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A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

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Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

*****

Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

Flights of (Prairie) Imagination

“…words are all we have of wings.” — Mark O’Connor

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There’s nothing like an air travel delay to offer hours of unplanned time to ponder the miracles of flight. This week, I traded Illinois’ tallgrass prairies for Gulf Coast beaches, with about a break-even in temperature (it’s 98 down south; 96 on the prairie as I type this).  It might be easy to get snarly about a three hour delay on the flight home and easily undo all the tranquility of a week’s vacation. Tranquility can be only surface deep sometimes; with tension lurking just under the surface.

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But instead,  I decide to think over the past week. One of the great aspects of displacement is exposure to unfamiliar flora and fauna.  It offers you a chance to see the world with new eyes. It reminds you what a diverse and delightful place the world can be.

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I miss the tallgrass prairie wildflowers, which I know are spectacular this week.

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I remind myself of this as I admire the neon hues of Florida hibiscus.

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In Florida, the familiar jostles against the unfamiliar. Across the beaches; over the ponds and mangrove pools, dragonflies and damselflies tirelessly patrol for mosquitoes.  A new place means new species of tropical dragonflies. This gives me an excuse to peruse Odonata websites, in search of names.  Such glorious colors! Like this scarlet skimmer.

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And funky patterns….

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… like the ones on this four-spotted pennant. (Could have guessed the name of this one, right?) . I feel a bit nostalgic for the dragonflies and damselflies that are patrolling the prairies back home—just a two-and-a-half hour jet flight away.

But it’s the birds that demand my full attention. Shorebirds. Herons of every possible description and hue.

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Yellow-crowned night herons in full breeding plumage.yellowcrownednightheronbreedingplumageDingDarlingWM618.jpg

Some are familiar visitors to the prairie during migration or in the summer. These white pelicans, for example. You’d think this photo was taken in Florida…

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… but in fact, these white pelicans were ones I saw at Nachusa Grasslands at the end of last month. Down south now, I wonder about their migration patterns.  What do they think of the change from beach to prairie and back again? Is it as jolting for them as it is for me?

Beach birds like the pelicans will find the company they keep in Illinois a little different.  Although the tallgrass prairie birds have some startling color combinations…

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…Florida’s roseate spoonbill’s bright pink screams for your attention.

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Hard for our little prairie Henslow’s sparrow to compete, isn’t it?

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Despite all the color and sizzle and “gee-whiz-look-at-me” that the Gulf Coast beaches and their birds and dragonflies have to offer…

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…there is truly (as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz) “no place like home.”

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I can’t wait to be back on the prairie.

***

Opening quote is from the poem, “The Mutton Birds,” by Australian Mark O’Connor (1945-), in “The Olive Tree: Collected Poems.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): alligator (Aligator mississippiensis) in lily pond, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron in breeding plumage (Nyctanassa violacea),  J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, unknown species), Sanibel Island, Florida; scarlet skimmer dragonfly (Crocothemis servilia), Captiva Island, Florida; four-spotted pennant dragonfly (Brachymesia gravida), Captiva Island, Florida; juvenile tri-colored heron (Egretta tricolor), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) in breeding plumage, J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL; American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bob-o-link (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida; Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset on Captiva Island, Florida; sunset on Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL.

Our Inland Prairie Sea

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”—Isak Dinesen

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To refer to the tallgrass prairie as a “sea of grass” is almost cliché.

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And yet, when you juxtapose sea and prairie, you understand why the image comes so readily.

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Like many suburban Chicago prairie lovers, in the mud season of the year—late February to mid-March—I do my best to migrate south for a few days. Sunshine, salt water, and sandy beaches are restorative.

The sky over the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the sky of the tallgrass prairie; open, limitless.

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The flattened waves of prairie grasses and wildflowers, weathered by wind and rain…

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…with blue-shadowed pockets of snow…

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…are in my mind as I watch waves slap the shore.

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Funny, isn’t it? Even when we leave the landscape we call home, it haunts us.

It’s not that everything is similar—far from it! The birds are different from those of the prairie in so many ways. The food they eat.

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The way they move.

 

 

Even their attitude.

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Many of the Gulf Coast birds I see are readying themselves for a long flight north. Soon, migration will bring them and others through the flyways of the Chicago region.

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No matter where I look in Florida, I find unexpected reminders of my life as a prairie steward.

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As much as I enjoy getting away from the Midwest in early March, my mind keeps wandering from the beach back to what’s going on in the tallgrass up north. Am I missing out on a prescribed burn? Has the skunk cabbage leafed out yet? What new birds are singing along Willoway Brook?

After five days in Florida, I’m ready to dive back into my prairie work.

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One great thing about traveling: At the end of the day…

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…sometimes a little displacement makes you appreciate the place you call home.

*****

Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) (1885-1962) authored Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast. Both were adapted as movies, and won Academy Awards.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Captiva Island sunset, Florida; Captiva Island beach, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue-shadowed pockets of snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; waves on the beach, Captiva Island, Florida; willet (Tringa semipalmataeating a crab (species unknown), Sanibel Island, Florida; video of sanderlings (Calidris albaand other shorebirds, Sanibel Island, Florida; great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), Sanibel Island, Florida; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Buckthorn Lane street sign, Sanibel Island, Florida; brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalisdiving for fish, Sanibel-Captiva causeway, Florida; sunset with birds, J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sanibel Island, Florida. 

The January Prairie Blues

“The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning.”
— John Lee Hooker
***

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. “
–John Burroughs

***

It’s about that time of a new year when social media and newspapers take up stories about the blues. No, not the music. Rather, seasonal affective disorder; the general malaise of cold, gray days that dampens mood and motivation.

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Got the blues? Forget that trip to Florida to soak up sunshine.

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Instead, consider the prairie.

In January it offers its own particular brand of blues; a little antidote to blues of a more melancholy kind.

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Tune up with these “blues” for a moment or two; see if they chase the other blues away.  Follow me to the tallgrass.

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See how the mice stitch their tracks across the blue tint of the snow?

Consider the pale blue glints of ice crystals that briefly frost the grasses; vanishing in the hot breath of the morning sun.

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Marvel at the blue shadows in the snow, which form a background for the legato ripple of big bluestem leaves.

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Look up. Blue-gray clouds patch the prairie sky, filter sunlight. Trees and grasses change focus as blue sky appears, then disappears: Fade, then sharp. Fade, then sharp.

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A turkey flashes its iridescent feathers, shot through with silky blues. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

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Notice a  jet contrail or two faintly striped in misty white overhead. Moments ago, there were people suspended in space here, headed for who knows where—and who knows why. Their story is traced across the wide blue sky. It only calls for  your imagination to spin it.

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There is even a home for the littlest “blues” –those feathered harbingers of happiness.

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The tallgrass rolls out the carpet, all blue and white sparkles.

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Embossed with blue shadows that pool in tracks across the snow; a promise of adventure and new beginnings…

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…and, a reminder that the “blues” can be beautiful.  Who knows? You  may even come to love them.

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The prairie blues, anyhow.  The best kind.

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John Lee Hooker (1912-2001), whose quote opens this post, was a Grammy-award winning blues musician from Mississippi. The youngest of eleven children, he ran away from home at age 14 and eventually made his way to Detroit, where he found success as a guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist (although he was unable to read). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1991) and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2000). Listen to clips of his music on YouTube, including this rendition of “Blue Monday”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNl2wXE90vk&index=318&list=PLu_npSo2nvWSIjcaewEUE9O-gk3W1xnfS

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John Burroughs (1837-1921), whose quote from his book, “Winter Sunshine,” also opens this post, is honored as the father of the modern nature essay. The seventh of 10 children, he grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York where he learned to love the outdoors. Burroughs later taught school in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, until he returned east to marry and work in banking. He continued writing, and eventually authored more than 30 books. He was a contemporary of the poet Walt Whitman, and kept company with John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt as well as other notables of that time period. Since 1926, the John Burroughs Association, founded in his honor, has awarded the John Burroughs Medal to the author of a book of natural history almost every year. Some of my favorite award winners include: Gathering Moss (Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2005); The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Elizabeth Tova Bailey, 2011);  Wind (Jan DeBlieu, 1999); The Control of Nature (John McPhee, 1990); and the classic, A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold, 1977).

For a complete list of winners, see: research.amnh.org/burroughs/medal_award_list.html

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): on the way to Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; beach umbrellas on Sanibel Island, FL; blue sky with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL;  ice crystals, interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Curtis Prairie at The University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL: eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) nesting box, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sparkly snow with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; people (Homo sapiens) tracks, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-shaped deer (Odocoileus virginianus) track, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.