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.

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