“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury
August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.
Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?
The patter of tiny insect feet?
Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!
Bees bumble across the wildflowers.
Ambling beetles browse the petals.
Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…
Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…
…with their beautiful markings.
Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.
And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!
Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?
Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!
Long may they thrive.
The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“I love to roam over the prairies. There, I feel free and happy.”—Chief Satanta
It’s one of those picture-perfect days for a quick trip to Nachusa Grasslands. Sunny, cool; a few puffy cumulous floating in the sky. Bison graze around the corral area, or rest in the tallgrass.
I’m not looking for megafauna today, however. I’m looking for small stuff. My hope is to walk three of my dragonfly routes and see if anything is flying. Odonata season–the time of year I chase dragonflies—is winding down.
On one route, I see nary a damsel or dragon. There are plenty of wildflowers, like this Common Boneset.
Boneset was once used medicinally to reduce fevers, both by Native Americans and early European settlers. It’s nectar and pollen attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and it serves as a host plant for several moth caterpillars, including the Ruby Tiger Moth.
Nearby, Ironweed laces the prairie with purple.
The crunch of plants under my feet are a reminder of the drought we’ve experienced in parts of Illinois this summer. Even when I strike out on seeing dragons and damsels, and my data sheet is empty, the hike is never wasted. There is so much to see!
Every route, every trail leads to new discoveries.
Still, I’m a bit discouraged by that blank data form. I head for the next route. The pond is almost empty…
…only a Common Green Darner and a pair of Twelve-Spotted dragonflies hanging around. A couple of Common Whitetails. A damselfly or two. And then—I spot it! This pretty little damselfly: the Citrine Forktail.
Look at those colors! Like a dish of sherbet ice cream. Later, at home, I read up on this species in my “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeastern Ohio” (a good field guide for Illinois!) and learn that the Citrine Forktail may be “irruptive” and “appear at newly mitigated wetland sites.” Notice the orange stigma, in a unique place for damselflies. At only .9 inches long, these tiny damsels blend in well with the rushes and sedges in our prairie wetlands.
I also read in Dennis Paulson’s “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East” that there is a population of this damselfly in the Azores that consists only of females. They lay eggs which are all female! It is the only parthenogeneticOdonata population in the world. Cool! Supposedly, they can remain into November in the Midwest, if temperatures stay warm. I find two more as I hike. I hope they’ll hang out here for a while longer.
There are other treasures to be found today. Deep in the wetlands, as I search for damselflies, I find the tiny skullcap in bloom. There are three different species at Nachusa—I’m not sure which one this is.
I admire it for a bit, then continue my route. The American Cornmint, crushed under my rubber boots, sends out a delightful tang. The air is refreshed with the fragrance of menthol.
As I hike, I almost stumble over a monkeyflower.
I crouch to take a closer look. The bees are working it over.
Not far away are stands of Purple Love Grass. What a great name!
I scan around it for damselflies, but come up empty.
As the day gets hotter, and I continue walking my routes, my steps slow. The better to notice the hummingbird working the jewelweed.
Or the Springwater Dancer Damselflies in the mating wheel.
A Variegated Meadowhawk patrols a stream, moving at such a fast clip I can barely get the ID, much less a photo. These are one of Illinois’ migratory species, and also, as Kurt Mead notes in his field guide Dragonflies of the North Woods, one of the most difficult to net. I content myself with having a stare down with a male Springwater Dancer damselfly.
Along the shoreline, a cranefly sits motionless.
Sometimes, people mistake them for dragonflies. You can see why! But look closely. Nope.
The last portion of my final route involves climbing to a high overlook. Look at that view!
My legs ache, and I’m hot and sweaty despite the cooler temperatures. It’s been a good day. So much to see.
After a week of depressing headlines, a few frustrating work issues, and crazy heat and humidity, today has been a respite. I came to Nachusa feeling empty. I’m leaving with a sense of peace.
Thanks, Nachusa Grasslands.
The opening quote is from Chief Satanta, Kiowa Tribe (1820-1878). Read more about him here.
All photos in this week’s blog were taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
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.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.
“By all these lovely tokens, September days are here, with summer’s best of weather, and autumn’s best of cheer.”–Helen Maria Hunt Jackson
August slows, and puts on her turn signal. Autumn lies just ahead. The signs are all around us.
In my backyard prairie patch, the goldfinches work the cup plant seedheads–then sip a drink from yesterday’s rainwater, pooled in the leaves.
Nearby, a lone monarch appears on the zinnias, delicately sourcing fuel for its migration flight to Mexico. Hasta la vista. What a tough year it’s been for you, monarchs.
Hikes on the prairies after work end sooner. Shorter days. Earlier sunsets.
The tallgrass is peppered with dark chocolate coneflower seedheads; limned with early goldenrod.
In the first light of morning, deep in the dew, the white-faced meadowhawks appear. Harbingers of fall. Their kin, the green darners and wandering gliders, black saddlebags and variegated meadowhawks, have already taken wing and left the Midwest. What a wonder, that they can disappear into the winds to fly thousands of miles! The non-migratory dragonflies are tied to this place, however, and wait helplessly for the cold.
There is a more spare look to the landscape. It moves from cheerful to slightly melancholy. Lonelier.
The jewelweed opens along the prairie’s creeks. Hummingbirds work the flowers for nectar, mindful that they’ll soon need energy to make the long trip south. Come on! You can almost hear the monarchs and dragonflies whisper to the hummers. It’s getting late. Go!
Summer is ending. We see dimly ahead. Wonder what’s around the corner.
And always, adventures to anticipate.
The opening quote is from Helen Maria Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), who was a novelist and tireless advocate for Native Americans. She was also a classmate of Emily Dickinson. She suffered many difficult losses during her life–parents, siblings, children, her husband. At the time of her death from cancer, Jackson was still advocating for Native American rights from her sickbed. Although some have criticized her prose as “middlebrow,” she used her words to change the world she lived in for the better.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium prefoliatum) with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden zinnias (Zinnia spp., certified Monarch Way Station), Glen Ellyn, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and pale purple conehead (Echinacea pallida) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white-faced meadowhawk, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) also visible in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.