A Mists of Avalon morning at Midewin. Cool. Overcast. The horizon veiled in haze. Magic. Otherworldly. All the more so for the breathtaking number of some of the most imperiled birds on the planet.
Among bird nerds (a term of deep affection) it is well known that population declines among grassland birds – those species that originally inhabited prairie but also adapted to certain kinds of farm fields – have been “steeper, more consistent, and more geographically widespread than declines in any other ecological or behavioral grouping of birds.”
“In Illinois…during the 25-year period ending in 1984, grassland songbirds declined by 75 – 95%”. Since then, species by species, population declines have continued at alarming rates for bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, eastern meadowlarks, Henslow’s sparrow, savannah sparrows and dickcissels.
The main culprit? Loss of habitat.
The solution? In part, places like Midewin. Even before it is fully restored as mostly tallgrass prairie, it is large enough and managed in such a way as to provide healthy habitat for the full suite of grassland birds.
As a Midewin volunteer, I regularly monitor grassland birds in a cow pasture romantically named “Tract 104.” But what it lacks in poetry and actual prairie grasses (until such time as it, too, is restored to its native condition) Tract 104 more than makes up for in grassland birds.
Take meadowlarks, for instance. Forty years ago there used to be 24 million of these prairie songsters. Today, there are only seven million. A decline of 72 percent. At Midewin, they are so common that they are the featured creature in the Midewin logo. Today, I count 37, their song one of the most recognizable sounds to fill the misty and mystical air. Watch Lang Elliott’s “Eastern Meadowlark Portrait” and see what poetry meadowlark song inspires in you.
Rivaling meadowlarks for beauty of song are bobolinks. Emily Dickinson referred to them as “the rowdy in the meadow.” Out-rhapsodizing the Belle of Amherst, Henry David Thoreau had this to say about bobolinks: “This flashing, tinkling meteor bursts through the expectant meadow air, leaving a train of tinkling notes behind.”
This morning, I count 73 bobolinks. Beyond Midewin, if there are any bobolinks to count at all, you might see one or two. Maybe half a dozen. Here, in truth, their true numbers are beyond my counting. The males are flashy, fluttering and singing away in full view. But the females typically lie quiet and hidden in the grasses. Then, too, there are so many other birds singing, chirping, buzzing, flashing by, flushing, bursting out of the grasses like tiny fireworks. It can be like trying to count snowflakes before they hit the ground.
Like the mythical Avalon, the very real Midewin is a place of healing and recovery. This is a place where many people pitch in – restoring and monitoring – to help reverse the population declines of some of the most beautiful, tuneful and delightful creatures the world affords us.