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Thursday, May 24, 2007 04:51 am

Summer exposure

Now is the best time for flora, fauna, and photos

Untitled Document From far away, it might look like an ordinary field, but once you step inside, you realize that the prairie is alive with bees, birds, and butterflies — and although the prairie can be an allergy sufferer’s nightmare, it’s a photographer’s dream.
Summer is the best time of year to shoot the prairies of Illinois — whose unofficial nickname is the “Prairie State” — says nature photographer Carol Freeman. Located almost entirely with the region from Indiana to Iowa known as the prairie peninsula, Illinois prairies are unique because of the diversity of plant and animal life found there. From now through the end of the summer, beautiful, vibrant prairie flowers will be in bloom, and there’s something new to shoot almost every week. “It’s rare, one of the rarest habitats around to get pictures,” says Freeman, who gives private lessons in photographing the prairie. Near Franklin Grove, in the north-central part of the state, the Nachusa Grasslands (www.franklingroveil.org/testt.htm) covers 1,500 acres and serves as a sanctuary of sorts for several rare insect and plant species, including the endangered Gorgone checkerspot butterfly, which has been successfully reintroduced, and four types of wildflowers that are candidates for federal “threatened species” status: the purple fame flower, the forked aster, the spiny Hill’s thistle, and the kittentail. In the coming weeks, wonderfully brilliant wildflowers, including hairy beardtongue, wild hyacinth, hoary puccoon, white lady’s slipper, yellow star grass, small skullcap, blue flag, field cinquefoil, and wild strawberry will begin to bloom at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (www.fs.fed.us/mntp/). By trekking out early, photographers can capture morning dew on grasses and dragonflies and other insects, which, Freeman says, tend to move slowly at this hour. Once the sun begins to heat the prairie, around 10 a.m., the butterflies begin fluttering. For safety and comfort, photographers should always wear long pants and closed-toe shoes; pack sunscreen, mosquito repellent; and remember to remain on the pathway. Although a point-and-shoot camera can get OK shots, experienced photographers suggest using a camera with interchangeable lenses, if at all possible. A macro lens is essential for close-up pictures, and a wide-angle lens comes in handy for panoramic shots and in capturing animals in their natural surroundings. Closer to Springfield, the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/midwest/illinoisriver/emq.html), along the Illinois River close to Havana, is home to the prairie king snake and Plains leopard frog. Mammals, such as river otter, mink, beaver, and raccoon, and various birds, such as orioles, also abound in this habitat.
Big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, and prairie cordgrass, which can grow as tall as 7 feet, dominate the grasslands at the Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, in Grundy County. Though you might think that a clear, sunny day offers the best conditions for nature photography, overcast days — when colors are just as bright but shadows are less harsh — are ideal for picture-taking. Rain does present a challenge for shutterbugs — and when the rain does fall, Illinois zoos are the next the next best thing for photographers wanting wildlife shots. On June 16, the Henson Robinson Zoo (www.hensonrobinsonzoo.org/) will kick off its summer amateur-photography contest. Finalists will be selected by the public, and the winning image must be of an animal at the Springfield zoo. The Brookfield Zoo, in suburban Chicago, offers a summer-long butterfly exhibit, Butterflies!, beginning Memorial Day weekend. “You can’t go to too many other states to get that kind of photography,” Freeman says. “People have to come here.”

Contact R.L. Nave rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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