Tract 104 at Midewin. Once again, looks can be deceiving. To most people, this field might seem nothing but a cow pasture. OK, it is a cow pasture. But it’s also a haven for some of the most imperiled birds on the planet.
Until such time as Midewin’s 20,000 acres can be restored to native prairie, cattle sort of play the historic role of bison. They graze a fair portion of the site – including Tract 104 – which keeps weeds at bay and helps maintain the kind of vegetative structure that grassland birds require for their very survival.
Today, at 7:45 a.m., under a bright, clear sky, the air is filled with flashes of color and a true symphony of bird song. Their yellow breasts ablaze in the early slant of light, eastern meadowlarks are the first violins – their clear-voiced calls providing the main melody.
Keeping time are the dickcissels – for all the world looking like meadowlark mini-me’s – with their two-tone “one-two-three, one-two-three” calls.
Playing second fiddle in both color and song are grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows, their drab plumage reflective of their understated insect-like buzzes (grasshopper sparrows) and sybillant “tsi-licks” (Henslow’s.)
Upland sandpipers – an Illinois state-endangered species – add a bit of humorous counterpoint with their wolf-call whistles.
Red-winged blackbirds seem to me better suited to a marching band than a symphony with their scarlet epaulets and brash, ratchety solos. But they’re present in large numbers.
Killdeers – more of a shorebird, but frequently present in wet prairies – cry like piping piccolos when flushed from the grasses.
Perhaps the most appropriately dressed bird for the natural symphony is the bobolink, which has been described as “wearing a tuxedo backwards.” It’s song, however, is the most difficult to describe. I’ve heard it likened to the charming chatter of the Star Wars droid R2D2. For my money, Thoreau was closer with “It is as if he touched his harp with a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the strings…away he launches, and the meadow is all bespattered with melody.”
Statewide, the population of bobolinks has declined by 95 percent. At Midewin this morning, they are by far the most numerous among all the grassland birds present. During my two and a half hour circuit, I count 137. And 51 red-winged blackbirds, 39 eastern meadowlarks, 28 grasshopper sparrows, 10 dickcissels, four Henslow’s sparrows, one state-endangered upland sandpiper, and scores of dozens of other species.
That’s my volunteer job for the day. To count birds. There’s still a long way to go to return 20,000 acres to native habitat. But if this morning’s songbird symphony is any indication – and it is – even now Midewin may be the most vital cow pasture, er, grassland bird sanctuary, in the state.