Tag Archives: tallgrass prairie

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.


Pussytoes on the prairie are not far behind.


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


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.


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.


Birds scan their surroundings for insects and seeds.

P1060932 (1).jpg

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


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.


As the weather systems move further east…


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


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.


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


So different. So separate.


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.


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.


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

P1050430 (1).jpg

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


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


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


P1050455 (1).jpg

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.


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.


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


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.


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.

P1030286 (1).jpg

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.


Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.


A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.


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


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


Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.


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


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.


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


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


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.

P1030281 (1).jpg

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:



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.


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.


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.

IMG_8879 (1).jpg

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.


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.


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.


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


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!


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.

What Coyotes Teach Me

“Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and numbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail; and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me – I am happy.” –Hamlin Garland


What is it about worry ? Lately, I sense a low-level anxiety from people wherever I go, whomever I talk with. You too? And no wonder, you might say, given the state of so many things in the world.

Hunters Supermoon 10:16.jpg

So. Come, sit with me on the tallgrass prairie in the early morning while the dew beads the grasses. Chances are, before too much time has passed, we will see a coyote.


What? See a coyote? Is that supposed to be calming?

Well. I understand your concern. Few animals have been freighted with the emotional and symbolic baggage as the coyote. For some Native Americans, the coyote is trickster. Pioneers called coyotes “brush wolves,” with all the terrifying connotations implied at the time. (Wolves have their own public relations problems, but that’s for another essay.) For Chicago suburban homeowners, the coyote is often hated and feared.

Taker of pet dogs and cats. Garbage stealer. Stealth operator.


Coyotes are also portrayed as cartoonish. Watch the old Road Runner episodes, and Wile E. Coyote is continually outwitted (Beep! Beep!), or falls off a cliff, or is blown up with dynamite. Even my local wildlife center dresses up their taxidermied coyote.  Coyote becomes something comical.

festive holiday coyote.jpg

But there’s nothing funny in the animal kingdom about the coyote. If you are a deer mouse or squirrel, the coyote is a ferocious predator. Mighty hunter. Their fear is well placed.

Coyote might hunter of mice! Hidden Lake.jpg

But I went to a lecture on coyotes recently, and listened to an outpouring of worry by people who attended.  What if…?  What should I do when the coyote..? Could this happen? Could that? No coyotes have attacked humans in Illinois in 30 years. We spend a lot of time worrying about what could be. What might happen. What we would do if. Our anxiety  over things we can’t control roams in every direction. Coyotes are only one example of this.


Think of what we could do with the time we spend worrying! Imagine, if instead, we payed attention and fully lived in each moment. What beautiful patterns we might weave in the world!


Seneca, a Roman statesman (5 BC-65 AD)  wrote: “There are more things to alarm us than to harm us; we suffer more in apprehension than in reality.”


So true of my own fears. I am not afraid of coyotes–but I often fear the future. Usually, my fears are of something that never materializes.  My worries often close me off to the richness–and yes, sometimes fearsomeness and wildness–of the world all around me, in all its diversity and wonder. When I look back at how I spent my days, will worrying about the unknown  be how I remember them?

It would be a lonely world without coyotes.

Lonely -- Hidden Lake.jpg

On the prairie, the coyote is often ghost. Present, but unseen. But if you sit and wait and listen, you feel a coyote is there, even when it is invisible. For me, this is comforting. That the wild exists, whether I witness it or not.


Coyotes are part of our collective imagination. They remind us that the world is not ours to control.

Two coyotes at Hidden Lake.jpg

When I do see a coyote, it will usually meet my eyes for a moment. Then, it slips away; unconcerned. The coyote’s world does not include me. It is indifferent to my presence. But my world–and the prairie world I visit–is always made richer by the knowledge of the presence of coyotes.


I’m going to think more about coyotes the next few weeks, and what I saw at that lecture. Sure, I tsked tsked at the worry the listeners expressed about coyotes –but. What do I worry about that is unneeded? What energy do I expend on concern for events beyond my control? I will let go of my own worry about the future, and appreciate the amazing world around me each moment. I will try to weave something beautiful out of each day. Be at peace with the things I can’t control.

I hope you will find peace as well.


Hannibal Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), whose quote about coyotes opens this essay,  was a Wisconsin-born Pulitzer Prize winning writer. He married sculptor Lorado Taft’s sister, Zulime, and lived in Illinois for a time as well as many other places. Among his writings were Prairie Songs, Boy Life on the Prairie,  and Prairie Folks, as well as numerous works of fiction, short stories, non-fiction, and poems about Midwestern farm life.

Want to know more about coyotes?  http://web.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/directory_show.cfm?species=coyote

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Hunter’s supermoon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; dew drops, Clear Creek at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; holiday coyote (Canis latrans), Willowbrook Wildlife Center, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Glen Ellyn, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) hunting, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass points, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spider web, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the top of Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; leaf on the water, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; mist over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans) on the trail, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; coyote in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

September Song

The prairie orchestra tunes up. The conductor pauses, lifts her baton.

The earth slants. There’s a shift in the light.


September’s first full moon rises, red-tinged against the sky.


Days shorten. The prairie strikes new notes each morning . The first New England asters open, fringed blasts of color against a chorus of brassy golds and whites.


In my backyard, the feeders underscore the mornings with activity. Although the male hummingbirds have left for warmer climes, females and small fry remain, juicing up for the long journey across the Gulf of Mexico.


So tiny. And yet, capable of so much.

Monarch butterflies respond to orchestrated seasonal cues; sip goldenrod nectar, pack their butterfly bags for Mexico.


Green darner dragonflies swarm, a percussion of clicks, clacks, whirs and buzzes. They gird themselves for migration as well, although where they will end their journey remains a mystery.

The last white-faced meadowhawks and American rubyspot damselflies linger on the prairie, measuring their lives in moments. They pause. Rest.

IMG_8525 2


There’s a melancholy feel to the days, a change to a minor key. Green, stippled chords of fruit cling to the rapidly undressing black walnut limbs that overhang the brook.


Willoway Brook catches the trees’ spent leaves, then moves them in legato downstream.


On the edge of the prairie, there’s a crescendo of white snakeroot, goldenrod, and lavender Joe Pye.


The bison at Nachusa Grasslands rustle the musical score of summer; turn it to the new pages of autumn. Their coats thicken in anticipation of the cold weather to come as the last echoes of hot weather begin to fade.

IMG_8588 (1)

The conductor waves her baton, and tells the prairie: Make seeds… Seeds… SEEDS. The prairie responds in a wild orgy of outpouring.

Wild lettuce nods to the woodwinds, waiting to send its next generations  aloft.


I hike through Indian grass blooms, which shower me with staccato bits of yellow confetti. Later, I brush bits of gold out of my hair; flick them from my clothing.


But the music of the prairie stays with me, long after I’ve left the tallgrass.

It’s only the first verse of September’s song.

Just think of the beautiful music to come.

All photos by Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom): White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rising full moon, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) SP; ruby-throated hummingbird, author’s backyard; monarch on Canada goldenrod, SP; white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot damselfly, SP;  black walnuts, SP; Willoway Brook, SP; oak savanna (white snakeroot; Canada goldenrod; Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum), SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy); wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), SP; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) SP.