Tag Archives: prairie

Little Prairie on the Freeway

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because  I cannot do everything, I will not refuse  to do the something I can do.” ― Edward Everett Hale

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Strong winds. Gray skies. A cold drizzle. Not an optimal day to go for a prairie hike.

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But you hike when you have time to hike, and weather be hanged. Today, Hinsdale Prairie steward Kath Thomas has promised me a tour of a prairie remnant, just down the street from her house. Not much more than an acre, it’s a tiny remnant island adrift in a sea of development.

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What’s a prairie remnant? Simply put, it’s a piece of the original tallgrass prairie that has not been plowed or destroyed. Illinois once had 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie; only about 2,300 high quality acres remain. Other Midwestern states have even more dismal statistics. These remnants are often tucked into old cemeteries, or the corners of farm fields. Along railroad tracks. On rocky hilltops unsuitable for plowing. Or, places like this alongside a freeway that escaped notice.

Mowers have knocked back the prairie on the freeway side…

signhinsdaleprairieWM102818.jpg…and it’s been trimmed back along the sidewalk which flanks it on the west.

There’s a roar of traffic from the freeway.

 

The din is overwhelming. A prairie — here? Really? If there is birdsong, it’s erased by the sounds of trucks.  And yet…you feel it. This is a special place.

As we hike, Kath points out the bluebird houses. Anybody home? Nope, not today. Too late in the season.

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As we brush aside the tallgrass and hike deeper into the prairie, the real treasures emerge. Over here, spent prairie gentians. To the left, prairie dropseed, lime-colored for autumn. Just ahead, the bloomed-out spikes of Liatris, blazing star, with a few ballet-skirted seedheads of Echinacea; pale purple coneflower.

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Other treasures appear as we  walk. Prairie dock. prairiedockHinsdalePrairie102818.jpg

Some rough-cut leaves of compass plant.

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All of these tell us we’re walking through prairie, not an old field. Signs of a survivor.

The rain starts up again. Wind and wet blur the grasses into a watercolor of motion.

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The rain also brings out the globe-dark silhouettes of rattlesnake master…

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…and pops of black-eyed Susan seedheads. I imagine these two plants in summer; their flashes of silvery white and lemon yellow.

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Reality, in the form of more cold drizzle, brings me back to the present. Kath will be the first to tell you this little prairie remnant is here because of Dr. Robert Betz, who identified prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) here in the 1970s and championed the prairie’s survival. We don’t find the prairie bush clover as we hike today, but we do find round-headed bush clover. Not nearly so unusual, but still intriguing.

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Look around and discover a jewelry box full of plant gems.  New Jersey tea with its blown-out seedheads and curl of last leaves. Bee balm, with its powdered leaves at the end of the season, exhaling an astringent scent. Big bluestem, the Illinois state grass, waves its turkey-footed seedhead against the gray sky.newjerseyteaHinsdalePrairie102818WM

 

The Hinsdale Prairie refuses to give up the ghost, despite inroads from utility work, encroachment by development, and occasional mowing on the east and west side that shaves off precious portions of the tallgrass. Crown vetch, teasel, and daylilies threaten to dispossess the Indian grass, little bluestem, and wild quinine.

wildquinineWMCROSBYHinsdale102818.jpgKath does everything she can to raise awareness of this remnant. She founded “Friends of Hinsdale Prairie,” dedicated to advocating for the prairie on social media and with local government. She intercedes for the prairie when she sees unusual activity, like utility trucks parking on the grasses or neighbors throwing yard waste into the wildflowers. She picks up trash. Each day brings a new challenge. And Kath is only one person.

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But she’s one person changing the world, making a difference. Right where she lives.

Kath inspires me that change is possible—if only we will step up. Take care of the places right in front of us. Tell others why something matters.

How will you change your world? There’s never been a better time to find out.

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The opening lines of this blog are from Edward Everett Hale’s The Book of Good Cheer.  His words have been quoted and re-quoted in various forms. Hale (1822-1909) was a poet, novelist, Chaplain of the United States Senate, and member of the  Academy of Arts and Sciences. He advanced social reforms such as better access to adult education, religious tolerance, and abolition of slavery.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby at the Hinsdale Prairie, Hinsdale, IL (top to bottom): sunflowers (Helianthus maximilian); Hinsdale Prairie remnant along the freeway; old prairie preservation sign; video of IL-83 passing on the west of the prairie; bluebird house; rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) and other plants, including pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); tallgrass in October; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); Kath Thomas, Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

A big thanks to Kath Thomas for her tour of the prairie, and her gracious hospitality. You can help support the Hinsdale Prairie by joining Kath at Friends of Hinsdale Prairie on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Read more on Facebook about the history of this important prairie remnant.

Fall Comes to the Prairie

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”–George Eliot

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The Canada geese are quarreling. I watch them elbow each other out of the way in mid-flight; honking and diving. Maybe they are arguing the mysteries of matter, or particle physics? After all, they’re at Fermilab, a government facility for particle physics and an accelerator laboratory just down the road from my house. The facility grounds are a  mosaic of beautiful natural areas, including prairies and wetlands. fermilabWMwilsonhall10118.jpg

The bison grazing nearby on the grounds seem more placid than the geese, untroubled by neutrino experiments or accelerator science.

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You can almost imagine their thoughts. Hey geese! Keep it down. What’s all the fuss about? At any rate, I’m not here to bison watch, and I have little patience for quarrels today, geese or otherwise. My destination is a prairie trail.pathatfermiprairie10118WM.jpg

Approximately one thousand acres of Fermilab Natural Areas, surrounding the government world of equations and physics, promises endless adventures. And today, there’s not a soul on the prairie path. Although it’s obvious I’m not alone.

Overhead, green darner dragonflies hover high above the tallgrass. Are they migrating south? Or waiting out their lives here? Hard to tell. But this late in the season I suspect they’re on their way to warmer places. Lately, a black saddlebags dragonfly, also migratory, has hung around my backyard, slow and torpid in the colder weather. Imagine those wings taking it thousands of miles! Close up the wing veination reminds me of ferns.

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I continue hiking, stepping in coyote scat on the trail. Oops! Better watch where I’m going. An insect sings a single note, as if struck from a tuning fork. Everywhere, there are tiny crackling sounds. Mice eating seeds? Birds rustling in the grasses? Leaves drying in the  sun? Part of the prairie’s mystery.

The dogbane or Indian hemp, as it is sometimes called, is gone to seed in places. Its soft silks contrast with the crisp, browning leaves of neighboring prairie plants and their tinker-toy stems.dogbaneindianhemp10118WM.jpg

Wildflowers are mostly of the goldenrod and aster variety, with a few exceptions. Some mountain mint. A last pale prairie Indian plantain bloom or two.

The stiff gentians, those party girls of the fall, are out in full regalia. Looks like a weevil might be crashing the fun.

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So many gentians! They are abundant here, like amethysts scattered deep in the tallgrass. Nearby, goldenrod galls create their own sort of green “flowers” everywhere I look.  Sometimes called “bunch galls” or “rosette galls,” they are formed by insects. Check out more about goldenrod galls here.

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You could enjoyably spend several hours searching for the different goldenrod galls (ellipse, ball, rosette, small bunch…), and reading up on their buggy creators. See one bunch gall, and suddenly the others come into focus.

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The rosin weed blooms are past, but their seedheads look like floral bouquets, don’t they? As pretty in seed as in flower.

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Everywhere there are riots of asters; including many species of white aster that I struggle to name. More easily ID’d is the ubiquitous New England aster, poised on the prairie like a satellite dish with fringe.

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It’s not all prettiness and pleasantry.  The tall coreopsis is in seed, towering over my head, and  I can’t resist pulling down a seedhead and digging into it with my fingernail even though I know I’ll be repelled. And I am. It oozes a smelly, oily substance—and I quickly let the stem spring back. Of all the seeds we collect each fall on the prairie, this is my least favorite. So pretty in bloom! So stinky in your hands.tallcoreposisWMFermi10118.jpg

Rot and decay, the calling cards of October, are juxtaposed with these last flushes of bloom and seed. A giant puffball lies shattered and corrupt, broken up by small mammals and now fodder for insect life.

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And in proportion to the slow decline of plants, the insects seemingly flourish. You don’t notice them so much at first, except for the mosquitoes who won’t be ignored. But take a moment and look—really look—at the grasses and flowers, and all at once, you realize they are teeming with insect life. So much diversity!

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Decay can be beautiful. The turn of the prairie dock leaf…

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The compass plant seedheads, dry and full of promise for new life.

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Wild quinine, its silvered seeds perhaps more lovely than the flowers themselves were.wildquinineWMFermi10118.jpg

In autumn, the balance of light to dark shifts, tipping ever-so-slowly toward darkness as the days go by. Change is in the air. Bloom to seed. Flourishing to decline. All this change is in evidence here this morning.

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So much to see in one short morning hike here! Who knows what other adventures will unfold this October on the prairie?

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The opening quote about autumn is from Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a Victorian-era English novelist and poet who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name to escape being thought of as a romance writer. Among her books are Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.

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All photos taken at Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL, unless otherwise indicated: Wilson Hall and prairie grasses; bison (Bison bison); prairie trail; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), author’s backyard pond and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum):  stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) seedhead; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads; decayed puffball (possibly Calvatia gigantea); partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and an unknown species of ant; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceeum) leaf; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seeds; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); sky and grass in October. 

A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

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Thunder rattles the windows. Up north, tornado warning sirens blare. The news broadcasts footage of holiday passengers wading across flooded roads to get to O’Hare Airport, thinking only of returning home.

The deluge continues.

At last, in the early evening, a short break in the precipitation gives me time to go for a walk. I head to the prairie to check conditions.

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Trail puddles are necklaced with black walnut leaves, pulled loose from their tentative moorings by the pounding rain.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird shelters from the weather in an oak along the path. Just like the passengers at O’Hare, the thunderstorms have put a crimp in this bird’s travel plans.

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The hummingbirds are migrating. In my backyard, they wage fierce battles over the single feeder filled with sugar water, placed tantalizingly over the butterfly weed and little bluestem. The hummers are driven by instinct. Powered by nectar—or in the case of my backyard birds—faux nectar. In a few weeks, they’ll disappear completely; their entertaining antics only a memory.

On the prairie, the sun breaks through the clouds. The tall Indian grasses, with their lingering raindrops, become crystal-hung chandeliers.

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For a moment. Despite the glitter and bling of raindrops catching sunlight, the prairie still seems dark. Subdued.  The beginning of September is always a bit melancholy.  Perhaps it’s the lowering slant of light; shorter days, longer nights. Just some of the many signals Mother Nature sends her creatures that colder weather is on the way.

For migrating dragonflies—green darners, black saddlebags, wandering gliders, and others—those signals mean GO! GO! GO! They’ve massed together, then zipped away to warmer climes this past week. Their remaining kin, bedraggled and shopworn, are left to face the coming cold.

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The end-of-the-season butterflies I’ve seen this week are a study in contrasts. A few are bright and freshly emerged. Like this newly-minted American painted lady. Crisply colored, with unblemished wings, she’s probably the Midwest’s late season generation of her species.

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Oddly enough, according to University of Florida, instead of making a southward journey, American painted ladies, or “American ladies” as they are sometimes called, “overwinter in the southern U.S. and repopulate more northern areas each spring.” The report tells us the northern limit of their overwintering is unknown. Is Illinois too cold? Probably. Apparently, “in north central Florida, American ladies migrate northward during the spring, but there is no significant southward migration in the fall.” Why not, I wonder?

So much mystery!

This great spangled fritillary butterfly is only a bit worse for wear after the summer’s adventures.

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Perhaps it doesn’t have the worries of a cross-continental trip on its mind. Just nectaring, nectaring, nectaring until the cold weather sets in. That’s what thistles are for, right?

But this evening, on the rain-drenched prairie, there isn’t much butterfly—or dragonfly—movement. Both likely shelter in the rain-glazed trees…

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…or nestle deep in the big bluestem and grasses.

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Thunder rumbles. The clouds sweep in.

It’s Mother Nature’s signal to me! Go!

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The first raindrops splatter the trail. Tonight, the local news broadcast will tell us this was the Chicago region’s wettest Labor Day on record.  But the September rain, no matter flooding and postponed picnics, has its purpose.  It nourishes the prairie and its creatures for the last months of the prairie season.  Gives a last boost to the goldenrods and asters, needed by monarchs on their long migratory journey south to Mexico. Coaxes the gentians to open, fresh and vibrant in the grasses.

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The passage from summer to autumn is bittersweet. But the prairie knows how to ease the transition. Butterflies. Gentians. The daily surprises of migration.

Even thunderstorms.

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The opening quote is from Baseball Hall of Famer, Wilver “Willie” Stargell (1940-2001), who played his entire 21-year professional baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-82). During his farm club years, he was harassed, threatened at gunpoint, and denied lodging because of his race in many of the towns where he played. Stargell, an African-American, was tempted to quit. He persevered to become one of the most beloved players in the game. Stargell is one of only five players to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium, and is known for his long-distance home runs. Said Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan upon Stargell’s death, “He never made anyone look bad, and he never said anything bad about anybody.” A good way to be remembered.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video clip of rainfall, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; thunderstorm approaching the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rain-drenched path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) at the end of the season, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle, (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trees on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with raindrops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Frog Days of Summer

“August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time.” –Sylvia Plath

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Indian grass plumes out, announcing autumn’s imminent arrival on the prairie. August is trickling away.

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Hey –not so fast, summer! It seems like you just got here.

My hand-dug, mud hole of a backyard prairie pond evaporates quickly in our hot, sweltering days. The rain barrel is dry; precipitation a distant memory. Each evening, I turn the hose on for 20 minutes and bring the pond back to its original level. The wetland wildflowers on the pond’s banks sink their toes into the moist soil. Ahhhh. Much better!

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As I fill the pond, I hear Plop! Plop! Plop! A swirl of duckweed. Four frogs look up at me.

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Where did you guys come from?  We’re a long way from any major water source. Mallard ducks flap in from time to time to enjoy a dip in the pond. Did the frog eggs come in on a duck’s webbed foot? It’s a mystery.

But the best kind of mystery, when something exciting that you didn’t expect turns up to delight you. Water often brings about surprises like this. Like when the blue lobelia, that breath-taking wetland wildflower, comes into bloom seemingly overnight.

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Or, dragonflies and damselflies, which emerge from streams and ponds and surprise us with their comic expressions….

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…or cause us to marvel at their color…

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…or astonish us with their balance and grace.

Calico pennant 2018SPMAwm.jpgThis month, after the extreme mosquito activity of June and July, I tried something new in my little pond: a solar water bubbler, which is “guaranteed to reduce the mosquito populations to 10x less their original state”  according to the packaging. Mosquito marketing aside, the bubbler sends up a consistent splash of water as long as the sun is shining. Which this August, hasn’t been a problem.  The water feature is a fun addition to the pond.

The frogs think so, too. Early in the morning, I often find a frog sunning herself on the solar collector, letting the water gently bubble over her. Something that wasn’t promoted in the marketing materials, but maybe should have been.

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The crackling dry days of August give me a new appreciation for water and all it brings.  Late one evening this week, as I top off the water in the pond, I hear the frenzied concert of the cicadas crescendo to a deafening level. Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes.

At last! Let it rain!

 

And it does. Bringing with it a cool breath of air, the refreshment of grasses and wildflowers, the filling of my pond without me wielding my hose…

Guara818wmSP.jpg…and the promise of a new season ahead.

A tumultuous and welcome end to the dog days of August.

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The “dog days of summer” are reference to the hottest, most humid days of the year. The actual reference to “dog days” refers to Sirius, the dog star, which rises before the sun in late July. Sylvia Plath, whose quote about August kicks off this blogpost, was a talented and troubled poet. Says The Poetry Foundation about Plath: “Intensely autobiographical, Plath’s poems explore her own mental anguish, her troubled marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, her unresolved conflicts with her parents, and her own vision of herself. ” She writes some powerful poetry about the natural world. Try “The Moon and the Yew Tree.”

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; August wildflowers by author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; frog (Lithobates catesbeianus) resting in author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frog (Lithobates catesbeianus) on the water bubbler, author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL: video of a mid-August thunderstorm, author’s suburban backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Guara biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie All-Stars

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing’.” — Yogi Berra

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If there’s one thing you learn on a prairie, it’s that the more you begin to know about the bugs, blooms, and grasses, the less you realize you know. And the more you realize you don’t know, the more you want to know about what you don’t know.

Whew.

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Bees, for instance. They’ve always been flying around, sort buzzing in the background of the prairie. But not on my radar. Until I started paying attention to bees this season. This one turned up as I was wading a stream this week, looking for dragonflies. At least—I think this is a bee. Interesting “raft!”

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I looked up, hip-deep in creek water, hoping to see the former owner of the feather.  The only bird in sight was this kingfisher. Hmmm…doesn’t seem to match.

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Back to the bees. Or is this a bee look-alike? I look at the markings on the head, the tuft of fur behind the, um—neck? Is that the right term?—and the patterns as seen from topside. I still am unsure. So many native bees and non-native bees! So many bee look-alikes! The mind boggles.

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The sunflower this bee is busily investigating is the woodland sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus. At least, I think that’s what the flower is. Does anyone else find the sunflower family confusing? Later, I asked the bee researcher, who was shoulder-deep in the sunflowers, if he knew which species it was. He shrugged.

Made me feel better.

So many All-Star prairie wildflowers.

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And don’t get me started on the skippers. For my birthday this month, my wonderful husband gave me a terrific pair of close-focus binoculars and an out-of-print guide to Illinois skippers—all 59 local species. They’ve both helped. But even the skippers on the prairie seem astonished by their own complexity.

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Silver-spotted skipper? I think so. The field guide says they are pretty common. But it’s going to take me a while to get a handle on the skippers and butterflies in my little corner of the world. At least there is no “question” about the identity of this beautiful butterfly.

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This week, I’m teaching “Dragonfly and Damselfly ID.” It’s guaranteed to be an exercise in humility. No matter how many of the dragonfly and damselfly species that I know—and I’ve learned quite a few over the past 13 years as a monitor—it’s a good bet there will be some oddball that shows up and doesn’t fit any description of a damselfly I’ve seen before. The meadowhawks are particularly confusing at this time of year. This one below is likely an autumn meadowhawk because of the yellowish legs.

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Likely. I’m pretty sure—at least, I think that’s what she is. However, there are red meadowhawk dragonflies zipping all over the prairie, and their immature counterparts which are yellow-ish, and the females which are sort of gold, and it all begins to blend together. Their red counterparts are even more confusing. Cherry-faced meadowhawk? Ruby meadowhawk? White-faced?

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I think I see some reflected amber patches on the leaf. So I check the field guide— most of the red meadowhawks have them. My “unknown meadowhawk dragonfly” column on my data sheet is getting bigger each week.

For my class, I’ll hope for the old familiar favorites, like the male calico pennants with their row of luscious red “hearts” in a row down their abdomen.

Unmistakable.

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And back to those wildflowers. Wow! They keep me up at night, flipping through plant ID websites, dipping into Flora of the Chicago Region, trying to understand what it is that I’m seeing and how it fits into the community we call prairie. Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m a dragonfly monitor, has more than 700 plant species! How do you wrap your head around that?

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What a beautiful problem to have, isn’t it? So many “All-Stars” on the prairie. So much to discover. Whenever I get frustrated at all there is to learn about in the tallgrass—and marvel that I’ve learned anything at all—I take a moment to sit on the bridge over Willoway Brook and be quiet.  Clear my head.

As I reflect, I realize what I don’t know doesn’t matter as much as showing up. Listening. Thinking about what I see.

Being there.

*****

Lawrence Peter (Lorenzo Pietro) “Yogi Berra” (1925-2015) was an 18-time All-Star professional baseball catcher, coach, and manager. He was part of teams that won the World Series 10 times—more World Series wins than any other professional baseball player to date. Berra and his wife Carmen were married for 65 years which is another great record. He is known for his paradoxical sayings such as the one that begins this post. Check out more “Yogi Berra-isms” here, and find a smile for your day because, as he says, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” And, remember, Berra also told us, “I never said most of the things I said.”

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on a feather, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) over Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; July wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; question mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; calico pennant dragonfly (male) (Celithemis elisa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of bridge over Willoway Brook in July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie by the Numbers

“It was, at last, the time of the flowers.” — Paul Gruchow

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Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!

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Spring has arrived in the Chicago region—at last, at last! The savannas and prairies are awash in color and motion. Warblers and butterflies everywhere you look…

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…garter snakes sashaying out in the bright light to sun themselves…

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…and of course the wildflowers, in all their amazing complexity.

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My Tuesday morning prairie team is busy updating our plant inventory, a daunting task that has run into its second season. This spring, we are looking for a hundred or so plants out of the 500 from the inventory that we couldn’t find in 2017. The last complete prairie inventory was wrapped up in 2005, so we need a check-in on what’s still here, and what has disappeared or moved into the prairie. Knowing the plants we have will help us make better decisions on how to care for the site.

This is a high-quality planted 100-acre prairie, wetland, and savanna, which is almost in its sixth decade. Some call it the fourth oldest planted prairie in North America! So we feel the heavy weight of responsibility to get our numbers right.

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Its a prairie with some beautiful blooms—and some quirky ones as well. This week, our “oohs” and “ahhs” are for common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), a high-quality—and despite its name—uncommon prairie plant. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it the highest possible plant score — a perfect “C” value of “10.”

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We’ve been hot on the trail of three more common but elusive plants that we’d missed in the spring of 2017: skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, and rue anemone.  Some adventurous members of the team discovered the skunk cabbage in April, poking through the muck in a deep gully. Now, two weeks later, it is much easier to see.

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The marsh marigold listed on our 2005 inventory, a beautiful spring native wildflower…

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…turned out to be a single plant, hiding among some fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) a pernicious, non-native invasive wetland species. We’ll remove the fig buttercup so it doesn’t spread across the waterway.

The missing rue anemone went from invisible to visible last week after storms moved through the area and greened up the savanna. Such a delicate wildflower!  Easy to miss unless you find a large colony.

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Looking for specific plants as we’re doing now results in some serendipity. Our plant inventory team found harbinger of spring for the first time in our site’s history while looking for the marsh marigold. A new species for our site —and so tiny! Who knows how long we’ve overlooked it here.

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In addition to the inventory, most of us are weeding garlic mustard, a persistent invasive plant that infests disturbed areas around the prairie. One of the perks of weeding is we make other discoveries, such as wild ginger blooms. You might flip hundreds of wild ginger plant leaves over before you find the first flower. Pretty good occupation for a warm and windy afternoon, isn’t it?

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The rains also prompted large-flowered trillium to open. These won’t last long.

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Look closely below behind the trillium and you’ll see the white trout lily gone to seed. All around, blooms are throwing themselves into bud, bloom, and seed production. Sometimes, seemingly overnight.

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Updating a plant inventory plus a little judicious garlic mustard weeding will teach you how little you know about what is happening in your little corner of the plant world. I see plants that look familiar, but their name eludes me. It takes numerous trips through my favorite plant ID guides to get reacquainted. I also look in vain for old favorites which seem to have disappeared. (Where, oh where, is our birdfoot violet?)

Spring keeps you on your toes. It reminds you to be amazed. It constantly astonishes you with its sleight of hand; prolifically giving new species and flagrantly taking them away. And as always, there are a few surprises.

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Ah. The “elusive, rare” red tulip! Where did that come from? Huh.

Just when you think you know a flower, it turns up a a little different color, or gives you a new perspective on its life cycle. To see the wood betony at this stage always throws those new to the prairie for a loop. Almost ferny, isn’t it?

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Barely a hint now of what it will be when it grows up. Same for the prairie dock, tiny fuzzy leaves lifting above the ashes of the burn.

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Or the hepatica, most of its petal-like sepals gone, but the green bracts now visible. Looks like a different plant than when it was in full bloom.

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Pasque flower is now past bloom. As stewards, we turn our thoughts toward the first seed collection of the season and propagation for the next year. If a species is gone, or seems to be dwindling, we’ll consider replanting to maintain the diversity of the prairie.

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We tally up the numbers, check off plant species. Update scientific names which have changed. But no matter how the spreadsheets read, we know one thing for certain.

What a glorious time of year it is! Spring on the prairie is worth the wait.

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The opening quote is from Journal of a Prairie Year by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Worth re-reading every spring.

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Unless noted, all photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): thunderhead moving in over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) sunning itself on the prairie; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); gravel two-track greening up in the rain; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides); harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflora); prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum); red tulip (Tulipa unknown species); wood betony (Pendicularis canadensus); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) emerging; hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba); pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) fading.

Rumors of Spring

“Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…” –Woody Guthrie

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There’s a rumor in northern Illinois that it’s spring. But not a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it. Talk to anyone and you’ll hear the usual early April grouching about gray days, unexpected snow, and temps barely nudging 30 degrees.

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Natural areas managers scramble to get in their last prescribed burns before spring commences in earnest.

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On most prairies,  fire has kissed the tallgrass and gone, leaving the earth stripped and covered with ash. If you don’t look closely, it can all seem a bit melancholy.

But look again.

The prairies are awakening. You can see it in the juxtaposition of what was lost, and what is green and new.

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Listen as April releases her icy grip on the tallgrass and wakes up the streams and springs.

The prairie knows it’s time to get moving.

Wake up, wood betony!

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Just one glimpse of your crinkly maroon leaves reminds me that your lemon-colored blooms are not far behind.

Come on, April wind and rain! Topple the old compass plant stalks that escaped the fires; let them meld with the earth, covered by new growth.

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Wake up, Virginia bluebells!

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I can’t wait until you color the woodlands around the prairies with your impossible blue.

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Pincushion the burned ground with green, prairie dropseed.

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Let’s get this season underway!

I want a front row seat…

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…as the prairie swings into a slow crescendo…

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… as the spring frogs chorus their approval…

…as from the ashes, the prairie is renewed.

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It’s time. Wake up!

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“Wake Up,” the lyrics of which open this post,  was written in 1954 by folk musician Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967). During his Oklahoma childhood, Guthrie’s older sister died in an accident, his family became bankrupt, and his mother was institutionalized. These tragedies—and later, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl—gave him empathy with people who suffered, and heavily influenced his music. Guthrie, who died of Huntington’s Disease, wrote everything from children’s tunes to political protest songs. Read more about him here.

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All photos and videos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): gray skies on the prairie, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video–the prairie greens up, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; snail shell and unknown green sprout on the prairie, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; video–water running through the prairie, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) leafing out, Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) leafing out, West Side Woodland, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bench on Fermilab Prairie Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; frog calls at Crowley Marsh, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands at the end of March, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.