“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch
A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m. Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.
I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.
It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.
Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America. Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.
Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?
It’s also goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose, and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians.
Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.
Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week. Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning. Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.
As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated. Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course. A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.
The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.
Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”
Since August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”. As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.
At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….
…for a sip of sugar.
I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.
Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.
I page through my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.
Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.
Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.
Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.
The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.
Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.
This September, it’s shown up everywhere.
But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not? Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.
Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?
Adding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them. Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender. Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.
Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: “None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.
The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.
Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.
As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…
…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.
She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.
At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard. I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.
Tomorrow’s another day.
The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.” Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.
All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.
Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5. Hope you’ll join me!
October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.
October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event. Registration information is here.
October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)
October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie (closed event)
October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies. Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.