Beauties and Mysteries

110503 trailhead sign

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie isn’t just about nature. Its 20,000 acres lie at the crossroads of many different stories. Setting off from Explosives Road trailhead speaks directly to the site’s former life as the largest and most sophisticated munitions plant in the country. Within a quarter mile south along the Newton Loop Trail, you come upon one of several cemeteries that remain from pioneer settler days.

110503 newton cemetery 2

Newton Cemetery is named for the one body buried there. Or maybe not. A local paper announced that George C. Newton died at the age of 31 on December 17, 1865. Originally from Vermont, he was a beekeeper who lived with his mother and stepfather on a farmstead in the vicinity.  Whether he was actually buried there, or whether his family erected a marker as a memorial remains unknown.

hairy woodpecker

No doubt Mr. Newton once walked this land as I do, today. Perhaps while tending his bees on just such a spring day – the perfect balance between cool air and warm sunshine – he, too, took time to delight in a hairy woodpecker chasing after a house wren that seems bent on annoying the larger bird with a non-stop spate of scolding churrs.

house wren

blue grosbeak 1

However, in all likelihood Mr. Newton would not have seen a blue grosbeak. This robin-sized bird with silver beak, cobalt body and chestnut wingbars – flitting back and forth between weedy shrubs and arsenal-era barbed wire fencing – is a rarity at Midewin even today. It has been gradually expanding its range into northern Illinois only since the early 20th century. No one’s sure exactly why. Perhaps because of climate change. Perhaps because of its ability to adapt to former farmland gone shrubby or powerline cuts through wooded areas. It’s as much as mystery as what brought Mr. Newton to such an untimely end.

Later in the evening, at the annual meeting for bird monitors, Ecologist Bill Glass explains that while the management plan for Midewin calls for thousands of acres of land to be restored as prairie, at 20,000 acres Midewin is large enough to leave plenty of shrubland habitat. The prairie restoration is vital, of course, for grassland birds, which, as a group, has declined over the past 30 years by up to 95 percent in Illinois due to habitat loss. However, shrubland birds – such as blue grosbeaks – are likewise imperiled because of a lack of adequate places to feed, rest and rear their young.

crescent moon

After the meeting, I head back out into the prairie, into the night, turning my attention from bird monitoring to frog monitoring. Last time I was out, every pond and puddle seemed to harbor its own Mormon Tabernacle Choir of chorus frogs. Tonight there’s not much more than a few scattered calls here and there.

At Buttonbush Pond, in fact, there’s no frog song at all. But there is the slap of a beaver tail on the water that sounds like a pistol shot. And the calming hoot of a great horned owl. And the thinnest crescent of a new moon reflected in the still water of the pond.

In past entries, I’ve quoted poets ranging from Gerard Manley Hopkins to my good friend Jim Ballowe. But this evening, with thoughts of Mr. Newton and the beauties and mysteries of the day in mind, my internal playlist tracks to a little Neil Diamond:

And each one there
Has one thing to share
They all sweated beneath the same sun
Looked up in wonder at the same moon
And wept when it was all done
For bein’ done too soon
For bein’ done

Sky Dance

110304 woodcock

Not two weeks ago I came across a dead woodcock in a downtown flower planter. The victim of a collision with a skyscraper. The dead bird, for me, was a double sadness because I had never seen a live one.

Today, hiking into South Patrol Road Prairie, I expect to see lots of ducks. I am not disappointed. Countless mallards accented by a few northern shovelers and blue-winged teals. I expect to see a few more meadowlarks and harriers, some tree sparrows and killdeers. Check. Less expected are the scores of common snipe and a lesser yellow legs that lands with a piping whistle not ten feet from me.

 

woodcock 4

Totally unexpected is the chunky, long-billed bird I flush from some short grasses. An American woodcock. As with common snipe, woodcocks afford you a few seconds at most to identify them before disappearing back into the grasses or, in this case, a nearby island of woods. But the bird’s plumpness and clearly visible rust colors among the otherwise excellent camouflage strongly indicate woodcock.

To be sure, I return to the site at dusk. Normally, Midewin is closed at dusk. But as this is my first calling frog monitoring night of the season, I am permitted by the Forest Service to be on site in a particular area after dark. The place where I saw the woodcock is near to where I monitor frogs. And so, in the fading light, I stand at the edge of the island woodland, staring out over the adjacent grassland.

And then I hear it. Peent. Peent. At first, it sounds to me like the buzzy flight call of a nighthawk. But scanning the skies, I see nothing. Then I realize that the sound – or the many sounds, now – are actually coming from the ground in both the woodland and the grassland.

woodcock 3

And then I see it. The dark silhouette of a chunky bird, fluttering straight up, higher, higher, all the while twittering melodiously away. And when it is nearly out of sight – in spite of the biggest full moon I can remember seeing (tonight, I would learn later, marks a perigee moon; the biggest in almost 20 years) – the bird flutters back to earth. Not like a crippled plane, as Aldo Leopold described. But rather as a large autumn maple leaf.

For a taste of the experience, here’s a video clip, taken from Heller Nature Center: woodcock sky dance. (For those who prefer their woodcocks set to pop music, I’d suggest: you’ve got to move it, move it, mr. woodcock.)

Crippled Planes

Here’s another reason I volunteer at Midewin. Every year, thousands of migrating birds die by crashing into downtown Chicago buildings. I found this American woodcock today in a planter on Michigan Avenue near Randolph.

110304 woodcock

Every spring and fall, thousands of migrating birds collide with downtown buildings, confused by their bright lights; this in spite of a fairly successful Lights Out, Chicago! campaign, by which building owners voluntarily turn out or dim their lights during spring and fall migration season (http://lightsout.audubon.org/lightsout_home.php.)

And there’s also a dedicated band of volunteers who patrol the streets of Chicago pre-dawn to rescue migrating birds that have crashed into buildings over night (http://www.birdmonitors.net/intro.html.)

I applaud these efforts. I’ve even helped rescue wounded birds one spring season. But if our birds are to survive long-term, they need more than triage and minimized dangers. They must have large, healthy habitats in which to rest and feed and rear their young. I’ve yet to see an American woodcock at Midewin, but others have. I look forward to what Aldo Leopold describes as their “sky dance:”

In late April/early May, At daybreak and dusk, the male “flies in low and at once begins…a series of queer throaty peents. Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward 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. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting sound.”

Were he alive and writing today, Leopold certainly would have chosen a different metaphor to describe the descent of a woodcock attempting to impress a mate. Describing anything as tumbling out of the sky like a “crippled plane” in a post-911 world is dicey, even if so many woodcocks and other migrating birds literally do so given the exponential increase in the number and height of skyscrapers over the past 60 years.

Harbingers of Spring

Some days the joy of Midewin lies in a long hike. Other days, it’s all about standing in one place and letting nature come to you.

Today is unseasonably warm, even as the late afternoon fades to evening. Standing alone in the middle of South Patrol Road Prairie, I feel myself at the very center of spring as the skies are filled with birds winging their way toward me. Well, not toward me exactly, but rather to the patchwork of wetland areas strewn throughout the recovered prairie.

canada geese 1

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold observes that “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.” Today, the sky is teeming with wave upon wave of geese. Canada geese. Flying in from all directions in their tell-tale V formations. Trumpeting their arrival as the heralds of spring.

We wander the sky with many a Cronk

And land in the pasture fields with a Plonk

Hank-hank, Hink-hink, Honk, honk.

Then we bend our necks with a curious kink

Like the bend which the plumber puts under the sink.

Honk-honk, Hank-hank, Hink-hink.

And we feed away in a sociable rank

Tearing the grass with a sideways yank,

Hink-hink, Honk-honk, Hank-hank.

But Hink or Honk we relish the Plonk,

And Honk and Hank we relish the rank,

And Hank or Hink we think it a jink

To Honk, or Hank or Hink!

Actually, this sky song belongs to white-fronted geese. At least according to T.H. White in The Book of Merlyn. (You’ll find it in the chapter in which Merlyn changes the ancient and ailing King Arthur, on the eve of his final battle, into a white-fronted goose to learn their peaceful ways.)

white fronted geese

In counterpoint to the tuneful hinks, hanks and honks are the ribald quacks of mallards. In some circles it’s a sin to anthropomorphize nature, but to me their quacks sound like laughter. Spend a little time around a springtime pond littered with ducks and tell me they’re not telling each other jokes that always begin with “two geese waddle into a bar…”

Quack, quack, quack!

mallard

The geese are lovely. The ducks crack me up. But for me the true harbingers of spring are cranes. And earlier than I expected comes the first squadron of the season. Fourteen sandhill cranes. Hovering like Japanese kites. Their wings – more than six feet from tip to tip – like crepe paper. Their chortling calls like toy trumpets.

sandhill crane 1

And in the tall grasses around me, male red-winged blackbirds – arriving before the females to stake out a nesting claim – add their territorial “conk-la-REEE” to the evensong.

red winged blackbird

And is that thumbnail across a comb sound the first chorus frog of the season I hear?

For this. For just this moment is all the effort worth it. The removal of miles of drain tiles, acres of hedgerows, and an elevated rail line. The recountouring of the landscape. Raising seed stock. Harvesting seed. Cleaning it. Planting it. By spreader. By hand. Burning the prairie. Planting more seed. More plugs. Managing for invasives. Expanding into adjacent acreage and repeating the entire process.

Happy Birthday

I turned 51 today. To celebrate, I took advantage of the unseasonable sunshine and 40 degrees temperature to take a day-long hike at Midewin.

110301 signage

Within a half mile of the Iron Bridge Trailhead, you can take in a bit of what Midewin was, is, and yet will be. And the limited palette of early March – before everything starts growing again – affords the opportunity to see such things more clearly; sort of like how certain details are clearer in black and white rather than color photographs.

Within a few steps of starting out, you can peruse the foundations of one of the early farmsteads, most of which were moved or torn down once the land was acquired by the federal government at the start of World War II.

Beyond that lies a bunker field that once harbored armaments during the Joliet arsenal years.

110301 prairie pasture view

Heading west, the trail – itself a raised railbed relict from the arsenal years – forms a dividing line between pasture and prairie. To the north is one of the more recent prairie restoration efforts – Iron Bridge Prairie. Even dormant, its restored wildness stands in stark contrast to the shorn non-native grasses of the south side pasture lands; lands that one day will be likewise filled with prairie grasses and flowers.

The trail soon thereafter leads to the namesake iron bridge, which spans historic Route 66.

I am welcomed to the west side of Midewin by a half dozen eastern bluebirds – the first I’ve seen this year. And twice as many goldfinches, the males inching toward their lemon yellow breeding colors.

The trail next winds through a large expanse of harvested hay field. Like the pasture land south of the Iron Bridge Prairie, it is managed for agricultural purposes on an interim basis, until such time as the resources are available to recover the native landscape. Until then, the hayfields and cattle pastures provide critical habitat for grassland birds. Today, there’s not a meadowlark, dickcissel or grasshopper sparrow in sight. But, even now, they are on their way from wintering grounds as far away as the rainforests of Brazil.

The trail leads past several former farm fields that now lie fallow. They provide a reminder that “letting nature take its course” inevitably leads not to healthy habitat, but rather to tangled thickets of aggressive non-native species.

110301 brush hog

A few miles into my hike, I come across a work crew tackling some of those thickets. Along with lots of other volunteers, I’ve certainly cut my fair share of brush. But for big jobs – clearing out large sections of woody growth – only big equipment run by professionals will do.

But there are some jobs that must be done by hand. Largely by volunteers. And such work and such a volunteer I find just a little further down the trail. In her second year as trail steward, Margaret spends at least once a week at her site. Today, she’s pulling garlic mustard, a pernicious non-native invasive that can quickly overrun woodland areas, choking out all other native wildflower species.

Another mile or so down the trail, I come to South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration site at Midewin. Today, Midewin crews are over-seeding the site with additional prairie seed, including seed that staff and volunteers have collected and cleaned over the past several months.

It’s heartening to see all this hard work happening today. Next Thursday, I’ll be out here for a volunteer day of brush cutting. But today, I’m content merely to saunter (derived from the 15th century French word santren, “to muse, be in reverie;” to count the returning birds; to find a dry patch of thatch and take to heart Walt Whitman’s invitation “to lean and loaf at my ease.”

A Thorny Issue

It’s another cold morning with a sharp wind out of the west. But once you get lopping, you’re plenty warm. Hewing down Osage orange shrubs is rather like tangling with an octopus crossed with a mad cat. Each of several long arms is littered with sharp thorns, whose scratches feel particularly delightful on chapped cheeks. Even more fun are the Osage oranges intertwined with multiflora rose. Double the prickles (the correct, if silly-sounding scientific name for thorns.) Double the fun.

For a change, we’re working on the east side of Midewin today. Since Midewin was established in 1996, most of the restoration work has been concentrated on the west side of Route 53 – the former Route 66 – which divides the 20,000-acre site roughly in half. Over the years, I’ve spent many an hour cutting brush, pulling garlic mustard, planting seedlings, even damming up a troublesome culvert in the six west side restoration areas: South Patrol Road Prairie, Drummond Prairie, Blodgett Road Prairie, Grant Creek and Little Grant Creek Prairies, Prairie Creek Woods, and a prairie area located directly opposite of Midewin’s welcome center.

On the east side, there are only three restoration areas: Doyle Lake and Iron Bridge Prairies and a small patch around the welcome sign. All told, across both the east and west sides, there are about 2,000 acres under active restoration. That leaves about 18,000 acres – or 90 percent of Midewin – awaiting restoration. But that doesn’t mean that the land lies fallow or unmanaged.

Today, for instance, we’re cutting brush along an abandoned rail line in the middle of a cow pasture. At least that’s the way it might look to some. Actually, what we’re doing is more accurately described as helping to protect some of the most endangered birds in the world.

midewin logo

As farmers plowed the vast Illinois prairie into one big farm, many grassland birds adapted to life in soy bean fields and hay pastures. But as farm fields have given way to more and more subdivisions and shopping malls, many species of grassland birds have found themselves on the threatened and endangered list. The eastern meadowlark, for instance, a common grassland bird that graces the logo of Midewin, has declined by 72 percent over the past 40 years. As a New York Times editorial pointed out, “this is not extinction, but it is how things look before extinction happens.”

Until such time as more of Midewin can be reclaimed as prairie, modern-day cattle play the historic role of bison, keeping the land free of weedy vegetation. Keeping volunteers and staff on lopper patrol along former arsenal-era rail lines helps keep invasive trees and shrubs at bay, allowing for the wide open habitat that grassland birds require. (Trees and shrubs tend to harbor predators that prey upon grassland bird nests, which are on the ground.)

meadowlarkSo, yes, it’s cold, hard work. And I’m sure to be picking some imbedded prickle tips out of my legs when I get home. But it’s worth it. Beyond my modest membership contributions to conservation organizations, I can’t directly save the rainforests where birds spend the winter, or protect critical “layover” habitat along the thousands of miles of their migration routes. But what I can do is spend an occasional winter morning cutting brush to ensure that critically-imperiled grassland birds have a home here. To feed. To breed. To raise their young. And to return after year to fill our skies with song.

Tracking Leopold

After a morning of seed cleaning followed by a quick lunch in nearby Wilmington, it’s treat time. Since my last walk at South Patrol Road Prairie, there have been a few inches of fresh snowfall. This affords me the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold. In “January Thaw,” the first sketch in A Sand County Almanac – the bible, for many preservationists – he describes the joy of following the tracks of various animals in the snow. “January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”

And cold it certainly is today, with temperatures in the upper teens and a sharp wind out of the west. The thick skies threaten more snow. The upside of such harsh weather is that there is not another human being to be seen. Not so much, even, as a booted footprint other than my own.

110207 hedgerow 2

There are plenty of other signs of life, however, along a work road that leads into the heart of the largest restoration are at Midewin. Wide enough to accommodate the heavy equipment that’s lately been used to remove more miles of hedgerows, the snow-covered road lies before me like a book. Criss-crossing the road are mounded, sub-snow tunnels of prairie voles. In healthy environments, there may be as many as several hundred voles per acre. Judging by the number of tunnels, or “runways” as ecologists call them, this prairie restoration looks to be well on its way toward a healthy condition – not a bad accomplishment considering it was fallow farm field a decade ago. Since then, the USDA Forest Service, working in partnership with a number of nonprofit partners including The Wetlands Initiative and Corlands, has spent several years removing miles of drainage tiles, filled drainage ditches, leveled a railroad berm and recontoured a landscape that had been in agricultural production for generations. More than 100,000 prairie “plugs” have been planted, including wild onion which I helped plant by hand last year.

The ensuing patchwork quilt of prairie and wetland communities has provided a good home for our native voles. And our native mice, judging by the similar number of tracks upon the surface of the snow. And while they might be the bane of farmers and homeowners – Google “vole” and most of the front-loaded entries have to do with exterminating them – these native critters are a vital part of the prairie food chain, evidenced by a set of coyote prints. In sharp contrast to the random windings of the vole runways and mice tracks, the coyote prints run in a measured, straight line until they erupt in a concentrated flurry. Over the course of a mile, I come across a dozen such skirmish sites, which makes the road seem more like a buffet line.

northern harrier

And coyotes aren’t the only ones partaking of this mid-winter smorgasbord. Here and there are little splashes of dirt and snow, evidence of some hawk, or what Leopold called “feathered bombs,” dropping out of the sky for a meal. There are several species of hawks that remain year-round at Midewin, but the likely culprits in this treeless, 450-acre expanse are northern harriers. Unlike red-tailed hawks, which typically hunt from the perimeters of such open areas – they prefer elevated perches, such as trees, from which to swoop down and seize prey – northern harriers hunt by gliding slowly above open grasslands. They fly low, relying as much upon sound as sight.

And what a sight they are today, with nearly a dozen on the hunt – more than I’ve seen anywhere else. Another strong indication that this prairie recovery is working. Northern harriers are endangered in Illinois, a victim first of disappearing prairie and wetlands, and more recently of open farm fields giving way to suburban housing developments.

A little further down the path lies what’s left of one of those hedgerows that had to go so that harriers and other grassland-dependent birds could return. Where just a couple of months ago there was an impenetrable tangle of Osage orange trees, Japanese honeysuckle and multi-flora rose – non-native species all – there now remains nothing but a small mountain of mulch. Oh, and a couple dozen stacked trunks of cottonwood trees. The cut trees provide the opportunity to inhabit yet another sketch in A Sand County Almanac. It’s not yet February, I’m not here to saw the trees into firewood, and cottonwood is certainly not “Good Oak,” but I can count tree rings. I can surmise, as did Leopold with his fallen oak, how these cottonwoods came to grow here and use the tree rings as a timeline to chart the changes to the landscape over their lifetimes.

In truth, it’s tough to count tree rings in the soft wood of cottonwood trees, the saw blades having left obscuring scars. But as far as I can tell, most are roughly the same diameter and the most readable examples average 66 rings. That dates them to 1945, five years after the federal government acquired 36,345 acres of farmland to establish the Elwood Ordnance Plant and the Kankakee Ordnance Works, which came to be known collectively as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.

The cottonwoods in this hedgerow were likely “volunteers,” with the purposefully planted Osage orange providing a suitable nursery to catch wind-blown seed and harbor seedlings. Before the army took over, farmers likely would have kept the cottonwoods at bay so they didn’t shade or divert water from cropland. During the arsenal years, the army likely let the hedgerows run wild, with adjacent land largely used for the pasturing of cattle, which would have benefited from the shade of tall trees.

As much as I’d love to take an historical sleuthing through all of the tree rings as Leopold did, that biting wind and the start of a stinging snow makes me think better of it. For now.