Tag Archives: September

The September Prairie’s Greatest Hits

“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems–especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.” –― Barbara Pym

******

Open windows. Cool breezes. That low slant of light. Autumn is here.

belmontprairie92319WMtrail.jpg

After dragonfly migration is finished, I always feel a bit of a letdown, as you might after the end of a long-anticipated party.  Summer is over.  But it’s impossible to feel too melancholy as the prairie ramps up its fall extravaganza. This year, the Indian grass, big bluestem, Maximilian sunflowers and tall coreopsis loom high, shooting toward the sky. Lush. Lanky. Resplendent. Many tallgrass trails are impassible and choked with thick vegetation. The recent deluge of rain left sunflowers too top-heavy to stand upright. Gold spills into the mowed paths.

maxmilliansunflowersBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

The smell of prairie dropseed and damp earth permeates the air. The soundtrack of goldfinch chirps and blue jay calls is augmented by the insects tuning up each evening, a static that I sometimes don’t notice until it goes silent. The cacophony is already winding down; soon, we’ll lose this chorus altogether. Goldfinches are ravenous. It seems they can’t get their fill. They work over the prairie patch in my backyard like a bus full of tourists at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

goldfinchesGEbackyardSeptemberWM.jpg

An occasional crow inks its way across a mackerel sky, and I’m reminded to be grateful for each bird I see and hear, on the prairies and in my backyard. Bird conservation news has been dismal this week, and birds of the grasslands are faring the worst of all. It’s another reason to encourage establishments of new prairies, and to care for existing remnants and restorations.

SKY Mackarel 91819WM.jpg

September is arguably one of the most enjoyable months in the tallgrass. Have you been for a hike on the prairie this month? Do you need motivation to go? Consider a few of the September prairie’s “Greatest Hits.” Maybe one of them will give you a push out the door.

Compass Plants and Other Silphiums

As I wandered through my backyard prairie patch this week, I suddenly realized my prairie dock and compass plants failed to flower this season. Why didn’t they flower? I’m not sure.  This flower-less state is not unprecedented, both in my backyard and on the prairie. Some years, they just… don’t flower! Anecdotally, it seems like the compass plants and prairie dock take a “rest” every few years from making flowers and seeds, the production of which is a huge output of energy.

compassplantF62918wm

I missed the tall bloom stalks of compass plant and prairie dock this summer, with the occasional goldfinch or hummingbird resting on top. The hummingbirds that sojourned through my backyard had to settle for the tall zinnias as surveillance platforms instead.

hummingbirdonzinniasbackyard92119WM.jpg

There are four members of the Silphium genus most prairie stewards concern themselves with: compass plant, prairie dock, rosinweed, and cup plant. (Read more about cup plant in a previous post here.) On Sunday, I went for my first big prairie hike since my surgery six weeks ago, visiting Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove for a half an hour. I compared their compass plants and prairie dock with my own backyard plants. The trails were cut back, making it easy to hike (thank you, Belmont prairie stewards and volunteers!) Woven compass plant leaves ranged from vibrant green to various stages of senesce.

compassplantleavesBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

Some leaves have already turned crisp and brown, curling into base clefs. Or perhaps, chocolate shavings.

compassplantcurledleaves92219WM.jpg

Others were somewhere inbetween “vibrant” and “crunchy.”

compassplanthalfwaydecayed92219WM.jpg

I looked for prairie dock seedheads and came up empty.  I only found desiccated leaves.

Prairie dock Belmont Prairie 92219WM copy.jpg

I did find rosinweed—the less showy of the Silphiums—which had flowered and gone to seed.

rosinweedBelmontPrairie 92219WM.jpg

Click here and you can see what rosinweed looks like in bloom. Pretty. But I love it in the seed stage, each September seed cluster more intricate than its straightforward bright yellow flowers of summer.

The other three Silphiums are always show-stoppers; in bloom or in seed, or —if blooms fail—just for their changing leaves. Each member of the quartet has its individual charms. Especially this month.

Dazzling Asters and Glorious Goldenrods

September is peak time for asters and goldenrod. Yes—as I wrote last week—aster ID can be frustrating. It’s nice to be on the prairie, where many of the asters are easily identifiable. Tiny leaves help ID the pearly white flowers of heath aster (now with its unwieldy new genus name of Symphyotrichum ericoides).

heathaster92219WMBelmontPrairie.jpg

The smooth blue asters have—as you’d expect—smooth stems and leaves. Here, they mix with the vibrant and colorful spent stems of flowering spurge. More about that plant in a minute.

smoothblueasterBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

September is the month for the eye-popping purple haze of the familiar New England asters , which to me signals the prairie bloom season’s grand finale.

newenglandasters92219WM.jpg

The yellows of goldenrod are a worthy pairing for the asters. Ask any quilt maker, and they’ll tell you purple and yellow are complementary colors, great for contrast. The prairie liberally juxtaposes the two in September. What a show!

IMG_9217

I’m imagining the faces of some of the prairie stewards and volunteers reading this right now. Goldenrod is a pain in the neck! you might say, shaking your head. I know, I know. When I began volunteering in natural areas almost 20 years ago, my first question to the steward was: “I should pull all this goldenrod, right?” I was surprised when the answer was “No!”, and to learn goldenrod was native to the Midwest.

If you spend time on a prairie or create a prairie in your backyard as I have, you may find goldenrod is—shall we say—a bit rambunctious.  Sure, you might end up weeding out some of this native plant that is also a take-over specialist to make room for more diversity. But think of the nectar goldenrod provides for bees and butterflies!  I became a goldenrod enthusiast when Jeff and I visited Kankakee Sands‘ prairies in September a few years ago, and we happened upon a monarch migration in progress. The butterflies were fueling up on stiff goldenrod.

WMTrio of monarchs on stiff goldenrod KS91418

Not convinced about goldenrod? A short visit to Belmont Prairie this month is enough to convert even the staunchest goldenrod hater.

BelmontPrairie92219WM

Like all good things, goldenrod is perhaps best in moderation. But the insects love it. Which brings us to…

A Sweet Buzz

The bees are still with us. Bumble bees. Honey bees. Native bees in all patterns, sizes, and colors. In Illinois alone, there are 400-500 species of native bees!  Hiking the September prairie, or standing in my backyard prairie patch, it’s difficult to imagine that in a few short months, the buzz will go mostly silent.

beesonastersbackyardprairieGE919.jpg

This week, I was reading a novel by British writer Barbara Pym when  I ran across the phrase, “Tell the bees… .” What was this?  I turned to Wiki for more information. Evidently, a European beekeeping custom is to let your bees know when important life events such as births, marriages, and deaths happen. If you fail to do so, so the folklore goes, the bees may leave their hive or fall into decline. You might also drape your bee hives in black if someone dies, or leave a slice of wedding cake next to the hives when a marriage takes place in the family.  John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) wrote a melancholy poem about this tradition, “Telling the Bees.”

newenglandasterandbumblebeeByardGEwm.jpg

I’m considering what I might “tell the prairie bees” this week. Be strong. Multiply. We need you to keep our prairies healthy. Thank you.

Skipper Fiesta

The fiery skippers have thrown themselves into September with a zeal I’ve not experienced before. They hang out around the prairie patch; perch and nectar on the zinnias in the garden.

fieryskipperGEbackyard92219WM.jpg

The best way to see the skippers, I’ve discovered, is to sit somewhere close to a nectar source and pay attention.  Not rocket science, is it? But how often I seem to be too busy to just sit and look! In September, the skippers are a reminder to do just that.

Unexpected Prairie Fall Color

Who needs autumn leaves when you have the prairie? The golds of Indian grass, the wine-blue Andropogon gerardii—big bluestem, the copper-colored little bluestem. Together, they make the September prairie breathtaking. I also anticipate the flowering spurge’s post-bloom color each year; the leaves and stems are every bit as pretty as the sugar maple’s leaves.

floweringspurge92219BelmontPrairieWM.jpg

You can find these bright spots all across the tallgrass.

floweringspurgeBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

From a distance, they look almost pink. A startling color, in September.

FloweringSpurgeBelmontPrairieWM92319.jpg

Color. Textures. Buzz. Blooms. These are only a few of the September prairie’s greatest hits. What are your favorite sightings on the September prairie? Drop me a note, and let me know.

There is so much to enjoy on the prairie in September. So much to marvel about. The month is sliding to a close.

Why not go see?

*****

Barbara Pym (1913-1980), whose quote opens this week’s post, was a British writer referred to as “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Her novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another great quote from Pym; ““Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”  I also love, “Of course it’s alright for librarians to smell of drink.” Pym died of breast cancer at 67.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in September, Downer’s Grove, IL; Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) enjoying evening primrose seeds, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; mackerel sky over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant in bloom (Silphium lacinatum), Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL (from 2018); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceaum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrafolia), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL; heath aster (Symphotrichum ericoides), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sky blue asters, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) with New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (previously taken); monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) at Kankakee Sands in September 2017, Kankakee Sands Preserve, The Nature Conservancy Indiana, Newton, IN; asters and goldenrods in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.) with honeybee (Apis mellifera) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) on New England aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

****

Join Cindy for a speaking event or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com to learn more.

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

****

A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

Prairiedropseed91419GEWM

Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

monarchonzinnia91519GEWM

Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

Butterflymilkweedpod91419GEWM.jpg

It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

redsaddlebagsWM82418CROSBYbackyardwm

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

Jaspar Polaski Sandhill Cranes 2016 .jpg

 

Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

PecksskipperonblackeyedsusanWMGE91519.jpg

At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

bluelobeliaGE91519WM.jpg

…for a sip of sugar.

bluelobeliawithpecksskipperGE91519.jpg

I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

Beautiful Wood Nymph Moth GE front porch 91619WM.jpg

I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

Beautiful Wood Nymph Top ViewWM Glen Ellyn 91619.jpg

Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

flyonasstersgreenmetallicsweatbeeWMGE51519.jpg

Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

NEAster91419GEWM.jpg

This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

NewEnglandAster91419GEWM.jpg

But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

AsterandBumblebee91419GEWM.jpg

Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

Asterandbee91419GEWM.jpg

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

AsterandflyGE91419WM.jpg

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

prairiecordgrassGE91519WM.jpg

…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

Rabbit91419GEWMWM.jpg

She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

*****

The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

****

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

*****

Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

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

*******

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.

blackeyedsusanbluelobeliabackyardGEWM9219.jpg

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.

prairiedropseedbackyardGEWM9119.jpg

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.

gray-headedconeflower9219WM.jpg

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.

FermiskiesSeptember2018WM

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…

blackeyedsusansSPMA2019endofsummerWM.jpg

… 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.

SP2014blacksaddlebagswatermark.jpg

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.

Glenbard South Prairie More Switchgrass 2017WM.jpg

Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

Little bluestem SPMA918WM.jpg

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

CROSBYbigbluestmWM.jpg

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.

buckeyeNG102015-CROSBYWM.jpg

Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

Nachusasilverspottedskipper917WM.jpg

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

Eastern-tailed blue 2014 SPWM

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.

SchulenbergPrairieMASeptemberWM.jpg

You, too?

Happy hiking.

*****

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.

****

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.

****

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

A Thousand Prairie Details

” …few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential. What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.” –John McPhee

***

“What to include, what to leave out?” How do you decide—when you try to describe September on the prairie?

P1120044.jpg

Look through the tallgrass kaleidoscope. Details change. From hour to hour; moment to moment.

Taltree917eleven.jpg

The prairie is a shape-shifter.

Taltreecompassplantrattlesnake917.jpg

Color and pattern maker.

NGbutterflies.jpg

Each insect and plant outlined and highlighted.

Taltreeprairiedockwithdew917.jpg

A few shocks of color. Burnt cherry.

Autumn Meadowhawk917NG.jpg

Pure purple.

Taltreeasters917.jpg

Other details, less colorful, still dazzle. Fizzy whites, knitted together by spiders; pearled by dew.

Taltree917twelve.jpg

Sheer numbers sometime disguise the finer elements.

NG bur marigold 917.jpg

The particulars lost in a tangle. Taken out of context.

P1120007.jpg

The familiar becomes unfamiliar.

Taltree917six.jpg

The tiniest details create the sum of the whole. The autumn prairie.

P1120074.jpg

Dreamlike.

P1120076.jpg

Almost invisible at times. Camouflaged. But unforgettable.

P1110955.jpg

The magic of a thousand prairie details.

P1120095.jpg

They all add up to something extraordinary.

***

The opening quote is from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  McPhee (1931-) is the author of more than 30 books, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the end of a trail, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  white wild indigo leaves with spider silk, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; September in the tallgrass, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; three butterflies puddling (two male clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and an orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with morning dew, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  yellow legged or autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  unseasonal bloom on white wild indigo in September (Baptisia leucantha), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  bison (Bison bison) hair on the trail, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with dewdrops, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; early morning on the prairie, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; fog over Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; eastern tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyentas), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Taltree Arboretum prairie, Valparaiso, IN.

The Turn of a Prairie Page

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy…”  – Anatole France

***

August takes her last breath.  Insects stitch together the transitions between daylight and dark. When we open our bedroom windows to welcome the cooler air at night, their high-pitched chorus lull us to sleep. ZZZzzz.

img_8515

Mornings in Illinois take on a clean, cold feel. A sudden drop into the 40s at night prods us to reach for our jackets; we don’t know how to dress for the day ahead anymore. Layers. We add a sweater, peel it off by 10 a.m.

September is so close you can feel it. Time to turn the seasonal page.

The blue gentians bloom at last. They’re a specialty reserved for autumn’s introduction. A trumpet blast of jewel-like color.

SP-prairiegentians82817.JPG

prairiegentians82817.JPG

In my backyard, sandwiched between suburban houses, the prairie patch puts out a few, tentative asters. Joe Pye weed blooms brown up.

P1110677.jpg

I find my new Kankakee mallow plant stalks, grown from expensive plant plugs this spring, abruptly cut in half by sharp bunny teeth this morning.  Will they survive the winter? Maybe. Or maybe not.

IMG_7673

A lone cardinal flower still blooms in one of the wetter places in the yard…

IMG_8545.jpg

…and close beside it, the great blue lobelia are at their best, pumping out bright blue  around the pond with the promise of more flowers to come.

P1110674.jpg

Each day, I watch a few more new England asters slowly unfurl their purple fringed blooms on the prairie.

img_9313

Little bluestem is prominent now, blizzarding the prairie with rusts and tufts of snowy white.

p1020327

Hummingbirds, driven by the migration impulse, battle over my dew-drenched feeder each morning. They fuel up on whatever wildflowers they can find in my backyard prairie, then zip away, always moving south.

hummingbird-sept2015

Love it or moan about it: Autumn always brings with it a sense of our own mortality. The great rush of plant growth is over. It’s replaced with the Earth’s concern for legacy. The plants push each other over in their exuberance to crank out seeds, seeds, more seeds.

P1100951.jpg

The community of the prairie transforms. Soon, it will be dry grasses and seedheads rustling in an increasingly chill breeze. Widow skimmer dragonflies perch around prairie ponds, anticipating this. They watch other dragonfly species begin to migrate. But no trip to the south for them. They await the tipping point that ends their season.

P1110518.jpg

What will the autumn bring? Beauty of its own kind, yes. But now, at the tail end of summer, we feel a bit melancholy.

SPaugust282017.JPG

The prairie promises a new chapter. Who can tell what it will bring? We remind ourselves: the best days may lie ahead. It’s up to us to accept change. And to embrace it.

****

Jacques Anatole Thibault, known by his pseudonym, Anatole France (1844-1924) was a Nobel Prize-winning French novelist, poet, and journalist–in fact, there are few genres of literature he did not attempt in his writings. Not surprising to learn that his father was a bookseller and he grew up surrounded by books. One of my favorite quotes by France: “Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown grasshopper on wild Canada rye seedhead (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interior of prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta ), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) at the feeder, author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild Canada rye (Elymus canadensis) seedheads, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wild Things

“Two great and conflicting stories have been told about (wildness). According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.”–Robert Macfarlane

So often, we settle for “pretty” when we think about place. And yes, the prairie can be pretty, and full of pretty things. Great blue lobelia. Creamy white turtlehead blooms.

“Wild” makes more demands of us.  It changes our idea of beautiful. The prairie as a wild place asks us to be uncomfortable in order to experience it.  To be scratched, sore, tired, and bitten.

P1000745

Wild may be more subtle than pretty. It asks us to look at the sweep of a prairie landscape; the nuances of color and movement.

P1000935

It pushes us to pay attention to small things, that may otherwise easily slip below our radar.

P1000907

To be wild is sometimes unsafe. Prairie dropseed lures us with its buttered popcorn smell, while tripping us up with its silky grasses and mounded roots. Early European settlers called prairie dropseed, “ankle breaker.”  To cross a prairie in that time, with your belongings packed into your wagon, was to enter the wild. A place of hazards.

IMG_8254.jpg

Other plants, like the prairie cordgrass towering over your head, slash bare skin with razor-like leaf cuts if you venture too close. Its nickname: “rip gut.”

CROSBY-Cordgrass2016SP

And yet…look again. So many delicate blooms amid the rough and ready grasses! You pick your way carefully, still conscious of the perils.

P1000895

 

Beauty and terror co-exist, side by side.

P1000882

The idea of “wild” invites us to marvel over less-appreciated creatures, who have a certain ferocious allure.

P1000811

The wildness of prairie may seem empty. The openness of sky and grass leaves us vulnerable to whatever is “out there.”

P1000872

You feel the eyes of a thousand inhabitants of the natural world watching.

P1000871 (2)

You stand, a solitary figure in the tallgrass. No other person in sight. Prairies, like other wild places, give us room to be alone with ourselves, without white noise and distractions. And perhaps this is the most terrifying demand of all from wild places. But for those who make the journey, it is the most satisfying reward. What will you discover?

Why not go, and find out?

*******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra linifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  September colors at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) and bee (Megachile spp.), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; September at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Robert Macfarlane (1976-) penned the opening quote, which is from his book, The Wild Places. He is a contemporary British writer, and winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize for literature.

A 2015 Prairie Retrospective

May you never forget what is worth remembering; May you never remember what is best forgotten. — old Irish blessing

Every prairie year has its own personality. Every season in the tallgrass is full of surprises.

Thank you for hiking the prairie with me on Tuesdays in 2015. I hope you’ll enjoy this retrospective of the Illinois prairie, month by month.  Who knows what wonderful things are in store for us in 2016?

January

Winter is a good time for naps, as these shaggy bison know. Bringing buffalo to Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  was a culmination of a dream for many prairie restorationists. In 2015, we watched the herd grow and a new bison unit open.

IMG_2168

February

Windy winter skies bring their own motion to the prairie, rattling the brittle grasses and seedheads.

IMG_1616

March

Fire is to prairie as water is to life. Because we suppress wildfires, prairie restorationists must used prescribed burns to ensure the prairie regularly goes up in flames. Only a few weeks after all is soot and ashes, the prairie turns emerald with new growth. It’s a resurrection of sorts. A chance for new beginnings that inspires even the most jaded and cynical observer.

sp-burn2013

April

A great egret keeps watch over a wet prairie, scanning for small frogs and fish.

IMG_5731

May

As spring breezes ripple prairie ponds and streams, the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds add their notes to the tallgrass soundtrack. Dragonflies emerge.

IMG_4715

June

Pale purple coneflowers  open, heralding the beginning of summer on the prairie. Once revered for their medicinal value, today we appreciate them for their verve and color.

IMG_5804

Like badminton birdies, aren’t they?

IMG_6008

Moist conditions helped queen of the prairie have a banner year in 2015.

IMG_7033

July

Dragonflies are all around us in the warmer months. In July, they clamor for our attention with their numbers and bejeweled colors.  Here, a blue dasher looks out at the prairie with its complex eyes. Below, an American rubyspot hangs over a stream rushing through the tallgrass.

bluedasher-sp2015

IMG_9012

August

Bee balm rampaged across the prairie in 2015; monarchs sipping beebalm nectar approved. There was good news for monarch butterflies this year — from the tollroads in Illinois which will fund milkweed plantings; to increased numbers of monarchs this season.

beebalmsp2014

September

Without volunteers, the prairie restoration efforts in the Midwest would be a moot point. Here, a volunteer from an Illinois church group collects seeds on one prairie that will be used to plant a different site.

IMG_9090

October

Asters are the floral bon voyage to the prairie blooming season. It’s bittersweet to see their purples, whites, and golds across the prairie. We know winter is just around the corner.

IMG_9511

The goldenrods join the chorus of goodbyes each autumn.

IMG_9217

November

Milkweed, including this common milkweed, got a lot of attention in 2015 for its value to monarchs. Did you plant some? If not, there’s always next year.

IMG_0696

December

Who says December has to be colorless? In some years, the prairie palette seems to catch fire as winter begins its slow drain of colors from the tallgrass. The oranges, yellows, and reds are a reminder of the prescribed fires that will burn in the spring; waking the prairie up to a new season of life.

IMG_1369

I began my first blog entry this year with the image above; it seems fitting to close out this prairie season with it.

Looking forward to hiking the tallgrass on Tuesdays with you in 2016.

Happy New Year!

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison in the snow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; winter sky, NG; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the fire, SP; great egret, NG; pond life, NG; Echinacea pallida, SP; Echinacea pallida, SP; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); blue dasher dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot, NG; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and monarch butterfly; volunteer, SP; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), SP; New England asters (Symphyotrichumnovae-angliae) and goldenrod (Solidago spp. — there were several species represented in this particular patch where I photographed, and the IDs are uncertain) SP; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) DuPage County Forest Preserve; late December grasses, NG.

Old Irish Blessing: original source unknown