Tag Archives: mallard duck

The April Prairie: After the Fire

“April outdoes all our effort to keep up with it.”—Niall Williams

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What’s that, you say? It’s snowing?

Don’t put away those gloves and scarves yet. It’s April in the Midwest, and snow is part of the spring package. As Tom Jones sings, “It’s not unusual… .” The local newspaper tells me the Chicago region received measurable snow in seven of the past ten years in April, with almost eight inches in April 2019 (that blissful year before the pandemic). I’m grateful to see only flurries.

Crosby’s Backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Snow or no snow, April is an exciting month on the tallgrass prairie—especially after a prescribed burn. At first glance you might believe there’s nothing worth seeing. A burned landscape seemingly holds little attraction.

Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But take a closer look. As Jeff and I found on a recent hike this weekend, there’s plenty to experience.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Look closely. What are these, poking through the ashes?

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

And listen. The chorus frogs are singing!

Chorus frogs (Pseudacris illinoensis) at College of DuPage’s Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Red-winged blackbirds call their oka-leeeeee! Oka-leeeee! Ahead of us, a killdeer dodges and darts through the blackened stubble.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I reacquainted myself with this species recently at All About Birds, a terrific resource from Cornell University. I learned the killdeer is a proficient swimmer. What????

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Jeff reminded me that killdeer are shorebirds. Here in the Midwest, they are some of the first birds to occupy the prairie after it is burned. But, when I think of birds that swim, I don’t think of killdeer. Rather, I think of ducks.

Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Mallards barely merit a glance from most folks. I’m convinced if they were rare we’d be ooohing and aaahhing over how beautiful they are. Look at those colors! Even on a gloomy day, the mallards brighten up the view.

Also lovely—but much despised — are the brown-headed cowbirds scattered across the prairie.

Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Back to Cornell’s All About Birds. I learn that instead of building a nest, the cowbird channels its energy into egg production and lays dozens of eggs over the season. These are deposited in other bird species’ nests. The cowbird progeny are then raised by these foster parent songbirds. Cornell calls cowbirds “brood parasites.” Many birders despise cowbirds as they are often responsible for destroying the eggs and young of some endangered species. But I can’t help but admire their striking colors as they pick their way across the prairie and chirp their “Clink! Clink! Clink!” song.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A hike on a blackened prairie is a reminder that the prairie is full of nuance. It’s not a drive-by landscape. Rather, it’s a place you need to spend time with. Get on your knees and look —- really look. Pay attention with all of your five senses. Can you still smell the smoke? What plants are completely gone? What areas were missed by the fire?

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A burned prairie is also a reminder that there is hope after devastation. At different points in my life when everything seemed laid waste, the cycle of the prairie reminded me that with time, there was the possibility of change.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As Jeff and I hike the prairie perimeter, we find evidence of more bird activity.

Unknown egg, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder who laid this now smashed egg? A Canada goose, maybe? The egg color and size looks right. There are plenty of Canada geese patrolling the borders of the prairie so it’s a reasonable hypothesis.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I look for more eggs, I spy this.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

After a prescribed burn, finding golf balls is inevitable, no matter which prairie you visit. I guess it is all—ahem—-par for the course when you hike the tallgrass prairie after a prescribed fire in April.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Niall Williams (1958-) , who with his partner Christine Breen wrote In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden. If you like books that follow the gardening year, month by month, this is a good one to investigate.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in April! (Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more).

Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL. Open to the public (in person). Click here for details.

Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online only, and open to the public. Register here.

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

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The weather information in this blog post was taken from The Daily Herald, Sunday, April 3, 2022 written by Susan Sarkauskas, “Snow Flurries? In April?”

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Calling All Poets! April 1-April 30th- Check out this exciting project YOU can contribute to!

DuPage Monarch Project invites you to participate in Poets for Pollinators, a month-long celebration of nature’s wonders through poetry. Poems featuring bees, butterflies, birds and all pollinating creatures, as well as ones expressing the joy, comfort and delight found in nature will be posted on DuPage Monarch Project’s Facebook page April 1st – April 30th. New and experienced poets of all ages are welcome; this celebration is open to everyone.  Multiple entries will be accepted. Please send poems to Lonnie Morris at dupagemonarchs@gmail.com.  Poems may be pasted into the email or included as an attachment.  Authorship will be given unless anonymity is requested.  Formatting in Facebook is challenging but we will make every attempt to present the poem as you have written it.  Original photos are welcome.  If you don’t have a photo of a favorite pollinator, one will be selected from the DMP photo library.  If photos are sent, please include the name of the person who took the photo. By submitting a poem, you are granting DuPage Monarch Project the right to share it on the DuPage Monarch Project Facebook page.  The poem will not be shared, used or included in any other manner than the Facebook post during the month of April.

A Very Merry Prairie Christmas

“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young

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It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.

Sunrise over Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…and their swerves and curves.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Look closely.

Possibly blue-gray rosette lichen (Physcia caesia), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.

The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…

Skies over Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

I spy the mallard and his mate.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.

East Branch of the Dupage River, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.

Frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Why not go out and see them for yourself?

You’ll be glad you did.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

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The opening quote is from Allen M. Young’s Small Creatures and Ordinary Places: Essays on Nature (2000, University of Wisconsin Press). This lovely book includes dragonflies and damselflies; fireflies, silk moths, butterflies, and cicadas—just a few of the many insects he investigates. Several of his essays first appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Chicago Tribune. Young is Curator Emeritus of Zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

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Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.

‘Tis the Season of Prairie Grasses

“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael

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I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.

West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.

When the leaves come falling down.

When the leaves come falling down.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.

In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.

Coyote (Canis latrans), Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

The savanna is striking in the falling snow.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.

Indian grass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Prairie dropseed.

Prairie dropseed (Panicum virgatum), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much grass.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote of the prairie:

“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …” 

Bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

In Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, John Madson told us that weather extremes favor grasses over trees. No wonder the Midwest, with its wild weather vagaries, is a region of grass.

Bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (August, 2020)

In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… . Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.

Grass.

In November, grass slips into the starring role.

The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.

It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.

Why not go see?

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The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

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Just in time for the holidays! Northwestern University Press is offering The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (with watercolor illustrations by Peggy MacNamara) for 40% off the retail price. Click here for details. Remember to use Code Holiday40 when you check out.

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit for the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.

After the Prairie Burn

“Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”—Mizuta Masahi

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Look what’s rising over the newly-burned prairies. Sugar Moon? Worm Moon? Paschal Moon? By any name, it is beautiful.

Full moon over Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

At the Morton Arboretum just outside Chicago, there’s another sort of moonscape this week.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Schulenberg Prairie, which burned a week ago.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Few people walk the just-burned prairie.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Can you blame them, when hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs are in bloom in parks and preserves and backyards, not far away?

Crocus (Crocus vernus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native wildflowers are up in the woodlands. Virginia bluebells emerge, with leaves like ping pong paddles.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage East Ecological Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Jacob’s ladder unspools its ferny leaves in the savannas.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), College of DuPage East Ecological Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the unburned Belmont Prairie just a few miles from my house, rattlesnake master spears through the soil.

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

Native wild strawberries spread their leaves in the sunshine. Soon, white flowers and tiny strawberries will cover the prairie remnant here.

Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much green growth on the prairies I walk this week! So many signs of spring flowers. You can see why people are out admiring the spring flowers.

Daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No wonder a blackened landscape holds little attraction.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet. There is a different sort of way of experiencing beauty here.

Robin (Turdus migratorius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of something given away today in exchange for something in the future. A willingness to let go. To reset. To start over.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Loss is here, make no mistake about it. Fire is deadly. Fire is voracious. The prairie’s old apple tree, a relic of settlement, is burned beyond recognition. After years of surviving prescribed burns, it seemed a certain centenarian. Now, it will not see another season.

Old apple tree (Malus domestica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ll miss passing this little piece of history on my prairie hikes; a reminder that people like the ones who planted this apple tree—or its predecessors —forever changed the Midwest prairies. Another tree not far from it, which was prime real estate for the Baltimore orioles and their nests, will have to be removed for the safety of volunteers and visitors.

Fire-damaged tree on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I walk the black earth and find more casualties. Bones. Two baby turtles, unable to scramble away from the wall of fire. A tiny beetle.

After the prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

All of these losses—and others—-are small griefs, but griefs none the less. Prairie management means trade-offs. What gives life to one plant or animal may be a death knell for another.

Signs of life are here—if you look closely. Tiny insects buzz along the singed earth.

Unknown insect—maybe a bee or wasp?—Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallard ducks quack their way down Willoway Brook.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And when I see the charred prairie willows…

Prairie willlows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…with their spring-soft “puffs”…

Prairie willows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…I feel the life of the prairie continuing on, more vibrant than before.

After the fire.

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Mizuta Masahide (1657–1723), whose quote begins this post, studied poetry under the tutelage of Matsuo Basho (1644 –1694) in Japan. Another of his lovely poems: While I walk on/the moon keeps pace beside me:/friend in the water.

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

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm 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.

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.

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 Whispers “Spring”

“…this spring morning with its cloud of light, that wakes the blackbird in the trees downhill…”—W.S. Merwin

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On March 1, Jeff and I celebrated the first day of meteorological spring by hiking the 1,829-acre Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, IL.  March came in like a lamb.

springbrookprairieinmarch3120WM.jpg

From its unlikely spot smack in the middle of subdivisions and busy shopping centers, Springbrook Prairie serves as an oasis for wildlife and native plants. As part of the Illinois Nature Preserves and DuPage Forest Preserve system…

signspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

… it is (according to the forest preserve’s website) “a regionally significant grassland for breeding and overwintering birds and home to meadowlarks, dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, woodcocks and bobolinks as well as state-endangered northern harriers, short-eared owls, and Henslow’s sparrows.” Some of these birds stick around during the winter; others will swing into the area in a month or two with the northward migration.

Springbrook Prairie 3120WMWMWM.jpg

That’s quite a list of birds.  Shielding our eyes against the sun, we see something unexpected.

baldeaglespringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

A bald eagle! From its “grave troubles” in the 1970s (as the Illinois Natural History Survey tells us), it is estimated that 30-40 breeding pairs of bald eagles now nest in Illinois each year. We watch it soar, buffeted by the winds, until it is out of sight. As we marvel over this epiphany, we hear the sound of a different bird. Oka-lee! Oka-lee!

redwingedblackbird3220WM.jpg

We first heard them a week ago as we hiked the Belmont Prairie. Their song is a harbinger of spring.  Soon, they’ll be lost in a chorus of spring birdsong, but for now, they take center stage.

nestSpringbrookPrairie3120WM.jpg

A few Canada geese appear overhead. Two mallards complete our informal bird count. Not bad for the first day of March.

mallardduck3120WM.jpg

The scent of mud and thaw tickles my nose;  underwritten with a vague hint of chlorophyll.

rattlesnakemaster3120WMspringbrookprairie.jpg

Strong breezes bend the grasses.

switchgrassspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

The temperature climbs as we hike—soon, it’s almost 60 degrees. Sixty degrees! I unwind my scarf, unzip my coat.

Indiangrassspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Joggers plod methodically along the trail, eyes forward, earbuds in place. They leave deep prints on the thawing crushed limestone trail. Bicyclists whiz through, the only evidence minutes later are the lines grooved into the path.

Our pace, by comparison, is slow. We’re here to look.

springbrookprairietrail3120WM.jpg

Bright light floods the grasslands. Mornings now, I wake to this sunlight which pours through the blinds and jump-starts my day. In less than a week—March 8—we’ll change to daylight savings time and seem to “lose” some of these sunlight gains. Getting started in the morning will be a more difficult chore. But for now, I lean into the light.

beebalmspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

What a difference sunshine and warmth make!

beebalmtwospringbrookprairie3120WMWMWM.jpg

Families are out in groups, laughing and joking. Everyone seems energized by the blue skies.prairieskiesspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Grasslands are on the brink of disappearance. To save them, we have to set them aflame. Ironic, isn’t it?  To “destroy” what we want to preserve? But fire is life to prairies. Soon these grasses and ghosts of wildflowers past will turn to ashes in the prescribed burns.

dogbanespringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Mowed boundaries—firebreaks—for the prescribed burns are in place…

mowedboundariesSpringbrookPrairie3120WM.jpg

…a foreshadowing of what is to come. We’ve turned a corner. Soon. Very soon.

curveinthetrail3120WMspringbrookprairie.jpg

The prairie world has been half-dreaming…

snowmeltspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

…almost sleeping.

commonmilkweedpod3120WMspringbrookprairie.jpg

It’s time to wake up.

commonmilkweedtwospringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

All the signs are in place. The slant of light. Warmth. Birdsong. The scent of green.

grassesandwaterspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Spring.

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The opening quote is part of a poem “Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud” from Garden Time by W.S. Merwin (1927-2019). My favorite of his poems is “After the Dragonflies” from the same volume. Merwin grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister; he later became a practicing Buddhist and moved to Hawaii. As a child, he wrote hymns. He was our U.S. Poet Laureate twice, and won almost all the major awards given for poetry. I appreciate Merwin for his deep explorations of the natural world and his call to conservation.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County/Illinois Nature Preserves, Naperville, IL (top to bottom):  March on Springbrook Prairie; sign; prairie skies (can you see the “snowy egret” in the cloud formation?); bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus); red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus); possibly a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nest (corrections welcome); mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiker; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); prairie skies; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum); mowed firebreak; curve in the trail; snowmelt; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); grasses and water. “Lean into the light” is a phrase borrowed from Barry Lopez —one of my favorites —from “Arctic Dreams.”

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Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

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 as space is limited. 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   

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

*****

Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

Prairie Discovery and Recovery

“There is the nature we discover and the nature we recover. There is wildness and there is wildness. And sometimes, our own wholeness depends on the nature we attempt to make whole.” –Gavin Van Horn

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What does it mean to restore a prairie?

Is it seeding an acre of degraded ground with golden Alexanders?

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Planting milkweeds in our backyard, in hopes a monarch butterfly will drop by?

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Delighting in the discovery of a monarch egg, dotted on a leaf?

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Is it showing up to witness coneflowers pushing out petals?

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Making time to walk the tallgrass trails when the short-lived blooms of spiderwort follow the whims of the weather?  Open and close. Open and close.

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Or watching the first wild quinine buds appear, cradled by prehistoric leaves. Like dinosaur’s teeth, aren’t they?

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What will happen to us when we make room for the simple pleasure of pure white anemones?

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Or as we bask in the blast of sunshine from hoary puccoon?

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What does it mean to discover the oddball plants, like green dragon in bloom?

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Or porcupine grass, threading its needles of seed.

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And wild onion, unknotting itself; that graceful alien, with its kinks and curls.

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All of this in June. And the creatures, too.

From the ordinary—

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—to the iridescent and extraordinary.

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“There is wildness and there is wildness.”

In recovery is discovery. We discover more—then we  long for more.  We think of what has been. And what could be. We work toward wholeness. Restoration.

It changes us.

Why not go see?

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******

Gavin Van Horn’s quote that opens this post is from his essay, “Healing the Urban Wild.” It’s part of his new edited volume, Wildness: Relations of People and Place (with John Hausdoerffer) from University of Chicago Press. Gavin is the Director of Cultures of Conservation for the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago, and also editor of City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago WildernessCheck out Gavin’s books and also the blog at Center for Humans and Nature.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea), Prairie Pondwalk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) laying eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch egg (Danaus plexippus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canenscens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; green dragon (Arisaema triphyllum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild onion (Allium canadense), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos), Prairie Pondwalk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Parks, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Special thanks to Bern Olker, volunteer for Tuesdays in the Tallgrass, who showed me the place where the green dragon grows.

The Joy of January Mud

“How long the winter has lasted–like a Mahler symphony or an hour in the dentist’s chair. In the fields, the grasses are matted and gray… .” — Jane Kenyon

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The fiery mornings of winter dawn, cold and clear.

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The temperature begins rising.  40. 50. 55 degrees. Ahhhh. We throw open the windows. Could this be January? Without bothering to grab our coats, we go outside to hike the prairie trails.

The ice that laces the river’s edges has vanished.

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High in the trees, the chickadees sing their spring song for the first time, trying out a few tentative notes. Their music mingles with the mallards’ quack quack quacks and the honk honk honks of Canada geese.

Along the path, sun backlights the last remaining weedy burdock seeds lurking in the prairie grasses.

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A few leaves still hang on shrubs and trees, not ready to let go of what is past.

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Canada wild rye throws her stiff seedtail comets across the tallgrass.

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Sunshine ignites sparks of light as the ice melts.

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Look up, and Canada geese seem to tangle in the bare trees.

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A paper wasp nest hangs like a marbled empty lantern.

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Nobody’s home.

Look down. Embossed into the thaw are prints. The heart-shaped tracks of deer.

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The pawprints of a dog, out for a walk, with sneaker tracks close beside.

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The small handprints of raccoons, on their way home from the river.

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It’s an anomaly, this brief blast of spring. There is joy in January mud. But, rationally, we know that winter will follow this warm, muddy morning with a truckload of snow and more gray, gray, gray. You thought the sunshine would last? Sucker! 

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Yet, as much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I try to prolong the feeling of spring; arrange bright tulips in a vase…

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…and daydream about the first prairie blooms which, this morning, seem as if they could be right around the corner.IMG_2163.jpg

On this unusual day in January, the warmth and sunshine feel like a little Post-It-Note from spring. The note reads: Don’t give up.  These gray days won’t last forever.

I’ll fling myself with joy into the morning or two of warmth and light that shows up unexpectedly this winter. Savor that temporary lift of spirits; that bracing shot of courage for whatever is ahead.

Because, on a sunshine-filled, 55 degree January day, anything seems possible.

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The poet Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), whose line from the poem, “Walking Alone in Late Winter” opens this essay, graduated from University of Michigan, where she met and married professor Donald Hall, later poet laureate of the United States (2006).  They moved to his family’s ancestral farm in New Hampshire, where many of her poems are set. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship (1992) and was the poet laureate of New Hampshire when she died of leukemia at age 48. Kenyon wrote movingly of her struggles with depression (“Having it out with Melancholy”), and found joy in the particulars of the natural world. Two poems of hers to sample: “Let Evening Come,” and “Otherwise.” 

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): January sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), West Branch of the DuPage River, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  burdock (Arctium minus) seeds, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  last leaf, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; Canada rye (Elymus canadensis), McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) cane with melting ice, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus) nest, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; ; white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) track, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; dog ( Canis lupis) and people  (Homo sapiens) tracks, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; raccoon (Procyon lotor) print, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  bridge over Willoway Brook in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bouquet of tulips (Tulipa, unknown species)  author’s window overlooking her prairie spot, Glen Ellyn, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Leaving Home

“Migration is a blind leap of faith… .” Scott Weidensaul

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September.

In a prairie pond, a turtle and a few ducks snooze in the late afternoon sun.

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A baby snapper ventures slowly out to explore the rocks.

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The last great blue lobelia flowers open and bloom amid the goldenrod. September’s colors.

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Deep in the tallgrass, a grasshopper takes a hopping hiatus from the heat.

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A cool breeze stirs. The tree leaves begin to rustle, then rattle. A sound like waves rushing to shore sweeps through the prairie. It ripples in the wind. Tall coreopsis sways.

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The prairie whispers, Go.

The black saddlebags dragonfly feels restless, deep down in its DNA. Orienting south, it joins the green darners, variegated meadowhawks, and wandering gliders to swarm the skies. Go. Go.

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The meadowhawk dragonfly hears, but doesn’t respond. It will be left behind. Only a few species of dragonflies answer the migration call. Why?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery.

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A flash of orange and black, and a monarch nectars at the zinnias that grow by my prairie patch.  Mexico seems a long way off for something so small. But this butterfly was born with a passport that includes a complimentary GPS system. This particular monarch will go. Just one more sip.

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A viceroy butterfly delicately tastes nectar from goldenrod. No epic trip for this look-alike. Although its days are numbered, the butterfly bursts with energy, zipping from prairie wildflower to wildflower. Go? I wish!

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A turkey vulture lazily soars through the air, headed south.  These Chicago buzzards won’t drift far. Once they hit the sweet tea and BBQ states, they’ll stay put until spring.

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Go? The red-tailed hawk catches the whispered imperative. She stops her wheeling over the prairie for a moment and rests on top of a flagpole, disgruntled. Go? NO! So many birds heading for warmer climes! She ignores the command. She’ll winter here,  in the frigid Chicago temperatures. Wimps, she says, disdaining the pretty warblers, flocking south.

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Meanwhile, the last blast of hummingbirds dive-bomb my feeders, slugging it out for fuel. Think of the lines at the pump during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s –that’s the scene. Destination? Central America. You can feel their desperation as they drink deeply, then buzz away.

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Saying goodbye is always the most difficult for those left behind. Seeing those we know and care about leave home is bittersweet, fraught with loss.

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But, as the prairie brings one chapter to a close–with all of its colorful and lively characters…

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…another chapter is about to begin.

Meanwhile, we watch them go. Bon voyage. Safe travels.

 

*****

The opening quote is by Scott Weidensaul, the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and mallard ducks ((Anas platyrhynchos) on the  prairie pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; baby snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasshopper (species unknown), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Glen Ellyn Public Library prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), James “Pate” Philip State Park, Illinois DNR, Bartlett, IL;  meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) , author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset at Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.