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

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.)

Harbingers of Spring

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

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

canada geese 1

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

We wander the sky with many a Cronk

And land in the pasture fields with a Plonk

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

Then we bend our necks with a curious kink

Like the bend which the plumber puts under the sink.

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

And we feed away in a sociable rank

Tearing the grass with a sideways yank,

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

But Hink or Honk we relish the Plonk,

And Honk and Hank we relish the rank,

And Hank or Hink we think it a jink

To Honk, or Hank or Hink!

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

white fronted geese

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

Quack, quack, quack!


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

sandhill crane 1

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

red winged blackbird

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

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