’s available. Small amphibians, reptiles, and mammals may be on the menu one day; grains and plants the next.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Horicon Marsh, WI (2019)

The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake, WI (2019)

The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.

As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.

Unknown feather, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.

Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.

Crane watching, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A sun halo appears.

Partial sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.

Snowstorm, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.

Welcome back.

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.

*****

Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

A Brief History of Trees in America Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Imagining the Prairie Year

“If the world is torn to pieces, I want to see what story I can find in fragmentation. –Terry Tempest Williams

“*****

Snow is in the forecast. A lot of snow. But how many times has the forecast promised a snowapocalypse, only to be be followed by a little rain; a “powdered sugar” dusting? Weather forecasting is an inexact science, even in an age where it seems we have so many answers at our fingertips.

On Sunday, I went for a hike on the Belmont Prairie, where the 56 degree weather and bluer-than-blue skies had melted most of the recent snow.

Belmont Prairie Blues 22320WM.jpg

The spring-like wind and warmth were in sharp contrast to  snowstorm predictions for the coming week.  On the prairie, everything looks frayed and chewed.

Pale Purple ConeflowerWM Belmont 22420.jpg

Worn out.

Unknown leavesWM BelmontPRairie22320.jpg

Broken.

Black Eyed Susan Belmont PrairieWM 22320.jpg

Even the compass plant leaves had disintegrated, their last leaf curls clinging to what is past and will soon be burned.

Compass PlantWM 22320 Belmont Prairie.jpg

A few seeds remain. In September, when the prairie brimmed and frothed with seeds, these might have gone unnoticed.

P1050855

As I walk at Belmont, I think of my coming stewardship work on the Schulenberg Prairie, which begins in April. What will we plant? What will we remove?  My head is full of plans and scenes of what is to come on the Midwestern prairies, imagining the prairie year ahead…

March

March is fire season.  Soon, very soon, we’ll burn the Schulenberg Prairie—-if the snowstorms fail to materialize and the weather cooperates.

SPburn4817

March, the time of fire and ice, will also bring transition.  It’s the first month of meteorological spring. It’s also mud season.

bisontrackiniceNG2017WM.jpg

April

April is the season of flowers—at last! I think of the hepatica, sunning themselves in the savanna.

hepatica-MAPK8-41619WM

Everywhere, there will be signs of new life.

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May

I imagine the glorious shooting star in flower, a swaying coverlet of bumble bee enticing blooms. The prairie will hum with pollinators.

shootingstarSPMA51918wm

The small white lady’s slipper orchid will briefly unfurl her flowers, hidden deep in the grasses.   I’ll drop to my knees in the mud to admire the blooms. More lovely, perhaps, for their fleeting presence here.

smallwhiteladysslipperorchidsidefrontview51719

June

In June, prairie smoke, in its impossible pink, will swirl through the grasses. Or will it? This wildflower has gone missing the past few years here. One of my management goals as a prairie steward is to see it bloom here again.

prairiesmokeUWMArbfullsmoke6719WM

There is no shortage of spiderwort that will open…

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…and mornings on the prairie will be washed with violet.

spiderworttwo6219SPMAWM

July

Fireworks of a quieter kind will light up the tallgrass this month. Butterfly weed, that monarch caterpillar magnet, will explode with eye-popping color.

MonarchcaterpillarSPMA7819WM

Bees and other butterflies will make frequent stops to nectar.  This brilliant milkweed is a front row seat to the cycle of life on the prairie.

butterflyweedwithmonarchKFAP71119WM

August

We’ll be seeing red in August. Royal catchfly, that is. Not much of it. But a little goes a long way, doesn’t it?

Royal Catchfly CloseUP SPMA73019WM

Its less finicky neighbor, gray-headed coneflower, will fly its yellow pennants nearby. Cicadas will begin playing their rasping music. The hot, steamy days of August will have us thinking longingly of a little snow, a little ice.

gray-headed coneflowersGEbackyard819WM

September

The end of this month brings the first waves of sandhill cranes, headed south.

Jaspar Polaski Sandhill Cranes 2016

While on the ground, the buzz is all about asters…New England asters. Good fuel here for bees, and also the butterflies.

newenglandasterandbumblebeeByardGEwm

October

October is a season of goodbyes. Warblers and cranes and other migratory birds are moving in bigger waves now toward the south. The last hummingbird stops by the feeder. On the prairie, we’ll be collecting prairie grass seeds and wrapping up our steward work.

seedcollectingSPMA-northernkanecountybookclub101819WM

Winding up another prairie growing season.

BlazingstarspFFKNG11319WM

November

Everything crisps up in November — except the carrion vine, which still carries its plump seeds across the prairie.

 

carrionflower1018SPMAWM

The bison are ready for winter, their heavy coats insulation against the coming cold.BisonONE-CROSBYBison-NG fall 2017CROSBYWM.jpg

 

 

December

Temperatures drop.

GensburgMarkham PrairieWM 121519 (1)

Snow falls, outlining the prairie paths. Winter silences the prairie.

Belmontprairienaturepreserve12917snowypath

January

Ice plays on a thousand prairie creeks and ponds as the snow flattens the tallgrass.

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Blue snow shadows transform the prairie.

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And then, we will have come full circle to…

February

Here at Belmont Prairie, where I snap out of my imagining. I remind myself to enjoy the present moment. This February is so short! And each day is a gift to be marveled over. Only a few days remain until March.

Belmont22320.JPG

I wonder where I’ll be a year from now. Hiking at Belmont Prairie? I hope so. Marveling again at the last seeds and flowerheads, catching the late winter sun.

Indian Grass BelmontPrairie22320WM.jpg

Thinking of spring! It’s in the red-winged blackbird’s song.

Red-wingedblackbirdCROSBY2017SPWM.jpg

The prairie season goes ’round and ’round. A snowstorm today? Maybe. Spring? You can almost smell it in the air.

Today, anything seems possible.

****

Terry Tempest Williams (1955-) quote from Erosion: Essays of Undoing, opens this post. She is the author of many books including: Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Williams is Writer-in-Residence at Harvard Divinity School, and lives in Castle Valley, Utah.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in February, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown leaf, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; broken black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) track in ice, Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy IL); hepatica (Hepatica noblis acuta); Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s nest, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); small white lady’s slipper orchid(Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum Visitor Center, Curtis Prairie, Madison, WI; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) and butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) and butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; royal catchfly (Silene regia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area,  Medaryville, Indiana; bumble bee on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: seed collecting, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion flower (Smileax spp.) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL: path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bridge over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy IL); path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join Cindy for a class or event!

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. For details and registration, click here. Sold out. Call to be put on the waiting list.

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register by March 1. Contact phrelanzer@aol.com for more information,  details will be sent with registration.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

A Tale of Two Prairies

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit… .” E. O. Wilson

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Sunday, my family and I braved the traffic out of Chicago to celebrate Christmas together in northwestern Indiana. There were a surprising number of commuters.

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Probably the holidays.

Any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to see prairies. As we drove toward the Indiana state line, making good time, Jeff suddenly veered off I-294 at the exit for Highway 6. “Let’s revisit Gensburg-Markham Prairie!” he offered. We had dropped by this prairie several years ago, and impressed, always vowed to return.

Oh no! The entrance gate, at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac, seemed to be locked.

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Determined, I squeezed through the opening between the fence and the chain-closed gate. Later, I read that the chain is merely draped over the top of the fence. Ha! I could have lifted it off and opened the gate, it seems. Perhaps it was more of an adventure my way.

On the other side, this remnant prairie is full of treasures, even in December.

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Drifts of prairie dropseed swirled through the prairie.

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Mountain mint seeds were mostly gone, but no less beautiful for that.

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Deep in the grasses I found prairie dock leaves. This is my favorite time of year for them. Like “swiss dots” fabric.

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Its Silphium cousin—compass plant—wasn’t far away.

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A few purple prairie clover seedheads remained. I struggle, sometimes, to distinguish the white prairie clover from the purple at this time of year, when the seeds are partially gone. One is grittier, and one is softer and lighter colored. Hmmm.

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White vervain, which occurs in every county of Illinois, curtained the edges of the prairie.

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I walked the mowed trail and listened. Not far away, the Tri-State Tollway traffic roared and billboards signed their temporary depressing messages. Legal services. Gambling. Fast food. Strip clubs.

 

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But the magic of the switchgrass…

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…and the remains of the tall coreopsis and other prairie plants gone to seed were enticing enough to propel me deeper into the prairie, wondering what else I might see. Alas! There wasn’t nearly enough time to explore. We needed to get back on the road.

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After our family gathering in Indiana, Jeff and I headed home via some back roads through St. John, avoiding the traffic on the Tri-State Tollway as much as possible. Gray skies promised an early dusk and perhaps, snow on the way. On this route, we always watch for the Shoe Corner, at the intersection of 109th and Calumet—an odd tradition in this part of the Hoosier state of dropping shoes along the roadway. As we braked at a stoplight, Jeff pointed. “Look!”

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We immediately signaled and drove slowly along the edges of the prairie, looking for an entrance. The best spot seemed to be a parking lot with an abandoned building.

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This, I thought, was more forbidding than the locked gate to Gensburg-Markham. I doubted we were at the correct entrance. But a trail mowed along the edge of the prairie offered a way in. As I walked into the grasses, I wondered about the history of this place. Indiana once was about 15 percent tallgrass prairie, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Later, I learned that this 34.2 acre remnant was saved from development and dedicated in 1992.

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Reading more at home, I found that according to the DNR, at least 175 species of native plants are here; one federally threatened. Three rare animals. Several rare moths and insects. Biesecker Prairie is also an introduction site for the  federally-threatened Mead’s milkweed; an unusual milkweed that no longer occurs naturally in Indiana. I promised myself to come back in the summer, when we had more daylight and knew where to park and hike.

Beisecker Prairie is a gem in a rough-cut setting. We could have so easily missed it! A defunct business nearby had piled refuse, boats, and old electronics along the far edge of the area. It’s so easy to focus on what is broken and ugly; to only see the damage we’ve done to the beautiful natural areas we once had in Indiana and Illinois.

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But often, beauty and restoration are just around the corner. Literally.

Despite its surroundings, Biesecker Prairie seemed….tranquil. Peaceful, despite the traffic flying by. A little oasis. Like Gensburg-Markham by the Tri-State Tollway.

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I wonder what Biesecker Prairie will look like in spring. From different vantage points at this time of year, you could see common milkweed; tall coreopsis, prairie dropseed, perhaps a little cordgrass. Native prairie plants.  Someone cared enough to preserve and protect this little corner prairie remnant. Someone realized its value.  Its history. And because of this, it survives.

 

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This small prairie remnant in Indiana—and others like Gensberg-Markham Prairie, a remnant carefully preserved in Illinois—still stand despite the odds.  We find these prairies juxtaposed between golf courses and highways. Sandwiched  into neighborhoods, defunct businesses, and Interstates. These precious few acres of tallgrass prairie remain because people paid attention. They cared enough to protect them. Kudos to the volunteers, stewards, and agencies that made it happen—and who continue to steward these tallgrass prairie preserves today.

Two urban prairies. Two different states. Two stories.

Hope for the future.

*****

The opening quote is by E. O. Wilson (1929-), Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, from Biophilia (1984). Wilson is considered the world’s foremost authority on ants. Blinded in one eye as a child in a fishing accident, he learned to focus on “little things” he could see up close, or under a microscope. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice; once for On Human Natureonce for The Ants (with Burt Holldobler). He is sometimes called “the Father of Biodiversity,” and is known for his theory of island biogeography (with Robert Macarthur).

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): possibly cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Naperville, IL; gate to Gensburg-Markham Prairie; Gensburg-Markham Prairie in December, Markham, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; I-294 and Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; corner of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.abandoned business close to Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN; edges of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN: Biesecker Prairie in December, St. John, IN; Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

******

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

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.

*****

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.

10 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“…I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What do you think of in October? Halloween candy sales? Pumpkins? Fall foliage?

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There’s more this month than squash and sugar going on, or a few maples turning color. Really. October is one of the most satisfying months on the tallgrass prairie. Here’s why you’ll want to go for a hike this week.

#10. Those October color contrasts! So vivid and striking. And how could the seeds of something on the prairie called “carrion flower” be so pretty?

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#9. That sky.  Take a moment, find a comfortable place in the sunshine to lay on your back, and cloud-watch for a while in the tallgrass. Wow.

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#8. Once familiar plants take on a whole new personality in October.  Like this false Solomon’s seal. Worth hunting for.

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#7. Sometimes, the seedheads of prairie plants are  just as interesting as the flowers—or more so. True of this pale prairie coneflower? You be the judge.

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#6. Round-headed bush clover might double as a Pinterest craft project with pom-poms gone awry.

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#5. Each prairie trail promises adventures, just around the corner.

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#4. Step outside in the evening. Glorious sunsets, followed by clear, crystal-splattered starry nights make every October twilight show time.

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#3. If you’re a prairie steward like I am, sumac may be a pain in the neck. So aggressive! But in October, you can’t help but catch your breath at its colors. The lower slant of the autumnal sun backlights them just so. Sumac are the stained glass windows of the prairie cathedral.

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#2. There’s a dreaminess that October brings to the prairie; a sense of other-worldliness in the plants blown out to seed, the changing hues of the grasses. Everything seems a bit unmoored; adrift.

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#1. Seeing the seeds disperse on October breezes offers hope for the future, doesn’t it? Even when it seems that chaos is the order of the day, the prairie goes about its regular business. Just as it has done for thousands of years.

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The days are shortening. October is half over.

If you haven’t hiked the prairie this week, what are you waiting for? Why not go see?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a novelist born in Salem, Massachusetts, and the author of such required high school reading as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, and when  he died, his pallbearers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne is considered by some to be one of the greatest fiction writers in American literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) patch, Jon-a-Mac Orchard, Malta, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Taltree Arboretum/Gabis Arboretum, Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN;  path to the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

October’s Prairie Astronomy

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”– John Burroughs

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October has arrived on the prairie, bringing drizzly skies, a metallic palette of color, and a last flush of flying insects.

 

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When the gray sky clears over the prairie, it often turns to impossible blue. Contrails and cumulus clouds sketch their weather thoughts.

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October has come to my backyard as well, touching the tomatoes with rot. Fungi unfold their umbrellas against the damp in unexpected places, and the garden and prairie patch are crisped with brittleness. Colored with a brown crayon. When I walk out to the prairie patch in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, the mush of mud under my feet contrasts with the crunch of decaying leaves.

Goldfinches and cardinals, sifting the bird feeders for the choicest fare, must have let a few sunflower seeds drop, leaving bright spots in the yard. Such welcome color! Makes me happy I let the weeding chores go this fall.  The bees are pleased.

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In my backyard prairie patch and on the prairie, the Silphiums—prairie dock, cup plant, compass plant, and rosin weed—are perhaps most intriguing in October. Without the competition of so much summer wildflower jazz, I can focus on the plant leaf patterns and textures. Rosin weed on the prairie shows its variable-ness of leaf arrangement by going for a whorl.

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Close to my backyard prairie patch, the moonflower vine finally decides October is show-time. The seed packet description warned me—120 days until bloom–but what is four months when you’re standing in the plant nursery back in the raw month of March and thinking about the delights of the garden to come? Anything seemed possible then. But my moonflower vine has been unhappy in Illinois. It longs for the tropics of the south, like so many Chicago folks, and it doesn’t much care for the hot, long days of July or August, either. Suddenly, in October’s cool nights and shorter days, it flourishes. It’s an equinox aficionado, setting bud and bloom best when days are close to equal length. As they are right now.

I walk out on the back patio early one morning this week and BAM! Eight moonflowers  had twirled open overnight, each one bigger than my hand.

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Moonflower, a night-blooming morning glory (ironically named, isn’t it?) would be perennial in Mexico or Florida. But here in the Chicago region, I’m lucky to get it to bloom as an annual.  The first touch of frost will be the end of the vine.  I count the buds, imagine what could be, and keep my fingers crossed.

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As the sun disperses the mist and gray and touches the flowers with light, the vanilla-scented blooms will slowly crumple. Taking with them their delicious fragrance. By the time I go outside again at 11 a.m., they’re a memory.

My backyard prairie patch and the prairies I visit don’t have any moonflowers, of course. But the prairie does have the “stars.”

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“Astronomy” comes from the Greek word astronomia, meaning “star regulating.” The word “aster” is also from the Greek, and means “star.” Constellations of asters cover the prairies and also, my backyard; a little starry universe in this suburban sprawl. The green bottle flies use the asters as launching pads for their adventures in corruption.

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The bumble bees work the asters, seeing their future in these stars.

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My goldenrods have now gone to seed, closing up nectar shop. But the blurry blizzards of asters spend themselves profligately, as if there is no tomorrow.

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The butterflies, like this cabbage white below, gorge themselves on “starshine” before the last blooms disappear in the cold. Where will these butterflies go in the winter? Check out this fascinating blog post by Dr. Doug Taron, Chief Curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, here to find out. Meanwhile, I enjoy the butterflies of October, counting down the days until the prairies will be emptier for their absence of color and motion.

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I also soak up as much of this “starshine”—this blizzard of asters—as I can. Temperatures threaten to drop into the low thirties by the end of the week. Fall flowers won’t linger much longer. As the evenings turn colder, night skies come into focus. The new moon will sliver its way to full on the 24th. Orion stalks the night sky, staking his claim for a new season. Soon, it will be time to trade some of my prairie and backyard “astronomy”—with its own versions of sun, stars and moon—for the winter constellations overhead.

Bittersweet.

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John Burroughs (1837-1921) was a writer, naturalist, and activist in the conservation movement.  His close friend was Walt Whitman, and Burroughs was a contemporary of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. The book, Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams is a fascinating account of Burroughs’ expedition to Alaska with railroad magnate Edward Harriman, George Bird Grinnell, Muir, and other naturalists of the time. A few favorite Burroughs’ quotes: “I go to books and to nature as a bee goes to the flower, for a nectar that I can make into my own honey;” “To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday;” and “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” The John Burroughs Medal is given each April to a distinguished Natural History book. Check out the winners here; it’s a thoughtful reading list for curling up with a good read during the colder months ahead.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): 250-plus year old bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparasio, IN; trail through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, Strong City, Kansas; common sunflower (Helianthus sp.) with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) with garden roses and salvia, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; unknown aster, possibly Short’s (Symphyotrichum shortii) with green bottle fly/blow fly (Calliphoridae, Lucilia sp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with male bumblebee, either the common eastern (Bombus impatiens) or the two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus); blurred heath asters (Aster ericoides), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to Kristian Williams of FaceBook Group “Insect ID”  for the help on the bumblebee identification and Kristian, Benjamin Coulter, and the other good folks of “Insects and Spiders of Illinois FB Group” for the green bottle fly/blow fly ID. Grateful. 

The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford

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The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.

We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route.  A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.

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As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight.  All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.

Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another.  And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…

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A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

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The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.

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Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later,  I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.

 

Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.

So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!

Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…

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…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!

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The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.

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Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.

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But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.

This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.

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This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

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This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the  prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.

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This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.

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This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.

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And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.

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William Stafford (1914-1993)  is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN;  trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN:  video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.

Of Birds and Bison

“Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.” — Scott Weidensaul

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It’s a cold, drizzly day. As much as I’m tempted to curl up on the couch with a good book, plans are underway for a birding outing. Along with six of our friends, my husband Jeff and I head out of the Chicago suburbs and to the famed Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana, two hours southeast. This is the big weekend. Thousands of migrating sandhill cranes will be passing through.

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This fall, we saw thousands of migrants from the western flyways gathering in southern New Mexico, at Bosque del Apache National Refuge. On the ground, the cranes look almost prehistoric.p1020795

Those red caps! Those rusty feathers! How do they get their bulky bodies airborne? Cranes remind me of the mysteries of flight, and of migration. Why do large groups of birds travel from one place to another, sometimes tens of thousands of miles from their starting point? No one has completely been able to explain  this rhythmic dance. And perhaps, that’s part of the joy in watching them. We don’t fully understand. So we marvel, instead.

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The cranes fly over the Chicago suburbs during November and December. Their high pitched cries often pull me out of the house, shielding my eyes against the sun, to watch them move southeast.

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In the Jasper-Pulaski refuge, I’ll get a chance to see these same cranes that fly over my house congregating en masse on the ground, a little farther along on their journey. But first, a stop at Kankakee Sands, a more than 7,000 acre mosaic of prairie, savanna, and wetland in northern Indiana.

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Kankakee Sands introduced bison to their prairie this fall, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they’ve settled in. There’s a bison viewing area where I have an excellent up-close-and-personal meeting with the shaggy all-stars.

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I wonder if the bison consider this place a “visitor viewing area;” a chance to see people behavior. This one kept an eye on us.

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A few brown-headed cowbirds hung out on bison backs, giving us a sense of the difference in sizes. A study in contrasts.

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While watching the bison, my friend John suddenly shouts– “prairie falcon!” A first for me. Although prairie falcons are usually found out west, occasionally they pop up in Illinois and Indiana. So quick!

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The sun moves toward the western horizon. We leave the bison and birds and drive the short distance to the Jasper-Pulaski refuge. The viewing platform is thick with binocular-wielding birders and the giant scopes of photographers.

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Anticipation. A few cranes have already straggled in.We find our places on the platform. In the fields, there is a loud rumble of distinctive crane chatter.Then…. a clamor in the distance. The crane cries rise to a crescendo.

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They’re coming! Waves and waves of sandhill cranes. The air froths with cranes; boils with birds. Swirling and tilting in every direction in the last light.

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I think of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese: “…the world offers itself to your imagination…”.

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I imagine these cranes in the morning, taking off to continue their flight to the southern coasts. Why will they go? I don’t fully know. But it gives me a sense of peace and happiness to think about the rest of their journey. To know that this rhythm of nature–these migrations–will continue.

And that for one small part of one evening, I was witness to it.

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The opening quote in this essay is by Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. Weidensaul captures the magic, mystery, and science of migration in this memorable book which still remains one of my favorites in nature writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sandhill crane duo (Grus canadensis), Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; wading sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), at sunrise, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; sandhill cranes  (Grus canadensis),over the author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie grasses in November, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN: bison (Bison bison) grazing, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison) and a cowbird (Molothrus ater), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; prairie falcon ((Falco mexicanus), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; watching for cranes, Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; crane fly-in (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN: swirl of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN.