Cowbird Conundrum

I recently posted this photo to Facebook – a yellow warbler feeding a cowbird baby. A good friend replied, “I disdain the parasitic cowbirds.”

I so get that. Cowbirds make me crazy, too.

For those who don’t know, cowbirds are “brood  parasites.” Or deadbeat parents. That is they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds – about 220 different species – then leave the raising of their young to others.

Some bird species recognize cowbirds eggs and push them out of the nest, or puncture their shells with their beaks. But most species are unable to recognize cow bird eggs. Or, there is new evidence that suggests that some species recognize the foreign eggs but accept them in order to avoid having their nests being destroyed by cowbird parents as a form of punishment for not raising cowbird young.

In any event, cowbirds eggs hatch faster. The foster parents, for whatever reason, feed whichever gaping beak is in their nest. As the bigger cowbirds gain strength, they frequently push the other eggs out of the nest or smother their nest mates in the bottom of the nest.

To watch a tiny yellow warbler, which weighs about a third of an ounce, feed a young cowbird is to watch an over-worked parent fill the gaping maw of real-life Baby Huey that will grow to five times its size.

How did cowbirds evolve this way? Blame it on the buffalo. Cowbirds are native to North America, and co-evolved with the massive bison herds of yesteryear. Cowbirds would follow the herds and feast on the bugs stirred up by the grazing bison. But because bison are nomadic, when they moved on, the cowbirds were forced to move with them. Which meant that someone else would have to watch over their young. And so some clever bird figured to lay its eggs in the nest of some other mother bird.

Once the great nomadic bison herds were eliminated, cowbirds kept to their bad parenting ways, and pose a significant threat to song bird and grassland bird populations, which are facing numerous other threats to their long-term survival.

That’s another reason why Midewin is so important. One of the most effective ways of controlling cowbird parasitism is to restore large landscapes, which minimizes what is known as “edge habitat.” Cowbirds prefer forest edges, which provides them ready access to the nests of many grassland bird species. But restoring Midewin’s 19,000 acres to native tallgrass prairie, eliminating the old hedgerows and volunteer stands of weed trees, will greatly reduce the ability of cowbirds to prey on the nests of unsuspecting birds.

Is this catbird gathering food for its own young, or unwittingly for a cowbird?

Especially with the recent reintroduction of bison to Midewin, there are certain to remain some native cowbirds as part of the prairie ecosystem. But Midewin is big enough – sometimes size really does matter – to provide balance among all of the many different kinds of birds, mammals and plants of the native tallgrass prairie.

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?

Spring is Deceptive

At first glance, a prairie doesn’t look like much in early spring. Some might even go so far as to say it’s nothing so much as a bunch of dead weeds.

But look closely, take a long, leisurely walk through Midewin, and you’ll see the joint is really hopping, buzzing, chirping and bellowing with life.

At 19,000 acres, Midewin is big and diverse enough to harbor an exceptional diversity of birds. Over the past several years, I’ve seen 125 different species at Midewin. Today, as resident and migrant species return, I’ve seen 46 species, including brown thrashers. Typically, they are solitary and secretive. A fleeting glimpse is mostly what you can expect before they disappear into a thicket. Except in early spring, when they perch in yet-leafless trees to sing their melodious mating calls, while keeping a wary eye on the world.

Black-capped chickadees hang around Midewin all winter long, but it’s in spring that these tiny bundles of energy – weighing about a third of an ounce – really get busy, harvesting every nook and cranny for seeds, insects and spiders, while filling the air with insect buzzes, major fourth call notes and their namesake “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”

Particularly thrilling is spotting a loggerhead shrike. Midewin is home to a handful of breeding pairs of this state endangered and proposed for listing as federally threatened species. In addition to their rarity, they are notable for caching prey – insects, rodents, even other small birds – on thorns, of which there are plenty at Midewin with all of the osage orange trees remaining from its pioneer past.

On one of the warmest days thus far this spring, the warm-blooded creatures of Midewin – me included – are not the only ones enjoying the welcome sunshine. To survive the winter, garter snakes go into hibernation (technically brumation, in that being cold-blooded – technically, ectotherms – they remain alert but sluggish, the cold slowing their metabolism to nearly zero, which means they can go long periods without eating but not starve.) When the temperatures warm, up goes their metabolism and they must reemerge to feed. On the other hand, who doesn’t love basking in the sun after a long winter?

So, too with green frogs and painted turtles.

High summer is when the prairie is ablaze with more than 200 species of grasses and flowers. But in early spring, Midewin’s Prairie Creek Woods harbors a host of woodland ephemerals, such as this swamp buttercup, in turn hosting one of many different kinds of native bees.

As with every season, there is always a little sadness. This fledgling painted turtle apparently tried to leave its nest and make its way to a wet area, but ran out of energy on the gravel path.

But this death also provides an opportunity to take the kind of closer peek at the beautiful underbelly of a painted turtle, something you almost never get to see by observing critters in the wild.

Something else you seldom see are duck nests. Unlike mallard drakes (males) that boast metallic-emerald green heads, the hens (females) are dull, streaky brown, the better to blend in with their ground nesting environs. Clambering atop one of Midewin’s old arsenal bunkers for a panoramic view of the landscape, I inadvertently flushed a hen from her nest, which was nestled against the bunker’s exhaust vent.

At the other end of the animal spectrum, Midewin has officially welcomed its first baby bison. I don’t have pictures yet, but stayed tuned. Better yet, head out to Midewin yourself. A big, beautiful prairie and all the life it harbors awaits you.

Surviving Midewin Hairless and Featherless

Overcast and cold this morning, out on the recovering prairie lands of Midewin. About 27 degrees, with a slight wind making it feel more like 21. Perfect weather for marveling at the hardiness of birds and bison, alike.

Bison, of course, are legendary for their ability to withstand the frigid temps and deep snows. The 27 bison that arrived at Midewin a few months ago appear to be adapting well to their first Illinois winter. The snow cover thus far has been thin, which means they haven’t yet needed to use their massive heads as snow plows to access the grasses upon which they feed.

As for the cold, well, a temperature in the 20s is practically beach weather for bison. In the winter, bison sport two kinds of hair – an outer layer of course, thick hair, and an inner layer of soft, fine hair. I know a little about the inner layer – my scarf if made from yarn spun from this source. It is the warmest, softest scarf I have ever owned. (It also holds a little sentimental value for having been knitted by Marta Witt, a former chief information officer for the US Forest Service, stationed at Midewin.)

 

To get down to the science of it, bison fibers have a micron count of 15. A micron is one-millionth of a meter. The lower the micron count, the softer, the warmer the fiber. Most wool fibers range between 23 and 27 microns. Cashmere, the softest fiber in the world, beats bison by only, well, a hair, clocking in at 14 microns. And like cashmere, bison contains no lanolin, which renders it hypo-allergenic.

OK. Weighing a ton and wearing, essentially, thick blankets of insulation, it’s easy to imagine how bison survive the winter on the open prairie.

 

But what about birds? What about downy woodpeckers, for instance, that weigh no more than an ounce, or about the equivalent of a first class letter? How is it possible that they survive even five minutes, let alone an entire winter season?

Well, as it turns out, feathers are the most naturally insulative material on earth. Think down jackets, and how they trap countless pockets of air to keep their wearers warm. On average, small birds are covered by an astonishing 2,000 to 4,000 feathers, most of which are entirely downy in structure. Tucked safely beneath contour feathers, which are waterproof, they provide – to use sleeping bag insulation parlance – a lot of “loft.” Or, to use the construction industry’s term, a high “R-value.” Or, in layman’s terms, a lot of warmth.

Me, curious mammal that I am, the only way I’m enduring even two hours of cold this morning is to layer up my mostly hairless and entirely featherless body with a wicking t-shirt, a thermal long sleeved shirt, a cotton turtleneck, a cotton hooded sweatshirt and an insulated leather coat; plus, of course, gloves, hat and that awesome bison scarf.

 

The Fall

In religious circles, “the fall” gets such a bum rap. Adam and Even disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, therefore everyone born into the world is tainted by this fall, this original sin.

Oy.

Me, I find nothing but grace, redemption and beauty in the fall at Midewin, my Garden of Eden.

 

The air crisp. The sun warm. Autumnal colors sharp against the crystalline-blue sky. There is no blood red to compare with Virginia creeper in October.

 

There is no royal robe so purple as common asters.

 

There is no gold so precious as sneezeweed. Or one of a dozen or more native goldenrods.

 

Somehow, even the oranges and ambers seem more vibrant and alive when glimpsed from the inside of one of the old munitions bunkers remaining from the Joliet Arsenal days.

 

And is there any more handsome head dress to be found than atop a white-crowned sparrow?

 

Is there any more hopeful sign of the prairie’s recovery than the imminent return of bison?

 

Just as hopeful and beautiful are the tiny creatures that call Midewin home, such as this banded garden spider backlit while suspended within its translucent web.

 

I am not alone this sacred day. Nor should I be. Midewin is a welcoming place for birders, hikers and horse-people, alike.

 

Midewin is a place of retreat and refuge and rejuvenation. And even as the prairie grasses and flowers begin to fade, I find great comfort and strength in their sending their energy underground, into their roots, deep into the prairie soils. So, too, as I walk through the autumnal prairie do I feel my own energies at one with the healing earth of Midewin. I am grateful for this fall.

 

Through the Lookingglass

Midewin is a window into our prairie past. But look closely and you’ll see it is also a lookingglass through which we may step back in time – millions of years ago – when much of North American was emerging from a shallow inland sea.

As a habitat, prairie is the new kid on the block. Following the retreat of the last glaciers, prairie emerged in North America about 8,000 years ago and continued to evolve until we plowed it all up. Beginning in the early 1800s, it took little more than a century for us to destroy 99.9 percent of the prairie in Illinois.

Since the establishment of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, the US Forest Service and its nonprofit partners and volunteers have recovered nearly 5,000 acres of native prairie habitat. That’s about twice as much as exists in all of the other prairie remnant sites combined throughout the entire state.These big open spaces at Midewin provide critical habitat for imperiled grasslands birds, such as this young dickcissel still getting the hang of how best to perch on the jungle gym stems of rattlesnake master.

There are now nearly 350 plant species flourishing at Midewin, including common milkweed, a critical food source for increasingly uncommon monarch butterflies.

Beyond the birds and butterflies, there is a family of bugs (with apologies to entomologists, but the alliteration was too tempting) that likewise call Midewin home and speak to its more ancient habitat roots.

For much of its history, Illinois – in fact most of North America – lay under a warm, shallow ocean. About 325 million years ago, the waters began to recede, leaving in their wake a delta swamp. According to the Illinois State Geological Survey, the great delta forests of the time were patrolled by “dragonflies as big as hawks.”

Dragonflies were among the first winged creatures to evolve over 300 million years ago – before birds. Today, there are about 3,000 species of dragonflies. I’m not sure how many inhabit Midewin, but there are quite few. Including this newly emergent female ruby meadowhawk (notice the forewing not yet fully expanded and hardened.)

ruby meadowhawk on horsetail
ruby meadowhawk on horsetail

 

Note, too, that the meadowhawk is perched atop a spore-bearing cone of common horsetail, itself among the oldest surviving plant families. By the time horsetails appeared – about 150 million years ago – so, too had dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, weathering and erosion are the likely culprits as to why there are no dinosaur fossils yet discovered in Illinois. However, evidence of the ancient coal forests of 325 million years ago remains underground in nearby Coal City, named for the coal that formed as a result of trees and other plants being buried in mud and compacted over time.

Evidence of the ancient shallow seas likewise remains underground within the very footprint of Midewin – in the form of dolomite that was formed of billions upon trillions of seashells. In some areas, this dolomite remains very near to the surface, which underpins a distinct and very rare type of prairie.

Above ground at Midewin, evidence of its ancient past lives on in wetland stands of horsetail and the many different kinds of dragonflies that hunt their prey (and sometimes mate) on the wing, just as they did millions and millions of years ago.

Male twelve-spotted skimmer
Male eastern amber wing
Lancet clubtail
Female common pondhawk

Spring is Sprung

It seemed like forever since I’d been out to Midewin. How thrilling it was to be back among so many good friends, themselves absent (or slumbering or merely unseen) for so long.

May apples, wake robin and toothwort
May apples, wake robin and toothwort

Where to begin? Let’s start with spring ephemerals since, as their name implies, they are with us but a very short time. Each spring, I make a beeline to Prairie Creek Woods, a remnant oak woodland alongside its namesake creek. The more restoration, the more woodland wildflowers. Spring beauties, smooth yellow violets, common phlox, wake robin and May apples to name a few.

bluebells
bluebells

But there is a secret place in the woods, beside the creek, to which I return like a faithful lover. Waiting for me there is a cloistered stand of bluebells. Just for me. And every year, I return their love by searching among the blossoms for sprigs of garlic mustard and yank them out, to ensure the bluebells do not become overrun  with this highly invasive weed; to ensure that bluebells return healthy each and every spring.

Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie
Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie

To ensure that the recovering prairie returns each and every spring, the US Forest Service’s Hot Shot Team conducts controlled burns. This year was a record setter for the number of acres cleared by fire, returning vital nutrients to the soil. Man, I do loves me some reemergent prairie vegetation following a burn. Nothing makes me so happy as to spy intensely spring green shoots rising up out of the rich, blackened soils.

Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements
Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements

The cleansing nature of fire reveals, too, some hidden secrets. Cleared of vegetation, the foundations of old farm buildings, shards of pottery and glass, homestead walls comprised of glacial erratics cleared from the surrounding fields, are stark reminders of Midewin’s agricultural past, when pioneer farmers first cleared the land of its prairie vegetation.

And, of course, the birds. My lovely birds. Blue-winged teals and hooded mergansers. Kildeers and snipes. White-throated sparrows and the first palm warbler of the season. Blue-grey gnat catchers and red-headed woodpeckers. Forty species in all. Apologies for the lack of bird pictures – sometimes I need to leave the camera at home and just relish them through the binocs. But I did manage to snap a cellphone pic of the sandhill crane.

It’s no accident, of course, that the name of my blog is A Midewin Almanac, an homage to Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. And for me the sight and sound of that crane crystalizes that connection. It calls instantly to mind a passage from his Marshland Elegy: “When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our unatamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Their annual return is the ticking of the geological clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.”

Midewin is – for cranes, for all prairie plants and creatures, for me – a safe harbor. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. It is, in short, home.I loves me some fire

 

 

Illiana is (not) for the Birds

As if we needed another reason to oppose the Illiana tollroad, here’s one more – it would be disastrous for birds.

Roads are bad for all wildlife for the the reasons you’d expect: habitat fragmentation, pollution and collisions. Just this week, a second rare and radio-collared ocelet was killed by a motorist along a state highway in Texas. And today’s NY Times pins the population collapse of monarch butterflies on the loss of native habitat.

But it turns out that roads are “overwhelmingly negative” for birds for these usual reasons plus the simple fact that they are noisy. In a recent, first-of-its-kind study reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, researchers set up speakers in a remote, roadless stretch of Idaho wilderness during fall bird migration season. Every four days, they played traffic noise, followed by four days of no traffic noise. Not surprisingly, there was a 25 percent decrease in the number of bird species along the “phantom road” while the traffic noise was playing, with some species avoiding the area almost completely.

South Patrol Road Prairie
South Patrol Road Prairie

As proposed, the Illiana tollroad would run immediately adjacent to the Midewin complex along its entire southern border – a distance of about seven miles. Midewin already is bordered on the west by I-55 and bisected by Route 53, both of which boast heavy truck traffic. In my experience – as a volunteer bird monitor and one who spends quite a bit of time birdwatching out at Midewin – birds are scarce near these noise corridors. Adding Illiana into the mix would further shrink Midewin’s footprint as a refuge for some of the most imperiled birds on the earth.

And the extra noise, pollution and congestion would, well, simply suck for the human element at Midewin, as well. Part of the joy of Midewin is the fact that it is one of the very few places in the entire state where you can experience something akin to the wide open prairie landscape of pre-settlement times. Most prairie remnants are virtual postage stamps, some measuring less than an acre in size.

    Upland sandpiper
Upland sandpiper

At 19,000 acres, Midewin affords the peace and solitude that were as much hallmarks of primeval prairies as was their fabled abundance of wildflowers, grasses and birds. The Illiana would permanently shatter that experience for everyone. Gone or greatly diminished would be the joys of listening to the subtle buzz of grasshopper sparrows, the sotto voce hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows or the burbling cries of state-endangered upland sandpipers.

American Woodcock

There is nothing quite like standing in the midst of South Patrol Road Prairie at dusk,the early spring air thin and crisp, basking in the twittering mating calls of  woodcocks. Or shushing through this same prairie in mid-winter, sowing native wetland seeds, while the carillon from the adjacent Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery pierces the thin winter air to tickle your ear with its melancholy peal.

The route of the Illiana would run right alongside South Patrol Road Prairie, rendering these and inummerable other experiences as rare as the state-endangered loggerhead shrike. Or northern harrier. Or any number of threatened and endangered bird species who are just barely hanging onto existence because of places like Midewin.

Northern Harrier hunting in South Patrol Road Prairie

 

 

An open letter to Governor Quinn following the MPO Policy Committee’s vote regarding the Illiana Expressway

Dear Governor Quinn,

Less than one-tenth of one percent of quality natural land remains anywhere in Illinois. That’s roughly the equivalent of a small bedside nightstand in a 2,500 square foot home; provided you chop that nightstand into a thousand pieces and scatter them throughout theplace.

Less than one-tenth of one percent. Chopped up into a thousand pieces.

One of the biggest and best remaining pieces is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and its sister sites – Goose Lake Prairie and DesPlaines Conservation Area.

Yesterday’s vote by the MPO Policy Committee paves the way for the Illiana Expressway to be built right through the middle of this last best stand of nature in all of Northern Illinois.

IDOT engineers assure us that there will be no adverse effects on the natural areas through which the Illiana will course 43,000 vehicles per day. Pardon me, but I’m going trust the ecologists, botanists and avian experts who are not on the state payroll.

midewin logo

Experts tell me – supported by data that I help collect as a volunteer bird monitor at Midewin – that Midewin is a critical refuge for grassland birds. Over the past few decades, suburban sprawl has gobbled up farmland and grasslands at an explosive rate. As a result, “grassland birds have experienced steeper, more consistent, and more widespread population declines than any other avian guild in North America.” Populations of the eastern meadowlark, for instance, whose image is emblazoned on Midewin’s logo, has declined by 72 percent. To put it another way, there are 17 million fewer meadowlarks today than there were in 1970.

17 million.

Building the Illiana will drive a stake through the heart of Midewin. It will gobble up thousands of acres of farmland. Tens of thousands. For once the road is built, unchecked suburban sprawl will follow as it has throughout our history; the very thing that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and its Go To 2040 Plan was hoping to avoid in favor of smart, strategic, sustainable development for the entire region – not just the politically advantageous county of Will.

If the Illiana is built – and I have no doubt that in the end the state, not the much heralded private partners, will undertake the lion’s share of financial risk in building it – Midewin will remain. But it will be decidedly less. It will be green, but comparatively devoid of the bird song that should fill it. This, too, will be your legacy. A perpetual Silent Spring save for the constant roar of cars and commerce. And so it seems fitting that I leave you with a quote from Rachel Carson:

“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

Easter Blessing

Oh, good people. Let’s to the fields of Midewin. Spring is springing.

At first blush, the landscape may look rather grey and uninviting, but look first with your ears. The meadowlarks have returned and are among the earliest songbirds to fill the air with their melodies: sol-ti-do-mi-do. (For those of you who know solfege, feel free to sing along.)

Not to be outdone, song sparrows throw back their heads and let loose with a tuneful blend of whistles, chirps and buzzes.

If songbirds are today’s featured soloists, downy woodpeckers peep piccolo-like descants, the wing beats of wood ducks are fluttering flutes, red-winged blackbirds ratchet out a rhythm, and chorus frogs comprise the back-up band.

With its wings spread wide as it glides low over the prairie, a northern harrier seems less hunter than conductor. A coyote cocks its head and listens intently. For a mouse? A vole? Or, might she, too, be taking a moment out of her day to delight in the sounds, sights and smells of early spring?

For me, this moment, this clear, warming morning, this natural symphony is underscored by a leitmotif that runs involuntarily through my mind; the opening line of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Like Leopold, I cannot. And for that, on this day before Easter,  I give thanks for Midewin and the return, the recovery, the resurrection of my native prairie state. Amen.