You Make a Life by What You Give

The title comes from Winston Churchill: “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” On Saturday night, scores of volunteers were honored by what they so richly give to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

I’ve been volunteering at Midewin since it was established as the nation’s first national tallgrass prairie in 1996. That’s me, below on the right, at one of the first volunteer workdays, alongside Jerry Heinrich.  Over the years, I’ve cut invasive brush, pulled garlic mustard, harvested native seed, cleaned it, planted it in native seed beds and hand-sowed it in several prairie and wetland restoration areas. Of late, mostly what I do is monitor grassland birds.

But all of this pales in comparison to what Jerry Heinrich has done. Along with this wife, Connie, he practically lives at Midewin. And for Midewin. Even before Midewin was established, he served on the 24-member Joliet Arsenal Citizens Planning Commission, which led to Midewin’s establishment in 1996. Thereafter he was among the founders of the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie Alliance, a “friends” group in support of Midewin, and for many years has served as its president. He leads tours, he cooks hotdogs, he fixes equipment, runs plant sales, and is an avid lookout for new invasive species. In short, he does whatever is needed and he is–quite simply–one of the most eloquent and personable ambassadors for Midewin. For all that he does, Jerry was one of only seven people nationwide this year to receive the US Forest Service Volunteers & Service Restoration Award.

Other volunteers received handsome ceramic plaques in recognition of their efforts. A couple of volunteers were recognized for their dedication over many years–Don Grisham put in 2,350 hours since 2001, and Len LeClaire (below, on the left) 2,080 hours since 2007. Bob Green clocked 242 hours since February of this year.

All in all, over the course of 2016, volunteers gave more than 13,600 hours of their time. At the low, low volunteer valuation rate of $23.56 an hour (according to the Independent Sector), that adds up to more than $320,000 of donated time. Or, to put it another way, 13,600 hours is the equivalent of an additional 8 full-time staff working to restore Midewin–for free!

The evening’s MC, Volunteer Coordinator Allison Cisneros, pointed out how challenging the volunteer work can be–cutting buckthorn in freezing temperatures or enduring ticks, chiggers, heat and humidity on an August work day in the field.

But she also pointed out what makes volunteering fun–learning new skills, meeting new friends, and making a difference. Among the 42 different kinds of volunteer opportunities available at Midewin, the evening program featured presentations on two of them: 1) a new ranger program, in which volunteers greet a hugely growing number of visitors who come to see Midewin’s new bison herd, and 2) an archaeological dig on a site dating back 10,000 years.

Of course, the success of Midewin also relies on exceptional professional staff. In this, Midewin is equally fortunate to have so many dedicated individuals. But Saturday night was all about the volunteers and celebrating another successful year of so many people giving so generously of their time and talents to take care of our public lands.

I’m grateful to be counted among them. I’m grateful for all that Midewin gives back to me.

 

Bison Bird?

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks of Romeo. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I can’t attest to how a cattle egret might smell, but no matter which of several common names you call Bubulcus ibis, it is one sweet bird.

Its common name in North America is cattle egret. This picture I took at Midewin today provides pretty good evidence why. They feast on insects stirred up by grazing animals, frequently perching on their backs as they await a meal.

This is probably a trick – or adaptation – they learned in Africa, where the species originated. There, cattle egrets are known as elephant birds, or rhinoceros egrets or hippopotamus egrets. Their arabic name, Abu Querdan, means father of ticks, a name given in the misbelief that this species pick ticks off the backs of its grazing herbivores.

In Europe, cattle egrets are known as buff-backed herons for the patches of buff color on their backsides (not to mention their bellies and their head crests.) This – in addition to their smaller size – is one of the easiest ways of distinguishing them from great egrets, also present at Midewin.

Great egrets are larger than cattle egrets, and lack their buffy markings.

Cattle egrets are not all that common at Midewin. According to ebird, the first one was sighted there in 1996. I first glimpsed one in 2011, and then not again until today.

There are quite a few cattle at Midewin. At least for now. Cattle are a kind of stop gap measure until Midewin can be fully restored. Rather than let the former ag and arsenal lands go fallow, grazed pasturelands actually provide pretty good grassland bird habitat – a major management objective at Midewin. Additionally, pasture leases provide additional income that gets channeled back into restoration.

Dickcissels are among the grassland bird species that benefit from grazed pasturelands.

One day, once all the land is restored and the cattle leases expired, will Midewin’s cattle egrets adapt to become bison birds? As a species, cattle egrets did not co-evolve with American bison. Native to Africa, cattle egrets managed to find their way to South America in 1877, and then worked their way northward to the United States by 1941 – long after the storied bison herds of the 1800s had been eliminated.

A quick Google search already reveals that cattle egrets are adopting to bison just fine elsewhere. After all, how hard can it be to ride a bison once you’ve mastered elephants, rhinos, hippos, and bare-backed moo-cows?

An Expressway Dies, a New Path Emerges

No Illiana!

Every once in a while, common sense prevails. The good guys win. Yesterday, a federal judge drove a big, fat stake through the heart of the proposed Illiana Expressway.

This decision will save a lot of farms in Will County. It will save Illinois taxpayers a billion dollars. And it will save a lot of birds from disappearing from the earth.

Birds are a big reason that Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie. Grassland birds in particular. As a class, they are the most imperiled birds on the planet due to destruction of habitat. In Illinois, less than one-tenth of one percent of natural land remains. Some grassland birds managed to adapt to most of Illinois being converted to farm fields. However, since 1950 Illinois alone has lost 3.6 million acres of prime farmland to development. The American Farmland Trust revealed that two acres of farmland are being lost to development every minute, with Illinois being among the land loss leaders.

midewin logo

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, then, to figure out that less habitat means fewer birds. Let’s take a common grassland bird – the eastern meadowlark. The poster bird for Midewin. National Audubon reveals that over the last 40 years populations of this sweet-voiced bird have plummeted 72% – from 24 million to 7 million.

At 19,000 acres, Midewin goes a long way toward providing exactly the kind of refuge needed to help reverse this trend; to provide meadowlarks and other grassland denizens the large, open spaces they need to rest, feed and raise their families.

As a volunteer steward at Midewin, it’s my job to count grassland bird species during the breeding season every spring.This data is critical to help guide the restoration efforts underway by the US Forest Service and its nonprofit restoration partners, including the National Forest Foundation, The Wetlands Initiative and Openlands.

Most every Saturday or Sunday from early May through late June, I’m awake before the alarm and out the door by 6 a.m. I arrive at Midewin (after stopping for coffee) around 7. I monitor a part of Midewin known as Tract 104. To most, it probably looks like any old pasture, which is pretty much what it is until such time as the US Forest Service can restore it to tallgrass prairie.

But to me it is an Eden. The cool season grasses provide sufficient habitat to make this patch an oasis for grassland birds. Close your eyes and imagine bobolinks chattering on the wing like over-caffeinated R2D2s.

The melodious whistles of eastern meadowlarks before they burst out of the short grasses, their white tail feathers flashing in the early morning light like the after burners of a jet plane. The faint hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows, most often heard rather than seen. The insect-like buzz of a grasshopper sparrows. The namesake call of dickcissels, dressed up like Mini Me versions of meadowlarks.

The toy bubble machine cries of rare upland sandpipers. And, of course, the ratchety alarums of red-winged blackbird as they flash their epaulets of crimson in aggressively patroling their breeding territories.

Yesterday’s ruling doesn’t definitively kill the Illiana. The likes of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and others are working hard to drive the final nails in the coffin. But a year ago, politics and the specter of jobs (for a few) and big profits (for some) conspired to make the Illiana seem like a done deal. Business as usual. No matter the cost, financially, socially, ecologically. Today, at long last, as long envisioned by poets and conservationists, alike, we are poised to choose a different path:

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost‘s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”(Rachel Carson, Silent Spring)

 

On Point

Six a.m. Four teams. Maps in hand. GPS units operational. Our mission: conduct the annual grassland bird point count at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie before the predicted thunderstorms roll in.

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Midewin is a haven for grassland birds. It is, by an order of magnitude, the largest preserve in northeastern Illinois for a family of birds that is among the most imperiled on the planet. A primary reason for the sharp population decline for grasshopper sparrows, boblinks, and the like, is the loss of habitat. Only about 20 percent of Midewin is thus far restored to native prairie habitat. But the balance of the land – mostly pastureland, soybean fields and fallow farm fields – is managed in such a way to provide birds the habitat structure they need to nest and feed.

Monitoring bird populations lets Midewin staff know how they’re doing and helps inform management strategies.

This morning, Christopher Whelan, Grassland Bird Ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, is our team leader. Rounding out the rest of team is Rachel, a seasonal Midewin staffer; Dave, an intern sponsored through the Student Conservation Association, and me, using a vacation day from my job as Director – Chicago Program for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

Our monitoring begins in Tract 104, a tract I know well from having monitored it throughout the course of a couple of breeding seasons. During my solo counts, I would simply hike through the site for about an hour and a half counting every bird I see. Unlike these general counts, point counts are a more strategic means to estimate bird densities and population trends across entire large-scale areas, such as the 19,000 acres of Midewin. Point counts involve returning to the same point every year – that’s what the maps and GPS units are for – and then counting all the birds you see or hear within 100 metres, within five minutes.

Monitoring Tract 104 requires wading through grasses already thigh high. As usual, all the points within Tract 104 are teeming with bobolinks, dickcissels and grasshopper sparrows. Even more thrilling was the siting of a pair of sandhill cranes flying over head.

Immediately to the west, our next points are located in a field of former munitions storage bunkers. It takes a little more work to get to these points, as some of these areas have become shrubby with Osage orange sprouts and multiflora rose – both of which are riddled with stickers that snag and scratch. But even these scrubby areas have value for shrubland birds such as common yellowthroats, yellow warblers, brown thrashers and catbirds.

Further to the northwest, our assignment finally takes us into a restored area. Over the past few years, The Wetlands Initiative has returned an old, drained pastureland into a rich complex of prairie and wetland. The wet areas make for some difficult slogging, but the effort is worth it as our tally includes another pair of sandhill cranes, half a dozen great egrets, four American woodcocks, as well as a full complement of grassland birds.

Beyond the wading through high grasses, thorny patches and boot-sucking wetlands, the day was all the more challenging for the high winds of the approaching rains. This lessened the number of birds on the wing and made it more difficult to hear the subtler calls of, for instance, Hensolw’s sparrows.

Nonetheless, by my unofficial tally, our team saw 37 bird species before the rain put an early end to our morning. And then it was off to breakfast at the local diner in Wilmington – just about the time most folks would have been sitting down at their desks to start their day.

A dickcissel – one of the most abundant grassland birds at Midewin

 

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.”

 

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.

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

sandpiper

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.

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.