Tag Archives: murmuration

Bedazzled by Birds and Garden Catalogs

“The bumblebee consults his blossoms and the gardener his catalogs, which blossom extravagantly at this season, luring him with their four-color fantasies of bloom and abundance.”—Michael Pollan


It’s that time of year.

Garden catalogs, Glen Ellyn, IL.

My mailbox overflows. Catalogs from Prairie Moon Nursery. Prairie Nursery. Park Seed. Burpee. Seed Savers Exchange.

You get the idea.

Still, these are not enough. The more garden catalogs I receive, the more I yearn for the ones I don’t have. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, where, oh where, is the catalog I requested?) Evenings, I pore over my precious stack. Make lists. Compare prices. Check shipping costs. Consult last year’s lists of successes and failures. I order from some companies, like Prairie Moon Nursery, even when I don’t particularly need to. I want to see them stay in business.

The packet pictures are a foreshadowing of the season to come. Little envelopes full of dreams.

So many seed packets! So little time. Not pictured: Many more…. .

Last August, I swore I’d order no tomatoes and peppers in 2023. The bounty of the past few gardening seasons has been incredible. We pop frozen cherry tomatoes in chili all winter; shake out chopped sweet peppers into scrambled eggs. Never have such few plants produced so much bounty. And yet… .

Garden tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2018)

I may plant a few cherry tomato plants; plus a SuperSauce tomato or two. Perhaps a couple of peppers. You know…three plants, max. After all, tomatoes and peppers are part of the joy of summer.

Giant Marconi sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum ‘Giant Marconi’), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2022).

After a happy morning with the garden catalogs, Jeff and I go for a hike at a local forest preserve.

Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

The call of sandhill cranes is a continuous soundtrack to our ramble. Bird migration is ramping up.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Birders glass the lake with their binoculars, pointing. Northern shovelers! Almost a dozen scattered across the water.

Northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

There is a flotilla of mergansers, diving and dabbling. A birder tells us he sees the lesser scaup and we zoom in on a few, hoping to see the field marks. I dutifully enter that species in eBird, but I’m not sure. When I return home, and blow up my blurry photos, I consult a birding friend. Ring-necked duck, we both agree—a life bird for me. But my oh my! The ring-necks and the scaups look so much alike.

Best guess is that these are ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris), but I’d appreciate correction. Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

So much to learn! I edit my eBird entries and cross my fingers, hoping I’ve got it all right. It’s fun to see new species, even if the waterfowl are confusing.

I don’t have to worry about identifying the starlings. They lift off from a tree in waves, then float through the sky in groups known as murmurations. I’m not fond of starlings (a non-native species), but I can’t help but admire their choreography.

European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

As we hike around the lake, checking for birds, we admire the 365 view. Danada Forest Preserve and its prairie plantings are directly across a busy highway from endless shopping strips and restaurants. Jets lift off from Chicago-O’Hare International Airport, adding their grumble to the birdsong.

Across the highway from Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

How wonderful that this preserve was set apart. As we hike alongside families, bikers, horseback riders, and older folks, I feel a sense of gratitude.

Rice Lake, Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL (cell phone image).

A turkey vulture flies high overhead.

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) over Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Clouds gather in the west and a mackerel sky foretells the coming rain. We’ve hiked further than we intended, and forgotten our water bottles.

Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

By the time we make it back to the car, we’re ready to put up our feet and rest.

Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), sometimes called dogbane, Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

What a joy to hike the prairie this month! What a delight to see new birds. How fun to anticipate the warmer season on the way, and then, return home to once again browse the garden catalogs.

What a marvelous month you are, March. I can’t wait to see what other delights you have to show us.


This post kicks off with a quote from one of my favorite chapters in Michael Pollan’s book, Second Nature:”Made Wild By Pompous Catalogs.” Pollan (1955-) who writes compellingly about the frustrations, joys, and desires of the home gardener, also authored Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, two books that are must-reads. Read more about him here.


Join Cindy for a Class or Program in March!

Literary Gardens —In Person— March 7, 7-8:30 p.m,– Hosted by the ELA Library and Lake Zurich Garden Club. Location change — now at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Hawthorn Woods, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information, visit here.

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information here.

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.

Literary Gardens — In Person —– Saturday, March 18, 9am-12:30 pm. Keynote for “Ready, Set, Grow!” Master Gardeners of Carroll, Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties through The Illinois Extension. Dixon, IL. Registration ($25) is offered here.

The Morton Arboretum’s “Women in the Environment Series”: The Legacy of May T. Watts— (in person and online)—with lead instructor and Sterling Morton Librarian extraordinaire Rita Hassert. March 24, 10-11:30 a.m., Founders Room, Thornhill. Registration information available here.

Literary Gardens–In Person — Wednesday, March 29, 7-8:30 p.m. La Grange Park Public Library, LaGrange, IL. (free but limited to 25 people). For more information, contact the library here.

See Cindy’s website for more spring programs and classes.


Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help. As of this writing, it appears the bulldozers (as May Watts would say) are drooling. The destruction of this remnant is near at hand. Find out how you can help save this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.

Skipping Spring; Planting Prairie

“Nor does frost behave as one expects.” — Eleanor Perényi


Spring? We seemed to have missed it this year. Rather, it appears we are jumping from winter to summer in a week. Migrating birds are moving through, including this jelly-loving scarlet tanager. A first for our backyard!

Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With temperatures steady and warm—even hot—in the next few days, there is the annual gardener’s dilemma. To plant the tomatoes? Or not? It’s tempting. Meanwhile, they harden off on my covered front porch. I’m particularly excited about a new tomato called “Three Sisters,” which promises three types of tomatoes on one plant. Sort of a gee-whiz kind of thing, but that’s part of the fun of gardening.

Mixed vegetables, herbs, and bedding plants, ready for the garden.

Woodland wildflowers waited until the last possible moment to bloom this season, then threw themselves into the process. “Ephemeral” is right. Here today, gone tomorrow. So I go look. And soak up everything I can see to file away in my memory. Later, after they’ve disappeared, I’ll recall each one with joy.

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I especially admire the native Virginia bluebells, now bursting into bloom in the woodlands. What a week for this wildflower! They vary in hue from a bluebird blue…

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

… to bi-colored…

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…to pink.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Supposedly, this color variation is common with members of the borage family (of which bluebells are members). I imagine there is some normal color variation too, just as there are with other wildflower species. Depending on what you read, the color changes have to do with the acidity of the soil or whether or not the flowers have been pollinated. Hmmm. I’m not sure what to believe. All of these plants shown above were in the same general spot.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) with a pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2019).

I can’t see Virginia bluebells without the lines of writer Anne Brontë ‘s charming poem The Bluebell running through my head (written in the early 1800s). She was likely writing about the English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but I’ve appropriated her poem for our American species, Mertensia virginica.

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.


On our Mother’s Day weekend journey to the Indianapolis area, we made a quick detour to Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana. Imagine—8.400 acres of prairie, wetlands, and savannas. Those big skies! The bison there are always a magnet for our attention.

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

And we almost—literally—ran into another member of the prairie community as we bison-watched.

Bull snake (Pituophis catenifer), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Why did the snake cross the road? Likely to find some toads for dinner. I followed this one into the tallgrass until it disappeared into a watery ditch. I wasn’t brave enough to go any further.

Overhead, a flock of birds—perhaps a murmuration of starlings?—formed and reformed in the sky. But I’m not sure they were starlings. Aren’t those white wings in the center? Cornell says there is often a falcon near the edge of a murmuration.

Flock of unknown birds, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I wasn’t able to ID these birds in the photo above, but the next ones (below) were unmistakeable. Turkey vultures! They checked us out, then decided we were too lively to be of much interest.

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We left Kankakee Sands and continued driving home on backroads home to Chicago, with a brief get-out-and-stretch at the Biesecker Prairie in St. John, IN.

Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

Someday, I’d love to spend time at this 34-acre remnant with someone who knows and loves it. We only had time for quick look around. Traffic cruised by, but the preserve was mostly empty, except for a red-winged blackbird that kept us company.

Red-wing blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

Amazing to think these wonderful prairies are less than two hours away from Chicago’s western suburbs. I’m grateful.


Mother’s Day. One of my garden goals is to have prairie represented in the front yard. It’s embarrassing to have our “Conservation at Home” sign among the hostas and daffodils. With that in mind, my Mother’s Day gift this year was a new prairie plant plot for pollinators. (Thank you, Jeff!)

Crosby’s front yard prairie pollinator plot, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’re starting small, with less than two dozen prairie plugs: three golden alexanders (now in bloom), three pale purple coneflower plugs…

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…one pint-sized pot of flowering spurge—barely up. Three blazing star, three Ohio goldenrod, three sky blue aster, and three showy goldenrod. I hope to add some butterfly milkweed from a native plant sale this week, and perhaps move some of my Culver’s root from the backyard to the front. Neighbors are already asking about it. Hopefully, this little patch will spark more conversations about native plants with dog walkers, parents with strollers, and our community.

Crosby’s front yard prairie plot, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I love new beginnings, no matter how small. We put our prairie pollinator garden where we can expand it a little bit each year. And now our “Conservation at Home” sign looks more “at home.” A little less turf grass. A better use of the space we’re responsible for. Of course, native prairie plantings in our suburban yard will never have the grandeur of wide open skies, such as we saw at Kankakee Sands, or the wildlife that these large-scale landscapes can provide for. But I think of Ray Schulenberg, an expert in prairie restoration who reconstructed the fourth oldest institutional prairie planting at The Morton Arboretum, 60 years ago.

Ray Schulenberg, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Photo circa 1970s, courtesy of The Morton Arboretum archives.

In an interview before his death in 2003, Ray talked about the despair he felt over world events. He didn’t think anything would halt the destruction of our planet. But, he said, “I don’t let that stop me from doing what I can.”

Confederate violet (Viola sororia priceana), Glen Ellyn, IL.

That’s stuck with me in a week filled with news about war, Covid stats rising, inflation, and other woes. For now, I’m going to try to emulate Ray’s motto.

To do what I can.


The opening quote is from Eleanor Perényi (1918-2009) from Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. She gardened on an estate in the present day Vynohradiv, Ukraine —formerly, Nagyszőlős, Hungary—and later, in her new home in Connecticut. Green Thoughts is an arrangement of short essays from “Annuals” to “Weeds,” and her wildly-ranging views as an amateur gardener. Many of her ideas on plants are not for us Midwestern gardeners (she mentions buckthorn as good for hedges, which will strike horror into the heart of any prairie steward), but I enjoy her take on everything from annuals to chicory to gardening failures. Perényi worked as managing editor at Mademoiselle and editor at Harper’s Bazaar, plus as a contributor to Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. Later in her life, she lived and gardened on the Connecticut coast. She is also the author of a biography of Franz Liszt (nominated for a National Book Award) and More Was Lost, a memoir of her marriage to a Hungarian baron. Green Thoughts is a charming classic, although I’m more a fan of her prose than her gardening advice.


Thank you, Dulcey Lima, for passing on the article about Ray.


Join Cindy for a program or class!

May 18, 12:30-2 pm: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.

May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. More information coming soon.

June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.


Time is running out for one of Illinois’ last prairie remnants. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org