Friday, November 17, 2023

Checking out the Local Scene(ry)

Hennepin Canal at Lock 19 near Wyanet

 I love traveling. Whether it’s checking out unusual and breathtaking scenic areas or experiencing different cultures, architecture styles, foods, museums, and other cool stuff in a big city, traveling is an amazing experience. Wherever I travel to I try to soak up as much local color as possible. Since we live in an area that isn’t known or widely visited for its scenic beauty we oftentimes overlook it. But there are so many local areas to explore, and once you start looking closely the beauty shines through.
Eastern Tailed Blues at Nachusa Grasslands

Because I’m constantly on the lookout for new-to-me species to include in the children’s books I write, I’ve been on the go a lot the past couple of years visiting natural areas to keep expanding not only my photography collection to use in my books, but also to expand my knowledge of the natural world. After all these years—more than 37—of working in and studying nature, I still not only enjoy it, but am always learning something new. In fact, I’ve decided that the more I know, the less I know.

For example, who knew there were so many fall asters? The more species I come across, the harder it is to tell one from another. Even individual plants within the same species may have color, size, and growth variations, further complicating the identification process. Even though many people probably don’t know or care about telling one aster apart from another, it’s fun for me to run across ones I’ve never seen—or noticed—before.

Compass Plant at Munson Prairie near Cambridge

Plus, there’s the fact that these late bloomers are a goldmine for pollinators. During a recent trip to the Sandy Hollow Prairie area at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, I noted a dozen butterfly species within a few hundred feet from the parking area. Most of them were attracted to Showy Goldenrods (and yes, there are multiple native goldenrod species as well!). When I visited the next week, the goldenrods were done blooming, and pollinators were feasting on clumps of the remaining Aromatic Asters in bloom.

Shadows behind Prairie Dock at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge

Another neat place I’ve discovered this year is Nachusa Grasslands, east of Dixon. This huge area is composed of both remnant and restored prairie, savanna, wetland, and forest habitats. I’ve lost track of the new plants I’ve encountered when roaming over the thousands of acres (being careful to avoid the roaming bison within their fenced in prairie pastures) of this site.

Goats Rue at Nachusa Grasslands

I’ve also “haunted” some local remnant prairie cemeteries this year such as Munson Cemetery near Cambridge, Scotch Cemetery near Victoria, and Hetzler Cemetery near LaMoille. These hidden gems are great places for those who want to go back in time to experience both the historical aspect, plus the natural aspect. Having never been plowed, these areas are a goldmine of high quality native plant species. Some are well maintained with fire and weed removal while others need some help, but there are still hidden treasures within them, waiting to be discovered. I also visited McCune Sand Prairie north of Mineral a few times during the summer. What an interesting and beautiful place not far from home that’s full of Eastern prickly pear cactus and other neat finds.

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus at McCune Sand Prairie near Mineral

With the onset of much awaited fall foliage comes a different type of beauty. As I drive to and from work, my mouth gapes in wonder at the lovely diversity of not only color, but also shapes, sizes, and textures of the trees, especially my favorites, oak and hickory trees. When you see a hillside dotted with trees, it’s like looking at a crayon box full of vivid yellows, oranges, reds, greens, browns, and all colors between. During summer, the tree foliage looks pretty similar, but once the days grow shorter and cooler, the differences between the trees become more apparent. Finally, the late fall winds and cooler temperatures bring about a starker beauty, and we are left with the bark and branches. 

Rustic Corncrib in Putnam County

While we may long for sandy white beaches, tall snowy mountains, or the thrill of a foreign and ancient city, we can still take a mini vacation without leaving the county. All we need are good observation skills, and you never know what is waiting to be discovered on our local backroads.  


Spiderweb and Stiff Goldenrod at Munson Cemetery Prairie near Cambridge
Rock Formations at Nachusa Grasslands -- Stone Barn Savanna

White Oaks at Mount Bloom Cemetery near Tiskilwa