Book Review: Saving American Birds

lady bird hatIt’s hard to imagine, but not that long ago many native bird species nearly became extinct for one, primary reason – ladies liked to wear feathers on their hats. And not just feathers. Some of the fancier hats were adorned with wings, heads and entire bird bodies.

Saving American Birds – T. Gilbert Pearson and the Founding of the Audubon Movement chronicles the life of T. Gilbert Pearson (no relation) and his leadership in the Audubon movement, which, among other things, helped end the slaughter of birds for fashion. By some estimates, at least five millions birds were killed annually to fuel what was known as the plume trade.

t gilbert pearson

Pearson was born in 1873 in Tuscola, Illinois, but spent most of his youth in a small town near Gainesville, Florida. Like many naturalists, he preferred the outdoors to a school room. He often ditched class to hunt for birds. He taught himself taxidermy and how to preserve the many eggs he collected. When, at the age of 18, he decided he needed a better education to advance his interests in ornithology, he traded his “museum” – including the “largest scientific collection of bird-eggs in the South” – in exchange for two years’ tuition, room and board at Guilford College near Greensboro, NC.

Like John James Audubon, Pearson first learned about birds by shooting them. It didn’t take long, however, for him to turn from hunter to protector:

“On a visit to a small swamp…he found a heron colony that plume hunters had raided a day or two earlier. Here and there around their still-smoldering campfire lay dead herons, their backs raw and bloody where plumes had been torn away. Starving baby birds called from their nests for food. Larger young birds perched uncertainly on limbs. Now and then one of them, too weak to hold on any longer, fell to the earth with a thud. All the young were dying. Under tall grass was the body of an adult that had hidden after being shot. Before dying, it had beaten the ground smooth with its wings, trying to rise. In later years, whenever Pearson wanted to dramatize the cruelties of plume hunting, he drew upon [such] memories.”

saving birds cover

The book, by Oliver H. Orr, Jr., does not delve deeply into Pearson the man, but as the subtitle indicates it does use Pearson as a means to chart the early years of the Audubon movement – from the initial national organization founded in 1886, through its dissolution, followed by the rise of individual societies, which in 1905, organized as the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (today, simply, Audubon.) Pearson played a critical role in writing model legislation, passed by many states, which gave the Audubon Society the authority to hire wardens to enforce bird protection laws. In some instances, enforcement came at great cost. Protecting nesting plume birds in the Florida Keys, warden Guy Bradley was murdered; his assailants, who admitted to killing egrets illegally, were never charged.

Fortunately, that kind of violence against both people (at least in regard to enforcing wildlife protection laws) and birds has largely gone the way of bird hats. But birds continue to face yet other threats, namely from the loss of habitat.

That’s a big part of the reason why I volunteer at Midewin. At nearly 20,000 acres, Midewin is big enough to support large numbers of a diverse array of birds; providing them a safe place to feed, rest and raise their young.

120630 heron rookery

And even though most of Midewin has yet to be restored to its natural state, overall it is managed in such a way that birds are returning in encouraging numbers. Already there is a growing heron colony near the site of a massive accidental explosion during Midewin’s former arsenal days.

120623 grasshopper sparrow

And every spring, I monitor a Midewin tract that is a magnet for so many different kinds of grassland birds that it’s virtually impossible to count them all.

A century ago, T. Gilbert Pearson acknowledged that “the stage has been reached in the evolutionary process at which birds must depend for their very existence upon the favors of the coming generations.” At Midewin, it’s great to be a part of that effort.

120623 boblink
Of the male bobolink’s song, Thoreau wrote, “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.”


Blasts from the Past, Nests for the Future

Nearly 60 years ago to the day, an explosion at the Elwood Ordnance Plant killed 48 people. The force of the blast was so great that only 32 bodies were recovered. Today, a group of birders young and old enjoyed a close-up look at a heron rookery that lies within the shadow of the blast site.

120630 arsenal building

There’s much of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie that is open to the public to explore at will. There remain, however, certain areas that are accessible only on guided tours. Today’s tour of a heron rookery takes us into one of the restricted areas. Our first stop was near an old arsenal-era power plant. While our bird guides – John Baxter and Lee Witkowski – searched for rare loggerhead shrikes in Osage orange trees that grew along an old arsenal-era road, I heard green frogs calling from a flooded stairwell in one of the arsenal’s several power plants.

120630 green frog

Our caravan continued deep into the west side of the former Joliet Arsenal, where many structures from the old Joliet arsenal still remain. Among those buildings is the re-built Building 10, Group II, “where anti-tank mines and anti-tank mine fuses were packed into shipping crates and then loaded onto railcars.”

120630 building II

As I wrote in the current issue of Illinois Heritage, “On June 5, 1942, at 2:45 a.m., an explosion destroyed this building and three train cars. The force of the blast was so great – each mine had an explosive weight of 62,600 pounds of TNT – that only 32 of the 48 bodies were recovered, with 16 officially declared as ‘missing.’ The blast injured another 64 persons. Windows shattered 22 miles away in Kankakee and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that residents of Chicago – located about 60 miles way – thought there had been an earthquake. Espionage was ruled out, but the precise cause of the blast has never been confirmed.”

120630 arsenal monument

A monument to the fallen workers stands at the entrance to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. But here, where the blast actually happened, a bunch of birders are more intent upon a line of dead trees just up ahead. Atop nearly every tree is a big nest of sticks measuring up to 4 feet across. And in nearly every nest is a fledgling great blue heron. Or two. Or more. The sky is dotted with adult herons foraging for food for their young ones.

120630 heron rookery

And in a nutshell, that’s Midewin today – relicts of the arsenal past side by side with nests full of feathered hope for a future filled with restored nature. And people relishing both.

120630 birders

Mists of Avalon at Midewin

120505 tract 104

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.

120505 tract 104 cattle

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.

midewin logo

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.”

bobolink 1

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.

Woodcock Music

April showers must not have got the memo. Absent for much of “the cruelest month,” they finally decided to make a big show on May 1. But after a day of hard rain, the skies have cleared around dusk. Just in time for woodcock music.

american woodcock

What a miracle a woodcock is. Chunky, bug-eyed and no-necked with a Jimmy Durante-like beak, every spring the males of this species become graceful acrobats of the air. To attract a mate, a male will launch himself “skyward,” to quote Aldo Leopold, “in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.”

120501 ecotone

This evening, I stand at my favorite woodcock theatre – an island of trees and shrubs in South Patrol Road Prairie. Ecologists would call this place an ecotone, “a transition area between two adjacent ecological communities.” Such areas typically teem with “greater species diversity and biological density” than the individual ecological communities. In this particular instance, the forest provides shelter, feeding and nesting habitat for woodcocks. But the adjacent prairie provides the wide open space they need for their elaborate courting rituals.

Along with what I can only imagine are a great many female woodcocks – the females are excessively polite audiences and their camouflage makes them virtually undetectable, especially in the fading light – I relish in the warm-up act. While still on the ground, the males emit  “queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart ,“ as Leopold accurately observed, “sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.”

american woodcock in flight

And then, these comically squat birds launch themselves into the air and become poetry. If their twitters and warbles were physical stuff, it would be glitter, bejeweling the twilight sky. That’s the show, folks. Punctuated by a rain-washed breeze, a distant coyote cry, and a chorus of frogs and toads sweetly calling from the resurgent wetlands all around.

aldo leopold hunter

In quoting Leopold about woodcocks, most leave out the part where he talks about hunting them. “No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”

Since learning of the sky dance, it has been my misfortune to encounter woodcocks in death. But not from hunting. Last year, I happened upon a woodcock in a planter in downtown Chicago – victim of a collision with a building.

woodcock downtown planter

woodcock calumet

Earlier this week, while on a bike ride a few blocks from my house, I came across another – victim of a speeding driver for whom the bird was barely a bump in the road.

Like many bird species, populations of woodcocks have been in free fall, largely due to a loss of habitat. A recent woodcock hunter survey in Illinois revealed a sharp decline in this once popular game species. Hunters reported “very few woodcock to hunt” and “no place to hunt.”

woodcock 3This is one of the many reasons I volunteer to help restore Midewin. In a state in which less than one-tenth of one percent of high quality natural habitat remains, Midewin’s 20,000 acres of recovering natural habitat provides what woodcocks and many other species of native plants and animals need to survive. To flourish.

No dearth of sky dancers here.

Winter Refuge

111217 barren farm field

The harvest is in. About 80 percent of all the land in Illinois now lies barren save for corn shock stubble, waste grain and a light dusting of snow. At Midewin, the re-emerging prairie likewise looks lifeless. But a brisk winter walk reveals it teeming with all kinds of critters that find refuge from the vast agricultural desert of the Prairie State.

During the growing season, plenty of pesticides and herbicides ensure that the corn and soybean fields that blanket our state contain few if any other species of plant, animal or insect. During the winter, most conventional ag lands are shorn of their target commodity plants, leaving no shelter and naught but virtual crumbs for food.

111217 sprp

The prairie grasses and flowers of Midewin are, in fact, as dead as the proverbial doornail. At least above ground. Unlike annual corn and soybeans, the deep perennial roots of prairie plants live on and will re-sprout come spring. But even dead, the dry husks provide critical food and habitat for all kinds of mammals, birds and bugs; to see them through the long winter.

111217 coyote tracks

On my usual hike from Iron Bridge Trailhead to Prairie Creek Woods and back, the thin crust of snow reveals that I am not the only one to take this path today. Some time earlier, a coyote loped along in search of voles and white-footed mice; the tracks of all three winter residents in ample evidence, as are the occasional skirmish marks suggesting some bite-sized mammals played their role in sustaining the food chain.

Coyotes aren’t the only ones on the hunt for a warm meal. Several northern harriers, or marsh hawks, patrol South Patrol Road Prairie as diligently as any MP during the former arsenal days. Unlike the several red-tailed hawks soaring high or perched in trees on the lookout for a meal, harriers fly low and slow, just above the grass tops, relying on sight as well as sound to locate their prey and pounce.
american tree sparrow

Here and there, dense stands of prairie grasses harbor flocks of American tree sparrows. How important is good habitat for these birds that breed far to the north near the Arctic Circle? Every day, they need to scavenge native prairie seeds equal to one-third of their body weight or starve, which explains why you seldom hear the musical twitter of their feeding flocks in farm fields.

white crowned sparrow

My bird list for the day also includes white-crowned sparrows, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, American crows, white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, Canada geese, a belted kingfisher and some unknown duck – hidden in the wet areas of the prairie, he revealed himself only by his quacking laughs in response to the knock-knock jokes of downy and hairy woodpeckers.

111217 heron tracks

Most surprising of all was the set of tri-toed tracks along the prairie path – a late-lingering heron in competition with the coyotes and harriers?

And then there are the deer, jumpy for all the hunters in the field intent upon storing up food for their long winter.

Coyotes, harriers and humans. Voles, ducks and deer. All find winter refuge at Midewin. All are a part of the circle of life.

white tail buck

Oh, What a Mi-DAY-win

110910 spider webs

From foggy dawn through full moon dusk, a perfect day at Midewin.

At 6 a.m., the skies above Pullman (where I live) are clear. A half hour later, as I exit I-80 onto historic Route 66 (53 South) toward Midewin, I’m driving through pea soup fog. While the suspended moisture obscures much from view, it brings into high relief literally zillions of spider webs. Midewin looks as if staff has tricked out the entire site for Halloween.

110910 bird app

The fog makes for a challenging start to the scheduled bird tour, the grey haze draining even bluebirds of their telltale color. But as the fog lifts, our identification challenges return to normal: is that a mature northern rough winged swallow or a juvenile tree swallow? Sometimes, even checking the Sibley Guide smart phone app can’t settle the question.

110910 seeds 1

To celebrate this National Day of Service, in the afternoon I join a bunch of fellow volunteers at the River Road Seed Beds. All morning, they planted more seedling plugs. In the afternoon, I help them collect seed. Purple prairie clover. White prairie clover. Cream white indigo. And others. All from plants hand planted by volunteers and staff, grown from seed hand collected by the volunteer-staff team. One day – after hand cleaning by the team – to be hand sown in the growing number of restoration areas throughout Midewin.

As the sun bends toward the treeline of Prairie Creek Woods, it’s time for a saunter though one of those restoration areas. South Patrol Road Prairie. On such a late summer day, it’s hard not to think of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” as a love song for the very land itself.

110910 sprp in gold

110910 bike tour

I’m not the only one enjoying nature’s gold. Connie and Jerry Heinrich – the first couple of Midewin’s volunteer program – are leading one of their popular bike tours along a new path through the prairie.

And long after the bikers are gone, long after the sun has fled and a Brigadoon mist begins to creep back over the prairie, the coyotes cut loose with a chilling banshee cry and a harvest moon rises so big in the sky you could almost reach out and touch it…

Arthur Melville Pearson w/ moon


A Tale of Two Aliens

OK. So I’m a bird snob. I admit it. Aside from the occasional cardinal, mourning dove or goldfinch – or once in a blue moon, some passing-through warbler – the only birds to visit my backyard pond are house sparrows and starlings. The avian equivalents of garlic mustard and buckthorn.

house sparrow with stop sign I admit I harbor deeply unpleasant thoughts about the house sparrow. The first 50 pairs of this Eurasian-originated bird were intentionally released in Brooklyn, NY in 1851. Within two decades, the house sparrow was the most populous bird species in Illinois and many other states. As early as 1891, Illinois put a bounty on the head of this noisy, obnoxious bird for its devouring of livestock feed and decimation of many native bird species. Sadly, it didn’t work.

Even as I write this, a specimen of this Satan species is perched just outside my window, its incessantly repetitive shrieks of a call like having a gym teacher from hell blowing short, sharp whistle bursts directly in your ear every two seconds.

Deeply unpleasant thoughts.

And so I escape as often as I can to Midewin, to bask in the company of birds. Native birds. Midewin is big enough and diverse enough in its habitats – even at this early stage of recovery – to accommodate lots of different kinds of native birds. I’ve seen more than 100 different species so far this year. Many of them at risk because of non-native species, both plants and birds.

Yes, there are non-native birds at Midewin, too. Like starlings, for instance. First released in America in 1890 by some New Yorkers obsessed with introducing all of the bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, this species expanded into Illinois by 1922 and today effectively saturates the entire state.

During spring and fall, you’re likely to find them in great, locust-like swarms.

At Midewin, starlings flock around the cows. Or, more accurately, around the cow pies, feasting on the bugs they attract. ‘Zounds, what would Shakespeare think of that?

While the debate around the issue of native vs. non-native (or exotic or alien) species is a complex and often heated one, for me, the key difference between the two is naturally-introduced vs. introduced by humans. In contrast to house sparrows and European starlings, the cattle egret made it to Midewin all on its own. Native to subtropical Africa and Asia, this species found its evolutionary niche in foraging in the wake of zebras, wildebeests and other large mammals.

With the spread of domesticated cattle herding, the eponymously-named cattle egret greatly expanded its territory on it own. It first made it to North American shores in 1941. Today, this smallest of our “native” egrets, is found at Midewin.

cattle egret 3As widespread as the cattle egret has become, it doesn’t cause crop damage, as do sparrows and starlings. It doesn’t compete with native bird species, such as bluebirds and woodpeckers, leading to their demise. In fact, this morning, while monitoring grassland birds, I enjoy watching an evolutionary symbiotic relationship unfold: a cattle egret nipping insects directly from the hides of the local herd. While starlings pick their vittles out of the poop.

Day of the Dickcissel

midewin sign 2This morning, an hour’s worth of what seems like nothing but bad news of the world has soured my brain. Arriving at Midewin, I switch off the radio. I turn onto Explosives Road and roll down the window. The song of dickcissels fills the air. Heaven. Bliss. Peace. Until I remember that these rare grassland birds are survivors of sometimes mass efforts to poison them in their wintering grounds in Central America. And all the problems of the world seem to come back to roost in my brain.

Midewin is a refuge not only for some of the rarest and most threatened birds in the world. It’s a refuge for me. I like to keep informed about the world. I sign petitions supporting this and protesting that. I volunteer actively in my community. But sometimes, it’s just all too much. In part because I can’t directly do anything about the war in Libya. The war in Afghanistan. In Iraq. The near financial collapse of Greece. Of Portugal. Piracy in Somalia. The head of the IMF caught up on a sleazy sex scandal. China making cyber warfare a priority. Famine. AIDS. Oy.

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However, to recharge my batteries, to have some small direct effect on the world, I can escape to Midewin and clear a small patch of woodland of garlic mustard. Or buckthorn. Collect and clean some native seed. Plant some native plugs in a recovering wet prairie. Or count birds to see how the recovering habitat is helping to reverse drastic population declines among the likes of dickcissels and other grassland birds that would likely disappear from the face of the earth without our help.

I love dickcissels for their namesake “dick, dick, dick, dickcissel” calls, which they make an astounding 5,000 times each day. But even more so for looking like meadowlark Mini Me’s – smaller, but with a similar yellow breast and black bib. They tend to arrive a little later than other grassland birds. Two weeks ago, I counted only 10. Today, I count 35. In truth, there are many more in the 100+ acres I monitor, and many, many more throughout all of Midewin’s 20,000 acres.

dickcissel 3This is good news since the Bird Conservation Network lists dickcissels as a Priority I species, “of high regional importance and also national concern with strong declines and severe threats to breeding.” Their decline is due to a double whammy: disappearing habitat in Illinois and the upper Midwest, and extermination campaigns in their wintering grounds in Venezuela.

An early Illinois ornithologist estimated that dickcissels save Illinois farmers about $56,000 a day (in 2010 dollars) in pesticide costs because of their ferocious feasting on grasshopper nymphs. In Venezuela and Columbia, however, enormous flocks of el pájaro arrocero, or the rice bird, as its known, turn grain eaters and can plague rice and sorghum fields. So much so that many farmers have taken to poisoning them en masse.

dickcissel 2Fortunately, Venezuela Audubon and other groups are working with Central American farmers to help them develop management plans to protect both birds and crops. And here at Midewin, I help to restore the kind of nesting habitat that is rapidly disappearing from our landscape. And one tiny bird reminds us all that our problems and hopes the world over are inextricably connected.

Grassland Symphony

110522 tract 104

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.

cattleUntil 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.meadowlark

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.dickcissel

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.)

henslows sparrow


Upland sandpipers – an Illinois state-endangered species – add a bit of humorous counterpoint with their wolf-call whistles.

red winged blackbird2

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.”

bobolink 3

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.

110528 arthur

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.

A Grace of Egrets

great egretSandhill cranes. Great Egrets. Scarlet tanagers. These are but a few of the many birds I saw today at Midewin; birds that have returned hand in hand with the slow but steady recovery of the prairies, wetlands and woodlands they need to survive.

It seems crazy. But when Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, less than three percent of its 20,000 acres remained in native vegetation. Most of the land had been intensively farmed for more than a century. And much had been further altered during the arsenal years, when countless bombs and more than a million tons of TNT were manufactured on site.

It takes a long time, a lot of careful planning, and plenty of sweat equity to recover the ecological health of land that has been so degraded. Especially on such a massive scale. To date, about 2,500 acres of Midewin are under active restoration. Including Grant Creek.

According to Gary Sullivan, Senior Ecologist for The Wetlands Initiative – a key partner in several restoration efforts at Midewin – the 470 acres of Grant Creek were largely used for pastureland. Even with the installation of drain tiles, the area was less than ideal for rowcrops because water continued to pool on the land and the bedrock limestone, in some areas, was only six inches beneath the surface.

110516 tile removing equipment

110516 drain tiles 2

Earlier this year, TWI, working in concert with the US Forest Service, removed more than a mile of drain tiles along with tree- and shrub-infested hedgerows. Following several applications of herbicide to knock back pernicious weeds such as leafy spurge, the site has been seeded with numerous native species adapted for the mix of wet and dry prairie that research suggests was original to the site.

110516 unloading plants 1

Among the next steps is the hand planting of 68,000 plugs – seedlings of many different native species. Some of those plugs were delivered today by Fromm-Huff Farm, Inc., a downstate supplier that deals exclusively in native plants. Although I  am here to interview TWI staff for an article I’m writing for Outdoor Illinois, I can’t help but roll up my sleeves and help unload nearly 300 flats of plant plugs. In the next couple of weeks, I imagine I’ll be back out here for a volunteer workday to begin hand planting those plugs out in the recovering prairie.

110516 grant creek with foundation stones

Before I leave, I take a long, last look at Grant Creek. At this very early stage of recovery, the site might look to the casual observer little more than a fallow farm field, with the remains of a 19th century school house on the horizon.

110516 golden alexanders

Upon closer inspection, however, one can see sure signs of what’s to come. Golden Alexanders are in bloom.

And native sedges and rushes once again flourish in wet swales graced by a trinity of miraculously white great egrets.

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110516 egrets