Sour, Sweet, Gone

The most encouraging experiences always leave you with a bittersweet taste in your mouth. Like the first time you ever had a sour patch kid. It’s a new exciting time you can barely hold in your laughter of joy. You’ve heard the jingles : “First they’re sour, then they’re sweet” and “Sour Patch Kids: Sour, Sweet, Gone”. Yet in the head of a five year old, these words don’t hold much meaning. All you know is there is a handful of brightly colored, sugar-coated candies in your hands waiting to be in your mouth!

The first taste shocks you and your whole system, bringing a hard realization of panic to your brain. 

“What have I done?! Why do people like these?!”

It floods all of your senses with a sharp ping. In rare situations, even shocking your lower jaw into a tightening, almost stinging pain.

My first days as a CLM intern at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie brought on a similar shock to my system. Taking a botany internship with the Federal Government is already an unnerving experience. Stack on top of the fact that I have had little formal training on the plant sciences thus far, I felt way over my head. People were throwing out plant names left and right that I had not even heard of before. How was I going to figure out all of these species in 5 months? 

Our first week we learned about Brassicaceae and Rosaceae with an in field lesson on how to identify the different species in each Genus. To tell the truth… it was extremely overwhelming. Sure I had used a dichotomous key before, but these people just knew what they were looking at were different features. I hadn’t even seen the plant before let alone its unique features. I felt like a shock of 100 sour patch kids fully coated in sour sugar into my mouth!

But here’s the funny part about sour patch kids. When the initial shock of sour subsides, they leave a sweet gooey candy that fills your mouth with rich flavors of blue raspberry, watermelon, strawberry, and lemon! Your young five year old heart swells with joy from the burst of sugar on your tongue. Your eyes widen as you grin ear to ear. Finally, the sweetness has shown its cards at last!

Me (middle) with two botany technicians while seed collecting.

As I continued my work on the prairie it got easier. The ugly sourness of fear and intimidation faded away as I bonded with my co-interns (Shout out our 20 hour flights to Boise, ID), worked more with the technicians, and learned to identify my prairie plants. The people here made my experience so sweet. Whether it was monitoring rare plant species in a dolomite prairie with thick sun rays beating your back. Planting Sporobolus heterolepis for a mycorrhizal experiment in the rain, or kissing a bunch of snakes as they tried to slither away in your hands, the days were always eventful.

Wildlife technician Michelle, me, and Nathan conducting snake surveys in the field.

We as a team have keyed our unknown species of plants, pursued trivia, built retention walls, trudged through dirty streams, and of course, collected seeds. We’ve sworn, yelled, complained, hugged, laughed, and celebrated together through it all. Working together we have done as much for the prairie as it has done for us and we hope it was enough.

The funny thing is about bittersweet endings is you would give anything to go back to that first day. Those sour first days when it all felt like too much because you know how sweet of an experience it will turn out to be. Then it’s all done, just a blip in time to be remembered but never repeated. 

Almost like the company knew what they were doing when they wrote the slogan for sour patch kids:

“Sour Patch Kids: Sour, Sweet, Gone”

The Dog Days of Summer are almost over…

The prairie has unlocked her vault on seeds to be collected and let the creatures in to take the plants riches. Birds, bugs, slugs, and us have run into the prairie overwhelmed by the amount of seed ready to be harvested and the limited amount of time that we have. It’s gotten to the point that we strap two vinyl bags to our waists that are filled with even more paper bags and still have plentiful amounts of seed that we don’t have room for. It’s a restoration goldmine.

Me in the field collecting seeds with the two giant vinyl hip bags

Unfortunately Mother Nature has other plans. Since she has withheld the water as long as she can and has burst in random days of immense rain that has left us limited in our seed collection journey. Checking the radar has been added to the normal morning routine in hopes that we can get a few hours of “no rain” to go gather seeds. We have discovered that radar is not as accurate as it seems…. And I should really invest in a rain coat.

This doesn’t mean we have stopped learning here at Midewin. It seems like every time I learn a new plant five more pop up that I need to remember the name of. Remembering the differences in the Genus name and the correlating species name is the hardest part but the feeling of accomplishment and joy over correctly identifying a plant makes it worth the memory struggles. It also helps being out in the prairie five days a week.

Me and two FS technicians helping college students seed collect and identify a graminoid species.

With our unexpected days we have learned a new skill as well. Seed cleaning with Midewin’s big cleaning machines (some all the way from Denmark) makes hand cleaning child’s play for us now. But you gotta wear the proper PPE. So when it rains, we gear up with our masks, glasses, and ear protection and hit the seeds where it really hurts. Clean. Weigh. Bag. Throw it in the cooler. Is there anything more fun to do on a cold rainy Tuesday morning?

Gearing up for a morning of seed cleaning at Midewin.

Seed cleaning isn’t the only thing we are gearing up for. With only two weeks left in our season, and the impending threat of a government shut down, we try to get out as much as we can to collect seeds. Along with also finalizing our days if we are to never come back….. the dogs days of summer might be over but now comes the sadness of leaving the prairie. Maybe that is why Mother Nature is crying so much. Maybe she doesn’t want us to leave. Don’t worry, we aren’t done just yet.

The satisfying pull

After the long drought the skies have sent rain down the night before and the morning is ready for the seed collecting day. The air hangs overhead like a mist, bringing a cool touch to your arm. You look overhead to the cloudless sky and sigh with anticipation as a gentle breeze hits the back of your neck. A shiver runs down your spine underneath your field clothes as you tuck your wool socks into your pants. Any attempt to stop the chiggers from finding your ankles is an attempt worth taking. You reach for your trusted wide brimmed hat, your ally in the war with the brutal sun, and slip on your long sleeved over-shirt. The gear is collected: a small pair of cutters, small white paper bags, a big leathery plastic bag, and water. Just enough to collect what is needed and no more. Working with mother nature instead of against her is our number one job today.

Looking over the prairie is different than the last time. The blooming purple of Monarda fistulosa has died down as she gets ready to go to seed and is instead muted by greens and reds. Still too early for the yellow sea to flood in yet we are in a holding period between seasons. The quiet month of August is upon us. But mother nature is still hard at work, you just have to know where to look to see her true beauty. She makes you work for it but these species are the most complex of all.

Secret Ridge Prairie with a tall compass plant (Silphium lacinatium).

Bouteloua curtipendula is finally ready to collect as its deep purple seeds have now tanned to a pale brown. Close up the seeds are no bigger than the broken graphite piece of an extremely sharp wooden pencil. Yet far away the are much bigger. Hanging loosely on the small stem of the grama they are the easiest to spot in an upland prairie habitat. Outcompeting any of the bigger grasses in its way. The most exciting experience besides saying its name, is collecting the seeds.

Bouteloua curtipendula at Secret Ridge Prairie.

My ”task” for this morning is to honor the ecosystem and take 20% of her Bouteloua seeds. This way it benefits us and still leaves enough to have another generation thrive. Luckily it is doing very well in this prairie. With one swift motion you place your hand on the stem below the seeds and pull upward until all of the seeds are in your hand. Pure satisfaction in one swoop.

You continue to walk through the prairie, now feeling the extend of the sun on your back as you pull another Bouteloua seedhead. Satisfaction. Making sure to step light around the wide Baptisa alba plant to more Bouteloua. Pull. Satisfaction. Spot some Amorpha canescens but its seeds arent wuite ready yet, so you make a mental note to come back in a week to collect that. Pull. Satisfaction. And you find a big clump of Bouteloua surrounded my smaller vegetation. Pull. Satisfaction. Pull. Pull. Pull. Satisfaction. You look down at the little plants around it, its light delicate whorled leaves around a tiny little stem. Bright white complex inflourescence among the top of some plants. You think you know what it is! But there is one more step you need to do to make sure. Plucking a single leaf from the stem you look closely at the leaf as a small bubble of white liquid starts to form on the end. Your guesses are correct, Whorled Milkweed has made its way to the prairie.

Asclepias verticillata is one of the smallest milkweeds at Midewin, but what it lacks in size it sure makes up for in numbers in a population! At some points its almost a field of milkweeds surrounded by other plants. The small stature can be overlooked by people looking for the more charismatic plants, but Asclepias can hold its own. It even goes up against monarch caterpillars and survived their munching to produce little seed pods. She is one tough cookie.

Asclepias verticillata at Exxon Prairie with inflorescence in bloom.

The sun is beating down now as the time nears to noon on the prairie. Your stomach starts to call out in hunger and you have drank almost all of your water source in your bottles. You check your bags for your haul, a lot of Bouteloua was taken, but while looking around there is so much more that is left. Success in your collection. We survey our hauls at the truck, each had been successful in their species seed collection. You look back at the prairie, the whispers of bugs in the background as the clear blue sky screams hello. Its peaceful being around so much life and knowing that you are not destroying. Its enchanting knowing you are helping restore more places to look just like this. It is inspiring seeing so many people around you care so much about this planet. It is the satisfying pull of the job.

Little Home on the Prairie

Two and a half months since we have started our journey at the prairie…. here is what I have learned so far.

  • The Prairie sun is unforgiving and is not there to protect you – Wear Sunscreen!
  • Nathan is 100% a botanist and thinks wildlife is second class
  • Dade will flip over every Asclepias syriaca leaf he sees to find Monarch caterpillars
  • Thick wool socks are the only acceptable pair of socks against chiggers
  • Harsha is amazing at poems and working with the youth conservation corp
Clear skies and sunshine on-top of Sand Ridge Prairie at Midewin

Vegetation monitoring

Wow did we learn a lot of prairie plants this month. Let me just say, the volunteers, specialists, and technicians at Midewin know all, they are the superior plant experts and you should go to them for every plant question that you have. They helped me so much with my plant identification during the vegetation monitoring process and now I feel 100% more confident on my prairie plant id skills. The more time we spent outside learning plants the more I came to appreciate the plants in the prairies.

Silphium lacinatum is the most charismatic plant on the prairie and stands taller than me most of the time.

Monarda? Oh she’s a cutie with her little purple Lorax-treelike flowers! Silphium laciniatum? Do you mean the most charismatic plant on the prairie shooting its stem over my head with yellow flowers? Eryngium yuccifolium? With a name like that (or Rattlesnake Master!) how could I not love it! Even if it stabs me through my pants every step that I take at the SE Bison Pasture. Bouteloua?! It took me forever to figure out how to spell it but look at it! Just the name makes me happy and the way that the seeds hang off of the stem only increases its charm! Needless to say learning all of these plants and more has been a very fulfilling part of July here on the Prairie.

Monarda fistulosa with her little purple Lorax-like flowers.

He speaks Parseltongue

Harry Potter would be proud of us if he saw our ssssnake charming abilities out here at Midewin. Holding, identifying, and measuring snakes out in the hot sun is a battle enough, and not having a single bite incident is even more of an accomplishment. If we don’t make it as restoration specialists we definitely have the skills to becoming a Parseltongue expert at Hogwarts. Someone go call Dumbledore!

The snakes did not really appreciate us lifting up their homes and disturbing their slumber in the mid-afternoon sun… but after a bit of struggle they eventually would cozy up to us and let us measure them before slithering away back into the dense prairie vegetation. We even got to see a Fox Snake, a priority species listed at Midewin. When we went to lift the board to look for snakes he scared me and Nathan just from the sheer size of him (he was very big), but the wildlife technician with us held him perfectly proved to us snakes are not as bad as people make them out to be. Although I think Nathan still prefers plants.

Carex…. you think you got it, then you don’t

Collecting seed was in high gear this month for Carex and Juncus species and at Midewin there are a lot of different options and they all look the same. We have spent many afternoons looking at specific seeds of a carex to figure out what species they are compared to the other carex that we found at the same site. Luckily we are starting to learn the subtle differences of the Carex and Juncus families.

Picture shared with us to help us identify the different Juncus species at Midewin.

On the bright side, becoming more experienced in identifying these different species has prepared us immensely for the upcoming seed collection of the asteracea family because they also all look very similar to one another. So bring on the yellow flowers! We have our Flora of the Chicago Region locked and loaded and ready to be used!

Oh its mechanical…. someone call Dade

Midewin is a little different than other national forests around the country because they do everything in house. Meaning all of the seed that we collect is cleaned, stored, and replanted on site and is not shipped anywhere else. So along with our seed collection and plant identifying tasks we also regularly help out with the horticulture aspect as well. Lately we have been helping the horticulturist and technicians out at the River Road seed beds, planting plugs, mulching, weeding, and watering the plants to make sure they are surviving the hot prairie days. We have been using big power tools like augers and UTVs, little hand tools like shovels and rakes, and really whatever we have to get stubborn weeds from encroaching on our precious plants.

Needless to say, we get our hands DIRTY, especially Dade because he doesn’t believe in gloves. Dade is the handy man though, a little bob the builder minus the hammer. He is the augering king, bench sanding tycoon, and gate unlocking emperor all in one. Basically when we can’t handle a big physical problem…. we know who to call. And our seed beds look amazing because of it.

Weed to mulch project we did at Wauponsee trailhead.

Fieldtrips to Markham

Markham, IL is a south west suburb of Chicago no more than a 30 minute drive from downtown on a good day (no traffic). It has a pretty mixed demographic of African Americans, Latinos, and White families of lower to middle class status. Basically its is all houses and expressways. Except for this a few small patches of prairie next to I-55 and suburban houses. This is the Indian Boundary Prairie run by The Nature Conservancy.

The entire restoration team from Midewin got the opportunity to drive out to them, see their remnant and restored prairies, and talk to them about their experiences, challenges, and solutions to restoration work. It was truly amazing to get the chance to talk to people working for a non-profit and see the similar but different work and approaches they take to managing prairie ecosystems. Also their prairies are GORGEOUS! You could not even tell it was next to a highway if you turned the other way! Everyone talked about weed management practices, wildlife practices, different plants that we saw or wanted to repopulate in our respective areas, their career pathways to where they are now, even outreach programs that they are trying to implicate. Its crazy to think that this nice prairie is in the middle of a chicago suburb and not many people know about it, a specialist that grew up in the area said she did not even know it existed and the prairie has been there since the 1970s!

The ability to talk to them and learn more about their projects and tell them about ours really inspired a lot of people on the restoration team. Knowledge really is best when shared with other people so I am hoping they got as much out of meeting as I did. We are ready to take on the Prairie in August. Bring on the sun!

Carex, and Silphium, and Penstemon… Oh my!

Cannot believe I have already spent a month working at Midewin Prairie. I came in knowing how to identify literally only two tall grass prairie plants, now I walk around my community prairie and have fun pointing out all of the different plants that they have included! My dog is not as enthusiastic about the frequent stops in the sun to look at plants… but he gets over it quickly with a belly rub.

Here’s some highlights from the first month at Midewin:

Funny Puns

“How do you tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile?” … “One you see later and the other in awhile” – Harsha Pandaraboyina

One of the best jokes I have heard in awhile, especially when it comes out of no where as you are marching to a site through tall grass and are concentrating very hard not to twist your ankle. Working with this group of guys is honestly one of the best parts of the job, they are all so knowledgeable about different things, are great jokesters in tiring situations, and let me be in charge. Plus they have great tastes in music so we can jam out while planting seeds or watering our thirsty plants (the Midwest is in a serious drought at the moment). I am looking forward to working with them for the next few months!

From left to right, the CLM interns for Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Harsha Pandaraboyina, me, Dade Bradley, Nathan Augustine.

Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds!

Wow have we been collecting and identifying a bunch of plants and their seeds! We have collected what we have but unfortunately we have been in a terrible drought here so our mentors say the seed might not be as viable this year as in years past. My favorite plants to identify thus far are Spiderwort, Penstemons, and Silphium because one of them (prairie dock plant) has a neat cooling system inside it so when you touch it one side is colder than the other! So now we all live to touch both sides when we see it.

Look we are Birders now!

Fun fact: 27 years ago researchers noticed an influx of native grassland bird species in the Midewin area(which at that time was a US army base). They realized that these tall/short grassland prairies were unique to the area that had become largely agriculture fields. So Midewin National Tall grass Prairie was established, for the birds! Makes sense as to why the biologists conduct at least three bird surveys year here.

June calls for the grassland bird survey at Midewin. We got to work with the wildlife biologist/technician and go out to different sites around the prairie to identify different birds based on visual and audio cues. Although we did not know much about birds in the beginning we quickly got good at identifying key species like the Dickcissel, Red-winged black bird, and Common Yellowthroat. Now whenever we go out into the field I am quick to point out some of the birds in the area. Which I know Nathan secretly appreciates being the plant guy that he is. Harsha had a ton of fun with the binoculars too! Needless to say, we are now birders as well as botanists in training at Midewin.

Harsha having fun with binoculars!

The Pollinators to our Orchids

Platanthera praeclara is a rare, threatened orchid found at Midewin that has been monitored and hand pollinated for a few years through a program with USFS and US Fish and Wildlife. The interns were able to go out with our botany specialist and a few technicians to learn how to hand pollinate and visually observe the orchid in the field so that we can help with the orchid survey that started in late June. So we learned how to take the pollinia from one orchid and hand pollinate it to another orchid in order to keep the populations consistent in numbers at Midewin. Sadly, because of the drought here the population numbers are lower than normal years, but we did find enough orchids to be successful in pollinating. Hopefully at least a few set seed so they can repopulate in the coming years.

Harsha hand pollinating an orchid with a toothpick, pollen from a different orchid, and a great amount of concentration!

Whatever you do, DON’T DRINK THE WATER!

We got to work with the hydrologic technician and conduct water quality surveys around the prairie which means waders! We got to learn about the role that he plays in the health of the wildlife and prairie, what he wants to do in the future, and the equipment he uses to learn more about the water quality. We took readings with the YSI probe, gathered samples for nutrient composition, looked at the depth of the stream, and sampled for E.coli. Yes that’s right E.coli in the streams. We looked at six different streams around Midewin, some were beautifully clear with fish and crawdads swimming around, some were a little more sandy and harder to see but all were full of E.coli… Long story short, we look amazing in waders, but don’t drink the water!

CLM interns showing off our styling skills with these fashionable waders.

Carex…. Still working on it…

“Sedges have edges, Rushes are round, and Grasses have nodes from the top to the ground”

Exactly what goes through my mind when we have to identify and collect Cyperaceae (Sedges) out in the field. Luckily our mentors have given us a guide to all of the Carex species found at Midewin, but it doesn’t stop the identification process from being very stressful and long. We have started collecting Carex out in the field and wow there are a lot of them to identify in our more wetland habitats. Thankfully our techs and mentors are more than willing to help us identify the sites and species we are looking for. hopefully with time and effort we will be just as good at identifying as they are!

Dade looking to collect Carex stricta at Grant Creek Annex