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.

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


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.



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.

110528 arthur

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.