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.

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

Orchids & Sedges & Rushes, oh my!

Juncus dudleyi, Carex vulpinoidea, Scirpus pendulus

I have always shied away from the sedge family (Cyperaceae), spotting them on almost every walk through woodlands, prairies, wetlands, or neighborhoods. It would usually just be a passing comment to my partner: “Look, another sedge, and another, and another,” without giving them the attention they deserve. Cyperaceae is one of the most successful and species-rich flowering plant families in the world, explaining their presence in nearly every type of habitat. If you are a fan of water chestnuts, you ought to know that you are actually eating a corm of a sedge (Eleocharis dulcis) – pretty neat! Carex, the largest genus in this family, serves as an important ecological component of wetlands and wet prairies, making them crucial for restoration purposes. As a result, they comprise over 50% of our target species list. This group is notoriously difficult to identify, but with some time, head-scratching, and magnification, it’s not all that bad. I extend a special thanks to the botanists at Midewin (Michelle, Jen, Eric, Grant, and Anna) who have willingly shared their knowledge and provided helpful resources to enhance my understanding of this group. Taking a closer look at this diverse and often overlooked family has opened my eyes to its significance and beauty in the landscape.

Carex meadii

The eastern prairie white-fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) was once abundant throughout its range. However, the conversion of its habitat, from wet to mesic prairies, into crop land or pasture, has led to a significant decline in this species, as well as in many others. During our monitoring efforts, we had the opportunity to hand-pollinate the flowers, aiming to improve the quality and quantity of seeds. Carefully gathering pollinia on toothpicks at one site, we transferred them to plants at another site. The only successful pollinators of the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid are nocturnal hawkmoths. Despite the presence of these pollinators, the populations of these orchids remain small and fragmented so human intervention is necessary. To enhance genetic diversity, pollen is transferred from one subpopulation to another. In extreme cases, it is even shipped across the Midwest to ensure the success of this species across its entire range.