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

sandpiper

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

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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.

kildeer

 

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.