Sphinx Moths at Wolf Road Prairie & Chicagoland

There has been an explosion of the beautiful sphinx moths this year, and with it many questions as to just what they are. Visitors often mistake this moth for a humming bird!

To learn more, visit these two links from CBS news and Chicago Wilderness and view these pictures from STPS volunteer Ken Moreau.  In these great photos of the White-linked Sphinx Moth (its difficult to take photos of this quick insect!), notice their long proboscis and large, distinctive eyes.

Population Of White-Line Sphinx Moths Explodes In Chicago Area – CBS News Chicago

Sphinx Moths:Bird and Bee Impersonators – Chicago Wilderness Magazine


Cirsium discolor – Pasture Thistle

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In late summer this native thistle adds a touch of pastel to a prairie dominated by gold and yellow. Its presence throughout the preserve helps to sustain insects dependent on nectar for nourishment. Migrating hummingbirds too find sustenance from the thistle’s array of tubular flowers.

Its leaves are an excellent food source for the hungry caterpillars of the Painted Lady butterfly. Her green barrel shaped eggs can sometimes be found on the topside of the leaves. And as summer wanes and the thistles go to seed, they will attract squadrons of hungry goldfinches. The down of the thistle has been found in the diminutive winter dwellings of the prairie deer mice.

How can you tell the native thistle from the more aggressive alien thistle? Check the underside of a leaf. If it is powdery white or silver-like, then you are looking at a true prairie native. The flower of the non-native is closer in color to purple rather than pink.

Pollinators: Bumblebee, Monarch, Tiger Swallowtail, and Great Spangled Fritillary All of the pictures below  were taken at Wolf Road Prairie.

Photos courtesy of Fidencio Marbella

Compass Plant at Wolf Road Prairie

For the last few weeks, the exceedingly tall compass plants have dominated the south prairie and the Prairie House garden. With a taproot that averages 13 ft., thick resin sap, rough textured leaves, and a dense hairy stalk this long-lived perennial is well equipped to endure drought. Its name refers to the general north-south alignment of its basal leaves utilized by Native Americans, pioneers and run-away slaves in determining direction.



–Rita McCabe

Photos by Beth Edwards taken on July 21.

Solitary Wasps at Wolf Road Prairie

Our resident photographer Fidencio Marbella of the Westchester Library once again has captured the amazing ecology of Wolf Road Prairie through his lens.

In this pair of photos, you will find a wasp of the genus Prionyx (we believe specifically Prionyx parki).  Fidencio managed to capture this particular parasitoid capturing a grasshopper.

Wasps of this genus are solitary: rather than living in a hive nest, Prionyx digs burrows underground and lays its eggs on its host.  These wasps will sting and paralyze grasshoppers and drag their prey to their burrows where they will subsequently lay their eggs and seal the entrance.  Their young will utilize the organism for food, ultimately killing the host.

These photos not only reveal Fidencio’s keen eye for the drama that can occur in nature which usually goes unnoticed by most, but an amazing thread in the web of life.


Written & Researched by

Rita McCabe & Frank Martino

Photographs by

Fidencio Marbella




Butterfly Monitoring at Wolf Road Prairie

js720_fmgallery (45)I have been a gardener for most of my life (since I was 13, so gardening for 30 yrs), and the past ten years have been spent specifically gardening for butterflies and then learning all about all of the different species and their fascinating life cycles.


This year I am taking this interest into more organized formats to spread awareness and contribute to their survival. With some other people in Oak Park, we are creating a Wild Ones chapter in the hope of encouraging people to incorporate more natural landscaping which is friendlier to butterflies, birds, and other creatures.


I also decided to participate in a different way in the study of butterflies and to volunteer for the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network (IBMN). The IBMN’s purpose is to collect data about butterflies through citizen scientists. Tracking the numbers of butterflies gives useful information about a particular habitat.


Monitors are supposed to visit their assigned site 6-8 times from Memorial Day through August 8; 4 of those visits need to happen before July 20 and data needs to be entered online. Monitors may net the butterflies to obtain specific identification, but I do not feel quite comfortable enough to do that yet. Many of the butterflies we are looking for are ones that I am familiar with and can identify while in flight. Now, some of those similar-looking skippers and small hairstreaks who might move off too fast are another story! Luckily, even unidentified skippers or hairstreaks are still useful data.


This is my first year, and I am so happy to do it at Wolf Road Prairie. It is a special place, and one I look forward to visiting each time. I love seeing the changing landscape and hearing and seeing beautiful birds too. I haven’t seen a Common Yellowt-throat in forever and have never seen a Woodcock but saw one up close when we startled each other. Thanks to all of you that have worked so hard to preserve such a magnificent place.

–Stephanie Walquist

Tiny Residents of Wolf Road Prairie

It’s easy to see the beauty of Wolf Road Prairie in a majestic stag deer or red-tailed hawk, but you would miss some of the most fascinating organisms that call the prairie home.  Check out the latest photos from Fidencio Marbella as he captures some of the tiniest residents of Wolf road Prairie



If you found these interesting, be sure to join us for our Insect Safari 2013!

Red-winged Blackbirds at Wolf Road Prairie

The male red-wing black bird is easy to identify because he wears his bright ID patch atop his wing shoulders. His red-orange patches with a yellow border at the bottom distinguish him from other members of the blackbird family. These patches, or epaulets, as they are called, play an important role in the male’s ability to maintain territory and attract a mate. Males with larger brighter epaulets can better intimidate males vying for the same territory and are more likely to be successful in attracting multiple mates. Interestingly, the older a male gets to be, the more brilliant his patches and the more lustrous the shine of his black feathers.



When the male fully displays his bright patch while fanning his tail feathers, he is either defending his territory or doing his best to attract a female. The males will also display during flight deliberately slowing down their wing strokes to ensure that their epaulets are not missed by other males or available females.


In one experiment, the epaulets of some male red-wings were blackened out. These unlucky males were no longer able to maintain their territories. In the world of the red-winged blackbird, brilliant epaulets equal status. ( Sophie Brown of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology )


The beauty of the female is in her many subtle colors including gray, brown, and salmon-pink. She has a noticeable white stripe over her eyes easily seen in Fidencio’s photo.



Written by R. McCabe

Photos by Fidencio Marbella

Biodiversity & Wolf Road Prairie

Much of the time and effort to keep Wolf Road Prairie healthy by Save the Prairie Society members, the FPDCC, the IDNR, and volunteers is devoted to promoting and preserving biodiversity. Biodiversity is one of the key indicators of productivity, health, and stability of an ecosystem. But what is biodiversity, why is it important, what threatens it, and how is STPS helping to to enrich Wolf Road Prairie’s own biodiversity?


Biodiversity Explained

Broadly speaking, biodiversity refers to the variety of organisms within an ecosystem. However, scientists quantify biodiversity on three different levels; genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity.

  • Genetic diversity counts the total sum of genetic information of individual organisms within a single species. Having sufficient genetic diversity within a species is important for preventing detrimental inherited traits and fighting disease.
  • Species diversity refers to the number of different species in either a single ecosystem or on Earth as a whole. Scientists utilize taxonomy to see historical species diversity and can discover why some evolutionary branches of organisms are more species-rich than others through time.
  • Ecosystem diversity describes the study of different biological communities and their abiotic habitat within a given region. This level of biodiversity is the most difficult to quantify. As explained on our blog, ecosystems are dynamic and exist on a spectrum where clear boundary lines are blurred. Therefore, in studying ecosystem diversity, scientists measure changes within biological communities along with any shifts in their physical environment.


Why is Biodiversity Important?

Having rich, biodiverse ecosystems directly benefits humans. High biodiversity ecosystems have high productivity (how much biomass is produced within an ecosystem), high quality soil, aid in local weather patterns, cycle nutrients more effectively, retain and recharge surface and ground water, prevent flooding, and improve air quality by releasing oxygen. Having a diverse biological community allows for wildlife to more efficiently utilize that ecosystem’s resources, facilitate population health in other species, and help stabilize and recover from ecological disturbances. Humans also gain economically from healthy ecosystems, as biodiverse regions provide services and resources such as fishing, agriculture, forestry, and even tourism.

Biodiversity can also better stave off accelerated mass extinction and in turn improve our current quality of life and abundance of natural resources and services. While extinction of species has occurred in the past and will continue in the future, scientists today are largely concerned with the rate organisms are dying off. Some estimates of current extinction rates are 100 to 1000 times what is found in the fossil record. Humans will ultimately be effected by such an accelerated mass extinction as air quality declines, weather becomes more erratic, and natural services and resources become more and more sparse.


Threats to Biodiversity

Combating threats to biodiversity is a multi-front war and oftentimes these threat vectors work in conjunction with one another. Habitat loss and fragmentation, overhunting, pollution, over-farming/over-harvesting, native species competition, and even natural, non-anthropogenic causes (such as earthquakes, fires, droughts, etc) are significant threats to biodiversity and may occur simultaneously. STPS routinely battles another enemy to the biodiversity of Wolf Road Prairie—non-native invasive plant life.

Buckthorn, teasil, reed canary grass, and bull and Canada thistle are all alien plants to Illinois which compete for resources and displace native plant life. By out-competing native plants, invasives reduce biodiversity on multiple levels. For instance, bull thistle outcompetes and disestablishes native plant life on the prairie if left unchecked. Native thistle is a food source for a variety of native wildlife, such as goldfinches and deer, but because of of bull thistle’s spines and seed size, most cannot utilize them with the ease in which they access native thistle.


How STPS Promotes Biodiversity at Wolf Road Prairie

STPS and volunteers work tirelessly to rid the prairie of alien plant life. Equipped with bug repellent, hand shears, and loppers, workers trek the prairie and eliminate threats. During the summer months, STPS worked on clipping spiny bull and Canada thistle. Elimination of bull thistle began in June when it’s flowers began to bloom but before the flower opens and seeds can ride the wind and spread to other areas of the prairie. Bull thistle is also most vulnerable at this stage as most of it’s energy is directed towards producing its flower rather to its root system. Flower heads are individually collected to prevent the seeds from spreading before cutting the plant at the base. This fall, our attention turned to buckthorn. We even had help from the local Nazareth High School students to cut down the woody exotic. Restoration efforts, including mechanized work, herbiciding and prescription burns, are also being conducted during the winter months to cull harmful exotics and promote prairie health.


What You Can Do to Help

STPS is an all volunteer organization and promoting biodiversity in Wolf Road Prairie’s incredibly threatened ecosystem is no small task. If you would like to contribute to the ongoing efforts to save Wolf Road Prairie, there are a variety of ways to help. Contact us by phone or online if you would like to volunteer your time to STPS. You can also contribute by donating. Checks can be made out to ‘Save the Prairie Society’ and be sent to:

Save the Prairie Society
11225 Constitution Drive
Westchester, IL 60154

You can also donate online securely via PayPal.

Lastly, you can help us by spreading the word about STPS. Please share our homepage, facebook, and twitter to those you know who are also concerned about the natural world. Thank you for helping promote local biodiversity!

–F. Martino


Freeman, Scott. Biological Science. San Francisco: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, 2008. Print