Tag Archives: tallgrass prairie

Honk if You Love Prairie

“The petty entanglements of life are brushed aside (on the trail) like cobwebs”–Grandma Gatewood

*****

It’s August. Big bluestem is tassling out, waving its turkey-footed seedheads against the sky. You understand why we call our Midwestern grasslands  the “tallgrass prairies” after a summer like this one, filled with heat and rain. Everything on the prairie is lush.

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The butterflies are putting on a show this summer. Yellow swallowtails and  black swallowtails…

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…flock to the Joe Pye weed, now blooming cloud-like with pale Indian plantain under the oaks in the savanna.

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It’s hot on the prairie. Tempers are hot, too, in the suburbs where I live.  Earlier in the week, as I waited at an intersection for a light to change, the driver behind me laid on her horn. Honk! Honk! Honk! She wanted to turn right. My car, going straight ahead, blocked her way.  I made the mistake of looking in the rear view mirror and saw her red face. She was shouting. I quickly looked away and prayed for the light to change. Turned up my Paco de Lucia CD (yes, I still have a CD player in my old Honda) and hoped the chords of Paco’s guitar would drown out her honking.

Honk! Honk! Honk! Finally, an eternity later, the light turned green. My car moved through the intersection, and with a squeal of rubber, she turned right, still laying on her horn.

Honnnnnnnkkkkkkk!

I knew I needed a “prairie therapy” hike.

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Not that I need a reason to go to the prairie. But for 20 years now, I’ve found that an hour of walking a prairie trail or two siphons off built-up stress and alleviates a looming tension headache.  The song of the common yellowthroat that hangs out in a tree by the prairie savanna trail, singing his “wichety, wichety, wichety,” is enough to erase some of that miserable “Honk! Honk! Honk!” from the soundtrack playing in my mind.

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And, oh, that August sky on the prairie! I’m reminded that, just a few days ago, one of my six little grandkids asked me if I’d cloud-watch with him. We lay back on the grass and watched the sky change from moment to moment,  comparing clouds to other objects—a ship, a turtle—in the same way people have cloud-watched from time beyond memory. I think of this as I hike the prairie now, watching the cumulus clouds floating lazily overhead, casting shadows on the tallgrass.

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I stop on the bridge over Willoway Brook and look into the stream. The dragonflies and damselflies are in a frenzy of reproduction. Do they sense the downward seasonal slide toward autumn? Maybe. The American rubyspot damselflies hang low over Willoway Brook on blades of grass, waiting for potential mates. Such anticipation! Like speed dating.

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The grasses are slipping into their late summer colors. Switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass ripple in the wind, with a sound like rustling silk. The flowering spurge mists the grasses with its delicate white blooms.

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High-pitched sounds overhead cause me to look up.

Honk! Honk! Honk!

 

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It’s the  Canada geese, flying to a 18-hole course nearby to terrorize the golfers. These are kind of “honks” that don’t raise my blood pressure.

As I pass the bench that overlooks the prairie trail, I see a pile of coins, mostly quarters. Doubtless, someone has paused to rest, and their change has spilled from a back pocket.  I leave the coins. Maybe they’ll realize their loss, and backtrack, looking for their cash.  Or perhaps some other hiker having a bad day will pocket the change, and feel a bit more cheerful.

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I don’t need a cash windfall to improve my mood. The prairie hike has already worked its magic . My day is transformed. My blood pressure is lowered, my perspective is more positive.

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All it took was a little prairie therapy.

*******

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1887-1973) lived a difficult life. After brutal abuse by her husband—and raising eleven children under tough circumstances—she decided to go for a walk at age 66 on the Appalachian Trail. She became the first woman to hike it solo in one season. By age 77, she had hiked the 2,000-miles-plus AT three times through, plus the Oregon Trail. She wore tennis shoes for most of her hikes. Gatewood was the quintessential ultralight backpacker, with a simple bag she sewed herself holding very few supplies. Gatewood often relied on the kindness of strangers, who sometimes fed and sheltered her for the night. But, she also spent time sleeping under a shower curtain (her tent) and picnic tables along the way. “After the hard life I lived, this trail isn’t so bad,” Gatewood told reporters. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, is well worth the read to follow the grit and willpower of an inspirational woman.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; August skies on the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cash on the bench, Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the prairie in August, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Bugs, Blooms, and Butterflies

“Adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension.” — Sharman Apt Russell

*****

There’s something good to be said for mosquitoes. Yup, you read that here. I remind myself of this as I pull on my head net. There’s not a soul on the prairie at the end of this July afternoon, and selfishly, I’m glad to have the prairie all to myself. Bugs plus heat plus humidity=A Quiet Hike.

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Well, not exactly quiet. A red-winged blackbird erupts in a cacophony of sound. His volume increases as make my way down the trail. Too close to his nest? I move on a little quicker than I had planned. A common yellow-throat is singing his “wichety-wichety-wichety;” the birdsong soundtrack to this particular prairie in summer. Nearby, a ruby-throated hummingbird stops to rest on a tree branch, silhouetted against the blindingly blue sky.

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July is the steamy month that the Illinois prairie begins to make its move to earn its name: tallgrass.  Big bluestem is tassling out. Other grasses are waist-high. Suddenly this month, compass plants spike the prairie, like hundreds of periscopes erupting from a sea of rippling green. As I draw closer to one plant, I see the silphium weevils have carefully sliced the top flowers off. On the stem is a sticky, glittering wound, which oozes plant resin.

silphiumweevilcompassplantSPMAwm7918.jpgI pull off a dab of the sticky stuff and taste it. Refreshing! Native American children reportedly chewed this sap like Wrigley’s spearmint gum. I’m more cautious. It tastes good, but it is tough to scrape off my teeth. Once it’s on your fingers, you stick to everything you touch in the next hour.

Brushing past the compass plants, I wade through Culver’s root, lush after the long season of rain and heat. The bees love it.

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And so do the butterflies.

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A nectaring viceroy butterfly performs a series of gymnastics to get every last drop from a Culver’s root stand.  Sideways…

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…wings backlit by the lowering sun…

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…upside down.

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I watch it until it flies away.

Nearby, on whorled milkweed, it’s a black bug bonanza. How many do you see in the photo below? The whorled milkweed tolerates a lot of disturbance, and we have a nice stand of it here in one of the more degraded prairie areas.

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It boggles my mind to think this is only one milkweed plant, on one prairie. So much activity!  So many insects here that are likely invisible to my eyes. All going about their business of keeping the prairie healthy and thriving.

Speaking of which…The bright patches of butterfly weed are true to their name today.  This bloom has a coral hairstreak butterfly and a fritillary—plus a bee—all competing for real estate. The bedraggled fritillary, doubtless frayed by birds trying to get a nibble of its wings, looks like it is winning the battle for supremacy. What a tough customer for such a fragile insect! As I watch, the bee and the coral hairstreak are forced off the flowers.

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And at last, I spot a monarch. Ah. I was hoping to see you.

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As I finish the trail, something yellow catches my eye. The first goldenrod buds. Already? Summer just started! Or so it seems.

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The goldenrod is a reminder to enjoy every moment of this time on the prairie. Autumn will be here before we know it. Difficult to believe on this steamy July afternoon.

So for now, I’m going to enjoy the butterflies, bugs, and blooms of July.  Store up the colors, sights, and sounds of summer. While they last.

*****

The opening quote is by Sharman Apt Russell (1954-)  from her book, “An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect.”

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom lopped off by weevils, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) ) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus)  nectaring on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias virticillata) with some unknown bugs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with two butterflies (left, probably a coral hairstreak, Satyrium titus; right, a fritillary, Speyeria,  although she’s pretty dinged up by  bird nibbles to tell as to species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepis tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Fault in Our (Shooting) Stars

“Cherish your science but understand it as a finite guide to the immensities of time and space…Look far. Dance with the world rather than try to explain it away. Consider the boat, not just the planks. Seize knowledge. Ask hard questions. But know, too, that your intellect is a small window and that its views can be surprisingly incomplete. Feel deeply.” — William J. Broad.

******

What a week it is shaping up to be on the tallgrass prairie! Rain and cool weather are bringing out the blooms. Small white lady’s slippers are in their full splendor. Like tiny white boats floating in a sea of grass.

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The first bright pops of hoary puccoon show up along the trail.

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Nearby, another pop of orange. An immature female eastern forktail damselfly. So common—and yet so welcome right now.  Emergence of dragonflies and damselflies has been slow this spring, due to the cool, wet weather.

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Cream wild indigo doesn’t mind the cool conditions. It jumps right into its opening act.

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The wild hyacinths add their delicate scent and good looks in washes of lavender across the prairie.

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So many beautiful prairie wildflowers blooming this week, you hardly know which way to look. And oh, the juxtapositions! This blue-eyed grass is swirled into an embrace by wood betony.

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While nearby, a butterfly conducts surveillance runs across the low grasses and forbs.

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But the literal star of the prairie stage this week is Dodecatheon meadia. The shooting star.

 

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Its pink clouds of flowers are so unusual. Look at that bloom shape!

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Now, think “tomato blossom.” Or the blooms of eggplants and potatoes. Similar, no?

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Shooting star is a tease. She beckons bumblebees with her good looks. They zip by, then pause, perhaps shocked by all that floral abundance. Buzz in for a closer look.

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What the bumblebees don’t know right away is this: Shooting star has no nectar reward. The only “fault” in this star to speak of! Nonetheless, you can see this bumblebee in the photo below stick out its tongue. Looking for nectar? Grooming itself? Or perhaps letting me know it is time to quit taking photos?

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As the bumblebee clings to the underside of the bloom, it vibrates its strong wing muscles. They emit a high-pitched buzz. This causes the pollen to be shaken out of the anthers onto the underside of the bee. The process is known as “buzz pollination” or “sonication.” Honeybees can’t do it. Their muscles aren’t strong enough.  Which emphasizes the need for native bee conservation, doesn’t it?

Can you see the pollen in the photo below? Like yellow dust.

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As the bumblebee moves on, it carries some of the pollen with it, cross-pollinating other shooting star flowers as it visits each one. Bumblebees also eat pollen, and feed to their bumblebee young.  Click on  this great video for more info that’s been helpful to me in understanding the process.

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Watch the shooting stars. Listen to what they have to tell us.  They are another reason to care about the natural world and all its creatures.

Then pause.

“Dance with the world rather than try and explain it.”

Make a wish.

*****

The opening quote from William J. Broad’s The Oracle was taken from Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha.

All photos and video this week are from The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (top to bottom) small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum);  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), female; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); cream indigo (Baptisia bracteata) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the background; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) with wood betony (Pedicularis candadensis); possibly American snout butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) although the “snout” isn’t clear;  constellation of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee performing buzz pollination (note the tongue sticking out!); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee (unknown species) vibrating out the pollen; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) close up; video of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) waving in the breeze. 

Where the Prairies Begin

“I like to think of landscape not as a fixed placed but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet.” –Gretel Ehrlich

****

Spring comes to the tallgrass prairie with rains that soak and flood the newly-burned earth, urging wildflowers to bloom. Illinois’ state flower, the blue violet, is one of the first to color the prairies and woodlands.

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Pussytoes on the prairie are not far behind.

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On the wet prairies, marsh marigolds butter the streams and ponds.

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Water is the key to this lush profusion of prairie color. Illinois receives almost 40 inches of rain in a good year, nourishing the wildflowers and giving the grasses and wetlands a boost.

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But the story of prairies and rain begins almost a thousand miles west of Illinois, high in the Rocky Mountains. April here is full of precipitation of a different sort.

 

Mule deer forage in the snow-glazed grasses for something green and nourishing.

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Birds scan their surroundings for insects and seeds.

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As the storms move over the Rockies, snow and rain water the western slopes.

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As storms move west to east over the mountain range, the eastern or leeward side is in the “rain shadow.” Simply put, a “rain shadow” means less precipitation falls here. The prairie grasses on this side of the mountains adapted to drier conditions.

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As the weather systems move further east…

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…more precipitation falls across the Great Plains, eventually with help from the moist Gulf of Mexico air.

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Mixed grass prairies grow where there is increased rain, taller and more robust than the shortgrass prairies in the rain shadow. As rains become more abundant, they help nurture the rich tallgrass prairies of the Midwest.

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These tallgrass prairies seem a long way from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

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So different. So separate.

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Yet, they’re connected. Mountains and tallgrass. For it is here, in the snow-capped Rockies,  that we begin to understand what shapes our prairies.

***

The opening quote is from “Landscape,” introduction to Legacy of Light by Gretel Ehrlich (1946-). Her book, “Solace of Open Spaces,” movingly chronicles her life on the rural Wyoming prairie.

All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) blue violet (Viola sororia) plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; April snowstorm video clip, Divide, CO; mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in spring snowstorm, Divide, Colorado; mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) Divide, Colorado; storm coming in over Divide, Colorado; rescue grass (Bromus catharticus), Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Wyoming ground squirrel (Urocitellus elegans), Divide, Colorado; Pike’s Peak, Divide, Colorado. 

A Little Prairie Bog Magic

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

****

The word apokatas’tasis–from the Greek–means to “restore.” I hold this word in my mind on a cold sunny day, hiking one of Michigan’s off-the-beaten-path gems: Saul Lake Bog Preserve in Rockford, Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids.

The original tallgrass prairie range stretches into Michigan further than one would think. Since 2000 at the preserve, old pasture near the bog is being slowly restored to prairie. One acre at a time.

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The preserve is a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands, and prairie.  Occasional bird calls provide a soundtrack as  I hike the two-track through the woods on my way to the prairie. It’s quiet. So quiet. A welcome contrast to the noisy Chicago suburbs I call home.

 

The two-track that leads to the prairie is riddled with snow-filled potholes. Each is shadowed with images of  the last dry leaves that still cling to the overhanging tree branches above.

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The dirt two-track ends in a parking lot and trailhead. Through the trees, a boardwalk leads to the bog.

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I ease across the wood planks, listening to the ice underneath the walkway crackle and break at every step.

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Nearby, the willows show off their soft furry catkins. A sure sign of spring on the way.

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Even in early March, the bog has bright sweeps of color.

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Admiring the russets and golds of the leatherleaves–and the occasional cottony tuft of tawny grass here and there–I’m grateful for the sunshine and the solitude. But as I walk back to the prairie, I realize I’m not alone.

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I hike around the prairie loop as the sky swings back and forth between bright blue and dull gray. A chilly wind rattles the stalks of last season’s grasses and wildflowers.

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A turkey vulture circles; checks me out. It decides I’m still healthy. Then glides away.

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At Saul Lake Bog Preserve, prescribed fire helps keep the prairie healthy, and helps hold invasive plants at bay. Seed collecting, followed by seed sowing, increases plant diversity.

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Each year, volunteers expand the prairie. It is slow labor, with little in the way of a quick payoff.  The work of restoration– apokatas’tasis–of any kind, prairie or personal, is difficult and often slow. It can be painful. The results may not be apparent for years. But Saul Lake Bog Preserve’s prairie reminds me: The end result is worth it.

***

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919) was a naturalist, historian, adventurer, and at age 42, our 26th (and youngest) president of the United States. A sickly child, he found joy in the natural world. Later in life, after losing his wife and his mother, he lived in the Dakotas and found solace in the “wilderness” of the American West. His later adventures in the Amazon River Basin are chronicled in the riveting book, River of Doubt, by Candace Millard. Roosevelt helped shape many of the original conservation policies that help protect our national parks and nature preserves today.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan; Rockford, MI:  sky over restored prairie; video clip of forest with tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) calling; pothole shadows; boardwalk into Saul Lake Bog; fence shadows on boardwalk snow; flowering furry male catkins of willows (Salix, unknown species); Saul Lake Bog; leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) leaves;  mink (Neovision vison) tracks; mixed prairie plants in early March; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura); bluebird house in the tallgrass.

Advice from John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

 

***

You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.

What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.

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Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers  and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.

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Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.

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A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.

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Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?

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Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.

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Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.

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There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?

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These kinds of questions  will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.

Moss spangles the trail.

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Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.

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Open one,  and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.

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On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.

You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.

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Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?

Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”

***

John Muir (1838-1914)  is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.

Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/placesweprotect/conrad-station-history.xml

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens). 

Of Birds and Bison

“Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.” — Scott Weidensaul

***

It’s a cold, drizzly day. As much as I’m tempted to curl up on the couch with a good book, plans are underway for a birding outing. Along with six of our friends, my husband Jeff and I head out of the Chicago suburbs and to the famed Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana, two hours southeast. This is the big weekend. Thousands of migrating sandhill cranes will be passing through.

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This fall, we saw thousands of migrants from the western flyways gathering in southern New Mexico, at Bosque del Apache National Refuge. On the ground, the cranes look almost prehistoric.p1020795

Those red caps! Those rusty feathers! How do they get their bulky bodies airborne? Cranes remind me of the mysteries of flight, and of migration. Why do large groups of birds travel from one place to another, sometimes tens of thousands of miles from their starting point? No one has completely been able to explain  this rhythmic dance. And perhaps, that’s part of the joy in watching them. We don’t fully understand. So we marvel, instead.

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The cranes fly over the Chicago suburbs during November and December. Their high pitched cries often pull me out of the house, shielding my eyes against the sun, to watch them move southeast.

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In the Jasper-Pulaski refuge, I’ll get a chance to see these same cranes that fly over my house congregating en masse on the ground, a little farther along on their journey. But first, a stop at Kankakee Sands, a more than 7,000 acre mosaic of prairie, savanna, and wetland in northern Indiana.

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Kankakee Sands introduced bison to their prairie this fall, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they’ve settled in. There’s a bison viewing area where I have an excellent up-close-and-personal meeting with the shaggy all-stars.

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I wonder if the bison consider this place a “visitor viewing area;” a chance to see people behavior. This one kept an eye on us.

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A few brown-headed cowbirds hung out on bison backs, giving us a sense of the difference in sizes. A study in contrasts.

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While watching the bison, my friend John suddenly shouts– “prairie falcon!” A first for me. Although prairie falcons are usually found out west, occasionally they pop up in Illinois and Indiana. So quick!

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The sun moves toward the western horizon. We leave the bison and birds and drive the short distance to the Jasper-Pulaski refuge. The viewing platform is thick with binocular-wielding birders and the giant scopes of photographers.

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Anticipation. A few cranes have already straggled in.We find our places on the platform. In the fields, there is a loud rumble of distinctive crane chatter.Then…. a clamor in the distance. The crane cries rise to a crescendo.

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They’re coming! Waves and waves of sandhill cranes. The air froths with cranes; boils with birds. Swirling and tilting in every direction in the last light.

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I think of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese: “…the world offers itself to your imagination…”.

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I imagine these cranes in the morning, taking off to continue their flight to the southern coasts. Why will they go? I don’t fully know. But it gives me a sense of peace and happiness to think about the rest of their journey. To know that this rhythm of nature–these migrations–will continue.

And that for one small part of one evening, I was witness to it.

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The opening quote in this essay is by Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. Weidensaul captures the magic, mystery, and science of migration in this memorable book which still remains one of my favorites in nature writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sandhill crane duo (Grus canadensis), Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; wading sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), at sunrise, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; sandhill cranes  (Grus canadensis),over the author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie grasses in November, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN: bison (Bison bison) grazing, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison) and a cowbird (Molothrus ater), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; prairie falcon ((Falco mexicanus), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; watching for cranes, Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; crane fly-in (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN: swirl of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN.