Tag Archives: pasture thistle

Bison Hike at Kankakee Sands

“Even then, I sensed that the buffalo signaled something profound….”–Dan O’Brien

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We followed the sandhill cranes south this weekend…

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and sun halo, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016).

…as we traveled to central Indiana. The morning skies were an ever-changing source of awe, from the moment we started our drive at sunrise…

Sunrise over the interstate, just outside DuPage County, IL (cell phone image).

…to the beautiful morning cloud formations over the corn fields of the northwestern corner of the Hoosier state.

Headed south down Interstate 65 in Indiana. (Cell phone photograph).

And a lunar eclipse! Still to come.

A favorite stop when we travel this way is Kankakee Sands in Indiana’s northwest corner. This past Saturday, we celebrated “National Bison Day” honoring our official United States mammal, so it seemed like a no-brainer to carve out a few extra miles to see if we could get a glimpse of this charismatic megafauna.

Bison viewing area, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Kankakee Sands is a beautiful mosaic of wetlands and prairie, part of a greater conservation effort that includes about 20,000 acres. Within its acres are 86 rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We don’t always see the bison when we stop, but this time, we were in luck.

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

What awe-inspiring creatures! Two young bison stuck close to their mama, while keeping an eye on us.

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

We watched another part of the herd run by in the distance. Bison can attain speeds of up to 35 mph. How can animals that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds move so quickly? What made them hurry to the other end of the prairie?

No idea. But they were fun to watch.

We took a few moments to walk the hiking trail at less-than-bison speed…

Trailhead at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

…and stretched our legs after the long car journey. From the trail, we could observe some of the prairie plants in their full fall glory.

Hiking the trails at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Little bluestem is at its peak.

Little bluestem (Schizachryrium scoparium), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

What a glorious grass! Those rust hues. Those seeds, which spark the sunlight! It’s a lovely grass for home plantings, as well as on the larger landscape of the tallgrass prairie. I was reminded that I have three little bluestem plugs still waiting to be planted at home, sitting on my porch. Ha! Better get those in soon.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Tufted thistle swirled its seeds into the wind as we watched.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The wind had also broken off mullein’s tall spikes…

The non-native common or great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The native—but weedy—seedheads of evening primrose swayed in the breezes.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

On the hill at the end of the trail, a tall tree, denuded of most of its leaves, loomed in the dying light. Very November-esque.

Tree at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

In the distance, white tailed deer mingled with the bison. They seemed content to share the prairie. Although we didn’t hear birdsong, we saw evidence of birds that were long gone south.

And then suddenly…a northern harrier cannonballed out of the grasses. Wow!

Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We watched it soar over the prairie; a fast-moving blur. It was quickly lost in the dying light.

Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While we were startled by the owl-like northern harrier, the mama bison and her young ones placidly grazed in the tallgrass. For them, it was just another part of a normal evening on the prairie.

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

What a peaceful scene, yet full of surprises. I felt myself relax. The prairie has a way of reminding me what contentment feels like.

The most difficult part of going to Kankakee Sands is making the decision to leave, and face the last leg of traffic entering Chicago. So much beautiful prairie here, all around. What an worth-while place to stop for a hike.

Dusk at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

On the drive home, closing out our Sunday, we watched an almost-full moon rise over the 34-acre Biesecker Prairie as we waited at a stoplight for the light to change in St. John, Indiana. The prairie is right at the intersection.

Almost-full moon rise over Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN (cell phone photo).

It was a sneak preview of the moon marvels ahead. Early this Tuesday morning, before we headed out to vote, we watched the “Beaver Blood Full Moon Total Lunar Eclipse” .

Full Beaver Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse, 4:09 am, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It was worth setting the alarm for. Pretty spectacular.

Full Beaver Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse with stars, 4:58 am, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Bison. A lunar eclipse. Prairies. What a wonderful way to begin the week. Who knows what other treats are in store?

I can’t wait to find out.

*****

The opening quote is from Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien (1966-). The New York Times notes O’Brien has a “keen and poetic eye” as he writes about his struggles to raise bison on a Black Hills ranch. Read more about his life and work here.

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Close out 2022 by Joining Cindy for a Class or Program

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. In-person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the garden club’s website here.


Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

A very happy birthday to Trevor Dean Edmonson, site manager at Kankakee Sands, whose birthday is today! Thank you for the work you do!

Hiking Wolf Road Prairie

“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” — E.B. White

*****

Happy February! January 2022 has come and gone, and with it the realization that I haven’t set in motion some of my New Year’s resolutions. I thought I would have accomplished more of them by now.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

But—I’ve been reading Atomic Habits, a new book about getting stuff done, and I’m a little less discouraged by what I haven’t accomplished yet. I’ve got a plan for February. There’s always tomorrow.

Rosette gall, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

One habit that hasn’t been difficult to maintain is hiking, despite the cold. This weekend, Jeff and I headed for the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, a remnant black soil prairie not far from our home.

I love the juxtaposition of city and tallgrass at this site. The sky seems so immense.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

So much sunshine! So much snow. It almost calls for sunglasses. We shield our eyes with our hands instead.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

The clouds look newly-laundered in the cold, fresh air. It’s a lovely day to be outside, despite the chilly temperature.

Wolf Road Prairie is crossed with sidewalks, the ghost skeleton of a subdivision that was almost built here in the 1920s. The Great Depression put an end to it. Jeff always loves scraping aside the snow to find the old walkways.

Sidewalks under the snow at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Because of the Save the Prairie Society, a group of people who saw the value of this remnant, Wolf Road Prairie was preserved instead of developed again in the 1970s. Rather than a subdivision, we have this wide-open space, with more than 360 species of native plants.

Unknown aster, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

I don’t have anything against subdivisions. I live in one. But as I hike, I am grateful for the vision of those who recognized this high quality prairie remnant for the special place it was, and ensured it lives on. We have plenty of subdivisions in the Chicago region. Almost all our prairie remnants like this one are gone.

On our hike, we bump into Wyatt Widmer, the site steward, and a group of volunteers out cutting brush and herbiciding woody plants. It’s inspiring to see them caring for this 82-acre preserve; the prairie—and savanna and wetland—that has brought Jeff and me so much pleasure for so many years. People are an important part of prairie.

Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Seeing them working is a timely reminder that the prairies which seem so “natural” are kept healthy and vibrant today by dedicated staff and volunteers and the sweat equity they invest. Today, without people to put fire to the last of the prairies, weed and cut brush, and collect seeds and redistribute them, what’s left of our Illinois prairies would eventually disappear. Prairies need our help.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

As I hike, I think about the prairie where I’m a steward. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish my management plan with my co-steward and the natural resources staff at the Arboretum where I volunteer. It feels a little overwhelming to get it done. Our 100-acre prairie has endless numbers of potential projects. What to tackle first?

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

After conducting a plant inventory in 2016, our group is anxious to replace some of the plants that have gone missing; get them back into circulation. But how to choose? Where to start? We also have a brush problem. A reed canary grass issue. And sumac? Don’t get me started.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Seeing these volunteers and the site steward working at Wolf Road Prairie prods me to finish that plan. February is a good time to dream, to make lists, and to be pro-active, rather than re-active. February is a good time to get things done.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

I want to be intentional about how the new season on the prairie unfolds.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

But of course…

Probably motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

…the prairie has a mind of its own.

Nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

No matter how many lists I make, plants I order, or projects I envision, Mother Nature will have a say in what happens this year. There will be random events; occurrences I can’t plan for.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Drought, windstorms, flooding, hungry mammals, and yes—Covid—may all play a role in our 2022 season. Even the best planning won’t ensure 100% execution and success.

Pasture thistle leaves (Cirsium discolor), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

But a plan is necessary. And part of my management plan is to be flexible.

River grape (Vitis riparia), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

To adapt to whatever comes in 2022. To remind myself that when my planning fails, there’s always next year. Keep moving forward. Step by step. Little by little.

Bird’s nest, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Good reminders, for the prairie and for myself. We’ll see how it goes.

******

The opening quote is from E. B. White (1899-1985), who was the author of several beloved children’s books including Charlotte’s Web. Writers also know him as the co-author of The Elements of Style. Early in his newspaper career, he was fired by The Seattle Times, and later went to Alaska to work on a fireboat. When he eventually joined the staff of The New Yorker, he was painfully shy, and would only come into the office on Thursdays. There, he met his eventual wife Katharine, the magazine’s literary editor, whose son Roger Angell from her first marriage is the baseball writer and fiction editor at The New Yorker today. In the introduction to Charlotte’s Web, White is quoted as saying “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” It showed.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!

February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world.  February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.

March 3Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.

Little Prairie in the Industrial Park

“Don’t it always seem to go—That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”–Joni Mitchell

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What a beautiful week in the Chicago Region.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

An excellent excuse to hike the West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…

Small plane over West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.

I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.

Fall color has arrived. At last.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.

West Chicago Prairie hiking trail, West Chicago, IL.

I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.

Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.

It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

We need these prairie places.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.

Mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.

Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.

*****

The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): 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.

Hello, October Prairie

The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.

Fallen leaves, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.

Road through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (File photo)

This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in the wheel position, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in “tandem oviposition”, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.

Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.

Skeletonized riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad books I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.

Familiar bluet (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.

False solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum),Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see for yourself?

*****

The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! 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. Registration information here.

Three Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock

******

Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.

August at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.

1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.

Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.

Spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) with (possibly) a potter wasp (Parancistrocerus leinotus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.

Cream gentians (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:

The maples flare among the spruces,
                   The bursting foxgrape spills its juices,
                   The gentians lift their sapphire fringes
                   On roadways rich with golden tenges,
                   The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers,
                   The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers,
                   The squirrels scurry, never stopping,
                   For all they hear is apples dropping
                   And walnuts plumping fast and faster;
                   The bee weighs down the purple aster —
                   Yes, hive your honey, little hummer,
                   The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”

I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!

Blazing star (possibly Liatris pycnostachya), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.

2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with unknown bees, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.

Pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium) with an unknown bee, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.

Late figwort ( Scrophularia marilandica) with an unknown insect, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.

This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.

Least skipper (Ancyloxpha numitor) on blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?

Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.

Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.

So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…

3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.

Dragonfly migration swarm, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2014).

In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…

Wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2016).

…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.

Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.

Bison unit, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?

*****

The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.

****

Join Cindy for a class or program!

August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event, and for current event updates.

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

The Prairie Skies in March

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”–Aldo Leopold

*****

High winds. First green growth. Warm sunny days, alternating with blustery snowstorms. It’s migration season.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and a sun halo over Cindy’s backyard prairie this weekend.

This week, Jeff and I walk the Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois, a 10-acre remnant hemmed by homes, soccer fields, highways and railroad tracks.

More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.

But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.

Blue flag iris (Iris virginica shrevei), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.

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

So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.

A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.

Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.

All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.

At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN (2016)

Sandhill cranes can be found in North America, all the way to the extremes of northeastern Siberia. Three subspecies live in Cuba, Mississippi, and Florida year-round, according to Cornell University. These cranes are omnivores, changing their diet based on what’s available. Small amphibians, reptiles, and mammals may be on the menu one day; grains and plants the next.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Horicon Marsh, WI (2019)

The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake, WI (2019)

The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.

As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.

Unknown feather, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.

Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.

Crane watching, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A sun halo appears.

Partial sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.

Snowstorm, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.

Welcome back.

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.

*****

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

A Brief History of Trees in America Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. 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.

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

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.

5 Reasons to Hike the November Prairie

“November is chill, frosted mornings with a silver sun rising behind the trees, red cardinals at the feeders, and squirrels running scallops along the tops of the gray stone walls”. —Jean Hersey

*****

November marks a tumultuous halfway point. What a month!

School playgrounds are empty.

Families fear to gather. Headlines promise no quick answers.

Pewter skies. Cold drizzle. Tornado watches. 50-mph winds.

Let’s go look for hope. Peace. Beauty.

Here are five reasons to hike the November prairie.

  1. November’s prairie is a sea of gorgeous foamy seeds. Exploding asters loosen their shattered stars against the winds.

Boneset seeds prepare to set sail on the breeze.

Thistles are an exercise in contrast.

Thimbleweed’s wispy Q-tips hold fast against the wind. A few lose their grip, but most will hang on to their seeds through winter.

So many seeds.

So much promise for 2021. Hope for the future.

2. November’s prairie offers the solace of gray skies. Depressing? No. Curiously calming to the spirit, even in high winds, which carve curves in the clouds.

On mornings when the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the freeze softens plants; breaks them down. They crumple. Ice pierces succulent plants from the inside out.

The skies are misted and vague.

The future seems uncertain. But the skies, cycling between sunshine and steel, remind us how quickly change is possible.

3. November’s prairie is full of music. Autumn’s orchestra is fully tuned now, with winter whispering soft notes in the wings. Switchgrass and Indian grass hiss in high winds, like onions sizzling in a frying pan.

Geese cry overhead. on their way to nowhere special.

A train blows its mournful whistle.

I listen until the sound fades away.

4. Leaves are the stars of November’s tallgrass. Prairie dock leaves are topographic maps of the world.

Rattlesnake master masters the curves. I’m reminded of the Olympic ribbon dancers; rhythmic gymnastics performed in taupes and beiges.

Yet these leaves are immobile. Grace and motion frozen in high winds.

Other leaves signal surrender. Tattered and shredded by weather.

I kneel by the compass plant, trying to read its leaves for direction.

It seems as lost as I am.

5. November’s prairie is art in process. What will you see there?

Works by the impressionists.

Echoes of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

Modern art?

Perhaps.

The prairie paints a thousand pictures every day. Sings a hundred songs. Tells stories.

Ready for more?

Let’s go.

*****

Jean Hersey (1902-date of death unknown) was the author of The Shape of a Year. She wrote about gardening, houseplants, herbs, grief, flowering shrubs, and penned many homespun articles for Women’s Day magazine.

All photos this week are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): deserted school playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Belmont Prairie in November; Belmont prairie boardwalk; panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); mixed grasses and forbs; gray skies over Belmont Prairie; hard freeze (prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL): Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripterus); Canada geese (Branta canadensis); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); unknown prairie forb; unknown prairie forb; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mixed grasses; Belmont Prairie edges; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in November; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie in November.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Wolf Road Prairie Monarchs: A Wing and a Prayer

“Coming in on a wing and a prayer, what a show…”–Harold Adamson

*****

Sunday morning dawns bright, windy, and clear. A lone green darner dragonfly zips away as Jeff and I step onto the crumbling sidewalk—one of many sidewalks that run through the 82-acre Wolf Road Prairie remnant in Westchester, Illinois.

Sidewalks? In a prairie? It’s a part of Wolf Road Prairie’s heritage. The sidewalks were built on this remnant prairie as part of a planned development. The prairie was subdivided into almost 600 lots in the 1920s. Then, the Great Depression hit, and ended the project before more construction was completed. A lucky break for the tallgrass.

Later, proposed development in the 1970s was thwarted by the conservation-minded Save the Prairie Organization. Thanks to their work, and the work of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Salt Creek Greenway Association, and Forest Preserve District of Cook County, we have this amazing designated Illinois Nature Preserve to hike through this morning.

Although there are more than 360 native plant species as part of Wolf Road Prairie’s mosaic of prairie, wetland, and savanna for us to admire and identify…

…we are here today to hike and see what dragonflies are out and about.

What you look for isn’t always what you find.

Monarch! Jeff points to a butterfly nectaring on one of the sawtooth sunflowers that floods the prairie with color. We enjoy the contrast of the butterfly’s bright orange and black against the yellow for a moment, and then…Another one over here!

A monarch over our heads. I point. Here’s another one! A monarch brushes my shoulder on its way to the goldenrod. Suddenly, we see monarchs everywhere.

As we hike, butterflies pop up from the prairie wildflowers, disturbed in the act of fueling up for the long journey south to Mexico.

Others dance their butterfly ballet across the sky, sometimes singly, other times in twos. As we hike, we are hit with the realization. This is monarch migration.

In my almost six decades, I’ve only seen this phenomenon once before — at Kankakee Sands at dusk in northwestern Indiana. On September 18 in 2018, we had stopped on the way home from visiting family in Indiana with hopes to see The Nature Conservancy’s new bison herd. Instead, we saw monarchs. Hundreds of them. (Read about that experience here.)

Now, on Wolf Prairie, we hike and we count. Then, we give up. Too many monarchs. We just enjoy them. After an hour, we reluctantly head home. But the images of butterflies and wildflowers linger.

Jeff and I talk about the monarch migration off and on all day. Finally, around dinner time, we look at each other and nod. Let’s go back. We decide to”borrow” two of the grandkids for the trip. We want them to see this epic gathering—one we have talked about with them since they were born.

But—will the monarchs still be there, hours later?

They are.

Nectaring on sunflowers.

Juicing up on tall boneset.

Dining on pasture thistle.

Sipping from goldenrod.

Monarchs in motion. Seeing them on so many different wildflowers is a good reminder that monarchs need more than milkweed. A lot more. They need fall blooming plants that will provide nectar as they travel thousands of miles to their final destination.

They need what we find on a healthy tallgrass preserve like Wolf Road Prairie. It’s these preserved natural areas that help ensure the monarch’s survival.

There are such wonders to be found in the world.

But you have to go look.

When you do, maybe you’ll feel as we did after seeing the monarchs.

Hopeful for the future.

*******

The opening quote is from Coming in On a Wing and a Prayer, a song popular during World War 2. It was written by Harold Adamson with music composed by Jimmy McHugh, and made the top 20 bestselling songs of 1943.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Wolf Road Prairie (top to bottom): Wolf Road Prairie September 13; sidewalk through the prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); monarch leaving sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) after nectaring; Jeff hikes Wolf Road Prairie during monarch migration; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); hiking Wolf Prairie during monarch migration; monarch sailing over Wolf Road prairie; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosserratus); counting monarchs (Danaus plexippus); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); exploring the prairie; mixed blooms; hiking Wolf Road Prairie; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); finding monarchs at Wolf Road Prairie.

*******

SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch Project is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.

“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 online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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 (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), 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. 

Prairie Migration

“Oh the days dwindle down, To a precious few . . .September….”

—Maxwell Anderson

*****

They swirl in my backyard, green helicopters against a blue sky. On the prairies, I count them. Twenty-five. Fifty.

Where are these dragonflies going?

South.

It’s migration season in the Chicago region.

Common green darners zip and dart overhead, as I try to estimate their numbers for my dragonfly data. Seventy-five. One hundred. One hundred and ten. I put my clipboard down and marvel. How was I alive in the world for so many years and never noticed this phenomenon?

My data sheet is pre-printed with the names of numerous species, but today the common green darners’ hash marks spill over into other columns. I finish estimating at 165. Then I turn my attention to the dragonflies and damselflies that won’t make the trip.

In Willoway Brook, a stream bluet, shows his age by his pruinosity:

A few tired-looking American rubyspot damselflies stake out the stream.

A single widow skimmer dragonfly flies across the tallgrass trail.

These dragonfly and damselfly species will remain on the prairie, resigned to end their lives here in the Chicago region. As the colder temperatures increase, their natural lifespans will come to an end. By the time frost ices the tallgrass, most will be gone.

There are other delights that prepare to take their place. The prairie, refreshed by much-needed downpours this week, is alight with the colors of autumn. The leaves of purple meadow rue are in transition.

September loves yellow. Illinois’ corn fields are quilted green and yellow and brown with corn in full tassel. Goldenrod shows off its different floral shapes—some tall and branching, other blooms flat or rounded. Soybean fields stretch to the horizon, pools of molten gold. On the prairie, sawtooth sunflowers are bright against a clear blue sky.

Along Willoway Brook, the sunflowers admire their reflection.

A blue heron watches the water, hoping for a fish or frog. Patience personified.

Singles and family groups have been hiking Illinois’ prairies in large numbers this week, lured out, perhaps, by the knowledge that the days of warmer weather are numbered. Meteorological autumn is here. Winter is coming. They leave evidence of their presence—sometimes a gum wrapper or wadded up Kleenex—other times a bit of encouragement.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison shrug on their winter coats, ready for cold weather. The spring calves darken to chocolate brown and put on weight. But a few late-born butterscotch bison babies stick close to each other and their mamas.

Near Nachusa, the beekeepers gather their honey and lay it out for sale on tables along the gravel roads. There’s something touching about the tin can honor system of payment; the “Need change? Take bills from here!” tin. It’s a little bit of optimism, a vote of trust in the inherent goodness of people.

I needed that this week. You, too?

It’s been bird migration time here in the Chicago region; more than 30 million birds were estimated to pass through Illinois in one 12 hour period last week. Jeff and I sit on the back porch and count the nighthawks high overhead; marvel at the hummingbirds that zoom in to fuel up at the feeder.

I’ve also been heartened by the number of migrating monarchs that cruise through the tallgrass on my walks through the prairies this week. Insect news has not been great, folks, so to see the skies full of orange and black wings headed south is a shot of joy.

But it’s the green darners who are the stars of the prairies this week. The green darners I’m hanging my hopes on. Today, hundreds. Tomorrow, they may vanish. Sure, there will be a straggler or two around, but the electricity of their activity will be a thing of remembrance. When we see them again, it won’t be these individuals that come back. Rather, their progeny, one darner at a time, struggling to return from thousands of miles. We’ll see the first one in the first warming days of March and April. What a day to look forward to!

When the green darner dragonflies arrived in March this year, I couldn’t have imagined what our lives would be like in the following months of 2020. Seeing them go now in September—almost seven months later—I wonder what life for us will be when they return next spring. This season of change makes me feel hopeful.

See you in March, little dragonflies. Safe travels.

*****

The opening quote is from the lyrics of September Song, written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill. It’s been recorded by many artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jeff Lynn of Electric Light Orchestra (with George Harrison). But my favorite continues to be the rendition by Willie Nelson from Stardust. Listen, and see if you agree.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of green darner migration, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2013); common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream bluet male (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; found nature art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; twin baby bison calves (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; honey stand, next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; common green darner dragonfly, male (Ajax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

****

SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz from this Saturday, 9/12 through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.

Nomia Meadows Farm, just down the road from Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, has great honey for sale. Contact them here.

Join Cindy for an Online Class or Talk this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“A Tallgrass Conversation”Conservation Cocktails online with Lake Forest Openlands. Friday, September 11, 6-7:30pm. To register—and find out how to join the good work of this organization–click 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 online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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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 (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), 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. 

February Prairie Joys

“The season was…caught in a dreamy limbo between waking and sleeping.” — Paul Gruchow

*****

And so, February slogs on. We slip on ice, shovel the driveway, or shiver as cold slush slops into our boots. The sky alternates with bright sun and scoured blue skies to gray sheets of clouds that send our spirits plummeting. It’s difficult to not wish February gone. And yet, there is so much February has to offer. So much to enjoy! Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie and savanna after the snow on Valentine’s Day Friday, I was reminded of this.

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It’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brrr! There’s something comforting about water running under the ice in Willoway Brook.

In other parts of the prairie stream, the water looks like a deep space image, complete with planets, asteroids, and other star-flung matter.

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Wrinkles of ice form on the surface, like plastic wrap on blue jello.

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This slash of blue stream owes much of its color to the reflected February sky. Bright and sunny. So welcome after a string of gray days!

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However, to say the brook is blue is to overlook its infinite variations in color. Leaning over the bridge, I knock a drift of powdered snow loose. It sifts onto Willoway Brook and sugars the ice.

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The prairie is quiet. Roadway noise from a nearby interstate is an ever-present current of background sound, but the “prairie mind” soon learns to filter it out. My “prairie steward mind” notes the numbers of Illinois bundleflower seedheads along the stream, a mixed blessing here. We planted this native as part of a streambank rehab almost 20 years ago. Now, the bundleflower is spreading across the prairie in leaps and bounds and threatening to become a monoculture. What to do, what to do.

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For today, I’ll just enjoy its unusual jolt of shape and color. Wait until spring, bundleflower. I’ll deal with you then. Meanwhile, I enjoy some of the less rowdy members of the prairie wildflowers. Bee balm with its tiny pipes, each hollow and beginning to decay, shadowed in the sunlight. It’s easy to imagine hummingbirds and butterflies  sipping nectar here, isn’t it? Its namesake bees love it too.

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The February prairie is full of activity, both seen and unseen. A few sparrows flutter low in the drifts. Near the bee balm, mouse tunnels and vole holes pock the snowbanks.

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Coyote tracks, their shamrock paw prints deeply embedded in the slashes of snow, embroider the edges of the tallgrass.

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The remains of prairie plants have mostly surrendered to the ravages of the season.

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Carrion flower, a skeleton of its former self, catches small drifts. Such a different winter look for this unusual plant!

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Pasture thistle stands tall by the trail, still recognizable. This summer it will be abuzz with pollinator activity, but for now, the queen bumblebees sleep deep under the prairie. Waiting for spring.

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*****

The Schulenberg, a planted prairie, and Belmont Prairie, a prairie remnant, are less than five miles apart but feel very different.  On Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Downer’s Grove and hiked the Belmont Prairie. The bright sun and warming temperatures—44 degrees! —-also made Sunday’s hike a far different proposition than my Friday hike at 14 degrees on the Schulenberg Prairie.

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The shallow prairie stream at Belmont glistens with ice fancywork.

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The prairie plants here—what’s left of them in February—display infinite variety as they do on the Schulenberg. Nodding wild onion.noddingwildonionbelmontprairie21620WM.jpg

Rattlesnake master, its seedheads slowly disintegrating.

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Rattlesnake master’s yucca-like leaves, once juicy and flexible, are torn into new shapes. The textures are still clearly visible.

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Soft arcs of prairie brome…

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…are echoed by curved whips of white vervain nearby.

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The compass plant leaves bow into the snow, slumped, like melted bass clefs.

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I can identify these plants. But then the fun begins. What is this seedhead, knee-high by the trail? Such a puzzle!

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Without plant leaves, ID becomes more challenging. But the usual suspects are still here. A chorus of tall coreopsis…

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…and the wild quinine, now devoid of its pungent summer scent.

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Soft Q-tips of thimbleweed are unmistakable.

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As is the round-headed bush clover silhouette; a burst of February fireworks.

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February is flying by. There’s so much on the prairie to see before it ends.

Why not go look?

****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) penned the opening quote to this post, taken from the chapter “Winter” from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions, 1985). Gruchow remains one of my favorite writers; his treatises on Minnesota’s tallgrass prairie and rural life are must-reads.

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in ice and thaw, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; vole tunnel (may be a meadow vole or prairie vole, we have both!), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion vine (likely Smilax herbacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream through Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown, possibly purple or yellow meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum/flavum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB friends (shout out Will! Evan! Paul! Duane! Kathleen!) for helping me work through an ID for the possible native meadow parsnip.

Join Cindy for a class or event!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL Open to the public! Book signing follows.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com