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Bees, birds and bison: Meditating on Midewin

Annual summer hike at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and a check-in on the bee survey, one of many ongoing studies there.

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Late summer colors at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: (Thanks to Allsion Cisneros for ID help) Pale Indian plantain (tall, white, foreground), rosinweed (yellow, foreground), wild bergamot (purple), tall coreopsis (very tall in back, thin leaves, yellow) and yellow coneflower (yellow, downward petals).
Dale Bowman

I walked in at Iron Bridge Trailhead, then pushed further than usual at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

A few years ago, I began a ritual of a long summer hike in the heat of the day at Midewin, the USDA Forest Service site founded in 1996 near Wilmington.

Normally I do it in late July, this year was later, a week ago. The colors weren’t as vivid, but I found a towering whitish flower (high as eight feet) I didn’t know. Allison Cisneros later identified it as pale Indian plantain.

Families were hiking and biking the trails as were groups of women and couples. I only saw a few horse riders, but horses left enough piles that looking down was as important as looking around.

Prairie at its best is vast, humbling. Midewin gives a taste.

A bird kept flitting ahead of me. I finally took a good enough photo to text Alan Anderson. It was an eastern kingbird, a flycatcher. My guess is that I flushed enough insects to be worthwhile for the kingbird.

I photographed one grasshopper, but couldn’t get any photos of the bumble bees or dragonflies.

Many projects are ongoing at Midewin. More than 275 Illinois-native prairie plants are being worked.

One study, in its third year, is a challenge cost-share agreement between Olivet Nazarene University and the Forest Service to study bee life at Midewin, including the Federally listed endangered rusty patched bumble bee (first bee species in the continental U.S. to be declared endangered in 2017).

There’s a tiny few.

``The end of July and August are the high season in the Chicago region for bumble bees, so we are on high alert for rusty patched bumble bee at the moment,’’ emailed Derek Rosenberger, ONU assistant professor in biological sciences. ``Now would be the time to see them, even on the edge of their current range, like Will County where we work. However, bumble bees have had a later than usual start this year, possibly due to the cold and wet spring, so we are not surprised to not be seeing much yet.

``They made up about 0.13 percent of all bumble bees caught in our surveys at Midewin last year. Clearly incredibly rare. But now we have a baseline that we can monitor and hopefully see rise.’’

Rosenberger taught the entomology portion of my Master Naturalist certification a few years ago.

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Olivet Nazarene professor Derek Rosenberger working at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Credit: Veronica Hinke/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

When I asked if there are any other notable findings, he emailed, ``We are seeing for the third year another bumble bee species of conservation concern at Midewin, the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus), which is considered declining and vulnerable on the IUCN red list. It was once one of the most common bumble bees in Illinois and is now one of the most rare.’’

Illinois had 16 species of bumble bees recorded. Rusty patched is one of the 12 that ``likely still exist in the state.’’

Bison were introduced in 2015 and there are now more than 80. They can sometimes be seen from trails. The bison web cam, installed in 2016, has had more than 2.1 million views. The Bison Crawl will be Nov. 2. Click here to reach the bison cam live.

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Bison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Credit: Rick Short/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Over the years, I’ve learned to enjoy prairie plants. Cisneros identified pale Indian plantain (my latest favorite), rosinweed, wild bergamot, tall coreopsis and yellow coneflower in one photograph (the one at the top).

In Midewin’s early years, I came in winter and the landscape was so desolate that it left me feeling even more morose and mired in my annual wrestling/flirtation with seasonal affective disorder. Madness hangs the prairie in winter. I consciously switched to visiting in summer, a healthy ritual that matters.

I asked Rosenberger why the rusty patched mattered.

``So while the extinction of the rusty patched bumble bee may not necessarily cause obvious broader impacts immediately, it is one more species that is no longer providing pollination services to our native and cultivated plants and may not exist for our children, grandchildren or great grandchildren,’’ he emailed. ``It is part of the beautifully diverse garden called Earth that we aught to be taking seriously our responsibility to tend and care for. The Chicago area is one of just a few major regions, the Twin Cities to the west and Chicago to the east, that seem to have populations of the insect, so conservation is critical.’’

I crossed 53 on the Iron Bridge, a first for me. Then just listened to birds singing and the trilling and chirping of insects. But, one reality at Midewin is the hum of traffic on 53 washed out the insects and birds sporadically.

It was time.

I had a good hike back to the Iron Bridge Trailhead.

The ONU bee findings in 2018 are at tinyurl.com/y2uqdyop.

More on Midewin is at fs.usda.gov/midewin/.

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Dale Bowman’s new favorite prairie plant at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: Pale Indian plantain (Thanks to Allsion Cisneros for ID help).
Dale Bowman