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

Invasives at Home

110511 garlic mustard 1

Perhaps it’s only fitting that during Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month I would find one of the most pervasive plants invading our woodlands growing just down the very urban block where I live. Whether the several garlic mustard plants growing in a neighbor’s front yard were purposefully planted, I don’t know. They are pretty and their leaves make for a nice pesto.

But certainly the garlic mustard growing up out of cracks in the sidewalk are volunteers and indicative of just how aggressive this non-native species can be. Each plant can produce up to nearly 8,000 seeds, which, unchecked, will certainly spread to neighboring yards, down railroad corridors and into our local forest preserves.

110511 garlic mustard 2

So far this year, volunteers have helped protect our woodlands by removing 12,206 pounds of garlic mustard from several sites throughout northeastern Illinois, including Bluebell Woods at Midewin. (For updates and more information, go to the Northeast Illinois Invasive Plant Partnership http://www.phcwpma.org/GarlicMustard.cfm.)

Even if my neighbor purposefully planted some garlic mustard, like most people he was probably unaware that such plants are destroying what remains of our native woodlands, wetlands and grasslands.

110511 buckthorn and honeysuckle

Another neighbor boasts fine, manicured specimens of European buckthorn and Japanese honeysuckle. Every time I walk past his house, I can’t help but think of the hours I’ve spent hacking and chopping these highly aggressive non-native shrubs out of grassland bird habitat at Midewin.

110511 honeysuckle

Every October, another neighbor of mine ventures into some of the Calumet wetland areas and harvests armfuls of phragmytes, which overruns wetland areas even more so than garlic mustard does woodlands. He ties up the 10-foot stalks with feathery seed heads into something resembling bundled corn shocks and then displays them in his front yard along with Halloween decorations. At Midewin, this ill-considered import from Asia has escaped from roadside areas and established a toehold in the middle of South Patrol Road Prairie – the oldest and largest restoration area at Midewin.

110511 barberry

Several Pullman neighbors have Japanese barberry bushes in their yards. Although not as aggressive as buckthorn and honeysuckle, they are showing up with increasing frequency in wooded areas at Midewin and elsewhere, courtesy of birds who feast on their berries and leave the seeds behind in their droppings.

Like many of my friends and neighbors in Pullman, I am equally proud of my garden (the subject of a profile in the current issue of Chicagoland Gardening Magazine, by the way.) In line with my love of wild nature, my garden boasts more than 40 different species of native prairie and woodland plants. However, I’ve got a few non-natives growing. Some roses. Clematis. Nothing that is an ecological threat. Or so I thought.

110511 lily of the valleyTurns out Eurasian lilies of the valley are proving a slow but steady threat to forest areas, as well as to my parkway where they are battling native anemone for dominance. I haven’t yet seen any at Midewin, but I’m not taking any chances. Out they’re coming this weekend.

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

Dappled Things

110423 bluebells

Bluebell Woods at Midewin. The perfect place to celebrate Earth Day. (Or at least the first Saturday after.) As the name implies, Bluebell Woods are teeming with bluebells and many other woodland ephemerals – tiny flowers that burst forth from the leaf litter before the tree leaves emerge and shade out the sun.

Unfortunately, our native wildflowers are at great risk of being overrun by non-native garlic mustard. Over the past couple of years, the garlic mustard at Bluebell Woods has been kept in check by a dedicated volunteer effort to remove it. And so, today it’s our turn to venture into the woods with collection sacks strapped to our waists.

110423 garlic mustard pull 1

Truly, there is little to rival a healthy spring woodland in the morning. I’m hardly a religious man, but upon entering the woods the first line of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem springs immediately to mind: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” The early morning sun slants through the budding trees, throwing dappled light upon dew-washed mosses and greenery dotted with the yellows of swamp buttercups, the pink and white of spring beauties, the speckled leaves of trillium and trout lilies…

110423 trillium

The Lilliputian umbrels of May apples…

110423 may apples

And of course the purple-periwinkle of Virginia bluebells.

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110423 spring beauties and mustard

Yanking garlic mustard out of a woodland feels a little like liberating France. An overstatement, sure, but there is something profoundly gratifying in removing such a pernicious invasive from an area dotted with so much beauty. Once established, colonies of garlic mustard can blitzkrieg through our woodlands at a rate of up to 120 feet per year to the virtual exclusion of all other woodland wildflowers.

Or, a handful of volunteers can spend a lovely morning in the woods, liberating them for the sheer love of dappled things and the God or Gods that made them.

110423 garlic mustard pull 2

 

Happy Earth Day

Here it’s Earth Day and I’m stuck at the computer all day, instead of out at Midewin enjoying “Picnic for the Planet.”  Today, all over the world, people are gathering at their favorite nature areas “to celebrate the planet we live on…to enjoy good food in the company of great people.”

Fortunately, tomorrow I’ll be out at Midewin to continue the Earth Day celebration (why shouldn’t it go on all year) by pulling garlic mustard; one of the conservation world’s Most Wanted Out of our Woodlands invasive species.

Until tomorrow, however, I’m still able to get a bit of nature fix. Working at home, I take the occasional break in my own little private nature sanctuary – my backyard. It’s only about the size of my living room, but my backyard garden is chock full of different kinds of native plants, many of them pushing up through last year’s leaf litter.

110422 backyard garden 1

Around the pond, it’s easiest to pick out prickly pear cactus, which is abundant in the Calumet area in which I live. The paler green serrated edge spikes of rattlesnake master are easy to ID, too; as is prairie drop seed, which a friend has nicknamed Cousin Itt for its mounded shagginess. I’m able to identify the re-emergent black-eyed Susans, spiderwort and goldenrod largely because I know where I planted them.

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The leaves of columbine – one of the earlier bloomers of the season – are distinct for their ternately compound (divided into groups of 3 leaflets) leaves.

110422 backyard garden 3

And in the pond, the bulrushes and cattails are pushing up spikes. But it’s the marsh marigold that is the most delight – the only blossoms yet in the garden; a buttery yellow that puts lowly daffodils to shame.

Wherefore Walking?

110331 jim and ruth

After a morning of volunteering, what better way to spend the rest of the day than walking through the recovering landscape of Midewin with a poet? My dear friend Jim Ballowe is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University, where a personal essay contest is named in his honor. He’s the author of a recent biography of Joy Morton (of the Morton Salt Company and Morton Arboretum) and the even more recent Christmas in Illinois, a collection of Christmas stories by such Illinois luminaries as Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Royko, and Carl Sandburg.

But it’s Jim’s poetry I most love. And as he, his wife Ruth and I stroll through the restored Prairie Creek Woods and out into the recreated prairie along South Patrol Road it’s hard not to think of Jim’s “Wherefore Walking:”

Take ten thousand steps marching

toward a healthy life untouched by wildness.

Sure. It’s done almost everywhere:

on city streets, unrestricted lakeshore,

on paths through parks, restored woods and prairie.

 

How then along the bourne, bedraggled,

accosted by devil’s beggartick, nettle, and wild rose,

startled by a ravening coyote pursuing a doe,

do we emerge, feeling in fine fettle,

cheered that ferity, unleashed, has not forsaken us,

while civilization’s  abominable accoutrements

— bags, bottles, and boorish babble — have vanished,

and we, dwelling in our savage imaginations,

think ourselves in the presence of good men and lovers?

Out of the Bunker and into the Light

110331 bunker interior 1

One of my favorite rites of spring. The annual moving of native plants out of the bunkers. During the arsenal years, the bunkers stored TNT or finished bombs. The reinforced concrete bunkers, covered with earth, are just as perfect for overwintering plant plugs.  The cool, constant temperatures allow the plants to go dormant during the winter, as they need to do, but keep the root plugs from heaving in the natural freeze and thaw fluctuations of winter.

And so, as the sun warms the morning from a start of 27 degrees to what will top out at 50, more than a dozen volunteers and staff pile into trucks and vans and venture deep into the east side of Midewin. Some of the bunkers are open to visitors to explore. But the one we visited has been sealed up since last fall. It takes two pairs of strong arms to unwedge its explosion-resistant locking mechanism. And then, with all the excitement of opening an ancient tomb, the heavy steel door groans open.

110331 bunker exterior

But rather than dead things, the bunker is filled with trays upon trays of native plants that are but sleeping. Many hands make light work and soon the bunker is empty and a truck and trailer filled to the brim.

Back at the “Hort Building,” we unload the plants into one of several outdoor shade houses, where diffused sunlight and warmer temperatures, along with a little water, will wake the roots and send new green sprouts into the world.

Over the course of the next couple of months, there will be plenty of workdays to plant these plugs in seed beds or one of several areas under active restoration.

110331 shade house

Calling All Frogs

chors frog 3

After the thrill of the woodcock flight, it’s time for the trill of chorus frogs. Walking along Boathouse road, lit up by the perigee moon, I hear plenty of individual frogs in the wet areas that dot the western edge of South Patrol Road Prairie. The mating call of a western chorus frog – typically the first one heard in our region – sounds like running a fingernail across the teeth of a plastic comb. A big sound for a frog that measures barely an inch and a half in length.

A bunch of chorus frogs calling together sounds almost like sleigh bells with a living pulse. And that’s exactly what I hear at the far northwest corner of the prairie, where lies a good-sized ephemeral pond – a pond that holds water during the spring but typically dries up over the summer. Ephemeral ponds are havens for the smaller frogs because they don’t harbor any fish, which feast on their eggs.

Following the established frog monitoring protocols, I record the air temperature – 46 degrees. I take the water temperature – 46 degrees. I look up and then record the sky code – #1, meaning partly clouded. I estimate the wind speed according to the Beaufort Scale – #1, meaning a light breeze (1 to 3 mph) in which rising smoke would drift a bit. And then I record the ambient noise level – #1, meaning I can hear a faint din of traffic from Interstate 55 about a mile away. Finally, I check my watch – 8:03. For the next 10 minutes, I listen and then record the level of frog calling – #1 would mean no calls, #2 would mean distinct individuals, #3 would mean distinct individuals overlapping. I record #4 – an indistinguishable number of frogs overlapping.

On to my second monitoring location. The enormous full moon casts sharp shadows along the path through Prairie Creek Woods, leading me to Buttonbush Pond. A dammed up former oxbow lake, the pond is home to lots of fish. And therefore few frogs. At least not the smaller ones. But the absence of frogs is important data, too. Perhaps there will be some bullfrogs and green frogs later in the season, but tonight all is silence.

It’s just me and the moonlight reflecting on a perfectly still lake save for the wake of a late-working muskrat.

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.)

Sowing Seed

 

Nippy today. Overcast. A cold wind out of the west, occasionally pitted with pellets of icy snow. Perfect for a volunteer day in the field.

buttonbush seed

After months of cleaning seed, it is time to sow some of it. My first assignment is to scatter buttonbush seed around the perimeter of the pond named in its honor. The seed looks like tiny arrow heads, about 20 of which would fit on the face of a dime.

Buttonbush Pond is one of my favorite places at Midewin. It’s where I’ll be spending several evenings in the coming weeks counting calling frogs.

For my second seeding assignment, I join about a dozen other volunteers at South Patrol Road Prairie. Each of us load up with a bucket of wetland seed mixes, which we spread by hand among a patchwork quilt of wet areas.

Last week, these areas were teeming with ducks and geese. Today, there isn’t an aquatic waterfowl to be seen other than a few mallards winging high over head toward some distant pond. But I do rustle up my first meadowlark of the season. Just the sight of that one bird – populations of which have declined 72 percent from 24 to 9 million over the past 40 years – is enough to take the chill off the day.

porcupine grass seed

After we spread all the wetland seed, we move on to porcupine grass, which comes by its name honestly – the tips of its seed are as sharp as pins. Even more astonishing, however, is the fact that they twist in response to moisture changes driving their sharp points into the ground. Many volunteers learn this lesson first hand as a wayward seed works its way through jeans and wool socks.

One by one – on hands and knees – we stab the porcupine grass seed into the ground in an upland area recently cleared of a hedgerow. Removing the hedgerow opens up the landscape, creating more of the kind of open prairie habitat that grassland birds like eastern meadowlarks require. Planting porcupine grass is one of several steps to be taken to heal the hedgerow scars.