Wolf Road Prairie

Illinois Nature Preserve #15, baby. Well on my way toward the goal of 50 for the year.

At this time of year, a tallgrass prairie may appear a little less than inviting. I imagine that most folks speeding along Wolf Road in suburban Westchester perceive nothing but what appears to be a big patch of weeds waiting to be turned into a housing development, a business park, a commercial strip mall.

Perhaps some might notice the handsome, historic farm house at the north end of the site. For those curious enough to stop to check it out, what they’ll discover that is that the farmhouse is considered to be the oldest remaining structure in Westchester. Moved to its current location in 1980, it was built in the 1850s, when the Prairie State was being transformed to the Corn and Soy Bean State.

Beyond the house, visitors will discover that what looks like dead weeds in early April will soon burst forth into a lush tapestry of tallgrass prairie, with over 360 plant species. At 80 acres, it is one of the largest unplowed prairie remnants remaining in the entire Chicago region, and the best quality black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Oh, and they’ll discover one other thing, too: thanks to George Fell it will never be developed for anything other than what it is by virtue of most of it being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Admittedly a little drab in advance of the official start of spring, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve nonetheless affords wonders for those who know were and when to look.

Through the husks of last year’s towering flower stalks, one will notice a burned area — evidence of the recent controlled use of fire, emulating one of the prime natural forces that historically helped keep the prairie environment free of trees and shrubs, and which today keeps it free of invasive plants both native and non-native.

In the midst of the burned area is a small seasonal wetland — a magnet for the red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teals and great blue herons that we saw today. The wetland is an attractive nesting site for Canada geese, as well. Already, this expectant mother is perched upon her nest as regally as any queen.

But why Susan and I have come to this place, this day, at this time, is to see the skydances of American woodcocks. Save the Prairie Society hosts woodcock viewing events two weekends each year. It’s a friendly affair, with folks arriving around 7 p.m. They gather on the porch of the farmhouse, munching on homemade treats and sipping hot cider to take the edge off the early evening chill.

Those who have seen woodcocks before help the first-timers know what to look for. Someone takes out their cell phone and calls up a youtube video of a peenting woodcock to help attune new ears what to listen for, before the birds — the males, that is, the females, like us, are there to watch — launch themselves skyward with a fluty, flittering sound. Up and up they go, until, having impressed prospective mates, they tumble back to earth with a softer, plaintive tune.

At 7:25, the official time of sunset this day, all chatter stops. Eyes and ears are fixed on the surrounding area. At 7:40, we hear the first peent. And then another. And another. There are clearly several male woodcocks warming up.

A few minutes later, someone hears the fluty-flitter. All eyes search the darkening sky. No one sees a thing.

Another fluty-flitter. Someone points. There! Sure enough, there it is, indeed. A small, dark dot, rising higher, higher, higher, until out of sight.

More fluty-flitters. But they’re hard to see due to the fading light. Our leader saw four. I saw three. Everyone saw at least one.

Perhaps for many, perhaps for most, hanging out on a chill evening for the chance to listen for faint bird calls over the roar of traffic, to spy a tiny dot in the gloaming might not be at the top of their list of things to do. But for the dozen of us gathered, we are in seventh heaven. For a few moments, we are witnesses to an ancient rite. Eons in its evolution to ensure the perpetuation of a species. Strange and wonderful in the joy it affords those of us who take the time to notice.

And because of a guy named George Fell who fought to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves system, the skydances of woodcocks may continue at Wolf Road Prairie for eons to come. And we may enjoy the many species that rely upon Wolf Road Prairie — and the 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves scattered throughout the state — for generations to come.

Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve

On the way to celebrating a nephew’s birthday in Oak Brook, Susan and I stopped by Salt Creek Woods–number five toward the goal of visiting 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year. In case you’re wondering, Salt Creek–which runs through Salt Creek Woods and a chain of Forest Preserves of Cook County sites–isn’t salty at all. “A tale in an old history…says the stream got its name when high waters in 1838 washed away a wagon load of salt belonging to John Reid, a teamster.”

A few years before the eponymous salt incident, General Winfield Scott and his troops were quarantined by cholera on their way to chase Chief Blackhawk and the last of all native tribes out of Illinois for good.

Girl Scouts wading in Salt Creek, circa 2921

Salt Creek Woods, located in the Bemis Woods unit, must have been among the earliest lands acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, established in 1909. For, in 1921, the District built the Girl Scouts a log cabin, and also dammed up the creek to provide better swimming opportunities.

Today, the cabin and dam are long gone. What remains is perhaps the richest birding sites in all of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

At the recent Wild Things conference–this year’s biennial gathering attracted 1,700 professional and volunteer nature stewards, with 300 on the waiting list–Doug Stotz provided the bird data. Doug is Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Field Museum and one of the region’s premier birders.  He shared the results of the 2016 Bird the Preserves, a “big year” competition to see which FPCC site boasted the best bird life.

Confessing (with a wink and a nod) that he is not at all competitive when it comes to birding, Stotz revealed that his site–Salt Creek/Bemis Woods–came in at #1 in the competition. He cited several impressive stats, including the fact that of the four sites he birded within the preserve, the one with the highest total bird count was Salt Creek–a 245-acre tract dedicated as the 8th Illinois Nature Preserve in 1965.

 

Stotz observed that among the reason for the impressive bird count at Salt Creek was the quality restoration and stewardship. As George Fell well knew, the greatest threat to our remaining natural areas is the lack of maintenance. Absent the natural forces that used to maintain our diverse habitats, our prairies, wetlands and woodlands can quickly become overrun with invasive species, both native and non-native.

Even woodlands need some level of controlled burns to remain healthy habitat for plants, mammals, bugs and birds, alike. Some of our preserves have become so overgrown that they require heavy duty, manual removal of woody shrubs and even mature trees. While cutting down trees can be controversial, doing so according to sound, science-based management plans is essential. Overgrown woodlands might appear green and healthy, but as every birder knows they are all but devoid of bird life.

Fire and Rain

“Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.” More than a refrain from a classic James Taylor hit, fire and rain are two fundamental life forces in ample evidence this summer at Midewin. One of which we have control over. The other, not so much.

Back in April, a controlled burn was conducted in South Patrol Road Prairie. Prior to European settlement, the prairies of Illinois burned regularly, perhaps once every one to five years. Set by lightning or, later, by Native Americans to drive game to slaughter, fires kept trees and shrubs from cropping up on the prairie, cleared away thatch, and returned nutrients to the soil without damaging native prairie plants, whose roots run deep and well protected.

The fire that was good for maintaining the health of the prairies, however, rightly filled early pioneers with “a terror easier imagined than described…at many times a prairie miles long and on fire with a strong wind was in a dense flame for hundreds of yards wide…while the prairie is in a general conflagration, a terrible roaring, something similar to thunder, is heard…the flame often rose many feet high and would destroy any animal, man or other that was caught in in it.”

Small wonder, then, that those who settled the prairie quickly strove to eliminate fires from the landscape. But with the advent of ecological restoration over the past few decades, the use of controlled burns has become one of the primary tools for maintaining the health of prairies, wetlands and even some woodland types.

Burn area is to the left of the red arrow.
Burn area is to the left of the red arrow.

I am  certified by Chicago Wilderness to serve on burn crews, but this is one job neither I nor any other volunteer are permitted do at Midewin. At Midewin, controlled burns are the  exclusive domain of the Midewin Interagency Hot Shot Crew. And what a great job they did, safely burning most of the 460-acre site in a single day. Within a week, like green phoenixes, the tender shoots of prairie plants were pushing up out of the ash.

controlled-burn-resprouts

Last year, record drought conditions stunted the growth of most prairie plants in South Patrol Road Prairie. This year, with record rainfall following the burn, South Patrol Road Prairie has exploded in lush herbaceous greens and the full range of pinks, whites, purples and yellows of native wildflowers.

“Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…”

The veins of a prairie dock leaf

The veins of a prairie dock leaf
The veins of a prairie dock leaf

cream-white-indigo

Spiderwort