Sunday, January 15, 2012

Changing of the Seasons at Meadowbrook Park: January 14

Winter arrived in central Illinois this week in the form of three straight days of light, blowing snow. A thin blanket of white filled the gaps between the dried stems of the prairie during my Saturday afternoon visit to Meadowbrook Park. Against the background of white, the prairie appeared more as a collection of individual plants than the swaying mass of bronze and gold.

Much of the snow that remained on the ground collected in drifts flowing along the edge of the walking paths. It was hard to tell just how much snow we received. Some drifts stood knee high, while other areas were swept clean by steady, strong winds.

A good number of people enjoyed the park, despite temperatures in the 20s. I've envied the residents that live adjacent to Meadowbrook, with such a magnificent resource literally in their back yards.

As I began my hour-long hike, flurries filled the air but the breeze became still enough to let the snow fall to the ground. Out in the middle of the prairie, I stopped several times just to listen to the quiet; I could almost hear the flakes settle into the tallgrass.

Pycnanthemum virginium
The gray stems and seed heads of Mountain Mint (Pycanthemum virginium) stand out among the brown tones. In such a monocromatic landscape, even subtle differences in hue create a striking contrast.

Lespedeza leptostachya
The dark russet seeds of prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) dotted the prairie. Normally lofted on thin grey stems, a few of the plants showed fasciation near the flower head (pictured on top and bottom right).

I chose to walk off trail towards the stream that runs through the park. Thickening ice fogged the surface of the water; a light dusting of snow powdered the frozen surface. The sound of flowing water emerged from small, unfrozen pockets along the shore.

I made my way upstream toward the beaver dam. The increasing frequency of severed 12-18" stumps told me I was getting closer to their aquatic architecture.

The stream above the dam was more thickly frozen, collecting a heavier carpet of snow. From many angles, upstream was indistinguishable from the shoreline woods. As I walked along, I was careful not to end up in rather than along the stream.

Pin cherries seem to be the favorite of the park's deer population. Deer damage and hoof prints were common along the entire stream.

Rhus typhina

A small grove of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) grows near where the stream turns north. The large, bright red seed heads are visible for a distance through the trees and brush. Judging by the number of fuzzy saplings growing in the area, it's a prolific spreader.

Bird nests could be spotted easily as they've become snow collection points. I noticed this nest during last weeks visit. It had been filled with a red fruit (perhaps honeysuckle or crabapple) by some bird. Some of this fruit is still visible beneath the snow.


Milkweed (Asclepias) pods slowly allow seed to become airborne. I can only imagine with the winds of the past few days where these opportunistic seeds will find their next patch of fertile ground.

Alnus glutinosa

The northern stretch of the stream is lined with alder (Alnus glutinosa). Alder is a tree commonly found at the water's edge due to its ability to withstand long periods under water. Alder is monoecious, with both long, slender male catkins and rounder female catkins on the same tree. I was fascinated by the root morphology at the base of the trees. Alder have a nitrogen-fixing symbiotic relationship with a bacterium that forms root nodules. I need to do more research to determine if these interesting root formations are the result of this relationship, or simply a function of being under water for the parts of the year when the stream is high.

The Meadowbrook stream is fed by stormwater runoff that enters through an inlet just north of a pedestrian bridge that connects the inner and outer walking paths in the park. I hope to visit at some point this year after a major rain event to see how this area changes during high water.

The hazy, descending sun began to peek through the clouds, shining off the top of a metal sculpture  "Position 1" (by Chicago sculptor Ron Gard) just on the other side of the bridge. I stood and watched the sun reflect off Gard's work, a fitting end to this icy visit to Meadowbrook Park.

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