“There’s so much to discover! So much we don’t know.” — Sharman Apt Russell
Be careful what you wish for.
For the past week, I’ve hoped for rain. The garden and prairie have been crisped to a crunch. Now, I’ve added a new word to my vocabulary: Derecho. What a mighty storm passed through the Midwest on Monday! Hope this finds all of you safe and well.
Hot and muggy August has brought more than storms to this week. Blooms! Butterflies. Bison shenanigans. Let’s go for a hike at Nachusa Grasslands, and see what’s happening.
The bison bulls are sparring, bellowing, and generally kicking up a fuss. It’s rutting season. The peaceful notes of song sparrows and chirps of crickets and other insects are punctuated by sudden snorts, followed by puffs of dust.
Bison normally ignore people, but in August, all bets are off. When working in bison units this month, I try to stay as far away from them as possible as bulls battle for mating rights. The mamas are also in a protective mood…
…especially if they feel their babies are threatened.
Despite their size (males can weight up to 2,000 lbs, females up to 1,100 lbs), bison can move invisibly through the tallgrass. Or so it seems! They can also run up to 40 mph. That’s a combination that demands respect.
The tallgrass prairie is incomplete without them. Learn more about Nachusa’s bison here.
On the other end of the size spectrum at Nachusa are the springwater dancer damselflies. What they lack in size, they make up for in color. That blue! In bright sunlight, this damselfly is stunning.
In the shaded tallgrass along the creek, I see springwater dancers caught in a frenzy of love; making the mating “heart” or “wheel.”
This mating between Odonates—dragonflies or damselflies—is one of the most amazing phenomenons in the natural world. As August slides toward fall, it seems to take on a new importance. The creek where they mate has seen a decline in damselfly species over the past few seasons. The next generations of Odonates depends on these pairings’ success. The springwater dancers give me hope for the future.
Along the creeks and across Nachusa’s prairies, August unfurls her blooms.
Great blue lobelia, just beginning to open.
Flowering spurge. So delicate! It seems as if it belongs in a florist’s bouquet. The “baby’s breath” of the prairie.
And yet. Look at the flowers up close. Yes! They have the unmistakable milkweed floral structure.
Illinois has 24 species of milkweed; 22, including whorled milkweed, are native. How many have you planted in your yard or your neighborhood? I’ve only five milkweed species in my garden: the common, butterfly milkweed, swamp milkweed, green milkweed, and short milkweed, but it’s a good start. In my yard and at Nachusa Grasslands, the bees are especially drawn to the swamp milkweed, sometimes called rose or marsh milkweed.
Milkweed has some of the best plant promotional campaigns in the world. (Just Google “Got Milkweed?” Milkweeds are host to the larvae of the monarch butterfly, a charismatic insect that migrates from Illinois to Mexico each autumn. The first members of the migratory generation of caterpillars are emerging now! Next spring, a new generation of monarchs returns to Illinois in the spring.
This monarch looks a bit shopworn; doubtless it is at the end of its allotted lifespan. I remember finding monarch caterpillars on my butterfly weed in my prairie garden early this summer.
I’ve not seen any since, although I’ve seen plenty of the monarch butterflies sail through my prairie patch. And other butterflies, both at home and on the prairie.
One of the highlights of my hike this weekend at Nachusa is three yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies, nectaring on Joe Pye weed.
I spot the tiger swallowtails fairly frequently, although not always in these numbers. It was more unusual for me to see a half dozen common wood nymphs. They moved quickly from clover to clover.
The eyespots of the common wood nymph—which give it its nickname of “goggle eye” —- are a lovely pale gold. And look at its particular color of grayish brown! I’d love to have a woven scarf made in the same soft hues.
I’m startled by something hopping at my feet and a flash of color. More gold. The bright and glittery gold of the northern leopard frog’s stripes. I hear them at Nachusa—and see them plop-plop-plop into ponds—but I’ve rarely had time to study one at close range.
This frog kept me company for a while, then hopped off to a pressing appointment somewhere else. As it disappears into the tallgrass, my spirits lift. August is full of fascinating creatures. There’s so much to see. So much, right in front of me.
August is passing far too quickly.
Autumn will be here before we know it.
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from Sharman Apt Russell (1954-), the author of An Obsession with Butterflies, Anatomy of a Rose, and Diary of a Citizen Scientist, from which this quote is taken. Russell lives in New Mexico, where she teaches writing at Western New Mexico University. Thanks to Lonnie Morris, who shared Diary with me.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless indicated otherwise: (top to bottom) sunset over Cindy’s home and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana); springwater dancer damselflies in the wheel position (Argia plana); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); great blue lobelia (Lobelia silphilitica); flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollatta); whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata); whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) close-up of flowers taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum); common wood nymph butterfly (Cercyonis pegala) on red clover (Trifolium pratense); northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens or Rana pipiens); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); mixed wildflowers (native and non-native) at Nachusa Grasslands in mid-August.
Note: Bison in these photos are farther away than they appear; I use a telephoto lens.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn!
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!)
Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press, or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.
Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.