Truitt Hoff

Photo courtesy of Sandy Kaczmarski, The Conservation Foundation

There are two things I love most about having written Force of Nature. The first is traveling around the state sharing George Fell’s story with a broader audience. The second is using these trips to explore more of the nature preserves that George helped to protect.

Today, I was invited to speak at the annual luncheon for The Conservation Foundation. There were about 100 people in attendance at Arrowhead Golf Club in Wheaton, DuPage County. Per usual, only a small handful of them had heard of George Fell. After the talk, a lot of folks bought books to learn more about him — George was as complex and fascinating a man as he was a hugely accomplished conservationist.

After the luncheon, I changed into my hiking gear and set out to explore a few nature preserves. There are eight dedicated nature preserves owned and managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. I decided to visit three of them, beginning with Truitt Hoff, located in West Chicago Prairie — #18 on my way to visiting 50 nature preserves this year.

A terrific online history of Truitt Hoff (would that every nature preserve had such a thing) confirmed what a long-time steward had told me at the annual luncheon. Namely, that Truitt Hoff was one of those forgotten places — former farmland turned to stockyards and eventually sold for development, when former West Chicago mayor Richard Truitt “discovered” the prairie remnant and shared the news with Ray Schulenberg, one of the early pioneers of prairie restoration.

The online history also tells how the other man for whom the site is partly named — Mel Hoff — was appointed the Volunteer Steward in 1982 and formed the West Chicago Prairie Stewardship Group. It took 24 years of sweat equity to remove invasive species, abandoned cars and all kinds of other debris. But eventually, the diverse site — containing freshwater marsh, mesic silt loam savanna, and at least three different kinds of prairie communities — returned to health and was designated as the Truitt Hoff Nature Preserve in 2006.

The work of stewarding our natural areas is never done. The West Chicago Stewardship Group remains active. It is guided by a detailed management plan developed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, in accordance with the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, which requires such plans for all dedicated Nature Preserves.

At the trailhead, the stewardship group had posted its most recent newsletter, that helped me better see and understand the site. Out in the field, I found brush piles, evidence of the clearing reported in the newsletter. I also encountered lusher grasses yet fewer wildflowers than anticipated, which the newsletter chalked up to a wet spring.

The grasses were so dense and lush, in fact, that they all but obscured the narrow footpaths, which reminded me of a question raised at the annual luncheon — about public access to nature preserves. I acknowledged that George Fell was more of a nature-for-nature’s-sake kind of guy. Whereas most of his Illinois Nature Preserves Commissioners preferred wider, more inviting trails to encourage people to explore nature, George was adamant that trails be kept to a minimum, and that visitors should walk single file, like the “Indians” used to do.

George would have been much pleased by the trails at Truitt Hoff. They afforded a particularly up close and personal experience of the prairie. (Along with a few ticks and chiggers.) There may have been fewer wildflowers than usual, and most of the birds appeared to have taken a siesta to avoid the mid-day sun, but the preserve was teeming with all different kinds of dragonflies.

Eastern pondhawk (female), Erythemis simplicicollis

Thanks, George Fell. And Mayor Truitt and Mel Hoff. And all those who continue to steward this exceptional site, which “is different from other DuPage County forest preserves in that it contains no large picnic areas or fishing lakes. Instead, it offers visitors the unique opportunity to enjoy a tranquil walk through one of the state’s rarest — and richest — prairie ecosystems.

Widow skimmer (female), Libellula luctuosa
Common whitetail (male), Plathemis lydia
White-faced pondhawk (female) Sympetrum obtrusum
Twelve-spotted skimmer (female), Libellula pulchella

Churchill Prairie

Following The Conservation Foundation annual luncheon, I headed out to visit three Nature Preserves in DuPage County. My first stop was Truitt Hoff, located in West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve. My second stop was Churchill Prairie, a part of Churchill Woods Forest Preserve.

One of the questions asked at the annual luncheon was what is the difference between forest preserves and dedicated Nature Preserves? The nation’s first county forest preserve district was formed in Illinois. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County was established in 1914. Several other northeastern Illinois counties followed suit, including DuPage County, which established its forest preserve district in 1915.

Our region’s forest preserve districts contain many exquisite natural area gems — areas of exceptional beauty and biodiversity. However, early in his career, George Fell observed that there was nothing in the enabling legislation that prohibited county forest preserves — or state parks, park districts, etc. — from developing even the most sensitive ecological areas for recreational or other purposes.

The restored marsh at Churchill Prairie Nature Preserve

This sparked George’s life long crusade to permanently protect our highest value natural areas, on private lands as well as within publicly-owned lands. In fact, among the first nature preserves dedicated following the passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act in 1963, were 11 within the Forest Preserve District of Cook County — the finest gems, if you will, within the county’s emerald necklace of greenspace.

Churchill Prairie was dedicated as a Nature Preserve in 1993, the year before George Fell passed away at the age of 77. His legacy lives on, however, in the beauty of this and now more than 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves.

The 65-acre Churchill Prairie Nature Preserve actually consists of a “complex patchwork” of different kinds of natural area community types, including a couple  different kinds of prairie, sedge meadow, mesic upland forest, dry mesic upland forest and savanna.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has been conducting some extensive restoration of the site, and it shows. The savanna — known as Babcock Grove — has been cleared of invasive brush, which restores its transitional state between prairie and forest. Ecologically speaking, this is an ecotone — where two natural communities meet and support a particularly rich array of plants and animals.

Earlier in the day, at Truitt Hoff, I was blown away by the diversity of dragonflies patrolling the site. At Churchill Prairie, it was all about birds. Adult bluebirds and Baltimore orioles — flashing blue and bright orange against the green canopy of the savanna — were far too busy gathering insects to feed their nestlings for me to get a good picture. But a downy woodpecker was a little more cooperative.

If there is one thing George Fell may not have appreciated about the site, it is the wide, crushed stone path. As mentioned in the blog post about Truitt Hoff, George preferred “Indian trails,” as he called them — narrow footpaths that maximized the amount of nature. Most Illinois Nature Preserves Commissioners — in George’s day and today — prefer trails that invite the public to enjoy the best remaining natural areas in the state. Sorry, George, but the Regional Trail that runs through Churchill Prairie does just that.  I could have walked it back and forth for hours, but I had one more Nature Preserve to visit…on to Belmont Prairie.

The inviting Regional Trail through Churchill Prairie. But no dogs, bikes or cross country skies, please. Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves are among the very few places where plants and animals can exist without such additional human pressures.

Belmont Prairie

I had a great time talking to supporters of The Conservation Foundation at its annual luncheon. While out in DuPage County, I added three Illinois Nature Preserves to my list — #s 18, 19 and 20 on my way to the goal of visiting 50 this year. My way of celebrating the publication of Force of Nature.

Belmont Prairie is the smallest of the three preserves I visited today. It also may be my new favorite. Truitt Hoff clocks in at 290 acres, Churchill Prairie at 65 acres. Belmont Prairie totals only 10, with an additional 15 acres as buffer.

In 1820, there were approximately 22 million acres of prairie in Illinois. In 1978, George Fell and others completed the first statewide survey of how much natural land remained in Illinois. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory revealed that there were  only 2,352 acres of prairie left, scattered in small parcels throughout the state.

Like several of the Nature Preserves I’ve visited thus far, Belmont Prairie survived by accident, or because someone hadn’t yet gotten around to developing it before it was “discovered.”

The land that includes Belmont Prairie was first bought from the US Government in 1842. By 1890, about half of it was developed as a golf course. By 1920, homes were built.  In 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree collected a rare prairie flower on the site and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum. The Nature Conservancy — of which George Fell was the driving force in its founding — acquired the site. According to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the site was dedicated as an official Nature Preserve in 199. The current owner of the site, the Downers Grove Park District, lists the dedication year as 1994. Either way, along with 400+ other Nature Preserves, it now enjoys the highest level of protection possible.

(Quick side note: it was also an amateur nature enthusiast who collected a rare prairie plant at Truitt Hoff and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, which set the wheels in motion to have both sites dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. The system works.)

Belmont Prairie may be small, but it affords one of the richest displays of wildflowers — with grace notes of dragonflies, butterflies, bees and birdsong — that I have seen anywhere.  To whet your appetite, below is just a small sampling of what I discovered. Enjoy. And then visit. You’ll be glad you did.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa L.
Halloween pennant, Celithemis eponina
Scurfy pea (how can you not just love saying “scurfy pea”), Psoralidium tenuiflorum
Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, with bumble bee
The distinct leaves of compass plant, Silphium laciniatum — soon this plant will send a tall stalk high into the air, filled with bright yellow, sun-like flowers

My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago

In my quest to visit 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year, I could almost make the case for adding a whole bunch more to my list from having spent this past weekend at a single site: Printers Row Lit Fest.

A first-time book author, this was my first time as a participant in Lit Fest — “the largest free outdoor literary event in the Midwest.” Through the grapevine I’d learned about Windy City Historians and was delighted to be invited to share their tent.

My fellow writers offered books on a wide range of subjects — from historic bridges to presidential biographies, from Maxwell Street to labor history. My good friend Rich Cahan and his CityFiles Press publishing partner, Michael Williams, were there with their wealth of photography-based titles, including the heartbreakingly beautiful and timely, Un-American — The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.

Also there was Mike MacDonald, whose exquisitely handsome My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago bears a direct connection to my book, Force of Nature. George Fell spent his life protecting the natural area remnants of Illinois (and beyond.) Mike MacDonald has devoted himself to photographing and writing about a lot of those very same natural lands that George protected.

Mike features 28 nature preserves in his book, from Chiwaukee Prairie in southeast Wisconsin to Cowles Bog in northwest Indiana. In between, in northeast Illinois, Mike celebrates a number of sites, including at least 16 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves.

Among them is one of my favorites–Bluff Spring Fen. Over the course of the past three decades — due largely to countless hours of sweat equity by a dedicated corps of volunteers — this Forest Preserve District of Cook County site has been transformed from an abandoned mine/dumping ground/off-road vehicle course into one of the state’s premier Nature Preserves.

Bluff Spring Fen

For such a small site — the dedicated Nature Preserve comprises about 2/3 of its 160 acres  — it boasts an exceptional diversity of habitat types: dry gravel prairie, mesic black soil prairie, bur oak savanna, sedge meadow, marsh, and its namesake feature, fen. Fens are exceptionally rare, occurring only in the northern third of Illinois. Calcerous fens are the rarest, with only 14.5 acres remaining in the entire state.

Bluff Spring Fen is home to an astonishing richness of plant and animal species, including at least 39 different kinds of butterflies (according to the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network.) Doug Taron, a long-time site steward and Chief Curator at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, is trying to add one more–the swamp metalmark. This small, orange and richly-patterned butterfly was last recorded at Bluff Spring Fen around 1940, and last seen anywhere in Illinois in the 1980s. Taron and his team have been raising swamp metalmarks at the Peggy Noteabaert Museum and releasing them at Bluff Spring Fen, which is one of the few places that contains its favorite food plant: purple-flowered swamp thistle.

Bluff Spring Fen is a living laboratory for restoration and butterfly reintroductions. But as one Chicago Tribune writer observed, “Beyond its scientific value, Bluff Spring Fen is, to put it unscientifically but truthfully, beautiful.”

So are Mike MacDonald’s photographs. So beautiful, in fact, that looking at them is almost as good as being there.

There’s hardly a dull moment in Bluff Spring Fen’s prairie. Just as blooms of leadplant and coreopsis fade, purple prairie clover rises to take their place.

But as I’m sure Mike, Doug and many others would agree, don’t cheat yourself. Head out to Elgin. Meander through Bluff City Cemetery. Park your car and wander into a richness and diversity of beauty that rivals any museum, anywhere.

And then keep going. Check out all the preserves featured in Mike’s book. And then keep going some more, and visit all 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, each of them waiting just for you.

 

Grant Creek

Chalking up Illinois Nature Preserve #17 of 50 this year was a piece of cake. Sort of. I spent the early part of the morning monitoring grassland birds — as I do every spring — at Tract 104 within Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Then I jumped in the car and headed to the southwest side of Midewin to visit Grant Creek Nature Preserve.

According to Google Maps, the preserve was accessible via a frontage road to I-55. However, turning onto the road, I immediately came to a closed gate, beyond which lay an unpaved, overgrown two-track.

That’s one of the things I love about Nature Preserves: many of them lie in seemingly lost or forgotten places. When it was dedicated as a Nature Preserve in 1978, Grant Creek lay between I-55 and the mothballed Joliet Arsenal.

To most folks, speeding by on the highway, then and now, Grant Creek Nature Preserve — if noticed at all — probably seems a fallow farm field at best. A weed patch at worst, waiting for some better use to come along. But, according to the Illinois Natural Areas Protection Act, all nature preserves are put to their “highest, best and most important use for the public benefit.”

Leaving my car at the frontage road gate, I have to agree that the two-track is in fact mostly a patch of weeds. Honeysuckle and other non-native invasives abound. Not that I’m complaining, as they provide habitat for a wealth of shrubland birds: willow flycatchers, field sparrows, orchard orioles, and yellow warblers.

 

But here and there between the dense shrubbery, I spy glimpses of open space. A mile down the road, I find an open gate leading into 78 acres of “high quality wet prairie and mesic prairie communities with over 110 different native prairie plant species.”

The yellow umbrels of wild parsnip appear pretty enough, but they can burn people and crowd out the likes of native spiderwort and other native plant species

In truth, this rare patch of probably unplowed prairie — the presence of limestone too close to the surface made it unfit for anything other than grazing — could use a little TLC. The continuing state budget woes have resulted in cutbacks and other compromises in the ability of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to adequately steward their sites.  For instance, native spiderwort is in full bloom, but competes with wild parsnip. In addition to being a weedy, non-native invasive plant, wild parsnip is a danger to people — contact with the plant can result in painful, blistering burns. More benign, but equally unhealthy are the number of shrubs dotting the preserves. Grassland birds — the most imperiled class of birds — require large expanses free of shrubs in order to breed successfully.

This said, perhaps the very highest value of Grant Creek Nature Preserve is that it provided the template for restoration at the Grant Creek restoration area at Midewin, with which it shares a border.

Historically, the soils of the Grant Creek area within Midewin were a little more substantial, which led early farmers to ditch and drain the area for farming. Even then, the soils were thin enough that they had to cut into limestone to lay the drain tiles.

Gary Sullivan of The Wetlands Initiative unloads a truckload of native plant plugs during a volunteer workday

Working hand-in-hand with the US Forest Service, The Wetlands Initiative removed the drain tiles, cleared the area of non-natives grasses and fallow farm weeds, and — using the adjacent nature preserve as a guide — replanted the site with native plant species.

Over the years, I spent more than a few volunteer days helping to restore Grant Creek, ankle-deep in wet prairie, hand planting native plant plugs. And as the mix of wet and dry prairie has recovered, I’ve joined with others to monitor the recovery of grassland birds to the area. Today, the site is particularly rich with dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the occasional Henslow’s sparrow, a state-listed threatened species. Rare is the day that I don’t see great egrets, impossibly white against the emerald green of their wetland habitat. And although no one yet has confirmed it, I suspect that sandhill cranes may be nesting in Grant Creek or some other similarly-restored area at Midewin.

Bobolink on the wing — emitting its burbling mating call — over the restored prairie in Grant Creek

In its entirety, Grant Creek is part Nature Preserve and part National Tallgrass Prairie. It also stands the intersection of our past and future efforts to protect the natural lands we love. Because of George Fell, we have a strong nature preserves system (when it is fully funded) that provides permanent protection for our best and most important natural area gems. Because of the US Forest Service, The Wetlands Initiative and other nonprofit partners, and a growing army of dedicated volunteers, we are reclaiming more and more of our natural area heritage. Acre by acre, we are putting the prairie back in the Prairie State.

The restored wet prairie land of Grant Creek

Spring Green Preserve

As it turned out, it seemed only fitting to be talking about George Fell at Arcadia Books this weekend. George spent his life protecting the natural lands he loved. Now the good folks of Spring Green, Wisconsin and throughout the Driftless Area are engaged in their own fight to protect their beloved lands.

I love Spring Green. Ever since I spent a season at American Players Theatre, killing the King of Scotland a few times a week. Since then, I’ve returned nearly every summer for the theatre, but also for the sheer beauty of the land. In fact, Spring Green Preserve is one of my favorite places on earth.

The preserve is described as the Wisconsin Desert, which technically might be true but grossly undersells the beauty of the site. True, as a sand prairie its soils drain quickly creating a hot, droughty environment that is home to relatively sparse vegetation, including the likes of prickly pear cactus — and lots of it. But, this cool, misty, late April morning, following a recent prairie burn, it is carpeted with bird’s foot violet and early buttercup, and dotted with spikes of cream white indigo.

The thousand-acre site is filled, too, this morning with a chamber concert of birdsong. The four-note descants of eastern meadowlarks echo off the adjacent bluffs, while blue birds and yellow-rumped warblers harvest the low vegetation for a breakfast of bugs. The lark sparrows are in a more amorous mood, the males splaying their distinct tail feathers in the hope of attracting a mate.

As it turns out, Spring Green Preserve also has has an indirect but distinct connection to George Fell. The site is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, of which George was the driving force in its founding. It is also a Wisconsin State Nature Preserve. During my talk at Arcadia Books, I shared that Wisconsin’s nature preserves system actually predates the one in Illinois by nearly 15 years. George certainly knew about the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas, established in 1951 within the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In fact, he used it as a staring point in crafting a bill to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, empowered to dedicate lands as nature preserves, providing them virtually ironclad permanent protection.

Ironclad protection for natural lands and farmland alike is what the Driftless Area needs right now. Attending the talk at Arcadia Books was David Clutter. Years ago, he used to work for the Natural Land Institute, founded by George Fell. Today, he is the executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and helping to lead the fight against the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line project, which its proponents want to run right through the heart of the Driftless Area.

For those who may not know, the Driftless Area — primarily southwest Wisconsin, but also parts of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois — derives its name from the lack drift. Drift is the gravel, sand, clay, rocks, etc. left behind by retreating glaciers. There isn’t any drift in the Driftless Area because, for a combination of reasons, the glaciers that once blanketed the midwest didn’t cover this area. The Driftless Area — unlike the flat, glacier-scoured lands surrounding it — is one of exceptional beauty for the rolling hills, rugged bluffs, deep valleys, bucolic farmsteads and world-class natural areas.

Opponents of the proposed transmission line and its viewshed-killing towers have a battle cry: The glaciers never came through our region. Neither will the transmission line.

To help fight the good fight, the Environmental Law and Policy Center recently submitted comments to the Rural Utilities Service, underscoring the need for the required Environmental Impact Statement to “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives, including no-build and robust non-transmission alternatives.”

Fighting major infrastructure projects isn’t easy. But as George Fell reminds us, sheer tenacity and perseverance can go a long way toward achieving ultimate success. It took George years to protect a remnant prairie from being destroyed by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority. It took him decades to champion the passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act. It took him a lifetime to spark the entire Natural Areas Movement, which spawned countless preservation groups and continues to inspire a growing army of dedicated individuals to protect the vital lands we love.

It may take years to keep the proposed transmission towers from stockcading the landscape. But protecting the likes of Spring Green Preserve and its surrounding lands is so worth the fight.

Edward L Ryerson Woods

I know. I shouldn’t have a favorite. Out of 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, how can I choose one above the others? It would be like choosing which child I loved best. But today, I’m choosing. Today it’s Edward L Ryerson, #15 toward the goal of visiting 50 Illinois Nature Preserves in 2017.

What initially lured Susan and me to make the trip up to Ryerson Woods was the art. The Brushwood Center was hosting an exhibition of photographs by Carol Freeman. Entitled Endangered Beauty, the exhibition featured a sampling of Carol’s quest to photograph all 483 endangered species in Illinois.

Yep. You read that right. 483. There are a lot of plants and animals on that list. Small wonder since 75% of the Prairie State is a corn or soybean field. Carol’s photographs remind us, however, how richly diverse and exquisitely beautiful our native flora and fauna are.

I imagine that what fuels Carol to capture all these many species on film is much the same as drove George Fell to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. George, too, was motivated by beauty and biodiversity to protect every last scrap of prairie, wetland, woodland, bog, fen and every other kind of natural area remaining in the state before they were plowed up or paved over.

Today, Illinois Nature Preserves harbor a third of all threatened and endangered plant species, and nearly half of all mammal species. Fifty different kinds of plants and animals exist nowhere else in Illinois except in dedicated nature preserves. In fact, some entire habitat types — such as globally rare algific talus slope — remain only as dedicated nature preserves.

Inspired by Carol’s photographs, Susan and I venture into the woods.

White trout lily (Erythronium albidum)

Wow.

Woodland wildflowers. Everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

Unfortunately, many of our region’s woodlands are orverrun with invasive tree and shrubs. Here and there, you might find a small patch of spring beauties or a pocket of Virginia bluebells.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

But Edward L Ryerson well deserves its Illinois Nature Preserves dedication by virtue of being a prime example of a wet floodplain forest along the DesPlaines River, as well as for how exceptionally well-stewarded it is. Fire scars on tree stumps are evidence of controlled burns, which help keep the forest clear of invasives, allowing woodland wildflowers — aptly known as spring ephemerals for their fleeting appearance — to thrive.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

To stroll for hours through such beauty. What a gift. Thanks George Fell, for establishing the Illinois Nature Preserves System. Thanks Edward L. Ryerson for  buying the land from “the grandson-in-law of the first permanent settler in Lake County…and I would like it to remain the way it was when the Indians lived there before he came in 1834,” and for sparking the establishment of the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which now owns and manages the site. And to all those who have had a hand in the protection and stewardship of this historic, cultural and biological gem.

Cowles Bog

Cowles Bog is not an Illinois Nature Preserve. Neither was The Nature Conservancy involved in its protection. Nonetheless, this National Natural Landmark provides a direct connection to George Fell.

Cowles Bog is a 205-acre area within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Historically, it was part of a much larger wetland complex known as the Great Marsh, which in turn was part of an even larger complex of dune and swale habitat unique to the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Like the rest of the Great Marsh, Cowles Bog is more accurately described as a wetland complex, comprised of conifer swamp, wet prairie, fen, sedge meadow, marsh, and, yes, bog. This morning, it is ablaze with marsh marigolds, accompanied by the clarion call of sandhill cranes, among the oldest bird species on earth.

Cowles Bog apparently derived its name courtesy of a student of Henry Chandler Cowles. Famous for his field trip excursions, Cowles taught at the University of Chicago for more than 35 years. A pioneer in advancing the field of ecology as an accepted discipline within the natural sciences, he was particularly enamored of the Indiana dunes, a living laboratory for discerning how ecological communities change and evolve over time.

Among Cowles’ students was Victor Ernest Shelford, who, under Cowles’ influence, evolved from a classical zoologist into an animal ecologist. Rather than studying animals independent of their environments, he significantly advanced the understanding of plants and animals being dynamically and inextricably linked as a single community (or biome, to use the technical term.)

Shelford, who spent his entire teaching career at the University of Illinois, stood out from his peers for being activist-minded. Unlike most academics of his time, he was adamant about using scientific knowledge to actually protect natural lands. Accordingly, he founded the Ecological Society of America to do just that. But when his fellow academics grew uneasy with Shelford’s activist agenda, he used his own money to start up a splinter group, the Ecologists’ Union.

George Fell took only one course under Shelford, and apparently didn’t like his professor much. At least at first. Years later, Fell would be elected to the board of the Ecologists’ Union and become the driving force in transforming it into The Nature Conservancy.

The start-up years of TNC were — to put it politely —  dynamic. Big, competing ideas among super smart, exceptionally strong-willed individuals. (Shameless plug alert: I chronicle the necessary sausage making in detail in Force of Nature.)

But when I stroll through Cowles Bog, I think not of the many battles George fought in starting up TNC, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and, in sum, the entire Natural Areas Movement. Rather, I marvel just how interconnected everything is. The many people — yesterday, today and tomorrow — who protect such places as Cowles Bog. And the many different kinds of plants and animals that make such places such as Cowles Bog one of sheer beauty, awe and inspiration.

 

Wolf Road Prairie

Illinois Nature Preserve #15, baby. Well on my way toward the goal of 50 for the year.

At this time of year, a tallgrass prairie may appear a little less than inviting. I imagine that most folks speeding along Wolf Road in suburban Westchester perceive nothing but what appears to be a big patch of weeds waiting to be turned into a housing development, a business park, a commercial strip mall.

Perhaps some might notice the handsome, historic farm house at the north end of the site. For those curious enough to stop to check it out, what they’ll discover that is that the farmhouse is considered to be the oldest remaining structure in Westchester. Moved to its current location in 1980, it was built in the 1850s, when the Prairie State was being transformed to the Corn and Soy Bean State.

Beyond the house, visitors will discover that what looks like dead weeds in early April will soon burst forth into a lush tapestry of tallgrass prairie, with over 360 plant species. At 80 acres, it is one of the largest unplowed prairie remnants remaining in the entire Chicago region, and the best quality black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Oh, and they’ll discover one other thing, too: thanks to George Fell it will never be developed for anything other than what it is by virtue of most of it being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Admittedly a little drab in advance of the official start of spring, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve nonetheless affords wonders for those who know were and when to look.

Through the husks of last year’s towering flower stalks, one will notice a burned area — evidence of the recent controlled use of fire, emulating one of the prime natural forces that historically helped keep the prairie environment free of trees and shrubs, and which today keeps it free of invasive plants both native and non-native.

In the midst of the burned area is a small seasonal wetland — a magnet for the red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teals and great blue herons that we saw today. The wetland is an attractive nesting site for Canada geese, as well. Already, this expectant mother is perched upon her nest as regally as any queen.

But why Susan and I have come to this place, this day, at this time, is to see the skydances of American woodcocks. Save the Prairie Society hosts woodcock viewing events two weekends each year. It’s a friendly affair, with folks arriving around 7 p.m. They gather on the porch of the farmhouse, munching on homemade treats and sipping hot cider to take the edge off the early evening chill.

Those who have seen woodcocks before help the first-timers know what to look for. Someone takes out their cell phone and calls up a youtube video of a peenting woodcock to help attune new ears what to listen for, before the birds — the males, that is, the females, like us, are there to watch — launch themselves skyward with a fluty, flittering sound. Up and up they go, until, having impressed prospective mates, they tumble back to earth with a softer, plaintive tune.

At 7:25, the official time of sunset this day, all chatter stops. Eyes and ears are fixed on the surrounding area. At 7:40, we hear the first peent. And then another. And another. There are clearly several male woodcocks warming up.

A few minutes later, someone hears the fluty-flitter. All eyes search the darkening sky. No one sees a thing.

Another fluty-flitter. Someone points. There! Sure enough, there it is, indeed. A small, dark dot, rising higher, higher, higher, until out of sight.

More fluty-flitters. But they’re hard to see due to the fading light. Our leader saw four. I saw three. Everyone saw at least one.

Perhaps for many, perhaps for most, hanging out on a chill evening for the chance to listen for faint bird calls over the roar of traffic, to spy a tiny dot in the gloaming might not be at the top of their list of things to do. But for the dozen of us gathered, we are in seventh heaven. For a few moments, we are witnesses to an ancient rite. Eons in its evolution to ensure the perpetuation of a species. Strange and wonderful in the joy it affords those of us who take the time to notice.

And because of a guy named George Fell who fought to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves system, the skydances of woodcocks may continue at Wolf Road Prairie for eons to come. And we may enjoy the many species that rely upon Wolf Road Prairie — and the 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves scattered throughout the state — for generations to come.

Upper Embarras Woods

Spring beauties are for everyone to enjoy: they occur in every county in Illinois

This past week, Susan and I didn’t find any pasque flowers at Harlem Hills Nature Preserve. Eager to get a jump on spring, we took advantage of our downstate trip to seek out some woodland ephemerals. We were not disappointed.  The forest floor of Upper Embarras Woods — our 14th dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve of the year — is carpeted with spring beauties.

There is but one dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Douglas County and it is a gem. The Upper Embarras (pronounced em-bragh) Woods is a 65-acre inholding within Walnut Point State Park. It lies immediately adjacent to a stretch of the Embarras River, itself designated by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory as a biologically significant stream for its outstanding diversity of habitat features, including gravel bars, gravel-sand raceways, sandbars, riffles, and deep pools.

The nature preserve encompasses old growth forest of giant white oaks and hickories. These elders provide perfect habitat for a host of woodland birds, including red-bellied, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers–all three of which we relished today, along with oodles of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, brown creepers and white-sided nuthatches,

This time of year, in many wooded areas, you are likely to see only a patch or two of woodland wildflowers, mostly due to a lack of management. Too many of our protected natural areas are overrun with non-native invasives, including buckthorn and honeysuckle. These shrubby invasives quickly spread and crowd out native plant species, which is bad for the health of our woodlands and, well, pretty crappy for those of us who seek them out for their sheer beauty.

The periodic use of fire keeps the nature preserve relatively free of honeysuckle and other invasives

At Upper Embarras Woods, the spring beauties were everywhere, indicative that the nature preserve portion of the park is well managed. Fire scars on the trees indicate regular controlled burns, which emulate the natural wildfires that used to keep the woodland understory relatively open — necessary for a healthy mix of spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and other woodland wildflowers, as well as for seedling oaks and hickories.

Notice the difference? That shrubby wall of green is highly invasive honeysuckle

By way of comparison, just on the other side of the path — across from the nature preserve — there are virtually no spring beauties. Why? Well, at first blush all those bushes might look nice and green. But they are honesuckle bushes. They are the first to leaf out, which robs wildflowers and tree seedlings of the light and nutrients they need to survive.

White-tailed deer are native to Illinois, but sometimes they, too, need to be controlled least they eat and destroy our woodland wildflowers

Sufficiently managing all of our protected natural areas — including dedicated nature preserves — remains a big challenge. Budgets are tight. Resources are scarce. But an early spring walk along the path that separates Upper Embarras Woods Nature Preserve from the rest of Walnut Point State Park reminds us why we need to find a way — on one side, an abundance of health and beauty, on the other side…well, there remains much more work to be done.

Another spring beauty alongside the namesake river of the Upper Embarras Nature Preserve