Tag Archives: restoration

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

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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?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince 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.

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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….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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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.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding 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.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Merry Prairie Christmas

“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.

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On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.

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Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.

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Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.

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Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.

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Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.

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Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.

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Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché.  But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.

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Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”

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The end of the year is just a breath away.

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Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!

***

The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.

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All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); the Schulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

“Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.”  —Paul Gruchow

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December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, just before first light.

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Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, December, with your mercurial weather and often-frigid temps.

It may seem like a daunting month to hike the prairie. After all, there’s not much going on, right?

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Wrong. For those who venture out to the tallgrass, there are wonders to be had.  Here are five reasons to bundle up, get outside, and go take a look.

1. Critters 

Love ’em or can’t stand ’em, you can’t get away from squirrels in December. Despite their inroads on my backyard bird feeders, I’m a bit of a fan. Walk through any prairie savanna or check the trees scattered across the prairie, and you won’t have to look too hard.

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Check out this tree on the edge of the prairie. How many squirrels can you see?

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I counted at least a dozen, possibly more.  A group of squirrels like this one is called a scurry. Perfection, right?  Those leafy nests high up in the trees are the squirrel condos. You can see one in the above photo, on the left. Squirrel homes, and sometimes a squirrel family group, are called a drey or sometimes, dray.

Most squirrels were enjoying a snack. The scritch scritch scritch scritch of so many furballs gnawing on black walnuts was the soundtrack to our prairie hike.

Not a squirrel fan? Walk on… .

2. Ice Capades

Temperature ups and downs on the prairie leave ponds and streams a virtual canvas for weather to paint its delights upon. Crystals, ice shelves, frozen droplets…the scene changes from moment to moment with the rays of the sun.

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Unless you visit the prairie in December, you’ll miss the magic.

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Isn’t it important for us to witness the beauty in the world?

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As Annie Dillard writes, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

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3. Shifts of Weather

Woolly bear, woolly bear, what do you see? Traditionally, the banded woolly bear caterpillar is the foreteller of winter weather. The longer the black stripes, the longer the winter. This little bear looks as if it’s predicting a mild winter, doesn’t it? But it was out in 17 degree weather! And, we’ve already had one blizzard in the Chicago region. Hmmm.

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The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge in the spring as the isabella tiger moth. Woolly bear, you’re cute.  But I might stick to watching meteorologist Tom Skilling’s weather report.

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4. The Splendors of Grass

We think of grass as juicy, green, and supple. But one of the many delights of prairie grass is its winter wardrobe. Nuanced, ranging through metallic tones of bronze, silver, and gold, the tallgrass changes colors with the slant of the sun.

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Sure, the recent snows flattened the tallgrass. Take a look, and see how your perspective on the prairie changes when the grasses and forbs, towering over your head just a month or two ago, no longer obstruct the view. New vistas open up. Grass takes on different role in December.

5. Mindful Hiking

What does the prairie have in store for you in December? Smell the tang of cold air. Feel the hot sun on your face on a frigid day. Listen to the sounds of the winter residents of the prairie and the prairie savanna; woodpeckers drumming along the edges, the rustle of squirrels dashing from tree to tree on the prairie edges. Taste the last dollop of snow. Check out the coyote scat on the trail to see what “trickster” has been sampling. Persimmons? Meadow vole? The fur and seeds tell the story for those who take time to look. Check the ponds and streams and see who is hanging out there.

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It’s easy to get caught up in the baking, shopping, socializing, and other activities of the holiday season. Need a break? A walk on the prairie may be just the thing to clear your head. What are your motivations to hike the December prairie? Please share them in the comment section below.

Because we all need a little extra push to get outside this month.

Happy hiking!

*****

The opening quote is from Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild by Minnesotan Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow writes compellingly about the rural life and the natural world in his books. If you haven’t read him before, try Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, or A Prairie Journal.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Venus in the dawn sky, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: ice crystals on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ice on author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) caterpillar on the prairie trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow patches on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge in December on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue heron (Ardea herodias) with a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), East Branch of the DuPage River Restoration, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Fault in Our (Shooting) Stars

“Cherish your science but understand it as a finite guide to the immensities of time and space…Look far. Dance with the world rather than try to explain it away. Consider the boat, not just the planks. Seize knowledge. Ask hard questions. But know, too, that your intellect is a small window and that its views can be surprisingly incomplete. Feel deeply.” — William J. Broad.

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What a week it is shaping up to be on the tallgrass prairie! Rain and cool weather are bringing out the blooms. Small white lady’s slippers are in their full splendor. Like tiny white boats floating in a sea of grass.

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The first bright pops of hoary puccoon show up along the trail.

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Nearby, another pop of orange. An immature female eastern forktail damselfly. So common—and yet so welcome right now.  Emergence of dragonflies and damselflies has been slow this spring, due to the cool, wet weather.

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Cream wild indigo doesn’t mind the cool conditions. It jumps right into its opening act.

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The wild hyacinths add their delicate scent and good looks in washes of lavender across the prairie.

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So many beautiful prairie wildflowers blooming this week, you hardly know which way to look. And oh, the juxtapositions! This blue-eyed grass is swirled into an embrace by wood betony.

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While nearby, a butterfly conducts surveillance runs across the low grasses and forbs.

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But the literal star of the prairie stage this week is Dodecatheon meadia. The shooting star.

 

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Its pink clouds of flowers are so unusual. Look at that bloom shape!

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Now, think “tomato blossom.” Or the blooms of eggplants and potatoes. Similar, no?

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Shooting star is a tease. She beckons bumblebees with her good looks. They zip by, then pause, perhaps shocked by all that floral abundance. Buzz in for a closer look.

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What the bumblebees don’t know right away is this: Shooting star has no nectar reward. The only “fault” in this star to speak of! Nonetheless, you can see this bumblebee in the photo below stick out its tongue. Looking for nectar? Grooming itself? Or perhaps letting me know it is time to quit taking photos?

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As the bumblebee clings to the underside of the bloom, it vibrates its strong wing muscles. They emit a high-pitched buzz. This causes the pollen to be shaken out of the anthers onto the underside of the bee. The process is known as “buzz pollination” or “sonication.” Honeybees can’t do it. Their muscles aren’t strong enough.  Which emphasizes the need for native bee conservation, doesn’t it?

Can you see the pollen in the photo below? Like yellow dust.

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As the bumblebee moves on, it carries some of the pollen with it, cross-pollinating other shooting star flowers as it visits each one. Bumblebees also eat pollen, and feed to their bumblebee young.  Click on  this great video for more info that’s been helpful to me in understanding the process.

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Watch the shooting stars. Listen to what they have to tell us.  They are another reason to care about the natural world and all its creatures.

Then pause.

“Dance with the world rather than try and explain it.”

Make a wish.

*****

The opening quote from William J. Broad’s The Oracle was taken from Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha.

All photos and video this week are from The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (top to bottom) small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum);  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), female; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); cream indigo (Baptisia bracteata) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the background; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) with wood betony (Pedicularis candadensis); possibly American snout butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) although the “snout” isn’t clear;  constellation of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee performing buzz pollination (note the tongue sticking out!); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee (unknown species) vibrating out the pollen; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) close up; video of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) waving in the breeze. 

Weathering the February Prairie

“You know what they say about Chicago. If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”– Ralph Kiner

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Pick a card. Any card. The weather on the February prairie is as random as a shuffle of the deck. Who knows what each day will bring?

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This past week in the Midwest illustrates it. First, a glittering frost.

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Then snow, falling an inch an hour.

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Fog.

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Followed by floods of rain.

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Yo-yo weather. Keeping things interesting.

Brittle and weather-beaten; stripped of their leaves, seeds, and flowers,  prairie plants take on an unfamiliar look.

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Their identities keep you guessing; turning back for a second glance. Touching the plant, sniffing it for a sensory clue. Hmmmmm. 

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As the weather zigzags between snow and rain, freeze and thaw…

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…the last seedheads stand out on the prairie.

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Some of the seeds are whittled away by wind, weather, and critters.

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Others have stems which are completely bare.

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Changes in weather give the prairie plants one more chance to shine.

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Highlighted by sun, snow, and ice.

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As rain and flooding melt all the white stuff, and mud sucks our hiking boots at every step, you know the prairie is ready for change. You can hear the word whispered in the wind.

Fire. 

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In only days or weeks, we’ll light a match. What we see now will soon be archived as our memory of what once was. The scorched prairie will be ready for us—site managers and volunteers and stewards— to paint our hopes and dreams upon it. In our imagination, it will be a masterpiece of restoration. This will be the year.

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We study the forecasts, anticipating just the right weather conditions—humidity, temperature, wind direction— to set the prairie ablaze. Each day we shuffle the deck. Cut the cards. Turn one over. Rain. Snow. Fog. Ice.

We’re waiting for just the right card. The one that says Go!

I heard a cardinal sing his spring song this week, despite the heavy snows and other crazy weather changes.

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It won’t be long.

*****

The opening quote is by Ralph Kiner (1922-2014), a major league baseball player and outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Indians. Kiner was an announcer for the New York Mets until his passing. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and known as one of baseballs “most charming gentlemen.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DRN, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy day, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  foggy morning near Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master  (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Tallgrass Ice Magic

“Everything is always becoming something else.” — Gretel Ehrlich

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January’s vivid prairie sunsets remind me of the black light posters I had in the early ’70s. Pow! Unbelievable colors. You wouldn’t expect this in a landscape you thought had gone all taupe grasses and gray skies.

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What amazements winter keeps pulling out of her bag of tricks! The whims and vagaries of weather brought about both ice and thaw this week. My backyard prairie pond glassed in plants and leaves.

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Down in the still-frozen shallows of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, the broken stalks of white wild indigo lay tangled up in blue snow shadows.

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Along the shoreline, milkweed pods stand ready to serve as makeshift boats. Spilled of their floss, they could float downstream in a thaw; sailing a million miles away. My mind seems to drift off that far in January sometimes as well. Anything seems possible.

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Along the brook where the current runs deep, there’s thaw. So much tension! The muscle of ice against water, the push and pull of solid to liquid.

Transitions.

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I always find transitions difficult. But they often signal some sort of breakthrough. January is a good moment to pause and reflect on this. Be encouraged, instead of discouraged by these passages, these changes.

Meanwhile, Willoway Brook wrestles with its own transitions. Ice splinters and fractures. Shards tumble downstream. The water sings of spring on the way. Soon. Soon.

The ice, cold and slick, is a foil for the other sensory pleasures of the prairie this month. Today, it’s bright sun.  Tomorrow, it might be a shroud of fog across the grasses. Breathe in, and you inhale the taste of evaporating snow in the air.

Lean down, and touch a rasp of sandpapery compass plant leaf…

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…or listen to the castanet rattle of milkvetch pods, holed by insects, each with its cache of dry seeds beating time in the breeze. In the clear air of January, sound seems to travel a little farther than other months.

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The brittle and the rough stand in sharp contrast to the last soft brushes of little bluestem, still holding rich color in the otherwise bleached-out grasses.

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All of these pleasures add their joy to these January days. The ever-present geese honk their lane changes, flying across the jet contrails which criss-cross the sky.

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And each day—as the sun burns its way up through the east and then falls in flames to the west—you know the January cycle of freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, is bringing spring a little bit closer.

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But for now…

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…enjoy every moment of the magic of ice and snow.

*****

Gretel Ehrlich’s quote, which opens this essay, is from her book, The Future of Ice, written about her love for winter and the perils of climate change. My favorite of her books is The Solace of Open Spaces. If you haven’t read her writing, it’s good company for a cold January evening.

All photos/video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  authors backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway brook thaw video, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and contrails, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, edge of the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

A Little Prairie Bog Magic

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

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The word apokatas’tasis–from the Greek–means to “restore.” I hold this word in my mind on a cold sunny day, hiking one of Michigan’s off-the-beaten-path gems: Saul Lake Bog Preserve in Rockford, Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids.

The original tallgrass prairie range stretches into Michigan further than one would think. Since 2000 at the preserve, old pasture near the bog is being slowly restored to prairie. One acre at a time.

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The preserve is a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands, and prairie.  Occasional bird calls provide a soundtrack as  I hike the two-track through the woods on my way to the prairie. It’s quiet. So quiet. A welcome contrast to the noisy Chicago suburbs I call home.

 

The two-track that leads to the prairie is riddled with snow-filled potholes. Each is shadowed with images of  the last dry leaves that still cling to the overhanging tree branches above.

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The dirt two-track ends in a parking lot and trailhead. Through the trees, a boardwalk leads to the bog.

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I ease across the wood planks, listening to the ice underneath the walkway crackle and break at every step.

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Nearby, the willows show off their soft furry catkins. A sure sign of spring on the way.

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Even in early March, the bog has bright sweeps of color.

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Admiring the russets and golds of the leatherleaves–and the occasional cottony tuft of tawny grass here and there–I’m grateful for the sunshine and the solitude. But as I walk back to the prairie, I realize I’m not alone.

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I hike around the prairie loop as the sky swings back and forth between bright blue and dull gray. A chilly wind rattles the stalks of last season’s grasses and wildflowers.

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A turkey vulture circles; checks me out. It decides I’m still healthy. Then glides away.

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At Saul Lake Bog Preserve, prescribed fire helps keep the prairie healthy, and helps hold invasive plants at bay. Seed collecting, followed by seed sowing, increases plant diversity.

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Each year, volunteers expand the prairie. It is slow labor, with little in the way of a quick payoff.  The work of restoration– apokatas’tasis–of any kind, prairie or personal, is difficult and often slow. It can be painful. The results may not be apparent for years. But Saul Lake Bog Preserve’s prairie reminds me: The end result is worth it.

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Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a naturalist, historian, adventurer, and at age 42, our 26th (and youngest) president of the United States. A sickly child, he found joy in the natural world. Later in life, after losing his wife and his mother, he lived in the Dakotas and found solace in the “wilderness” of the American West. His later adventures in the Amazon River Basin are chronicled in the riveting book, River of Doubt, by Candace Millard. Roosevelt helped shape many of the original conservation policies that help protect our national parks and nature preserves today.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan; Rockford, MI:  sky over restored prairie; video clip of forest with tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) calling; pothole shadows; boardwalk into Saul Lake Bog; fence shadows on boardwalk snow; flowering furry male catkins of willows (Salix, unknown species); Saul Lake Bog; leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) leaves;  mink (Neovision vison) tracks; mixed prairie plants in early March; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura); bluebird house in the tallgrass.