Tag Archives: violet dancer

Backyard Prairie Reflections

 “Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.”–Mary Lawson

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Thunderstorms move through the Chicago region, offering blessed relief for prairies and backyard gardens. The cracked concrete earth soaks up the rain; fuel needed for seed creation and the last pumps of blooms ahead. You can feel the relief in the air.

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Pumpkin spice latte signs appear in coffee shop windows. The afternoon light slants lower; a little pixelled, a little grainy.  In stores, school supplies jostle with unicorn costumes and Halloween candy for shelf space. The first school buses cruise the streets, slowing traffic. Where did summer go?

Late summer and fall wildflowers show up: snakeroot, New England aster, goldenrod, blue vervain, boneset.  There is a last flush of swamp milkweed in the wetter areas.

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Green darner dragonflies move in clouds over the tallgrass; sometimes with black saddlebags and wandering glider dragonflies mixed in. Migration season is underway. My ear is tuned for the first northern birds moving south, but so far, it’s the usual suspects at the backyard feeders.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison calves have put on weight. Adult bison lounge in the grasses, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. August is about slowing down. Making time.

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Bunch galls, like alien wildflowers, appear on the goldenrods. This seems to be an especially good year for them. The goldenrod bunch galls, like the one below, are made by a tiny midge which feeds on the plant. The abnormal tissue forms a leafy rosette. Pretty, isn’t it? A harbinger of autumn.

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You’ll see other galls on the prairie if you look closely around you: ball galls, elliptical galls, blister galls. They all have different insect artists, busy at work on their creations. Bugguide.com has an excellent overview here.

The damselfly populations are beginning to taper off; but the violet dancers will hang around on the prairie until the end of the month. Common? Yes.  But no less special for their predictability. That violet!

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So much is happening on the tallgrass prairie in August. It’s difficult to miss a moment of it.

This past week, I’ve been regulated to the house for a bit to recover after some unexpected surgery. I’ve been trying to look at this enforced rest as an opportunity to slow down, catch up on reading,  and to enjoy the view from my back porch.  But with August in full swing on the prairie—and at the cusp of dragonfly migration season—it’s been a challenge. Without my prairie work and prairie hikes—or my natural history classes to teach—my backyard prairie patch, garden full of zinnias and tomatoes, and small pond have all been solace.

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You’d think a suburban backyard prairie patch and garden would be predictable and quiet. But I’m discovering the action never stops. From my vantage point on the porch, I see—for the first time—a great spreadwing damselfly. In my backyard pond! I’ve never seen them in the forest preserve where I once monitored, or the two prairie sites where I walk my dragonfly routes. And here in my backyard —right under my nose—he is.

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We look at each other for a bit.

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I admire his reflection in the pond until the wind fingers the water and ripples erase the image.

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He flies from perch to perch around the pond, then finally lands out of sight. Wow. Sometimes the biggest surprises are in your own backyard.

From the porch I watch the butterflies flap over the tomatoes. An eastern tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia mixed in with the gray-headed coneflowers. Zinnias mingle with my prairie plants. Although the zinnias are native to Mexico rather than Illinois, they are welcome in my garden as a magnet for pollinators.

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The same zinnia is quickly commandeered by a monarch. I haven’t found many caterpillars in my backyard this summer, but there are a lot of adults.

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Nearby, a painted lady takes her turn nectaring on the flowers.

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She floats to the rangy smartweed growing up through the rattlesnake master plants and rests for a bit on some leaves, letting me admire her soft, open wings. I’ve always struggled with the differences between a painted lady butterfly and the American lady butterfly. So similiar! And yet, different, if you know what to look for.  This bugguide.net side by side comparison has really helped me (click on the link). Take a look and see what you think.

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The Joe Pye weed in the backyard prairie patch is also a butterfly magnet. Bees work each individual petal; tiny dusty rose-pink tassels towering over my head. Moths love it too! An Ailanthus webworm moth competes with the bees for nectar, its bright geometric patterns a startling contrast.

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Bumblebees move from the Joe Pye blooms to buzz the ironweed. So many bees! I’ve tried to learn a few species without much success. Maybe now, I’ll have time.

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As I slowly walk through my backyard, I feel my frustration at not being able to go for a prairie hike dissipate.  Maybe….just maybe…this enforced rest and recovery will be an eye-opener. There’s a lot to see, right in front of me, just off my back porch. A lot to pay attention to. Goldfinches, sipping rainwater from the cup plants. The Cooper’s hawk lurking in a nearby maple, watching my birdfeeders for a snack. Cicadas tuning up. The smell of bee balm, the taste of mountain mint. So much color, music, fragrance, taste, and motion here. In the 20 years we’ve lived in the suburbs, I’ve never been more grateful than today that I planted a prairie patch; dug a small pond. I have a feeling the recovery time will fly.

Summer’s not over yet.

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Adventures await. Both in the backyard prairie and beyond.

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The opening quote is from Canadian novelist Mary Lawson (1946-) in her prize-winning first book, Crow Lake (2002). It’s one of my favorite novels about pond communities, rural life, academia, and northern Canada.  I re-read it every year.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: thunderstorm over the backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; adult bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bunch gall on goldenrod made by a midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), Fermilab prairies, Batavia, IL; pond in author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Arhilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; reflection of great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and grey-headed coneflowers (Ritibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Cut and Come Again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) with brown-belted bumblebee (Bombis griseocollis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s classes and speaking are on www.cindycrosby.com   

The Dragonfly Chasers

If you are old and you wish to be young again, if only for a moment, try and identify a dragonfly. — Simon Barnes

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In the prairie ponds, streams, and wetlands, they wait. Dragonfly nymphs are about to emerge.

Last summer, I watched the scene below from my kayak. Female dragonflies lay eggs in water or vegetation. The male pondhawk dragonfly (powdery blue) “hover guards” the female (green) so no other males disturb her. Tapping her abdomen into the water, the female ensures another generation of dragonflies, as the male protects her from above. It all happens fast. So fast.

The eggs may hatch in a matter of weeks. In their nymph or larval stage, dragonflies (looking like ferocious beetles) cruise the water, sometimes for years. Then, one morning, these denizens of the deep scramble up a blade of grass and commence the difficult work of change. “Teneral” is the scientific term for the transformation stage. Each dragonfly nymph sheds its ugly husk, and exchanges it for a beautiful winged body.

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No longer a water-breather. The dragonfly is now a creature of the air. She takes flight.

Dragonflies dazzle us with their agile antics as they fly; stun us into silent admiration as they bask in sunlight.

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This April, I’ll join citizen scientists at Nachusa Grasslands and other prairies in hiking the tallgrass, looking for dragonflies and their close kin, damselflies.

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A “citizen scientist” is an amateur who contributes information to a scientific body of knowledge. My academic background is in art, journalism, and natural resource interpretation. I have no background in the hard sciences, or specifically, entomology (the study of insects). Yet, the fieldwork I and others do helps build our collective scientific knowledge of  the dragonfly world.

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Dragonfly monitors hike routes through the prairie and pencil hash marks on species lists, ticking off each dragonfly we discover. Green darner? Check. Halloween pennant? Check. Oohhhh… Jade clubtail! Check.

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As I monitor dragonflies,  I pay attention to anything that lifts off from the tallgrass at my approach. Is it a dragonfly? I watch closely.

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Yes! I log it on my list. Bonus: I observe other critters–such as bees and butterflies– as I walk. I note their presence in my journal, and alert site managers if I see something unusual.

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How does observing dragonflies and damselflies benefit us? The violet skimmer damselfly (below) and other species are complex and colorful. But besides the aesthetics, why should we care?

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Here’s why. Because dragonflies spend the biggest part of their lives in the water, the changes in health and populations of dragonflies and damselflies tell us a lot about how the quality of water changes over time. Clean water is essential to life and our well-being. Clean water is also a non-negotiable resource for future generations.

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And so, this summer, you’ll find me in the tallgrass, wandering along shorelines, or deep in a prairie stream, chasing dragonflies. Netting some for a closer look; photographing others. Carefully checking for identifying field marks.

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Sure, it’s citizen science. But it’s art as well. Those colors! Those wing patterns! Their names are poetry. Ebony jewelwing.

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Calico pennant.

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Springwater dancer.

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Their names help form the vocabulary of the prairie community.

If you love the natural world as I do, dragonfly monitoring is one enjoyable and simple way to make a small contribution to keeping it in good shape. Wherever you live, the dragonflies are waiting for you to notice them. Learn a few of their names. Make time to sit and watch them.

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It will be time well spent.

***

Simon Barnes (1951-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is a British sportswriter and wildlife columnist. Once employed by the London Times, he was fired from the newspaper after more than 30 years, supposedly for angering hunters with his remarks in an opinion column about saving an endangered bird. His 16 books include Birdwatching with Your Eyes Closed and How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video of eastern pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis) at Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; jade clubtail (Arigomphus submedianus), Warrenville Grove, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; close up Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on new England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; little dragonfly chaser, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing sculpture (Sculopterayx metallicaea), Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL. 

A Walk on the Spring Prairie

Every spring is the only spring — a perpetual astonishment. ~Ellis Peters

 

A cold wind blows through Illinois, then relents. The hot sun unleashes heat on the world. It suddenly feels like spring.

Early wildflowers press their way into view around the edges of the prairie.

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The last pasque flowers open, then fade in the heat.

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Squirrels munch withered crabapples, gaining strength for the new season ahead. The mamas tend their babies, born just weeks ago.

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The prairie ponds are freed from their scrims of ice. The water, released, stands open and clear.

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The first dragonflies and damselflies emerge from their underwater nurseries. Green darners, mostly, but Halloween pennants…

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…and violet dancers are not too many weeks behind.

 

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If you’re patient enough–and lucky enough– you can see the dragonflies emerge to their teneral stage; not quite nymph, not quite adult. Slowly, their fragile new wings pump open. Then, they take on colors, warm to their new lives, and fly.

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As you walk the prairie, a butterfly or two may stir the air with its wings. Only the early ones are out–the commas, the mourning cloaks, a cabbage white or two. But they remind  you that a whole kaleidoscope is on the way. Like this swallowtail.

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There’s not much for them to sip now on the prairie, but more nectar-rich flowers are coming. The tallgrass will soon be ablaze with color and light.

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Soon, you whisper.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogtooth violet/yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower fully opened (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) fading, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; squirrel, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake with prairie plantings, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer,  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly, teneral stage, Busse Woods, Forest Preserve of Cook County,  Schaumburg, IL;  Canada swallowtail, John Deere Historic Site, Grand Detour, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa); prairie at Fermilab, Batavia, IL.

Ellis Peters, whose quote begins this essay, is the author of the “Brother Cadfael” medieval mystery novels.