Afterburn

Since the publication of Force of Nature in April 2017, I’ve set out to visit all 400+ Illinois Nature Preserves. As of today, my count stands at 90. Not bad. But after a quick start, I can see that this is more of a life-long quest rather than a hurry-up-and-get-‘er-done kind of thing.

Miracle of miracles, one of our highest quality Illinois Nature Preserves exists in the heart of the intensively-industrialized Calumet region.

In the meantime, to satisfy my Nature Preserve itch, there are several that I revisit from time to time. This year, I’ve decided to visit Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie as often as I can, to observe the changes throughout the season.

I picked this preserve for a few reasons. It’s the only state-dedicated Nature Preserves within the Chicago city limits, which makes it close to home — less than a 15-minute drive. Secondly, it harbors one of the largest concentrations of threatened and endangered species in Illinois. Finally, and most importantly, the Forest Preserves of Cook County has been doing an amazing amount of restoration at the site. Which. Is. Awesome. Over the winter, they cleared a massive number of trees. I know, I know, to some it can seem counter-intuitive if not crazy to cut down trees in a nature preserve. But the trees that were removed are those that grew up for lack of adequate management in past years.

Clearing out dense, unhealthy stands of trees is a big step toward returning the site to open marsh and prairie — the reasons the site was dedicated as a Nature Preserve.

Early this spring, FPCC conducted a prescribed burn. This, too, is a common restoration technique, which keeps both native and non-native plant species from invading habitat. It also returns nutrients to the soil and clears dead plant material so certain native plants have a better chance to flourish.

Prairies, savannas and even marshes are fire-dependent communities. They require periodic burns — historically sparked by lightning — to maintain their health, their rich mix of plants and animals. Without fire, they become choked with a handful invasive species, providing poor habitat for birds and other critters.

Immediately following a burn, the scorched earth does in fact make the preserve look a little grim. But a few weeks later, BAM. BOOM. WOW. Powderhorn is bursting with color. On the ground. In the air, the trees, the water. Enjoy. Better yet, come visit yourself. It’s a glorious time of year to visit YOUR Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie.

Among my favorite spring wildflowers, both for its beauty and its name, which sounds like something Bugs Bunny would call Elmer Fudd: Hoary Puccoon!
Wild geraniums are one of several showy wildflowers that thrive when invasives are cleared from the marshy areas.
Each spring, Baltimore orioles become acrobats, harvesting nutritious insects from the emerging leaves and flowers of black oak trees — the signature species of black oak savannas.
I know, it’s only a butt shot. But it’s a SCARLET TANAGER! And a pretty nice butt, to boot.
One of the resident osprey takes a break from sitting on its nest — pretty soon there will be young ones to feed and fledge.
Uncommonly beautiful egrets are quite common at Powderhorn — feeding in the marsh, soaring overhead. Thrilling.
Starry false Solomon’s seal thrives following a burn.
This Nashville warbler has plenty to sing about — it is but one of many seasons that need places like Powderhorn to rest and feed on their long, semi-annual migrations between Central America and Canada. Thanks for stopping by. Look forward to see you on your return trip in the fall!

4 thoughts on “Afterburn”

  1. Powderhorn is a beautiful wetland and savanna with many species that are characteristic of the ‘swells and swales’ of the Calumet area (as well as a good ‘fishing hole’). Thanks for promoting Chicago’s only Illinois Nature Preserve.

    1. You’re welcome, Dennis. The fact is, I see a lot more folks out there fishing than I do hiking the nature trails. But that’s among the things I love about our county forest preserves — they’re big and diverse enough to offer different kinds of outdoor recreational opportunities. Outdoors is good.

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