“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard
We haven’t seen the last of winter. Snow is in the forecast this week in the Chicago region. But this weekend, spring seemed a little closer. Why? Thaw. Can you smell it in the air? Can you hear the trickle of snow melt, percolating through the frozen earth?
Sunday, Jeff and I hiked Springbrook Prairie, an 1,829 acre nature preserve in Naperville, IL, drawn outside by the rising mercury in the thermometer, the sunshine, and—yes—the thaw.
We’re getting closer to the vernal equinox on Sunday, March 20. Soon, the hours of light and dark will balance on the seasonal scale.
We’re not quite there yet. In the bright sunlight, we can almost imagine it is late March. But February is still winter, by both meteorological and astronomical calendars.
Despite the ice and snow that claim the tallgrass, the signs of spring on the horizon are evident. Red-winged blackbirds sing on the edges of the wetlands at Springbrook Prairie. Soon they will be dive-bombing us in defense of their nests.
From its perch, the red-wing has a prime view of the prairie. I’d love to have that vantage point! I’d watch the pond with its icy den. Who is home? Muskrats? Beavers? I’m not sure. I bet the red-wing knows.
I wish I could sail high and spy on the ubiquitous white-tailed deer.
Or cruise the prairie, watching the bicycles and joggers thread their way through the tallgrass on the sloppy-wet trails. What I wouldn’t give for a birds-eye view from the sky today!
Instead, we’re deep in the thaw. A fine limestone slurry coats our boots.
Dog walkers trot past, their pooches splattered and patched with gray. I wonder what clean-up will be done before the ride home.
Thimbleweed lifts its seed puffs trailside.
The sun tracks low, illuminating the native grasses.
Wildflowers turn bright against the backlight.
Suddenly, two sundogs appear! It’s my first glimpse of this phenomenon this year. Sundogs are difficult to photograph. But how wonderful to stand on the trails and admire those two outrider prisms, equal distances from the sun in the sky. Can you spot them, just over the horizon line?
What a joy to experience sundogs and thaw; redwings and snowmelt. As we head for the parking lot, a hawk—maybe a juvenile redtail?—monitors our progress.
She–or he—flies off into the sunset at our approach, finished with the day’s business.
Jeff and I are finished with our hike. Ready for dinner. And home.
By Monday, our backyard prairie is lank and wet, all soggy grasses with pools of snowmelt. The sun works diligently all morning to erase any traces of winter. As I soak up the light pouring through the kitchen window, thinking about spring burns (and how much my backyard needs one), there’s a flurry of wings. Redpolls!
So many common redpolls. Just in time to close out the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is the first winter we’ve seen these feisty birds in our backyard, thanks to a tutorial by our birding friends on what field marks to look for and what seeds redpolls love.
Redpolls swarm the sock feeders, mob the seed tubes, line the tray feeder and gobble the nyjer thistle tossed on the porch. I call Jeff to the window. Together, we attempt to count them. Ten. Thirty. Fifty. Seventy—and so many others in the trees! A group of redpolls, I’ve learned, is called “a gallop of redpolls.” We certainly have a herd of them!
We estimate almost a hundred, perched in trees, loitering at the feeders, hopping around on the roof. Where did they come from? Are they on their way…where? Back to their Arctic habitat, perhaps? It’s difficult to know. I hope this isn’t goodbye for the season. But if it is goodbye, that’s okay. What a dramatic finale it would be.
Nature has a way of surprising us with wonders.
All we have to do is show up and pay attention.
The opening quote is one of my all-time favorites by the writer Annie Dillard (1945-). I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek every year. Wrote Eudora Welty in the New York Times Book Review, “The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing.” It’s a good one.
Join Cindy for a class or program in February!
February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11:30 am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.
February 26 ––Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Cindy’s afternoon program is part of the all-day events)
Grateful thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery, who gave us the redpolls tutorial and are always ready to help with bird ID.