Tag Archives: nomia meadows farm

Prairie Dragonfly Mysteries

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” ― Agatha Christie

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I’m a big fan of mysteries. As a teenager, I burned through all of Agatha Christie’s classics, and I still love to pick up an occasional thriller that keeps me guessing. As a naturalist, part of my attraction to the outdoors revolves around a different sort of mystery. Science has a lot of answers. But there are many unsolved questions out there.

I like that. Perhaps nowhere is mystery so evident as when I try to understand dragonfly migration.

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This week, I’m prepping training workshops for two groups of dragonfly and damselfly monitors at the prairies where I’m a steward. We’re all volunteers, all citizen scientists collecting data that we hope will help future researchers learn more about these incredible insects.

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During the workshops, we’ll discuss the life cycle of the dragonfly. It begins with a little rough and tumble dragonfly romance and then, ovipositing or egg laying.

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Ouch! That’s got to hurt.

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At the two workshops, we’ll share ID tips for differentiating among the 100 or so dragonfly species in Illinois and the almost 50 damselfly species, plus the various variations among male, female, and immature individuals. Pretty straightforward stuff, for the most part.

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We’ll touch on the cultural history of dragonflies as well; their use in cuisine, art, and literature. I like this haiku by Basho: “Crimson pepper pod/add two pairs of wings and look/darting dragonfly.” You can see why he was inspired!

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Dragonfly cultural history and much of dragonfly natural history is explainable, at least to some degree. But dragonfly migration! That’s where it gets difficult.

Dragonfly migration is less understood than that of the monarch butterfly, whose travel habits have been exhaustively studied, immortalized in novels, and  whose migration journey continues to fascinate the general public.

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Or consider bird migration, the topic of many books like Scott Weidensaul’s excellent Living on the Wind, and the subject of countless research projects. Sure, there’s still mystery in avian migration. But plenty of information out there.

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Dragonfly migration? Not so much. The process remains veiled in mystery.  We do know a few things: at least four dragonfly species in Illinois (green darner, black saddlebags, wandering glider, and variegated meadowhawk) head south for the winter, and probably some damselfly species as well.

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But why these species? Why not others? Where do they go? What tells them to mass at the end of summer and fly, often in large swarms, to another place?

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The Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to discover what we do know about the science of dragonfly migration. As an organization dedicated to protect invertebrates and their habitats, they are a good clearing house for insect migration information. Got some extra time? Click through the link here and read more about how citizen science volunteers are contributing to our understanding about dragonfly migration.

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We do know that some dragonflies in North America may travel almost 2,000 miles south in the late summer and early fall. They often join raptors migrating south. Dragonfly offspring will travel the same distances, often with raptors, back north in the spring. Look around in science journals and on dragonfly websites and you’ll find comical images of green darners wearing tiny transmitters to track their movements; or complex studies of isotopes in dragonfly wings which help researchers determine their general place of emergence.

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But once you start reading, you realize just how little we know about these dazzling creatures. You get to the end of the dragonfly migration studies pretty fast. It’s a good PhD project for some future researcher! Learning more about what makes some dragonfly species born with an itch to travel.

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In April, we’ll begin to see the first battered and worn out dragonflies head north and arrive in the Midwest, heirs of those stalwart flyers who fled south last year. As dragonfly monitors, we’ll scribble about these early arrivals—and later, summer flyers and dragonfly departures—as hash marks on our data sheets. We’ll report the information to staff at our local prairies and natural areas. Then, in Illinois, we’ll upload it to www.illinoisodes.com, our state repository for this information. All very logical and linear isn’t it?

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At some point in the season, most of us will put our pencils down and pause for a moment. Overcome with wonder. How amazing that this tiny creature logged those miles and survived birds, weather, and traffic to be here, on this prairie! How incredible that we can bear witness to this phenomenon, even for a moment.  How satisfying to be a small cog in the wheel of the research that is being done for the future!

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And most of us will acknowledge this: Despite the data we’ll collect, despite all the facts we know, it’s that unknown that makes it so exciting to be a part of this citizen science project. The quest is part of the fun.

And we’ll marvel, in awe of the mystery of dragonfly migration.

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Agatha Christie (1890), whose quote opens this post, is the author of 66 mystery novels and 14 short story collections. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in the English language, and just as many in translation. My favorite quote of Christie’s: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

Scott Weidensaul (1959-), who is mentioned in this post, is a Pennsylvania naturalist and writer. My favorite of his books, Living on the Wind,  examines the amazing world of bird migration. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; damselflies in tandem, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), ovipositing in Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly, male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum, unknown species), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI; great egret (Ardea alba) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wandering glider dragonfly (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; river bluet damselfly (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raw data sheet, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, check out some other dragonfly resources at the links referenced above and this excellent blog post from a few year’s ago: Cool Green Science’s “Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve.” 

Local friends: If you’re interested in exploring more about dragonflies, join me at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  Friday, March 30, 2018 for a dragonfly workshop. Register by e-mailing me at phrelanzer@aol.com.

A Prairie Pause

“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…it is what I was born for—to look, to listen… .” — Mary Oliver

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First-timers to the prairie in December may be underwhelmed. The grass colors are draining away; plants are nibbled and ragged. Shopworn.

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But, as the opening lines of the Mary Oliver poem above suggest, for those who hike and look during these gray days, December has its rewards.  Kaleidoscope skies delight us in the afternoons, straight out of a Van Gogh painting.

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Slow-burning sunsets, trailing scarves of fire, deliver quiet satisfaction. They end  some of the shortest days of the year.

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As a prairie steward at two different sites, I find December is a good time to reflect on the coming season. At home, I scribble in my notebook. RCG? means, “What will I do about the reed canary grass we can’t get rid of that’s infesting a high-quality area of the prairie?”  That caricature of a flower next to it is purple loosestrife, which consistently mounts a stealth operation into the west end of the stream from a subdivision across the road. A reminder that constant vigilance is the price of an invasive-free waterway.

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All of these invasive plants will be put on an “alert” list and dealt with in 2018. But for now, they are just words on paper. Something to think about in the abstract.

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And then, there is my prairie “wish list.” Oh, such possibilities! Maybe, adding a little cardinal flower in the wetter areas.

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Along the streambank, where the native Illinois bundleflower has become an aggressive bully,…

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…I can proactively place great blue lobelia. These “blues” may take root, and chase some of my problem plants away. Or, so I hope.

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I digitally page through online native plant nursery catalog offerings, make notes, calculate costs. Wonder what the possibilities might be. I pore over my prairie plant inventory list, made this season. What plants have gone missing this year? Who is new that showed up to the party, uninvited? Which species is getting a little aggressive, a little too territory-hungry? A little less monarda—a little more pasqueflower? 

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In my faith tradition, December is a time of waiting. A time of anticipation. Preparation. On the prairie, as a steward, I find the month of December to be much the same.

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A rest from herbicide management, writing workday summaries, or thinking about dragonfly populations in the creeks and ponds of the prairie wetlands.

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I like this rhythm of the seasons. I need a pause, one in which I’m not pulling weeds; collecting seeds. Sure, there are tasks that can be done—I’m still trying to wrap up some spreadsheets, finish some year-end reports—but let’s be clear. Nothing is screaming “spray me now!” No seeds I need are being eaten by birds, or explosively shooting off into the grasses before they can be collected.

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There is time to catch up on unread piles of articles; to thumb leisurely through a book or two on prairies that I’ve been meaning to read. Find journal essays online about dragonflies. Set workshop dates to train new monitors. Compare notes with other stewards. There is time—precious time—to untangle my thoughts.

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With gray skies wrapped around our days like a smothering cloak, the impulse to be indoors, instead of out, is strong.  No warm breezes beckon. I don’t wonder if I’m missing a new dragonfly species when I curl up on the couch with a mug of hot tea.  I don’t worry that the sweet clover has, seemingly overnight, overrun a new portion of the tallgrass. I can take a break, guilt-free. December is a simpler month; a welcome interlude in the busyness of the life of the prairie.

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I don’t know what the new year holds. I prepare as best I can. Scribble lists. Reflect. Dream a little. Prepare. Anticipate. Scribble some more.

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When I’m out hiking the trails, I imagine the prairies as they will be, vibrant and blooming in the spring. I look at them now, clear-eyed. Yes, they are brittle, a little shaggy. Ragged under their sprinkle of new snow. Different. But no less beautiful. Then I retreat back home to make a few more lists.

And I savor the pause.

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The opening verse is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mindful.” If you haven’t read the whole poem, and you love volunteering or caring for the tallgrass prairie in some way throughout the year, this poem is for you. Read it here.  It’s beautiful. Oliver (1935-) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Her newest poetry collection is Devotions.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloudy December skies over the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Northeastern Illinois University, Markham, IL:  vigilant bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, Il; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL. 

An August Prairie Hike

“On the brink of a shining pool, O Beauty, out of many a cup, You have made me drunk and wild, Ever since I was a child… .” —from “August Moonrise” by Sara Teasdale

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Take a walk with me. Let’s see what’s happening in the tallgrass in August.

Pink gaura, that tall prairie biennial that goes unnoticed until it bursts into bloom, shows its shocking color for the first time all season. Where have you been hiding? You wonder.

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White goldenrod underpins the grasses; its common name an oxymoron.

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Violet sorrel flowers glow low in the grass. They’ve decided to put on a second flush of blooms this season. Applause!

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Lavender obedient plant spikes across the prairie. Move each bloom around the stem and it stays where you put it; thus the name. Better than a fidget spinner!

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Have you noticed the green caterpillar-ish seeds clinging to your shirt, your pants, and your socks as you walk? Tick trefoil, that hitchhiker of the August prairie, is guaranteed to show up in your laundry room for the next several months. A souvenir of your time in the tallgrass.

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Deep in the prairie wetlands…

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…a slender spreadwing damselfly perches. Its wings appear spider-web delicate. But they are seriously strong. Deceptively so.

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A bullfrog cools its heels in the shallows…

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…while nearby, a bronze copper butterfly snaps her wings open and shut.

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So much to see on the prairie in August.

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But don’t wait too long to look.

Autumn is on the way.

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The opening lines in this blogpost are from the poem, “August Moonrise,” by Sara Teasdale (1884 –1933). Teasdale, a native of St. Louis, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918 for her poetry collection, Love Songs. Many of her poems have been set to music. She committed suicide at age 49.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): biennial gaura (Gaura biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white goldenrod (Oligoneuron album), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie, The  Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetlands, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; male slender spreadwing damselfly (Lestes rectangularis ), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeianabronze copper butterfly (Lycaena hyllus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; August prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.  

Cardinal Rules on the Prairie

“The contours and colors of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others, and to places.” — Robert MacFarlane

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Cardinal rules on the prairie in early August… that is, cardinal flower rules. Suddenly, she mysteriously appears in the wetlands. Pops up beside the ponds. Strikes scarlet poses throughout the wet prairie.

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Her spiky raceme of racy red is unmistakable.

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Swallowtail butterflies like her. The hummingbirds approve. In my backyard prairie patch and pond they hover, drawn to that screaming scarlet. Come closer, the red flowers seem to entice the hummers. Wait until you see how sweet we taste.

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Read the field guide descriptions. Showy. There’s talk about her corollas, those lips! Juicy. Moist-loving. Look again. You can’t not think of a tube of bright red lipstick; maybe a mid-life crisis sports car. This is a sensual flower, make no mistake about it.

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Read on. This plant is “temperamental.” Her ecological value to wildlife is categorized as low. But really, who would expect something so ravishing to be useful as well as beautiful?

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Although… some Native American tribes found cardinal flower roots and flowers important in the making of love charms. The ground-up roots were slipped into food to end arguments and as an anti-divorce remedy. Fitting, perhaps, for a flower so striking, to have these supposed powers.

The prairie is not prodigious with its reds. Sure, there is a little royal catchfly sprinkled around. But not a whole lot else that’s scarlet. Purples?

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Oh my, everywhere from spring to fall. White — plenty of it. Yellows?

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The prairie seems to always have something yellow going on. Blue has a voice in August.

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Pinks. Yup.

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Even pink with a little orange thrown in for good measure.

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But red… now, that’s special.

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In my backyard, the cardinal flower is elusive. Some years it blooms. Others, it disappears and I wonder. Is it gone for good? This August, just as I gave up, a few bright spots appeared around the pond.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Because what would August be in the wet prairie without those splashes of scarlet?

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The opening quote is from Robert MacFarlane’s (1976-) Landmarks, a book that explores the critical importance of naming the natural world.  Read a review of Landmarks here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadow Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) , Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis,) Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL: blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus divarcatus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; bee and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; Joe Pye weed  (Eutrochium purpureum) with viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL.

Special thanks to John and Lisa Marie Ayres for permission to photograph Nomia Meadows Farm and its restored prairies and wetlands. If you haven’t stayed at their Bed and Breakfast, please take a look: Lincoln Way Inn Bed & Breakfast, Franklin Grove, IL. The most beautiful B&B I’ve ever stayed in; some lovely prairie-themed rooms.

Factual information and some good reading about the cardinal flower came from here: Illinois Wildflowers.

Ethnobotanical information on the cardinal flower is from page 312 of Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (Timber Press). Fabulous book! Check it out.