Nature Notes

Prairie Splendors

By Mary Beth Pottratz

 Finally, a dry and sunny day at the Arb! Gentle breeze whisk any mosquitoes away.

A brown thrasher beckons me into the Woodland Garden with its series of two-note calls. A pair of common yellowthroats sing back and forth, and the shade is deep and cool.

Royal ferns have spores tipping many of the fronds. Ebony spleenwort looks lacy spread against the ground. But I hurry past them and out to the treasures I know are on the prairie.

White wild indigo
White wild indigo

A single clump of bright orange butterflyweed is in bloom along Three-Mile Drive. Stately and tall, white wild indigo rises above the prairie fray, accented here and there by spiderworts. Golden Alexanders, white wild quinine, and golden-orange smooth oxeye glow in the sunshine.

I stop at the Prairie Garden to check the common milkweed plants for monarch eggs and larva, but find none. Nearby, David, Bob and Stephanie are photographing milkweed bugs and show me their fantastic results. A painted lady butterfly tickles my ankle.

Lead plant in bud
Lead plant in bud

In the prairie, fluffy fields of white northern bedstraw and silvery sage plants stand out against the grasses and forbs. Dragonflies and damselflies dart everywhere, dancing and hovering in front of my face. Magenta-pink and cream ground plums are blooming. Lead plants are tipped with soft, fuzzy spikes where the buds will soon pop from. 

Traffic noise and voices fade away. A few crickets chirp lightly. I head up the oak savanna, where a beautiful old oak stands, spread with orange lichens. Lichens are a good indicator of clean air. For camouflage, hummingbirds stick lichen on their tiny nests with spider webs.

The oak has a fascinating burl at its base. Thankfully it has some dead branches – at least a dozen little homes for birds and animals. A warbler whistles from behind dense oak leaves. A black saddlebags skimmer distracts me.

Fuzzy milkweed buds
Fuzzy milkweed buds

Red clover and prairie roses scent the air. Milkweed with fuzzy buds prepare to blossom. I meet Sheri, whose daughter is giving her a day’s respite from caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s. She is delightedly photographing a blue darner dragonfly.

Near the tree line at the back of the prairie, more crickets call. Red-winged blackbirds sit atop cattails singing “konklaree” from a small wetland in a low spot, to claim their turf.

I walk around the pocket gopher mounds that run along the trail in spots. Red-twigged Indian hemp’s tiny white flowers are just opening.

The crickets are now so numerous it has become a chorale. A woodpecker drums as if calling all to attention. I sit on a bench to listen. Blackbirds keep the beat with their steady “check” calls and provide percussive interest with well-timed “konklarees.”

Tree swallows gurgle and twitter as they glide over the prairie and into the treetops behind me. Right on cue, a song sparrow lands on a snag and trills a beautiful aria.

Widow skimmer dragonfly
Widow skimmer dragonfly

The concert lasts several minutes before the diva moves on. A widow skimmer dragonfly teases me into a photograph.

On the trail out, New Jersey tea is in bud, setting what soon will be its lacey white flowers. Tall meadow rue waves gracefully in the breeze with buds set. Purple coneflowers show the very tips of petals: promises of more splendors to come.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

4 comments on “Prairie Splendors

  1. THanks for the tour of all the small wonders — sounds like you’d be a fun guide to tag along with! Towards the end of your narrative, I had just a twinge of melancholy, for, after such a tenacious winter and reluctant summer, we’re all so hungry for such experiences, and I sense already the peak of summer and shortening days…

  2. I Had a wonderful time chatting with you Mary Beth!
    Thank you Sheri

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