Tag Archives: savanna

The Prairie Conservation Cradle

“Unique in the world, the University of Wisconsin Arboretum is the birthplace of a practice called restoration ecology. ” –Liz Anna Kozik

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When I was a bookseller, I had a t-shirt that read “So many books. So little time.” Today, as a prairie steward, I need a shirt like this—-only with “prairies” instead of the word “books.”

With this in mind, I visited University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum over the weekend with an agenda: Curtis and Greene Prairies. One day to hike the two and discover their treasures. One day—and I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

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I check the closed Visitor Center to see their business hours. Open at 9 am. Barn swallows have plastered two nests over the Visitor Center doors, and the moms and dads aren’t especially happy to see me.

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They line their nests with grass. How appropriate! It’s only 7:30 am, so I have plenty of time to hike before the bookstore opens. I wander through the visitor center prairie display gardens, which have some lovely plants I’ve struggled to replicate back in Illinois. Hello, prairie smoke!

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We’ve lost this iconic plant on the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward, and I’ve been looking for local seed sources to jump start it again. So far, no luck.

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Prairie smoke has also disappeared in my backyard prairie planting. I wonder. Did I burn my prairie patch too early one year? Or is it just too wet? I’m not sure why I lost it. All I know is I want it again. Pure prairie plant envy.

The Visitor Center overlooks the 73-acre Curtis Prairie, known as the oldest prairie restoration in the world, established in 1935.  I’ve visited the Curtis Prairie before, but only in winter.  Today, it’s already warm, and there’s not a cloud in the sky.  Spiderwebs encrusted with condensation are thrown across the wildflowers, and sparks of light glint from every grass blade.

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Dew-covered wild geraniums send up their signature seed pods along the shadier edges of the trails. You can see why this plant’s nickname is “cranesbill.”

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Cream wild indigo sprawls across a grassy incline in the sunshine.

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Shooting star is in differing stages of bud, bloom, and seed. I relish the transitions.

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Except for the occasional jogger out for a morning run, there’s plenty of solitude. But the prairie is busy with the zip and whir of wings. A red-winged blackbird calls, then a black saddlebag dragonfly zooms by. Song sparrows tune up. Green frogs strum their broken banjo strings, calling nearby.

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I hike through the puddles, and then through a wall of willows on one side of the prairie trail following the frog calls. On the other side of the willows is a small pond.

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Worth investigating. Squish. Squish. Squish. My boots sink into the muck with each step through the willows. I glass the water with my binoculars and….there! A muskrat cuts through the pond, then dives.

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Not far away, a turtle sticks its head out of the water, soaking up sun. It’s a veritable “Where’s Waldo”  to see it in the algae. Good camouflage.

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I could spend the rest of the morning here, seeing what shows up, but the slant of my shadow tells me it’s time to get going.  A moth flies out of the grasses, close to the edge of the trees. Later, back home, I consult my Peterson’s Guide to make the ID. A fan-footed moth! Such subtle coloration. I’m not sure what exact species, but I’m learning.

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The morning has slipped away. Returning to the parking lot, I stumble across…an egg? What in the world? At first, I think someone has dropped their breakfast. Then, I remember the large birds I saw here on my winter hike. Turkeys!

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The Arboretum’s bookstore is open now. I ransack it for prairie books, then take the titles to a local coffee shop and ply myself with caffeine as I flip through them. Books on nature. Prairie ID guides. A children’s book on bees for the grandkids. Ballasted by books and jazzed by the java, I pull out my map and prepare to tackle my second goal: Greene Prairie, the second-oldest prairie restoration in the world.

I make the mistake of driving to it. After several misses, back and forth across “the Beltline” highway which splits the Arboretum in two, I finally find a tiny parking lot piled with gravel. There’s a small opening in a fence. Success! Later, I learn I could have hiked here under the Beltline from the Curtis Prairie. Next time.

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It’s cool and quiet. Not another soul on the trail. Plenty of poison ivy. I’m glad I wore my knee-high rubber wading boots. Gnats swarm around my face, and I’m grateful for my headnet. My boots sink into the sandy trails, rutted  with rainwater.

So beautiful.

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The woods open up to sunshine on sandy knolls, covered in wildflowers. Balsam ragwort splashes gold on both sides of the trail, with fluffy field pussytoes mixed in, going to seed.

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And then, there’s the lupine. Wow.

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I admire the blue-purple spikes, something we don’t have on the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum where I’m a steward, only a few hours drive south. Amazing how a relatively short distance can result in such different species! Different soil types. Different prairies.

Around a curve, over a rise —and there! Hoary puccoon. We have a few straggly plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, but nothing like this profusion of golden blooms. So this is what hoary puccoon looks like when it’s in its happy place, I think. (I later discover this is hairy puccoon, which helps explain the difference!)

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And suddenly, I see it. Greene Prairie.

 

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Yes! It’s been on my bucket list for a long time.

But what’s this? A sign! No Hiking. Trail Closed.  Oh no! I stand in front of the sign for a bit, considering.  Too much rain? Too much mud—too damaging to the prairie to hike it.  I hike around the prairie, looking for the next interior trail. Same signs here. Plus an  interpretive sign.

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Interesting information. Context. Guidance for hikers like me, hoping to learn about an unknown place. A place I’m not going to explore in the way I’d hoped today.

Looking longingly into the larger prairie area—and reluctantly deciding to be good and not hike it anyway—I take the open trail that skims the edges of the tallgrass. It opens up occasionally to give me vistas of what I won’t be able to hike through. What a tease! These glimpses will have to serve. I’ll hope for drier weather on my next trip. And I vow the “next trip” will be soon.

As I move away from the interior prairie trails, my first reward for being a rule-follower today is… wild turkeys. A group of three move across the path, hustling a bit as I approach. There’s a ruffle of feathers; a show of wings…

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…a bit of turkey posturing. Cheered, I continue onward.

The second reward is a dragonfly. The 12-spotted skimmer is a common Odonate, but no less beautiful for its ubiquity.

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We both bask in the sunshine as I stop and admire it for a while.  I realize the day-long hiking adventure has worn me out, and I’m at the furthest point from my car possible. It’s nice to have an excuse to rest.

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Something becomes familiar to me only after a long relationship with a place. These common things  I’ve seen today—12-spotted skimmer dragonflies, hoary puccoon and prairie smoke—are touchstones when I explore places with a community I don’t know much about. Like these beautiful Wisconsin prairie restorations. My relationship with these prairies is still new, and I’ve got a lot to learn from them.

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I think of the juxtaposition between the common and the rare, the familiar and the unfamiliar as I begin the hike back to the car through the lovely Southwest Grady Oak Savanna. The past—Greene and Curtis Prairies. They became a foundation for the future—the work that we do to protect and restore prairie today.  What can I learn from the past? How does it inform the future?

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There’s so much to see here. So much to understand and pay attention to. It’s tough to leave.

But I’ll be back.

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The opening quote is from Liz Anna Kozik, Stories of the Land: Critters, Plants and People of Ecological Restoration, which was written and illustrated for her masters of fine arts degree in design studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. See some of Liz’s fine arts work in prairie restoration comics, textiles, and words here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Madison, WI: (top to bottom) welcome sign; barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), Visitor Center Display Gardens; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Visitor Center Display Gardens; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Visitor Center Display Gardens; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Curtis Prairie; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), Curtis Prairie; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Curtis Prairie;  trail through Curtis Prairie with willow wall; Curtis Prairie Pond; muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Curtis Prairie Pond; turtle (possibly Chrysemys picta), Curtis Prairie Pond; fan-footed moth (species uncertain), Curtis Prairie; turkey  (Meleagris gallopavo) egg, Curtis Prairie; entrance to Grady Tract/Greene Prairie; trail to Greene Prairie through the savanna; pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta), Green Prairie Grady Tract; wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Green Prairie Grady Tract; hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense), Green Prairie Grady Tract; view of Greene Prairie; Green Prairie interpretive sign; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo);  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Greene Prairie-Grady Tract; bench on the hike to Greene Prairie; shadows on the Curtis Prairie trail; large-flowered beardtongue (Penstemon grandiflorus), Visitor Center display gardens.

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes in June:

Friday, June 14Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, 8-11:30 am (Sold Out)

Thursday, June 20The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Story, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop, 7-9 p.m., Rock Valley Wild Ones, Rock Valley Community College with book signing. More information here. Free and open to the public!

Wednesday, June 26: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online through The Morton Arboretum. Register here, and complete the course at your own pace over 60 days.

Just added! Friday, June 28Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, 8-11:30 a.m. Register here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

An Extravagance of Wildflowers

“There is something classic about the study of the little world that is made up by our first spring flowers—all those which bloom not later than April.”– Donald Culross Peattie

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The “little world” of spring wildlowers is in full swing in the prairie savanna and neighboring woodlands. Let’s go take a hike and look.

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The palm warblers flit through the trees, a prelude to the waves of warblers to come.

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By an old log, hepatica is blooming in whites and purples. The fuzzy new leaves, which replace the winter-weary ones, are emerging below. Oh, hepatica! You always say “spring” to me.

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I love the range of color, from deep purple to  lavender to snow white.

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Close by, the yellow trout lilies are just beginning to bloom. Tiny pollinators are finding them, like this little one.

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You may have grown up calling the yellow and white trout lilies “dogtooth violets.” By any name they are marvelous. The yellow seem all the more special for their scarcity here in the savanna where I walk, although they are prolific in other parts of the Midwest.

The mayapples are up in full force, unfurling their umbrellas.

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Rue anemone, trembling on its ethereal stems, is even less prolific than the yellow trout lilies in the prairie savanna. I look for the small stand of it each year, and feel a sense that all is right with the world when I find it.

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Jacob’s ladder leaves lace the landscape, while Virginia bluebells look as if they will explode any moment.

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Bloodroot is in full swing, and the bee flies are delighted.

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The blood root flowers last about three days, then the petals shatter. I’m enjoying them while they last.

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Most of the Arboretum’s visitors this week are strolling through the hundreds of thousands of daffodil blooms on display, a golden sea under the oaks. I can’t blame them much; the daffodils are spectacular this spring. But my heart is with these spring ephemerals, like the wild blue phlox with its candle flame of a bud, poised to emerge.

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In 1935, Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his Almanac for Moderns of spring wildflower time: “Happy are those who this year, for the first time, go wood wandering to find them, who first crack open the new manual, smelling of fresh ink, and rejoice in the little new pocket lens.”

Beautiful.

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True happiness, indeed. Happy hiking this week!

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Chicago-born Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) was an influential nature writer who inspired generations of naturalists. An Almanac for Moderns is his daily guide to observing the natural world through 365 days of the year. He advocated for the protection of Indiana Dunes, which recently became a National Park.

All photos this week are from The Morton Arboretum prairie savanna and woodlands, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), bloodroot  (Sanguinaria canadensis), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica).

 

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues–offered through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register for the June online class here.

Tuesday, April 23, 7:30  p.m.–Prairie Plants at Home, Villa Park Garden Club. Free and open to the public! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for specific location.

Friday, April 26--Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Sold out)

Saturday, April 27–Dragonflies and Damselflies–Blue Line Financial luncheon (Private Event)

Spring Comes to the Prairie

“The world’s favorite season is the spring…” — Edwin Way Teale

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Hail pocks the windows. Then, a deluge. The first big storm of the season rolls in Sunday evening. It’s over in an hour or so, with a double rainbow chasing the retreating clouds into the dark. Heading for bed, we crack the bedroom window open, letting the rain-washed air blow in. So quiet.

Then, I hear it.

It’s a lone western chorus frog, calling for a mate. All winter, I wondered if they’d reappear in our backyard prairie pond. The water thawed completely this weekend, and the marsh marigolds put out their first tentative blooms. It’s time.

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I’m not sure where our little frog will find a mate; it’s a ways from here to the DuPage River which limns our neighborhood to the east. How far can another frog travel? Did this frog overwinter under the ice?  I wish I knew more about frogs!  Putting down my book, I listen to it calling in the dark. The sound of spring!

After about ten minutes of admiration, however, I wonder if I can sleep through this ear-splitting serenade. Creeeak! Creeeak! Creeeak! The lone western chorus frog’s vocalizations can be heard a half mile away.

I believe it.

There was no shortage of frogs calling, chorus and otherwise, at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin  where Jeff and I traveled this weekend. Here, our chorus frog would go from solo artist to part of a massive choir, with leopard frogs chiming in and plenty of wind instruments. Plenty of potential mates.

 

 

Our trip to Horicon Marsh was rich for the short hour we had there, hiking in the rain. A mosaic of tallgrass prairies and woodlands…

 

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…and oh, those wetlands!

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I could have spent hours watching the muskrats building their lodges.

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Or trying to ID ducks and other waterfowl, as well as various migrating birds. The splattering rain made it difficult, but there was no way to miss waterfowl like this guy.

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I later read that the wingspan for a trumpeter swan may be up to six feet. Wow! They’re the largest waterfowl in North America, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The swans look huge in the pelting rain, as they float across ponds and pull up aquatic vegetation.

Along the highway, a little outside Horicon Marsh, we see movement through an old field. Pull over!

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A family of sandhill cranes! We watch them stalk the grasses.  I’ve seen sandhill cranes on the ground in the Chicago region, but it’s an unusual treat. We admire their size; those rusted-metal wings, those scarlet caps.

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We watch them until they fly away.

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While we were in Wisconsin, spring came with a rush in northeastern Illinois this weekend.  The same storm that rattled my windows Sunday evening soaked the prairie. New plants, like crinkly wood betony, popped up across the scorched earth.

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The first shoots of rattlesnake master, compass plant, and pale Indian plantain have emerged, distinctive even in miniature. Turtles are out in nearby lakes and ponds, basking in the sunshine.

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On Monday,  I walked my dragonfly monitoring route along Willoway Brook for the first time this season, looking for green darners migrating back from the south.  It’s 74 degrees! At last. Several of my dragonfly monitors report seeing green darners flying at ponds and lakes at the Arboretum, but I come up empty on my prairie route.

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I do discover a red-winged blackbird, looking balefully at a toy ball which has floated downstream. Perhaps he sees it as competition?

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Red-wings are tireless protectors of their spring nests, attacking anyone—or anything– that gets too close. I mind my steps accordingly.

Hanging over Willoway Brook are the remains of dogbane plants, sometimes called Indian hemp. They’ve escaped the prescribed fire of a few weeks ago.

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Dogbane was valued by Native Americans, who wove it into textiles, cords and string. I enjoy the plants for their seed pod ribbons and silken seed floss.

Last year’s plant remnants are juxtaposed with this year’s earliest blooms. In the prairie savanna, I see the first bloodroot in flower. Hooray!

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Ants, flies, and the occasional bee are out and about, looking for wildflowers. The earth hums with activity. Not much floral matter here, yet. But it won’t be long. Soon, the prairie and savanna hillside will be covered in blooms. The singular will give way to the aggregate. The bloodroot will be no less lovely for being more common and prolific.

Before I leave the prairie, I take a quick look at the area where I seeded in pasque flowers last season. Nope. Nothing. It’s bare and rocky, and at first glance, I find only mud. And then…

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Another pasque flower plant is up! Is it from seed? Or perhaps it’s an existing plant that took a year off last season? Either way, I feel my spirits lift. Now, we have two plants in situ. This pasque flower, along with the remaining mother plant and its siblings grown from seed, cooling their roots in the Arboretum’s greenhouse, may be the start of a pasque flower revival on the prairie.

Elation! My joy stays with me on the drive home, through dinner, and as I get ready to turn in.

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As I’m about to I put down my book and turn off the light, I hear it. The “Creeeak! Creeeak!” of the lone chorus frog. But—is that a reply?

Yes! There are two chorus frogs in the pond.

Happiness. I turn off the lights, and go to bed.

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The opening quote is from Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980), an American naturalist born in Joliet, IL. He was a staff writer for Popular Science, and the author of numerous books about the natural world. Pulitzer-prize winning writer Annie Dillard said of Teale’s book, The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects, that it is “a book I cannot live without.” Enough said.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): western chorus frog, author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; soundtrack to Horicon Marsh (wind, frogs–western chorus (Pseudacris triseriata) and northern leopard (Lithobates pipiens)–and various birds), Dodge County, WI; tallgrass prairie and woodlands, Horicon Marsh, Dodge County, WI; Horicon Marsh in the rain, Dodge County, WI; muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Horicon Marsh, Dodge County, WI;  trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator), Horicon Marsh, Dodge County, WI; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) family, Green Lake County, WI; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake County, Wisconsin;  sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake County, Wisconsin; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  my turtle ID is sketchy, but possibly painted turtles? or red-eared sliders? ID correction welcome (Chrysemys picta or Trachemys scripta elegans), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) and ball (Roundus bouncesis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane/Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

Join Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean for a talk and book signing at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, IA, April 22, 7-9 p.m., for Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.

Spring Wildflowers! Join me on two woodland wildflower walks this month at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, April 18 and 26, and a prairie and savanna wildflower walk on May 4. Click here for more information.

April 23: “Frequent Flyers of the Garden and Prairie: Dragonflies and Damselflies,” Villa Park Garden Club, Villa Park, IL,  7:30-8:30 p.m. See www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” online continues through May through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

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Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

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The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

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How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

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Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

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Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

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We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

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There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

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How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

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Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

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But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

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The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

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These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

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But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

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As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

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This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

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The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Very Prairie New Year

“The ignorant man marvels at the exceptional; the wise man marvels at the common; the greatest wonder of all is the regularity of nature.” — G. D. Boardman

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2019.

The new year stretches ahead; an unmarked trail. Full of possibilities.

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2018 is now water under the proverbial bridge.

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Some of us don’t want to let go of the year; full of sweet memories and adventures.

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For others, 2019 can’t happen fast enough.

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2018 may have left us a little worse for wear.

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The symbolism of the “clean slate” is attractive, either way.

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Out with the old. In with the new.

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Sure, the year ahead will hold new challenges. Some of them may leave us bent, broken, even temporarily defeated.

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And yet.

The prairie reminds us that there is a rhythm to life. The tallgrass has its own predictability.

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There will be a few curveballs. Predictability is always punctuated on the prairie by surprises.

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The unexpected waits to emerge.

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That’s part of the frisson, even tension of greeting a new year.

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And part of the joy.

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Where will the next days and months take us?

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And will we be up to the challenges?

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Let’s plunge in and find out.

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George Dana Boardman Pepper (1833-1913) was a pastor and president of Colby College in Maine.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) snowy trail through little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tracks through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; bug eaten leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown tracks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stack of 2018 season’s sweet clover (Melilotus alba and officinalis) along the two-track, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantis religiosa or possibly the Chinese mantis, Tenodera sinesis) egg case on fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Willoway Brook tributary through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thank you to Candy Peterson for bringing the opening quote to my attention! Grateful.