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6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson

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Change. Possibilities. Fresh starts.

These are a few of the reasons I welcome the opening week of September on the prairie.  Warm days, cool nights. The mental swap of summer to autumn.

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There are subtle shifts of color as the brights of summer become autumn’s metallic hues.  I sit on the back porch overlooking my prairie planting, listening to the insects sing static. Buzz. Chatter. Hum. The buttered popcorn-cilantro smell of prairie dropseed planted around the yard tickles my nose.

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The first ripe gray-headed coneflower seeds in my prairie patch are ready for collecting. I crumble the seedheads between my fingers. Inhale. Mmmm.  They smell lemony.

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September is a treat for the senses.

Need more motivation to get outside? Here are six compelling reasons to hike the September prairie, whether for a short stroll through your backyard tallgrass patch or a longer walk at your local forest preserve’s tallgrass restoration.

1.  Wind

The grasses  hit their stride in September, and this year’s prairie is particularly lush from early spring rains. Grasses tower over our heads.  Tall wildflowers (called forbs) and some of the rangier grasses flop over in spots; too lanky to stand alone. When the wind ripples through the grasses against a backdrop of cumulus clouds, floating in a cerulean blue sky, you feel the immensity of time and space. A feeling that is often in short supply in the Chicago suburbs.

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In her book, My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote this about the prairie: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” 

When I can’t fall asleep at night, I close my eyes and imagine the wind moving through the grasses, with the bright blue sky overhead.

2. Gold rush

From the goldfinches to the goldenrod; the tall coreopsis and the last sunflowers…

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… yellow is the primary color of  the early September prairie. American goldfinches bounce like yo-yo’s across the grasses, giving their trademark flight call, “Po-ta-to-chip!” “Po-tat-to-chip!”  Black walnut trees shake their gold leaves loose; pocket change sprinkled across the prairie trails.

In my backyard prairie patch, I watch the paper wasps work the goldenrod blooms for nectar.

 

Wasps are important pollinators. Sure, you don’t want them at your cook-out, but seeing them methodically rummage through the flowers reminds me they have an important role to play on the prairie and in my backyard.

3. Migration Marvels

The migrating monarch butterflies appreciate goldenrod, especially Solidago rigida—the stiff goldenrod—to nectar up for the long journey to Mexico.

They like my zinnias as well.Monarch Backyard GE 9219WM.jpg

Dragonflies swarm through the tallgrass, zipping just above the big bluestem. This past week, my dragonfly monitors at two different tallgrass prairie sites noted hundreds of green darners— with a few black saddlebags and wandering gliders thrown in —massing and on the move. The Chicago lakefront is another traditional hot spot to see large groups of Odonates headed south.

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This is also the time of year I see the red saddlebags dragonfly in my backyard. Each evening I check the edges of the pond, the garden, and my backyard prairie patch. Will the red saddlebags show up this season? Not yet.

Much of dragonfly migration is still shrouded in mystery, although new discoveries are happening all the time. Read more about how you can help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration here.

4. Grass, Grass, Grass

Each spring, I think the miracle of a burned prairie becoming green shoots and blooms makes it the best possible time of year. In the summer, I reconsider—all that color and motion! In the early days of September, I’m convinced autumn is the best time of year on the prairie.

I turn the names of the grasses over and over in my my mind. A litany of grass. Cordgrass. Switchgrass.

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Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

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Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.

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In her essay, Big Grass,” Louis Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers.” Why not go listen?

5. Butterfly Extravaganza

September marks the passing of the season of butterflies. Sure, there are some stragglers in October, but right now is their big finale.

So many butterflies! The buckeyes.

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Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

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A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.

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Before we know it, they’ll be gone for the season. Take time to stop and watch the butterflies as they nectar on flowers, float above the switchgrass, or swirl in a mating dance as old as time.

6. Filling Station

If you’re wrestling with a problem, or need space to get away from people for a while, the tallgrass prairie is a good destination. I always find transitions in my life and the changes from season to season are an opportunity to stop. Reflect. Revisit some of my preconceptions about my priorities. It’s a chance to slow down. Think. A walk through the tallgrass—or even a stroll around my backyard prairie patch—gives me space to sort through whatever I’m wrestling with. Hiking the prairie fills up my inner well, which fuels creative tasks and the life of the spirit. That well becomes empty without time outdoors.

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You, too?

Happy hiking.

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This week’s post opens with Willie Nelson (1933-) singing Kurt Weill’s (composition) and Maxwell Anderson’s (lyrics)  September Song. I’m not particularly a country western aficionado, but a few of  Nelson’s songs always end up on my playlist. Another is Nelson’s cover of Georgia on my Mind from the album, Stardust; my favorite of his collections. Blue Skies is another favorite. There’s a tinge of melancholy in these songs which seem perfect for ushering in autumn.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL:  September at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), along Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly a dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates ) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL; September at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note that some of these images in today’s blog are from previous September hikes.

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.

New Prairie Perspectives

“Gratitude is wine for the soul.”–Rumi

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We’re in the last days of meteorological summer. which ends August 31. For those of us who want to hang on to “summer” a little longer, we default to the astronomical seasons, which put the start of autumn on September 23 this year.  Either way, the seasons are shifting.

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One of the best things about unexpected interruptions is they give you new perspective. These past two weeks,  I’ve been putting in more time observing my backyard prairie out of necessity. Cut loose from my work schedule, sidelined for a bit by surgery, I’ve had to slow down. It’s been a reminder to pay attention to what’s in front of me—my own backyard.

I’ve had time to watch — really watch — the cardinal flowers open their lipstick red petals. To be delighted at how the hummingbirds go crazy over them, flying in and out from their hiding spots in nearby trees to drink from the blooms.

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The hummers boldly check me out where I sit motionless in my deck chair, then take a quick sip of nectar from the feeder. They’re so fast! Audubon tells me that while hovering, ruby-throated hummingbirds beat their wings 50 times per second. They must be on a sugar high.

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Then, they rocket over to the red cardinal flower’s cousin—blue lobelia—dripping with much-needed rain–for another drink. The lobelia have just started to bloom around the pond this weekend; one of the last hurrahs of summer.

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Monarchs sail over garden and pond and prairie, joining the hummingbirds for a nip of nectar.

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Soon, both monarchs and hummers will head south; the monarchs to Mexico, the hummingbirds as far south as Costa Rica.  The backyard will be emptier without them.

Obedient plant (sometimes called “false dragonhead”) is in full bloom in my backyard prairie patch. I move each individual flower sideways with my finger. They rotate then stay put, thus the name. Fiddling with flowers—it’s addicting!

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Queen of the prairie blooms, those cotton-candy pink tufts, have gone to seed; but are perhaps no less beautiful at this stage of life. Just different. So many seeds. So much promise for the future.

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Tiny skippers rev up across the yard; flitting from flower to flower. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources tells me there are more than 3,500 species of skipper butterflies in the world. Wow!

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The skippers are tough to ID. I like Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois from the Illinois Natural History Survey, now out of print, but fortunately on my bookshelf. Inaturalist, a phone app and online resource, is also useful in ID’ing these little fliers. Between the two, I can sometimes figure out who is who. Is this a fiery skipper in the photo above? Possibly! Nearby, the small bullfrog in my pond startles when I stop at the edge to scan the water, both of us watching for damselflies and dragonflies.

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Earlier this week, I looked at the pond’s water level and realized how long it had been since we’ve had rain. I’m not allowed to carry the hose around yet, so until a storm moves through—or my family helps me—the pond is left to its own devices. It’s a curious thing, letting go of this ability to “do” things that I once took for granted. I gauge everything with an eye to its weight. I look at my day ahead and prioritize where my energy goes, instead of heading into it recklessly, taking whatever comes.  It’s a new perspective on each day.

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Two weeks into recovery this week, I ask my husband to drive us to the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove. I can’t walk the trails here yet—they are too narrow and treacherous with their grassy overlays—but I can admire the prairie from the parking lot. The Maxmilian sunflowers tower over my head.

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Peering in between them, I can see blazing star and rattlesnake master, two August prairie masterpieces. The gray-headed coneflowers are going to seed, and the wild quinine is close behind. The silhouettes of pale purple coneflower are magnets for goldfinches, who know what tasty seeds are inside. The goldfinches move from coneflower seed head to coneflower seed head. Their bouncy flight always makes me laugh.

Not a bad view from the parking lot.

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Later, Jeff drives me to the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward. I walk the short loop of the accessibility trail. I’ve not paid a lot of attention to this part of the prairie, and I’m delighted at the diversity. Big bluestem is coloring up.

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Wingstem, with its unique flower shapes, is in full bloom.

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Virgin’s bower tumbles through the shadier areas. I’ve never noticed it in this spot before.

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Wild golden glow blooms splash their sunshine alongside the paved trail. You might also hear this flower called cutleaf coneflower, or the green coneflower.

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Walking slowly, observing the natural world—both in my backyard, and at the prairies down the road—reminds me that every day is a gift. Sounds a bit cliché, I know.

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But I can’t shake the feeling, especially after this cancer diagnosis. My prognosis is good. I’m one of the lucky ones.  I’m getting stronger every day. As the poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “It could have been otherwise.”  I’m grateful for every new day.

The poet Mary Oliver told us, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.” I feel a renewed push to do just that.

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Rumi (1207-1273) also known as Jalal al-Din Rumi and Jalal al-Din Mohammad-e Balkhiwas, was a 13th century Sufi poet, mystic, and scholar. Read more here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Joe pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris); author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), on heirloom cut and come again zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skipper, (Hylephila, possibly phyleus–the fiery skipper–thanks John Heneghan) on heirloom cut and come again zinna, (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with black-and-gold bumblebee (Bombus auricomus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; button blazing star (Liatris aspera), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), accessibility loop, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild golden glow, or cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), accessibility loop, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; entrance to accessibility loop at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s speaking and classes can be found at www.CindyCrosby.com  

Backyard Prairie Reflections

 “Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.”–Mary Lawson

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Thunderstorms move through the Chicago region, offering blessed relief for prairies and backyard gardens. The cracked concrete earth soaks up the rain; fuel needed for seed creation and the last pumps of blooms ahead. You can feel the relief in the air.

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Pumpkin spice latte signs appear in coffee shop windows. The afternoon light slants lower; a little pixelled, a little grainy.  In stores, school supplies jostle with unicorn costumes and Halloween candy for shelf space. The first school buses cruise the streets, slowing traffic. Where did summer go?

Late summer and fall wildflowers show up: snakeroot, New England aster, goldenrod, blue vervain, boneset.  There is a last flush of swamp milkweed in the wetter areas.

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Green darner dragonflies move in clouds over the tallgrass; sometimes with black saddlebags and wandering glider dragonflies mixed in. Migration season is underway. My ear is tuned for the first northern birds moving south, but so far, it’s the usual suspects at the backyard feeders.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison calves have put on weight. Adult bison lounge in the grasses, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. August is about slowing down. Making time.

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Bunch galls, like alien wildflowers, appear on the goldenrods. This seems to be an especially good year for them. The goldenrod bunch galls, like the one below, are made by a tiny midge which feeds on the plant. The abnormal tissue forms a leafy rosette. Pretty, isn’t it? A harbinger of autumn.

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You’ll see other galls on the prairie if you look closely around you: ball galls, elliptical galls, blister galls. They all have different insect artists, busy at work on their creations. Bugguide.com has an excellent overview here.

The damselfly populations are beginning to taper off; but the violet dancers will hang around on the prairie until the end of the month. Common? Yes.  But no less special for their predictability. That violet!

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So much is happening on the tallgrass prairie in August. It’s difficult to miss a moment of it.

This past week, I’ve been regulated to the house for a bit to recover after some unexpected surgery. I’ve been trying to look at this enforced rest as an opportunity to slow down, catch up on reading,  and to enjoy the view from my back porch.  But with August in full swing on the prairie—and at the cusp of dragonfly migration season—it’s been a challenge. Without my prairie work and prairie hikes—or my natural history classes to teach—my backyard prairie patch, garden full of zinnias and tomatoes, and small pond have all been solace.

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You’d think a suburban backyard prairie patch and garden would be predictable and quiet. But I’m discovering the action never stops. From my vantage point on the porch, I see—for the first time—a great spreadwing damselfly. In my backyard pond! I’ve never seen them in the forest preserve where I once monitored, or the two prairie sites where I walk my dragonfly routes. And here in my backyard —right under my nose—he is.

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We look at each other for a bit.

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I admire his reflection in the pond until the wind fingers the water and ripples erase the image.

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He flies from perch to perch around the pond, then finally lands out of sight. Wow. Sometimes the biggest surprises are in your own backyard.

From the porch I watch the butterflies flap over the tomatoes. An eastern tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia mixed in with the gray-headed coneflowers. Zinnias mingle with my prairie plants. Although the zinnias are native to Mexico rather than Illinois, they are welcome in my garden as a magnet for pollinators.

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The same zinnia is quickly commandeered by a monarch. I haven’t found many caterpillars in my backyard this summer, but there are a lot of adults.

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Nearby, a painted lady takes her turn nectaring on the flowers.

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She floats to the rangy smartweed growing up through the rattlesnake master plants and rests for a bit on some leaves, letting me admire her soft, open wings. I’ve always struggled with the differences between a painted lady butterfly and the American lady butterfly. So similiar! And yet, different, if you know what to look for.  This bugguide.net side by side comparison has really helped me (click on the link). Take a look and see what you think.

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The Joe Pye weed in the backyard prairie patch is also a butterfly magnet. Bees work each individual petal; tiny dusty rose-pink tassels towering over my head. Moths love it too! An Ailanthus webworm moth competes with the bees for nectar, its bright geometric patterns a startling contrast.

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Bumblebees move from the Joe Pye blooms to buzz the ironweed. So many bees! I’ve tried to learn a few species without much success. Maybe now, I’ll have time.

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As I slowly walk through my backyard, I feel my frustration at not being able to go for a prairie hike dissipate.  Maybe….just maybe…this enforced rest and recovery will be an eye-opener. There’s a lot to see, right in front of me, just off my back porch. A lot to pay attention to. Goldfinches, sipping rainwater from the cup plants. The Cooper’s hawk lurking in a nearby maple, watching my birdfeeders for a snack. Cicadas tuning up. The smell of bee balm, the taste of mountain mint. So much color, music, fragrance, taste, and motion here. In the 20 years we’ve lived in the suburbs, I’ve never been more grateful than today that I planted a prairie patch; dug a small pond. I have a feeling the recovery time will fly.

Summer’s not over yet.

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Adventures await. Both in the backyard prairie and beyond.

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The opening quote is from Canadian novelist Mary Lawson (1946-) in her prize-winning first book, Crow Lake (2002). It’s one of my favorite novels about pond communities, rural life, academia, and northern Canada.  I re-read it every year.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: thunderstorm over the backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; adult bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bunch gall on goldenrod made by a midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), Fermilab prairies, Batavia, IL; pond in author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Arhilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; reflection of great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and grey-headed coneflowers (Ritibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Cut and Come Again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) with brown-belted bumblebee (Bombis griseocollis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s classes and speaking are on www.cindycrosby.com   

August’s Prairie Marvels

Note to readers: This week’s Tuesdays in the Tallgrass is a special Sunday edition! I’ll be back to publishing on Tuesdays and our regular schedule next week. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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“The starting point must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace.” — Carl Linnaeus

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When the impatiens open their conical orange and yellow freckled flowers to the delight of the ruby-throated hummingbirds and long-tongued bees, I know that summer is slipping toward autumn.

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Look at enough impatiens’ blooms, and you’ll discover the holes chewed by bumblebees in search of nectar. You can imagine their thoughts: Why work so hard when there are shortcuts to be had?

It seems like an August kind of mentality; slow moving days, high humidity, blue skies and sunshine interspersed with some welcome rain. Listening to the zithering of the cicadas; watching fireflies from the back porch. So much to marvel over.

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The ruby-throated hummingbirds work the cardinal flowers in my backyard, blurred streaks moving from scarlet to scarlet. Each year, I worry that I’ve lost the cardinal flowers, then splash! There they are popping up around the pond; scattered through my prairie patch.

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Goldfinches work the cup plants for water and early seeds as monarch butterflies swarm the Joe Pye weed blooms that tower over my head.

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The black swallowtails love the wild bergamot, as do the bumblebees and sphinx moths. This swallowtail below lost a bit of wing—to a bird, perhaps, or other predator—but still nimbly eludes me when I try to follow it deeper into the tallgrass.

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Hiking the Belmont Prairie this week in Downer’s Grove, IL, I saw the first large groups of dragonflies massing —- for migration? It seems early.  I’m unsure. Last year’s swarms came at the end of August. Almost all of the 80 or so individuals I count are green darner dragonflies; with a few golden wandering gliders mixed in. If you blow up this photo on your computer or phone, you’ll see at least 32 individuals silhouetted against the sky.

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On the Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, IL; the first New England aster opened this week like a purple omen, noting the seasonal transition in process. They always say “autumn” to me.

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More late summer notes are struck in the ripening of seeds of the spring wildflowers, like prairie parsley (below). As August slides toward its inevitable conclusion, more blooms will be replaced by seeds, gradually tipping the balance from flowers to future progeny.

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Tiny calico pennant dragonflies, less than the length of my pinky finger, chase the breezes, then alight for a moment on the grasses.

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They’re often mirrored by a Halloween pennant or two close by, forging  an uneasy truce for territories.

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Each time I see these two species I wonder if it will be the last time, as their numbers taper off this month. In a week or two, they’ll only be memories.

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The goldenrod opens, offering its sweet nectar to greedy insects.

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The prairie oils the gears of transition. The compass plants point the way.

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These inevitable transitions on the prairie remind me that change, even when not particularly welcome, shakes things up. Jolts us out of our complacency. Reminds us to marvel at what’s happening right now.

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I’ve tried not to take the prairie for granted this summer season.  Each day, each week, I marveled at the joys each particular day offered. But June and July went by too fast and now August seems to be half over. There’s melancholy in the lowering slant of sunshine; the tallgrass elbowing the wildflowers out of the way, the first gold leaf-coins dropping from the trees on the prairie’s edge.

A potent reminder to enjoy the marvels of every summer day on the prairie that we have left.

Let’s go!

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Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) a Swedish botanist, was dubbed the “Father of Taxonomy” and helped formalize the way we organize the natural world. Read more here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly early migration swarm of green darners and wandering gliders over the Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley seeds (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; edge of the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and chalcid wasp (Leucospis affinis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plants (Silphium lacinatium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Gerard Durrell for his great description of cicada music from My Family and other Animals.

Cindy’s speaking events and classes can be found at www.cindycrosby.com. Drop by!

Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

 “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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If there’s one phrase my family knows I can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be so. Why waste a moment?

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I think of this as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie this week. The wind has come up. Instead of gazing over my head for patrolling green darners and black saddlebags, I’m looking lower, in the grasses and prairie wildflowers. There, many of the regular high flying dragonflies hunker down, sheltering from the breezy heat.

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Each season, dragonfly monitors—people like you and me—go to a city park, prairie restoration, forest preserve pond, or local wetland with the intention of regularly collecting data about Odonates. Monitors—dragonfly chasers—spend a good chunk of their summer hours in mosquito-filled areas, counting dragonflies and damselflies and making hash marks on a clipboard. We note what species we see, and how many of each species appears on a certain day in a particular place.

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It sounds a little nutty, perhaps, to spend our days counting insects. But dragonflies and damselflies are a good thermometer for the state of our waterways. Their numbers and species diversity have messages for us about the health of our natural world. All we have to do is listen. Pay attention. Show up.

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Speaking of thermometers: It’s hot. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. I check my phone and see the temperature is 88 degrees. The relative humidity of the Midwest makes it seem even hotter, keeping most visitors off of the prairie trails.

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The dragonflies, which maintain body temperature through thermoregulatory behavior, have various gymnastics to help them stay cool.  This female eastern amberwing dragonfly below is obelisking.

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By positioning her abdomen straight up, she reduces some of the direct summer heat hitting her body. Sometimes, you’ll see dragonflies point their abdomens downward for the same reason. Or, if it’s cooler, they’ll use their wings as solar collectors, like this 12-spotted skimmer below. Gathering sunshine.

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This season, I find the blue-fronted dancer damselfly population has erupted out of all imagining. I walk, and I look, and I try to keep track of what I’m seeing. Hash mark, hash mark, hash mark… . I can barely keep track of them, emerging from the grasses on both sides of the prairie trail; a virtual ambush of bright blue insects. Under my feet. Hovering knee high. Blue-fronted dancer damselflies everywhere! Hash mark. Hash mark. I finally quit tallying them at 88 individuals.

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So much dazzling blue! The danger is that as I see so many of one species, I overlook some of the other species that aren’t as prolific. Like this violet dancer, mixed in with the blue-fronteds.

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Or an American rubyspot damselfly, hanging out by the stream.

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Damselflies are so darn tiny. Part of the day’s adventure is to slow down and really look. Carefully. Closely. But I’m always aware of what I’m missing, even as I see so much. All these incredible dragonflies and damselflies! But–that bee over there. What species is it? And what about that butterfly? What’s moving in the grass by the stream? The July prairie explodes with wildflowers all around me as I hike. How can I focus?

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It’s easy to be diverted. On one route,  I narrowly avoid stepping on a bee fly sunning itself on the gravel two-track.

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On another trail, I kick up little puffs of butterflies—maybe pearl crescents? Tough to ID. They rise, then settle back into the clover as I pass.

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I stop to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird swoop across the trail, then hover, sipping nectar from the dark reddish-brown flowers of a tall late figwort plant, towering over my head.  I didn’t know hummingbirds visit these tiny blooms! In the gusty breeze, the oddball flowers rocket wildly back and forth, but the hummingbird maneuvers right along with them. Later, I visit the Prairie Moon Nursery website and read more about this wildflower’s value to butterflies, bees, and—yes—hummingbirds. Who knew?

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There’s always something different and exciting to learn as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie. Always a small adventure of some sort, waiting to happen.

In rain-rutted puddles, bullfrogs leap across the water with an EEK!”

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The common yellowthroat sings his wichety-wichety-wichety from the walnut tree by the wooden bridge over Willoway Brook. I inhale the scent of a hundred thousand wildflowers and grasses; the smell of prairie soil that’s alternately been baked in a hot summer oven and soaked with rain.

As I finish my route near the stream, a red-winged blackbird hovers menacingly over my head, daring me to come closer. Are they still nesting? Must be! He shrieks loudly as I cover my head with my clipboard—just in case—and hurry a bit toward the path leading to the parking lot.

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So much to think about. The writer Paul Gruchow once observed, “Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” One of the pleasures of dragonfly monitoring is the practice of paying close attention to everything on the July prairie. Flexing the muscles of my imagination. Resisting the urge to become jaded and cynical—all too easy in the world we find ourselves in today. Trying to choose where I focus.

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Even a simple hike on the prairie, counting dragonflies, can be an adventure. The writer Annie Dillard penned one of my favorite quotes: How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  I think of this as I watch a black saddlebag dragonfly cruise over my backyard prairie patch, or admire the way the cup plants cradle water in their joined leaves after a torrential downpour, inviting goldfinches to take a drink. I try to ask myself regularly: How am I spending my hours? How am I spending my life?

Every day I struggle to be intentional. To make room for curiosity. Imagination. The life of the spirit. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

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Instead of “killing time,” I want to cultivate a sense of wonder. To look at every moment as an adventure. To make room for reflection. To walk, and always—always! —be astonished at what I see.

And how can we not be astonished? Look at those dragonflies, those wildflowers!  Listen to that birdsong. Watch the tallgrass ripple in the breeze.

What a beautiful world.

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British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) penned the opening words in this blog from The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of classic children’s books. My favorite book in the series (although it is tough to choose!) is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and part of a writers group known as The Inklings. The books are great for read-aloud, if you have children or grandchildren elementary age and up.

Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) who wrote one of the quotes that appears in this post, is one of my favorite writers about the natural world. If you haven’t read Gruchow, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both terrific reads. I also love his Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.

The late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) penned the beautiful poem, When Death Comes, quoted at the end of this post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook at the end of July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) with unknown grass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eyrngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), author’s backyard and prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL;  blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet (or variable) dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis  var. violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly (possibly Bombylius major), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tough to ID, but possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Culver’s root in mid July (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; looking back at a dragonfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

More about Cindy’s speaking and classes at www.cindycrosby.com 

Summer Magic on the Tallgrass Prairie

“May I not be permitted…to introduce a few reflections on the magical influence of the prairies? Their sight never wearies…a profusion of variously colored flowers; the azure of the sky above. In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated…I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.” ——Joseph Nicollet, 1838

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I followed Chance the Snapper—Chicago’s renegade alligator—south to Florida this week.

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The tallgrass has often been compared to the ocean, and it’s easy to see why. As I sit on the sand under the hot sun, the ripples on the Gulf remind me of the wind-waves that pass through the spiking grasses and wildflowers.

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It’s difficult to be away from the prairie, even for a few days in July. So much is happening! It’s a magical time. The gray-headed coneflowers pirouette into lemon confetti.

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Purple and white prairie clover spin their tutu skirts across the tallgrass; bee magnets, every one.

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Rosinweed’s rough and tumble blooms pinwheel open. Rosinweed is part of the Silphium genus, and perhaps the most overlooked of its more charismatic siblings.

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Cup plant, another Silphium sibling, is also in bloom. as are the first iconic compass plant flowers. Prairie dock, the last of the Silphiums to open here in Illinois, won’t be far behind.

The last St. John’s wort blooms seem to cup sunshine.

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The smaller pale blooms, like llinois bundleflower…

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…and oddball wildflowers, like Indian plantain, add complexity to the richness of the July prairie.

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Wild bergamot, or “bee-balm,” buzzes with its namesake activity. I’m always astonished each year at how prolific it is, but this season, it floods the prairie with lavender. Wow.

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The scientific name for bee balm is Monarda fistulosa; the specific epithet, fistulosa, means “hollow” or “pipe-like.” If you pay attention to a single flower in all its growing stages…

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….its intricacy will take your breath away. Look closer. Like fireworks!

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I love to chew its minty leaves; a natural breath freshener. Bee balm’s essential oil, thymol, is a primary ingredient in natural mouthwashes. Tea made from the plant has also been used as a  remedy for throat infections; its antiseptic properties made it historically useful for treating wounds.beebalm719SPMAWM

The hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, as well as the bees and butterflies, find it irresistible.

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Not only a useful plant, but beautiful.

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The air reverberates with sound on the July prairie: buzzing, chirping; the sizzling, hissing chords of grass blowing in the wind. Overhead, ubiquitous honking Canada geese add their familiar notes.

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In Florida, ospreys wake me each morning with their piercing cries. I see them soaring over the tallgrass prairie occasionally at home and at Fermilab’s prairies down the road in Batavia, IL, where they’re a rare treat. Here in Florida, they’re just another common note in the island’s soundtrack.

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It’s bittersweet to leave the tallgrass prairie in July for a week and miss some of its seasonal magic. The wildflowers are in full crescendo. The grasses unfold their seedheads and head skyward. The slow turn of the season toward autumn begins. You see it in the change in dragonfly species on the prairie, the sudden appearance of bottlebrush grass and Joe Pye weed flowers. To leave the Midwest for even a few days is to miss a twist or turn in the prairie’s ongoing story. Miss some of the magic.

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But displacement gives me perspective. A renewed appreciation for what I’ve left behind.

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The magic will be waiting.

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Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), whose quote begins this post, was a French mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who led explorations in what now is the Dakotas and Minnesota. His whose accurate maps were some of the first to show elevation and use regional Native American names for places. Nicollet’s tombstone reads: “He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future.” Read more about him here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; St. John’s wort ( likely shrubby —Hypericum prolificum); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie, Glenview, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunflowers (probably Helianthus divaricatus) and wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, Florida; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida.

Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

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

10 Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you would drop dead in ten seconds. See the world.” — Ray Bradbury

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Hot. Humid. Did I mention, it’s hot?

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So many reasons to stay inside with the air conditioning on, preferably while sipping a cold beverage.

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And yet.  This is one of the most beautiful months on the tallgrass prairie. A new wildflower species seems to open—in vivid technicolor—every day.  Monarchs float like magnets toward milkweed. Tiny Halloween pennant dragonflies dazzle in their dance with the grasses and sedges.

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Big bluestem shoots up, over our heads now in the wetter places, ready to unfurl its turkeyfoot at any moment. Switchgrass shakes out her seedheads. Compass plants burst into their first sunshine blooms.

Prairie cinquefoil’s clusters of flowers appear as if by magic. Invisible, until bloom time.

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Inhale the smell of crisp mountain mint; the tang of bee balm. Listen! Is that a common yellow throat, yo-yo-ing its summer song? July is passing. Don’t miss it!

Not convinced?  Here are 10 reasons to hike the prairie this week. Let the countdown begin.

#10. Hummingbird moths, such as this snowberry clearwing, zip from bee balm bloom to bee balm bloom.

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#9. Rare plants, like this eastern prairie fringed orchid are no less beautiful for being just-past peak. Plus a bonus lady spotted beetle.

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#8. Meadowhawk dragonflies. The Japanese haiku poet Basho wrote of the red Odonates: “Crimson pepper pod/add two wings/darting dragonfly.” Perfect.

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#7. Michigan lilies. Enough said.

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#6. Queen of the prairie, so pretty in royal pink (and smelling of roses!).

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#5. Calico pennant dragonflies. This one’s a boy.

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#4. Mountain mint in bloom. I can’t resist popping a leaf or two into my mouth. Bonus: a margined leatherwing beetle.

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#3. July’s pop-up thunderstorms. The drama of being alone on the tallgrass prairie as one suddenly rolls in is a cheap adrenaline rush for the thrill seeker. Recommended action: Vamoose!

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#2. Milkweed in bloom. Prairie milkweed…

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…and butterflyweed, with a visiting monarch. Both native milkweeds are attractive to these famous flyers.

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#1. Rattlesnake master: Silver spheres in the sunlight. So ethereal.

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Ten reasons to put down your phone, close your laptop, and go discover what you can add to the above list on your prairie walk.

Ten good reasons to hike the prairie in July.

Ready? Let’s go.

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The quote that opens this post is from writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), born in Waukegon, IL, and best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. He wrote many works of fiction, including the Illinois classic based loosely on his childhood, Dandelion Wine.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glen View, IL; green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) and Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) on a sedge, possibly Muhlenberg’s sedge? (Carex muehlenbergi), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowberry clearwing hummingbird moth (Hemaris diffinis) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Plantanthera leucophaea) with spotted lady beetle (Coleomegilla maculata), Illinois preserve; meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum spp.) on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), West Side field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Michigan lily ( Lilium michiganense) with purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) in the background, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; margined leatherwing beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) on common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Side field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pop-up thunderstorm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) with a sprinkling of unknown ant species (Formicidae), Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glen View, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glen View, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Thanks to Benjamin Vogt for his reminder of queen of the prairie’s fragrance.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Events:

August 2, 8-11:30 a.m., Prairie Ethnobotany: How People Have Used Prairie Plants Throughout History, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

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