“April is the cruelest month… .”—T.S. Eliot
April in the Midwest is not for the faint of heart. We woke up Monday in the Chicago Region to blustery winds, falling snow, and temperatures which plunged down, down, down.
After joking with friends earlier last week that we had gone straight from winter to summer—we’d even put the hummingbird feeder out— the weather gods must have taken notice. Take that!
Ah, well. It’s spring in Illinois.
The 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward was burned last week. I was glad to see it, although the prescribed fire was later in the season than usual and nipped some of the newly-emerged plants.
I don’t think it will set back the rattlesnake master much.
There were some casualties. Oh, the pasque flowers! They are always one of our first prairie wildflowers to bloom each spring. The name comes from the Hebrew “pasakh” for “Passover” and is also known as “Easter flower” for its bloom season. The flowers were right on time this year before the prescribed burn.
If you are a long-time reader of Tuesdays in the Tallgrass, you’ll remember we were down to one or two of these beautiful specimens a half dozen years ago. We collected seed from the mother plant, as well as sourced more seed from a generous forest preserve. Then the Arboretum’s wonderful greenhouse staff grew the seeds out for us. Pasque flower germinates poorly, so we were delighted to have 30 plants to place on the prairie.
So it’s a bit of a heartbreak to see them after the fire.
At least one flower escaped the flames! Just a little singed.
I carefully count what’s left. One. Two. Three. Four. I hope there are more that I missed.
It’s the life of a prairie steward. Three steps forward. Two steps back. The fire was critical to the health of the prairie, so most plants will benefit. Poor pasque flowers! One of the hazards of being an early spring prairie bloomer. We’ll see if any other pasque flower plants made it as the weeks unfold.
As consolation, Jeff and I dropped in at the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie in Glenview, IL, this past week. It’s one of my favorite prairies to visit.
This evening it’s quiet, except for a rowdy flock of red-winged blackbirds and grackles. Almost 60! They move in large groups from tree to tree. The late slant of sun polishes the grackles’ blue and black to a high sheen.
It seems unfair that a flock of grackles is called “a plague.” As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, we have an inkling of what a “plague” is like, and this ain’t it. Another name for their flocks: An “annoyance” of grackles. Ha! I like the red-winged blackbird’s group names better: a “cloud,” “cluster,” or a “merl.”
We see a few house finches as we hike, hanging out on top of a birdhouse that I don’t believe was intended for them. The males are pretty in their raspberry breeding plumage.
Bird names aside, we revel in naming some of the prairie plants we see still standing on the unburned prairie. Switchgrass.
Dogbane, sometimes called Indian hemp.
Prairie dock, with a thicker-than-usual stem. Interesting! I wonder why?
As we hike, we notice two visitors on the trail peering through their binoculars at…something. I look into the wetlands, but can’t see anything unusual.
Fortunately, they are—like so many birders—friendly and generous with their knowledge. “Look over here,” one of them says, pointing.
And then I see it. Virginia rail!
The reclusive bird with “Ticket! Ticket!” call has always evaded my camera. I click shot after shot, unable to believe my luck.
But that’s not all…
Another bird I’ve not been able to get a photo of. Even though, as Cornell University tells us, it is “the most abundant and widespread rail (a family of small to mid-sized birds) in North America.” What bizarre calls this bird has! (Be sure and click to listen to several of the recordings to hear the “whinny” call.) We linger, watching and listening.
Thanking the generous birders profusely, we make our way back to the parking lot, admiring the now-closed interpretive center as we go.
It was a short prairie hike.
But what a wealth of delights that April—this mercurial month—had for us on the prairie this week.
Who knows what else we’ll see this month on the prairies?
I can’t wait to find out.
The opening quote is from T.S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) “The Wasteland.” Read more about his life at the Poetry Foundation, or listen to Eliot read his words here.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Spring
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction—Tuesday, April 18, Algonquin Garden Club, 12:30-2 p.m. (Closed event for members)
Spring Wildflower and Ethnobotany Walk—Thursday, April 20, 8:30-10:30 am or Saturday, April 29, 8:30-10:30am at The Morton Arboretum. Registration information here. (Both walks SOLD OUT, ask to be put on a waiting list)
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture –Sunday, April 23, 2-5 p.m. The Land Conservancy’s 32nd Annual Celebration, High Tea at the McHenry Country Club, Woodstock, IL. Tickets are $45-$70 — available here. If you live in the area, please support the great work this organization does for prairies and our natural lands.
I’m excited to moderate “In Conversation Online with Robin Wall Kimmerer,” June 21, 2023, 7-8 pm via Zoom. Brought to you by Illinois Libraries Present. Numbers may be limited, so register here soon!
More classes and programs at www.cindycrosby.com