(This article was originally published on January 17, 2009. Your comments are welcome butplease be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
Conditions were ideal for a winter walk: a sunny sky, the breeze very light, and the temperature not too cold for comfort. The ground had refrozen after the thaw, so the trails weren't muddy, but they were free of lumpy, treacherous ice. There were only a few remnant patches of snow, all that was left of the great drifts built up by the blizzards brought by an Alberta Clipper earlier in December.
The weight of the snow had flattened large swaths of the dead grasses. They now lie broken on the ground, all facing in the same direction, as if blown over by a great wind. It makes the prairie appear more open, like a meadow that has been mowed by a very sloppy mower, who has missed a lot of tall stems still standing upright.
The word "dormant" means "asleep," and so the prairie that day was dormant, silent and still. Only occasionally, as the breeze kicked up, could I hear the dry rustle of the dead grass stems or the harsher rattle when the leaves still clinging to the black oaks (Quercus velutina) were stirred. Otherwise, silence. Where was everyone? Where was the scitter and scritch of small creatures in the grass, out of sight? Where were the flocks of birds, cheeping and chattering? On another day, I might have been able to see their tracks preserved in the snow, but now the ground was too hard to hold an impression. There were nests, abandoned or empty. Only a chance sighting of a newly-dug burrow gave any sign of the prairie being inhabited that day.
The prairie is rich in resources for overwintering creatures. Seedheads of both grasses and forbs are rich with protein and usually stand all winter long. The oaks bear plentiful acorns. Young twigs and brush are food for rabbits and deer. There are several kinds of berries. The coyotes are fat and healthy so I know there are plenty of animals - somewhere out here. Today, however, they just didn't seem to be showing themselves.
Finally, a solitary peep, repeated until I could spot who was making the sound. A small brown-stripey bird, perfectly camouflaged in its winter colors against the browns of the dormant grasses and twigs. At last I got too close for its comfort, and it flew into a tree where we could both watch each other more closely.
Photos of the prairie in late fall and winter often appear to be uniformly sepia-toned, as if taken in another century before colored film was invented. But closer observation reveals the different shades among all the browns, from off-white to near black, with russets and bronzes and an occasional bright accent, as the brightly-colored bark of the redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba).
Northeastern Illinois is about at the edge of the range of the prairie, and the land here is low-lying. The prairie where I walk is a mixed one, with marshes and woods on the margins; it is constantly on the verge of turning into a savannah, as trees encroach. The managers need to conduct regular burns to keep the area a prairie. In recent years, we have had droughts and the marshes have receded and gone dry, but 2008 has been the wettest year on record. Over the weekend, the combination of rain and snowmelt sent local rivers over their banks, and the marshes likewise flooded. The photos here are not of a creek but the marshes spilling over, then freezing. The ice was still thin; I could see the liquid water beneath the frozen surface, which cracked when I stepped on the edge. I didn't go further. It was no time to find myself out there with wet feet.
I followed the path through the marsh to the boundary of the preserve, then turned back towards home. As I did, the silence was finally broken from above by the raucous cries of a skein of overwintering Canada Geese, looking, perhaps, for open water in a world turned to ice.