“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” – John Steinbeck
‘Tis the season for the winter Olympics; the perfect way to spend February’s frigid days. We cheer for the skiers and snowboarders, admire the elegance of the figure skaters, get rowdy with the hockey players, and puzzle over the curling competition. “Hog Line”? “Pebble”? Curling is a mystery. The Olympics remind me of our collective resilience. So much dedication! So much drive.
Outside my back door, the squirrels practice Olympic moves at the bird feeders. Flocks of juncos and goldfinches bump each other from the thistle tubes. Woodpeckers (red-bellied, hairy, downy) fly in for the suet, while the chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches peck at the sunflower and safflower seed. This week—at the recommendation of our birding friends—I add two finch “socks” to our smorgasbord. A day later, half a dozen common redpolls showed up. Our first!
Despite their name, they are anything but common. We have an irruption in our area this winter. I’ve not paid much attention to redpolls in the past, so I take a few moments to read up on them at Cornell’s All About Birds. Redpolls may make tunnels in the snow—up to a foot long—to stay warm, I learn. While they will eat sunflower seeds, redpolls love thistle socks (like the ones pictured).
These Arctic tundra and boreal forest birds can survive cold spells of up to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, I discover. Yikes! And I thought it was cold in Illinois.
Despite the lure of our backyard bird feeder Olympics and the 24/7 coverage of the ongoing competition in Beijing, Jeff and I left the house to hike PrairieWalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, a small park in Lisle, IL.
It feels good to be outside. The air is cold; much more frigid than the temperatures would suggest. But there is plenty to take our minds off the bitter weather. The looped path we hike is planted with prairie natives in various degrees of winter decomposition. Age has its own sort of loveliness.
Dragonflies patrol the pond in the warmer seasons. I know that under that frozen surface, the nymphs wait for spring. But on this day, it’s all about the snow.
February skies. Icy paths. I’m grateful for my Yaktrax that keep me from sliding around. The snow-covered pond provides a backdrop for the silhouettes of prairie natives.
The colors of the Indian hemp pods and stems remind me of the redpolls. Subtle—with a dash of scarlet.
Switchgrass, the color of caramel, gets me thinking about lunch. Or maybe just dessert. Or dessert instead of lunch.
It’s a frozen landscape. Yet there is motion in the sway of a vine…
…the sprays of prairie cordgrass…
…and the peel of bark on a tree planted alongside the path.
There is movement in the explosive form of a rosette gall…
…and in the chorus of gray-headed coneflower seeds along the shoreline.
Every winter walk is full of surprises. Is it worth missing a few Olympic events for?
You be the judge.
The opening quote is from Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (1902-1968), the author of 33 books—many of which were required reading in my high school. His book, The Grapes of Wrath, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and the National Book Award. Steinbeck also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the 2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program)
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –enjoy this online class with assignments over 60 days and 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.
***Thank you John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for the thistle sock recommendation for redpolls. It worked!