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

Wolf Road Prairie Beach?

We are currently in the Quarternary geological period, which began about 2 .6 million years ago. This period is characterized by repeated cold glacial episodes (ice ages) alternating with warm interglacial episodes, each lasting tens of thousands of years.

Northeastern Illinois was covered at least six times by continental ice sheets that came down from Canada, cutting and deepening the basins of the Great Lakes along the way. The last sheet was the Wisconsin Glacier that retreated from Illinois into Lake Chicago (the precursor of today’s Lake Michigan) about 12,500 years ago, leaving behind 10 or more feet of sediment known as glacier drift, including a few large rocks called “glacier erratics” that can be found scattered over Wolf Road Prairie.


Glacial erratic at Wolf Road Prairie


At its maximum, the glacier was over 3000 feet thick in Chicago and extended as far south as Peoria and Shelbyville, smoothing and flattening the bedrock topography of Illinois. The front or leading edge of the glacier advanced and retreated many times, leaving behind a series of long elevated ridges or hills known as moraines. Wolf Road Prairie is currently located on part of the large Valparaiso Moraine that extended around the bottom of Lake Michigan from Wisconsin through Illinois and into Indiana. The shoreline of Lake Chicago was as far as LaGrange Road, making Wolf Road Prairie almost “beach front property.” Obviously the lake was much higher then, and as recently as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago water from Lake Chicago flowed out south and west via the “Chicago Outlet” through low parts of the Valparaiso Moraine, forming the Des Plaines and Sag River valleys and connecting Lake Chicago with the Mississippi River system.

Much of the current Palos Forest Preserve, including the Little Red School House nature center, was located on Mount Forest Island between the Des Plaines and Sag rivers. Today thanks to the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal over 100 years ago in 1900, Lake Michigan again flows into the Des Plaines River, but that may not last due to fears that the Asian Carp may use this restored ancient water route to enter the Great Lakes.

Next time you’re at the Prairie keep an eye out for those glacial erratics and try to imagine a sheet of ice as high as two Willis Towers above you!

–E.J. Neafsey

Source: “Geology of Illinois,” edited by Dennis R . Kolata and Cheryl K. Nimz, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2010.

Wolf Road Prairie: A Primer

While Wolf Road Prairie occupies only 80 acres today, tallgrass prairies spanned across the entire Midwest as early as 170 years ago. According to the US Geologic Survey, less than 1% of tallgrass prairies remain in Illinois.  That means if you live in the Chicagoland area you have one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world practically in your backyard.


But what defines this incredibly rare ecosystem? When most think of what characterizes tallgrass prairies they think of just that—an area covered primarily in tall grasses. This is for the most part correct, however nature is never so simple. While scientists have widely categorized prairies based on their vegetation, soil, landscape, climate, etc, the tallgrass prairie ecosystems are difficult to pigeonhole. As Ladd and Oberle state in their book Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers:


There is no single model of a tallgrass prairie but rather an endlessly variable, dynamic tapestry of plants and animals that for thousands of years have been responding to and in turn influencing their landscape and each other.


Wolf Road Prairie is no exception; even within its 80 acres the prairie can be divided into 3 different broadly defined prairie types.






You may typically think of a savanna as an ecosystem that occurs on another continent, such as the Serengeti, but savannas are any tallgrass prairies that include trees. But unlike a forest where little to no sunlight can penetrate the canopy, these trees are interspersed. Trees, such as Wolf Road Prairie’s 250 year old Bur Oaks are often found on tallgrass prairie savannas. You can find the savanna on the southern end of Wolf Road Prairie.


Mesic Prairie

North of the savanna is the mesic prairie. Mesic prairies, like wetlands, retain moisture but are able to drain excess water. This produces rich soil and allows mesic prairies to support some of the most abundant and exquisite flora of any prairie ecosystem. The sidewalks laid down before the Great Depression provide walking paths through this highly threatened ecosystem.


Wetland Prairie

The northern 40 acres of Wolf Road Prairie host the wetland portion of the prairie. Wetlands are defined by being heavily hydrated by means of groundwater seepage, bodies of water such as rivers, or other natural means to keep the soil completely saturated throughout springs and summers. Normally, it is not even possible to trek through the Wolf Road’s wetland until the dry season (unless you have the proper gear!) when a narrow pathway opens. But because of this year’s harsh and severe drought, most of the wetland has been relatively dry. We are hoping the winter and spring weather will help the wetland recover.


Next time you visit Wolf Road Prairie, remember how complex, subtle, and nuanced nature is as you walk through one of the rarest ecosystems in the world.


– F. Martino

Last edited 12/9/2012


Ladd, Doug , and Frank Oberle. Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers. 2nd ed. Guilford, CN: Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2005. Print.