Through the Lookingglass

Midewin is a window into our prairie past. But look closely and you’ll see it is also a lookingglass through which we may step back in time – millions of years ago – when much of North American was emerging from a shallow inland sea.

As a habitat, prairie is the new kid on the block. Following the retreat of the last glaciers, prairie emerged in North America about 8,000 years ago and continued to evolve until we plowed it all up. Beginning in the early 1800s, it took little more than a century for us to destroy 99.9 percent of the prairie in Illinois.

Since the establishment of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, the US Forest Service and its nonprofit partners and volunteers have recovered nearly 5,000 acres of native prairie habitat. That’s about twice as much as exists in all of the other prairie remnant sites combined throughout the entire state.These big open spaces at Midewin provide critical habitat for imperiled grasslands birds, such as this young dickcissel still getting the hang of how best to perch on the jungle gym stems of rattlesnake master.

There are now nearly 350 plant species flourishing at Midewin, including common milkweed, a critical food source for increasingly uncommon monarch butterflies.

Beyond the birds and butterflies, there is a family of bugs (with apologies to entomologists, but the alliteration was too tempting) that likewise call Midewin home and speak to its more ancient habitat roots.

For much of its history, Illinois – in fact most of North America – lay under a warm, shallow ocean. About 325 million years ago, the waters began to recede, leaving in their wake a delta swamp. According to the Illinois State Geological Survey, the great delta forests of the time were patrolled by “dragonflies as big as hawks.”

Dragonflies were among the first winged creatures to evolve over 300 million years ago – before birds. Today, there are about 3,000 species of dragonflies. I’m not sure how many inhabit Midewin, but there are quite few. Including this newly emergent female ruby meadowhawk (notice the forewing not yet fully expanded and hardened.)

ruby meadowhawk on horsetail
ruby meadowhawk on horsetail

 

Note, too, that the meadowhawk is perched atop a spore-bearing cone of common horsetail, itself among the oldest surviving plant families. By the time horsetails appeared – about 150 million years ago – so, too had dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, weathering and erosion are the likely culprits as to why there are no dinosaur fossils yet discovered in Illinois. However, evidence of the ancient coal forests of 325 million years ago remains underground in nearby Coal City, named for the coal that formed as a result of trees and other plants being buried in mud and compacted over time.

Evidence of the ancient shallow seas likewise remains underground within the very footprint of Midewin – in the form of dolomite that was formed of billions upon trillions of seashells. In some areas, this dolomite remains very near to the surface, which underpins a distinct and very rare type of prairie.

Above ground at Midewin, evidence of its ancient past lives on in wetland stands of horsetail and the many different kinds of dragonflies that hunt their prey (and sometimes mate) on the wing, just as they did millions and millions of years ago.

Male twelve-spotted skimmer
Male eastern amber wing
Lancet clubtail
Female common pondhawk

Oh, de Odanata at Midewin

All those years of birdwatching? Turns out birds may only have been a gateway drug. These days I can’t get enough of Odanata. Dragonflies and damseflies.

There are about 5,000 species of Odanata worldwide, approximately half the number of bird species. But dragonflies have been around for nearly twice as long as birds, dating back more than 250 million years.

In Illinois, there are 99 known species of dragonflies and damselflies; about one-third the total number found in North America. With the record-setting rainfall this spring, the air at Midewin is teeming with more species than I can count today. They are devilishly quick on the wing, but every once in a while they take a rest from their voracious feeding or territory defending, allowing my camera a taste of their rich colors and stained glass wings.

Most dragonfly names have quite the dramatic flair. This male widow skimmer is distinct for its white and dark wing patches, combined with a dusky, bluish-grey abdomen (or tail.)
Most dragonfly names have quite the dramatic flair. This male widow skimmer is distinct for its white and dark wing patches, combined with a dusky, bluish-grey abdomen (or tail.)
Emerald Jewelwing. The name says it all about this damselfly that flits like a butterfly.
Emerald Jewelwing. The name says it all about this damselfly that flits like a butterfly.
This eastern ringtail is notable for its blue eyes. green striped thorax, and rusty ovipositor (the tip of its tail.)
This eastern ringtail is notable for its blue eyes. green striped thorax, and rusty ovipositor (the tip of its tail.)
One of the smallest dragfonflies in North America, this eastern amberwing appears to have learned to smile for the camera.
One of the smallest dragfonflies in North America, this eastern amberwing appears to have learned to smile for the camera.
If you're going to hang out in wetlands, you might as well enjoy the pickerel frogs, as well.
If you’re going to hang out in wetlands, you might as well enjoy the pickerel frogs, as well.
And green frogs.
And green frogs.
Even monster tadpoles that will morph into bullfrogs, which eat just about anything they can catch, including dragonflies.
Even monster tadpoles that will morph into bullfrogs, which eat just about anything they can catch, including dragonflies.
Bullfrogs are not the only threat to dragonflies. This eastern pondhawk is not above eating other dragonflies, even fellow pondhawks.
Bullfrogs are not the only threat to dragonflies. This eastern pondhawk is not above eating other dragonflies, even fellow pondhawks.

 

Compared to the males, female twelve-spotted skimmers lack the white wing patches that alternate between the dark patches. But the yellow side stripes on their bodies (thoraxes) tend to be more distinct.
Compared to the males, female twelve-spotted skimmers lack the white wing patches that alternate between the dark patches. But the yellow side stripes on their bodies (thoraxes) tend to be more distinct.

Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me? (Click on the photo for a close up view.)

Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me? (Click on the photo for a close up view.)
Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me?
OK. Full disclosure. I've long had a jones for dragonflies. This window skimmer lives year round in my home.
OK. Full disclosure. I’ve long had a jones for dragonflies. This window skimmer lives year round in my home.
After all, if dragonfly wings are nature's stained glass, it only makes sense to honor them by incorporating dragonflies into some of the stained glass artworks I've crafted for my home.
After all, if dragonfly wings are nature’s stained glass, it only makes sense to honor them by incorporating dragonflies into some of the stained glass artworks I’ve crafted for my home.