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.

 

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.