I had a series of meetings scheduled this afternoon in the Chicago area, so I figured I’d be safe flying into O’Hare on a Baltimore departure around 10:30. But then the schedule changes started: 10:30to 10:45 to 11:30 to 12:05 to 12:34, and then when we left we sat on the runway forever because we lost our place in line. In the event, I arrived Chicago around 3 pm Central time and picked up a car a little before 3:30. By this time, both my meetings had come and gone. So what to do?
A quick Google search suggested a quartet of “pocket” prairies — small tallgrass prairie remnants along the Dan Ryan Expressway southwest of Chicago and near the Indiana line. The best known of the, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, was only about 20 minutes from my hotel, and since now I had nothing I had to do until tomorrow, I headed over that way.
It’s not quite the pristine wild experience you think about when you think about rolling prairie. The online directions, I kid you not, tell you to turn off the highway between Popeye’s and McDonald’s. Three blocks later you’re parked in a muddy dirt lot next to a vine-covered chain-link fence. And between the fence and the Expressway is Markham Prairie.
I was not very optimistic. It’s now after 4, but the temps are still in high 80’s F, the humidity was surely in the triple digits, and the sun blinding. But I trudged out for the circuit loop hike through the 105-acre site.
The first thing you notice at Markham is the dragonflies — big ones, lots of species from darners to skimmers to saddlebags to meadowhawks. Damsels and spreadwings were likewise everywhere — the center of Markham is a palustrine meadow surrounding a shallow lake, and water-filled ditches run along the sides. Given the odes activity I figured I’d be lucky to see any leps at all.
Common Green Darners were lurking everywhere in the tall grass. [2016 June 15, Markham Prairie, photo by REB]
But just past the gate some satyrs started weaving in and out of the tall grass onto the mowed path around the property. Little Wood Satyrs, some rather worn so they’ve clearly been out a while. Then nothing. And more nothing. And very hot sun.
But then I started seeing rapidly darting brown skippers crossing the grassway. It was hard to follow them in the tall grass, and looking into the westering sun they quickly disappeared. But this part of the prairie was a little wetter than the beginning of the trail, and some kind of small skullcap with light lavender flowers dotted the grass and rushes. And on some of these flower spikes rested a couple of these skippers — dark rusty orange with no real pattern on the underside, and they never spread their wings to see what the upperside looked like. But the snow-white undercarriage was a dead giveaway I was looking at a great fine– Two-spotted Skipper, a species I’d seen only once before with Tom Stock at Buzzard Swamp, where we had fleeting views in the parking lot. Here at Markham there were dozens, now that my eyes adjusted and I had the search image fixed in my mind. Pristine, clearly newly on the wing, they were just spectacular. Sadly, all I had brought with me on this trip was my old compact point-and-shoot camera that doesn’t do them justice, but you can get a sense of their condition.I continued the walk around the full trail, another hour or so, and dripping wet with sweat. There weren’t a lot of other leps — Small (Cabbage) Whites, two American Ladies, three fresh Viceroys mimicking the single Monarch that flew past (there is a lot of milkweed in the prairie here), an azure (presumably Summer) and a handful of Tawny-edged Skippers. Birds were better, frankly — Henslow’s Sparrows tschlik-ing in the taller grasses, Dickcissels everywhere, Indigo Buntings, Chats, Yellowthroats and Baltimore Orioles in the trees in suburban yards adjoining the prairie lots. Sirens usually drowned out the songs.
There are three more parcels in this prairie complex, Paintbrush, Sundrop, and Dropseed Prairies, that time permitting I might get a chance to visit before returning home. All are jointly managed by The Nature Conservancy and Northeaster Illinois University.