Wandering Wolf Road Prairie and saving the plants, birds, history and company

As we meandered Wolf Road Prairie, EJ Neafsey said, “Now we are walking across an alley.”

How he knew so certainly I’m not sure.

Sidewalks, though nearly 100 years old, were easy to see. That’s primarily what we walked on the southern portion of the 82-acre site at the northwest corner of 31st Street and Wolf Road in Westchester.

A view down one of the nearly 100-year-old sidewalks that remain at Wolf Road Prairie.

The Depression saved the remnant prairie pieces, stopping development planned in the 1920s for nearly 600 lots, according to Save The Prairie Society. It started buying lots in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County completed acquisition of the site.

Remnant prairies, though tiny, are rooted in the past, different than prairies restored on agricultural fields.

STPS notes “several native communities, including mesic prairie, mesic savanna and wetland;” and the site “is considered the largest and best quality black soil or mesic prairie east of the Mississippi River.”

It has more than 360 native plant species and “birds, amphibians, insects, butterflies and mammals are too numerous to count.”

I discovered Wolf Road Prairie on a woodcock walk, led by John Elliott, years ago.

This spring my wife joined me in another walk, led by Elliott and Sue Dombro, Trailside Museum of Natural History director. Joel Greenberg happened to be there and said I should meet Neafsey.

We finally did during the first summer heat wave, gathering at the small main parking area off 31st.

I enjoy wandering with people like Neafsey, retired neuroanatomy professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and 17-year volunteer for STPS, and Greenberg, author of “A Nature History of the Chicago Region.”

A pasture rose or Carolina rose growing over a nearly 100-year-old sidewalk at Wolf Road Prairie.  Credit: Dale Bowman

A pasture rose or Carolina rose growing over a nearly 100-year-old sidewalk at Wolf Road Prairie.

Plants and birds of interest came immediately: Prairie dock, compass plant, a female common yellowthroat (“witchity, witchity”), pasture rose, rattlesnake master, black-eyed Susan.

The rattlesnake master, somewhat similar to yucca, brought tidbits from Neafsey and Greenberg. There were shoes woven from rattlesnake master leaves thousands of years ago and found in Missouri’s Arnold Research Cave. The plant is the only known host for the rare rattle-snake borer moth.

According to illinoiswildflowers.info, Native Americans used the dried seedheads as rattles and pioneers wrongly thought the roots were an antidote to a rattlesnake bite.

Next came a smattering of remaining spring Alexander, a song sparrow, blazing star, Solomon seal, wood betony.

“Come back in a few weeks, you would have a different backdrop,” Neafsey said.

Sawtooth sunflower, multitudes of red-winged blackbirds, meadow rue. Greenberg thought he heard a willow flycatcher. Prairie dropseed, fleabane, prairie willow.

“There used to be more Indian paintbrush, now there is just a few,” Neafsey said.

Flowering spurge, prairie sundrops, white wild indigo.

Neafsey’s known as “Bane Of Buckthorn.” Along with honeysuckle, buckthorn is a notorious invader around the Chicago.

He said volunteering at Wolf Road Prairie, which he does three or four times a week, is his “prairie therapy.”

Foxglove beardtongue was a new one for me. Then came a first-of-the-year for all of us, a Viceroy butterfly. Purple milkweed, tree swallow, great blue heron.

“The prairie is getting close to the season of overwhelming beauty,” said Neafsey, who said late July with blazing star is one of the spectacular times.

“That’s the beauty of this, it takes five minutes to get into the middle of it,” Greenberg said.

A red-tailed hawk accented our walk’s end. Out of habit, Neafsey stooped and pulled grapevine from beside the sidewalk.

It was time.

More on STPS is at savetheprairiesociety.org. If you visit, also visit the Franzosenbusch Prairie House, which is the STPS relocated on the north end.

The late-spring view north across Wolf Road Prairie, including the distant suburban buildings.  Credit: Dale Bowman

The late-spring view north across Wolf Road Prairie, including the distant suburban buildings.

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