Songbirds, turtles, and kames were highlights of an early evening visit to Glacial Park Nature Preserve near Richmond, Illinois. While many spent the sunny Sunday of Memorial Day weekend cruising on motorcycles or taking boats out on the Chain of Lakes, we passed through the noise and crowds and found ourselves surrounded by more restful sounds and company.
Combining the Marsh loop and Coyote loop, we traveled about two miles through oak and hickory savannas, passing by both a marsh and a bog (each is considered a wetland, but bogs are characterized by sphagnum moss and highly acidic soils). The birds were actively chirping, warbling and whistling happy tunes. They filled the preserve with their presence. Veering a bit off the loop, we ascended a glacial kame (a kame is a large hill made of gravel deposited by glaciers) to a view overlooking Nippersink Creek to the west and the trail we had come from to the east. Back on the trail near the marsh, we watched as families of geese paddled by in search of supper. Five fluffy goslings followed along behind their parents dutifully. Some time was also spent spotting turtles; the trick is to look for their peeping heads as they come to the water’s surface. An ideal place for wildlife viewing and listening, Glacial Park has a calming effect on all the senses.
Returning from this short outing I began thinking about learning to identify local flora and fauna. Near the trailhead a large bumblebee had caught my eye and I observed her for a while as she appeared to frequent one particular flower more than others. I guessed that it was thistle, but I don’t really know what brought that plant name to mind. Not only would I like to confidently identity that flowering plant, but I also want to know the species of the bee. My perception that it was large, furry, and buzzing brought me only so far as assigning it to the genus Bombus.
Vladimir Nabokov, when not writing classic/controversial novels like Lolita, studied Lepidoptera, an order of insects that includes moths and butterflies. He wrote, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” The act of identification, that single piece of knowledge, has the potential to lead to more complex levels of knowledge and understanding. Natural scenery is pretty to look at, but nature’s beauty is revealed in the details. Taking my bee and flower as an example, I’ll identify the plant as Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and the bee as the Golden Northern Bumblebee (Bombus fervidus). So, now I’m watching something a lot more complicated than a bee flying through prairie flowers. I see a pollinator collecting pollen to create honey for the brood. She will die when the weather turns cold and the new queens she helped feed will overwinter and start a nest in the Spring. Her transfer of pollen from flower to flower also brings life to the thistle. Its flowers produce seeds when pollinated, which will spread with the wind before the plant dies. A new thistle will take root and grow, and soon will bloom again. Together, each has ensured that the next generations continue. A little bit of information shows a scene taking place in the present that is, at once, evidence of the past and a glimpse into the future. I think it’s time to pick up a few identification guides and get started.