While many warm days may follow this first icy blast, consistently colder temperatures and snowy days are sure to occur in the not-too-distant future. As winter prepares to settle in, here at the park many changes are taking place. The prairie grasses and other prairie plants and shrubs have changed from the golden yellows, rich bronzes and fiery reds of autumn to the subtler, more muted shades of winter browns and grays. Gone are the summer resident birds. The great clouds of swallows that circled overhead all summer long, the rare and endangered Henslow’s sparrows, the cheery dickcissel, and the scissor-tailed flycatchers have all said “good-bye” to their prairie summer home. At the same time these summer residents have winged their way south to warmer and sunnier locations for the winter, Prairie State Park has become home to a whole host of newly arrived winter residents…birds such as the Northern harrier hawk, the American bald eagle and the short-eared owl. These have winged their way back from colder regions just to our north. Other changes are taking place on, and under the prairie, as well. Prairie mice, rats, voles and crayfish burrow deeper underground to make their winter homes, the white-tailed deer, coyote and bobcat prepare for leaner days ahead, and the great bison grows thicker and shaggier as he dons his warm and woolly winter coat. As the days grow colder and the snow begins to fly, don’t let the park's seemingly, barren landscape fool you. The tallgrass might look empty and lifeless but it’s not. In winter, even on the shortest and coldest of days, Prairie State Park is teeming with life.
I'd like to invite those of you with an adventurous spirit to come experience winter on the tallgrass prairie for yourself. Go for a hike and look for animal tracks in the snow. Can you guess who made them? Perhaps you’ll come across a badger's burrow or a fox’s den, or see a Northern harrier swooping close to the ground as it sails against a distant ridge, a red-tailed hawk perched atop a fence post or park sign, a coyote making his way across the prairie in search of his much-sought-after prey, a short-eared owl sitting in the middle of the trail, a white-tailed deer hidden among the leafless winter sumac, or the whole herd of bison with snow heaped high on their winter-thick, fur-covered backs. Whether it’s a long or short hike, if you take the time to look close and experience the nature around you, a trip to Prairie State Park in winter is sure to yield memories that will last you a lifetime!
(This is a reprint of an article that I wrote for Prairie State Park's Winter 2015 Tallgrass Prairie Tribune.)