“The prairie showcased its variegated display of wildflowers…on par with the most colorful children’s kaleidoscope.” — Steven Apfelbaum
Mercurial July runs hot and cold; wet and dry. She hands out fistfuls of flowers.
And more flowers.
And even more flowers.
So many blooms! It’s overwhelming, in the best possible way.
The insects approve.
Listen! Can you hear them spread the message? It’s in the whir of wings.
In the vibration of buzz.
Everywhere you look, there’s a whole lotta pollination going on.
… and damselflies…
…add their own whir of wings to the insect hubub. Dragonflies and damselflies don’t pollinate plants, but they enjoy eating the mosquitoes and insects which do.
The summer days pass quickly. Too quickly.
Big bluestem makes its move for the sky. So soon?
Early goldenrod bursts into bloom.
Goldenrod? Wait….what? You can’t help but think: Autumn.
I push that thought aside. For now, it’s summer. I’m going to take it slow. July’s color, light, and motion fill the air.
Every moment is worth paying attention to.
How will you spend July?
The opening quote is by Steven Apfelbaum (1954-) from Nature’s Second Chance. The chapter it is taken from, “Getting to Know Your Neighbors,” is one of my favorites in contemporary prairie literature. How do you explain a prairie to those who see the land as purely utilitarian? It can be done, but it’s not always easy. If you haven’t read Apfelbaum’s book, check it out here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories. Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.
“Spring comes–the dragonfly is back–on its path.”—Ken Tennessen
June is halfway over, and what a spectacular show she’s giving us on the prairie! Everywhere you look, pale purple coneflowers bloom in profusion.
Spiderwort pairs with northern bedstraw.
Purple milkweed opens, attracting a little green pollinator.
And sundrops! This year, there is a plethora (or should I say “oenothera?”) of these bright wildflowers splashed across the prairie like spilled sunlight.
Butterflies are everywhere among the prairie wildflowers.
So many wildflowers! And yet. Where do I find myself on today’s hike? Down in the sluggish, slow-moving prairie stream.
Today, I’m chasing dragonflies.
The stream is a hotbed of dragonfly and damselfly activity. As I don my hip waders and slosh in, the ebony jewelwing damselflies flutter up around me like black velvet confetti.
It’s understandable if you mistake the ebony jewelwings for black butterflies, as I used to do. Those wings!
Certainly the American rubyspot damselfly might be mistaken for some otherworldly exotic insect. It’s difficult to believe they are so common here in Illinois streams. They are gorgeous from the front, with their coppery thoraxes and cherry Koolaid-colored wing patch…
…or from the back, with the clear focus on their shimmery abdomen and wings, shot with metallic gold.
Even though both species are territorial, in today’s crowded stream conditions they seem to have struck a truce.
I count almost 50 of each species. Even in these numbers, the rubyspots and the jewelwings aren’t as prolific as the stream bluets, which are floating by the dozens like tiny slender blimps across the surface of the stream.
This tandem pair above pauses on a floating leaf mat. “Tandem” means the male uses his claspers to grip the female behind her eyes, part of their mating ritual. From this position, if she’s willing, they will move to the “wheel,” and he will fertilize her eggs. Looks like a heart, doesn’t it?
I count, and count, and count, and quit at around 80 stream bluets. Everywhere, more damselflies appear in the tallgrass along the shoreline at eye level.
Over here, a variable dancer—sometimes called “violet dancer” —another abundant member of this prairie stream community.
Ordinary? Maybe. But that purple coloration never fails to delight.
From a nearby rock, a powdered dancer gives me the eye.
So many! Powdered dancers alone; powdered dancer damselflies in tandem. An ancient ritual, ensuring that more damselflies will arrive to fly this stream for years to come.
As I’m counting the powdered dancers and stream bluets, I look up to see a solitary dragonfly, perched on a twig in the middle of the stream.
It’s a four-spotted skimmer! Although I’ve seen them up north, I’ve never seen them here in my 16 years of Illinois dragonfly monitoring. The four-spotted skimmer is a circumpolar dragonfly species, also found in Africa, Japan, and Europe as well as North America. I love the gold threaded through the leading edge of the wings.
I admire it for a while, then continue counting. On one side of the stream, discovery and delight! On the other, disaster. The much-awaited thunderstorm and downpour Sunday here that helped alleviate severe drought is likely responsible for some of the casualties I see in the water. An ebony jewelwing —one of several damsels—floats in the stream debris.
Danger lurks everywhere for odonates. Other creatures wait in the shallows, hoping to snag an unwary dragon or damsel for a morsel of lunch.
Nature is a tough gig.
I fish a few waterlogged damselflies out of the stream to dry, but they are too far gone to survive. Dragonflies and damselflies in my part of the world, no matter how skilled they are at survival, may only fly for a few weeks — or a few minutes, if they are eaten by fish or frogs or drowned like these were. Their lives are short. As ours may be.
There are no guarantees. It makes sense, then, to appreciate every minute we have. And to take time to pay attention…
…even to insects in a June prairie stream.
Why not go for a hike and see the prairie this week?
Who knows what you’ll discover.
The opening quote is from Kenn Tennessen’s haiku “Spring Comes” from his book with co-author Scott King, Dragonfly Haiku, from Red Dragonfly Press (2016).
All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Join Cindy for some fun online dragonfly programs and classes this summer!
The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.
“Oh the days dwindle down, To a precious few . . .September….”
They swirl in my backyard, green helicopters against a blue sky. On the prairies, I count them. Twenty-five. Fifty.
Where are these dragonflies going?
It’s migration season in the Chicago region.
Common green darners zip and dart overhead, as I try to estimate their numbers for my dragonfly data. Seventy-five. One hundred. One hundred and ten. I put my clipboard down and marvel. How was I alive in the world for so many years and never noticed this phenomenon?
My data sheet is pre-printed with the names of numerous species, but today the common green darners’ hash marks spill over into other columns. I finish estimating at 165. Then I turn my attention to the dragonflies and damselflies that won’t make the trip.
In Willoway Brook, a stream bluet, shows his age by his pruinosity:
A few tired-looking American rubyspot damselflies stake out the stream.
A single widow skimmer dragonfly flies across the tallgrass trail.
These dragonfly and damselfly species will remain on the prairie, resigned to end their lives here in the Chicago region. As the colder temperatures increase, their natural lifespans will come to an end. By the time frost ices the tallgrass, most will be gone.
There are other delights that prepare to take their place. The prairie, refreshed by much-needed downpours this week, is alight with the colors of autumn. The leaves of purple meadow rue are in transition.
September loves yellow. Illinois’ corn fields are quilted green and yellow and brown with corn in full tassel. Goldenrod shows off its different floral shapes—some tall and branching, other blooms flat or rounded. Soybean fields stretch to the horizon, pools of molten gold. On the prairie, sawtooth sunflowers are bright against a clear blue sky.
Along Willoway Brook, the sunflowers admire their reflection.
A blue heron watches the water, hoping for a fish or frog. Patience personified.
Singles and family groups have been hiking Illinois’ prairies in large numbers this week, lured out, perhaps, by the knowledge that the days of warmer weather are numbered. Meteorological autumn is here. Winter is coming. They leave evidence of their presence—sometimes a gum wrapper or wadded up Kleenex—other times a bit of encouragement.
At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison shrug on their winter coats, ready for cold weather. The spring calves darken to chocolate brown and put on weight. But a few late-born butterscotch bison babies stick close to each other and their mamas.
Near Nachusa, the beekeepers gather their honey and lay it out for sale on tables along the gravel roads. There’s something touching about the tin can honor system of payment; the “Need change? Take bills from here!” tin. It’s a little bit of optimism, a vote of trust in the inherent goodness of people.
I’ve also been heartened by the number of migrating monarchs that cruise through the tallgrass on my walks through the prairies this week. Insect news has not been great, folks, so to see the skies full of orange and black wings headed south is a shot of joy.
But it’s the green darners who are the stars of the prairies this week. The green darners I’m hanging my hopes on. Today, hundreds. Tomorrow, they may vanish. Sure, there will be a straggler or two around, but the electricity of their activity will be a thing of remembrance. When we see them again, it won’t be these individuals that come back. Rather, their progeny, one darner at a time, struggling to return from thousands of miles. We’ll see the first one in the first warming days of March and April. What a day to look forward to!
When the green darner dragonflies arrived in March this year, I couldn’t have imagined what our lives would be like in the following months of 2020. Seeing them go now in September—almost seven months later—I wonder what life for us will be when they return next spring. This season of change makes me feel hopeful.
See you in March, little dragonflies. Safe travels.
The opening quote is from the lyrics of September Song, written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill. It’s been recorded by many artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jeff Lynn of Electric Light Orchestra (with George Harrison). But my favorite continues to be the rendition by Willie Nelson from Stardust. Listen, and see if you agree.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of green darner migration, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2013); common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream bluet male (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; found nature art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; twin baby bison calves (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; honey stand, next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; common green darner dragonfly, male (Ajax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz from this Saturday, 9/12 through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.
Nomia Meadows Farm, just down the road from Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, has great honey for sale. Contact them here.
“A Tallgrass Conversation”—Conservation Cocktails online with Lake Forest Openlands. Friday, September 11, 6-7:30pm. To register—and find out how to join the good work of this organization–click here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.