An Expressway Dies, a New Path Emerges

No Illiana!

Every once in a while, common sense prevails. The good guys win. Yesterday, a federal judge drove a big, fat stake through the heart of the proposed Illiana Expressway.

This decision will save a lot of farms in Will County. It will save Illinois taxpayers a billion dollars. And it will save a lot of birds from disappearing from the earth.

Birds are a big reason that Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie. Grassland birds in particular. As a class, they are the most imperiled birds on the planet due to destruction of habitat. In Illinois, less than one-tenth of one percent of natural land remains. Some grassland birds managed to adapt to most of Illinois being converted to farm fields. However, since 1950 Illinois alone has lost 3.6 million acres of prime farmland to development. The American Farmland Trust revealed that two acres of farmland are being lost to development every minute, with Illinois being among the land loss leaders.

midewin logo

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, then, to figure out that less habitat means fewer birds. Let’s take a common grassland bird – the eastern meadowlark. The poster bird for Midewin. National Audubon reveals that over the last 40 years populations of this sweet-voiced bird have plummeted 72% – from 24 million to 7 million.

At 19,000 acres, Midewin goes a long way toward providing exactly the kind of refuge needed to help reverse this trend; to provide meadowlarks and other grassland denizens the large, open spaces they need to rest, feed and raise their families.

As a volunteer steward at Midewin, it’s my job to count grassland bird species during the breeding season every spring.This data is critical to help guide the restoration efforts underway by the US Forest Service and its nonprofit restoration partners, including the National Forest Foundation, The Wetlands Initiative and Openlands.

Most every Saturday or Sunday from early May through late June, I’m awake before the alarm and out the door by 6 a.m. I arrive at Midewin (after stopping for coffee) around 7. I monitor a part of Midewin known as Tract 104. To most, it probably looks like any old pasture, which is pretty much what it is until such time as the US Forest Service can restore it to tallgrass prairie.

But to me it is an Eden. The cool season grasses provide sufficient habitat to make this patch an oasis for grassland birds. Close your eyes and imagine bobolinks chattering on the wing like over-caffeinated R2D2s.

The melodious whistles of eastern meadowlarks before they burst out of the short grasses, their white tail feathers flashing in the early morning light like the after burners of a jet plane. The faint hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows, most often heard rather than seen. The insect-like buzz of a grasshopper sparrows. The namesake call of dickcissels, dressed up like Mini Me versions of meadowlarks.

The toy bubble machine cries of rare upland sandpipers. And, of course, the ratchety alarums of red-winged blackbird as they flash their epaulets of crimson in aggressively patroling their breeding territories.

Yesterday’s ruling doesn’t definitively kill the Illiana. The likes of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and others are working hard to drive the final nails in the coffin. But a year ago, politics and the specter of jobs (for a few) and big profits (for some) conspired to make the Illiana seem like a done deal. Business as usual. No matter the cost, financially, socially, ecologically. Today, at long last, as long envisioned by poets and conservationists, alike, we are poised to choose a different path:

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost‘s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”(Rachel Carson, Silent Spring)

 

On Point

Six a.m. Four teams. Maps in hand. GPS units operational. Our mission: conduct the annual grassland bird point count at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie before the predicted thunderstorms roll in.

grant-creek.jpg

Midewin is a haven for grassland birds. It is, by an order of magnitude, the largest preserve in northeastern Illinois for a family of birds that is among the most imperiled on the planet. A primary reason for the sharp population decline for grasshopper sparrows, boblinks, and the like, is the loss of habitat. Only about 20 percent of Midewin is thus far restored to native prairie habitat. But the balance of the land – mostly pastureland, soybean fields and fallow farm fields – is managed in such a way to provide birds the habitat structure they need to nest and feed.

Monitoring bird populations lets Midewin staff know how they’re doing and helps inform management strategies.

This morning, Christopher Whelan, Grassland Bird Ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, is our team leader. Rounding out the rest of team is Rachel, a seasonal Midewin staffer; Dave, an intern sponsored through the Student Conservation Association, and me, using a vacation day from my job as Director – Chicago Program for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

Our monitoring begins in Tract 104, a tract I know well from having monitored it throughout the course of a couple of breeding seasons. During my solo counts, I would simply hike through the site for about an hour and a half counting every bird I see. Unlike these general counts, point counts are a more strategic means to estimate bird densities and population trends across entire large-scale areas, such as the 19,000 acres of Midewin. Point counts involve returning to the same point every year – that’s what the maps and GPS units are for – and then counting all the birds you see or hear within 100 metres, within five minutes.

Monitoring Tract 104 requires wading through grasses already thigh high. As usual, all the points within Tract 104 are teeming with bobolinks, dickcissels and grasshopper sparrows. Even more thrilling was the siting of a pair of sandhill cranes flying over head.

Immediately to the west, our next points are located in a field of former munitions storage bunkers. It takes a little more work to get to these points, as some of these areas have become shrubby with Osage orange sprouts and multiflora rose – both of which are riddled with stickers that snag and scratch. But even these scrubby areas have value for shrubland birds such as common yellowthroats, yellow warblers, brown thrashers and catbirds.

Further to the northwest, our assignment finally takes us into a restored area. Over the past few years, The Wetlands Initiative has returned an old, drained pastureland into a rich complex of prairie and wetland. The wet areas make for some difficult slogging, but the effort is worth it as our tally includes another pair of sandhill cranes, half a dozen great egrets, four American woodcocks, as well as a full complement of grassland birds.

Beyond the wading through high grasses, thorny patches and boot-sucking wetlands, the day was all the more challenging for the high winds of the approaching rains. This lessened the number of birds on the wing and made it more difficult to hear the subtler calls of, for instance, Hensolw’s sparrows.

Nonetheless, by my unofficial tally, our team saw 37 bird species before the rain put an early end to our morning. And then it was off to breakfast at the local diner in Wilmington – just about the time most folks would have been sitting down at their desks to start their day.

A dickcissel – one of the most abundant grassland birds at Midewin

 

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

 

 

Il Fait Neige Encore

110331 jim and ruth

The best Christmas present I get every year is a poem from my dear friend, Jim Ballowe. This year’s gift, as with most of Jim’s poems, is liberally laced with images from nature:

“At the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the blue heron, / gangly-legged in the kelp, whipcords an eel / against a rock, then bill pointing skyward / consumes the wriggling whorl in peristaltic comedy / we who lack such a neck can only imagine…”

In its entirety, Jim’s “Pas de Deux” is actually a love poem to his wife, with whom he shares a deep love and appreciation for the natural world and the beautiful drama inherent in it.

Over the years, I’ve written my fair share of poems to lovers, to nature, to lovers of nature. In my salad days, I even attempted one in French, tinged with German and English:

“Il fait neige encore. / Pourquoi? / Peut-etre parce-que la terre / La terre est fatigue / Und mude / And sad…”

Oy.

Suffice it to say I’m no poet. But hiking through Midewin this winter recalls my youthfully pretentious poem to mind. “Il fait neige encore.” “It’s snowing again.” Not much snow, mind you, but it brings to an end a record 335 consecutive days without at least one inch of snow on the ground. This, coupled with below normal rainfall and one of the hottest summers on record last year has left the landscape of Midewin as dry, as arid, as sere as I’ve ever seen it.

121122 prairie creek pond

“Pourquoi?” “Why?” Well, argue with the cause all you may, but this is what climate change looks like. Prairie Creek Pond, a relict ox bow of Prairie Creek, is fast disappearing.

The many ditches that yet run through Midewin, relicts of its farming and arsenal past, have gone completely dry. The mix of wetland and wet prairies that dot many of the restored areas of Midewin are devoid of, well, much of anything that’s wet.

Many people I meet are thrilled that we have “escaped” winter. No snow is first and foremost a matter of personal convenience. No shoveling. No messy commutes to work.

I, too, appreciate not having to shovel snow before commuting to my job downtown. But come springtime, will there be enough water in Prairie Creek Pond to support the full chorus of toads and frogs that fill the cool evening air with melodious mating calls?

Abandoned beaver dam on a relict drainage ditch

Will enough water return to the ditches to support the beaver that made this now-abandoned dam? Will there be enough standing water in South Patrol Road Prairie, Grant Creek Prairie and other restored areas to support returning flocks of ducks, geese, cranes and other water-loving birds?

Even more so than in the poetry of my youth, I see, I sense, I feel a great fatigue in the arid earth. A weariness. A sadness. But what to do? Getting your mind around something as big and complex as climate change can be a real brain cruncher. So much so that putting your head in the sand sometimes seems like a perfectly rationale response: “Ne pas a penser. Ne pas a choisir,” as I concluded in my poem. “To not think. To not choose.”

110127 cutting honeysuckle

Fortunately, there are many dedicated volunteers and staff at Midewin who remind me that restoring such a large, landscape scale site is one of the best ways to mitigate the effects of climate change. And so, I do what I can. I help clean seeds, plant prairie plugs, cut buckthorn, yank garlic mustard and monitor grassland birds.

If I were to write a French poem today about how it feels to help recover healthy populations of native plants and animals at Midewin, it might go something like this:

“Bon.”

“Good.”cropped-120630-green-frog.jpg

 

110731 iron bridge prairie

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

sandpiper

Upland sandpipers – an Illinois state-endangered species – add a bit of humorous counterpoint with their wolf-call whistles.

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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.

kildeer

 

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.

A Thorny Issue

It’s another cold morning with a sharp wind out of the west. But once you get lopping, you’re plenty warm. Hewing down Osage orange shrubs is rather like tangling with an octopus crossed with a mad cat. Each of several long arms is littered with sharp thorns, whose scratches feel particularly delightful on chapped cheeks. Even more fun are the Osage oranges intertwined with multiflora rose. Double the prickles (the correct, if silly-sounding scientific name for thorns.) Double the fun.

For a change, we’re working on the east side of Midewin today. Since Midewin was established in 1996, most of the restoration work has been concentrated on the west side of Route 53 – the former Route 66 – which divides the 20,000-acre site roughly in half. Over the years, I’ve spent many an hour cutting brush, pulling garlic mustard, planting seedlings, even damming up a troublesome culvert in the six west side restoration areas: South Patrol Road Prairie, Drummond Prairie, Blodgett Road Prairie, Grant Creek and Little Grant Creek Prairies, Prairie Creek Woods, and a prairie area located directly opposite of Midewin’s welcome center.

On the east side, there are only three restoration areas: Doyle Lake and Iron Bridge Prairies and a small patch around the welcome sign. All told, across both the east and west sides, there are about 2,000 acres under active restoration. That leaves about 18,000 acres – or 90 percent of Midewin – awaiting restoration. But that doesn’t mean that the land lies fallow or unmanaged.

Today, for instance, we’re cutting brush along an abandoned rail line in the middle of a cow pasture. At least that’s the way it might look to some. Actually, what we’re doing is more accurately described as helping to protect some of the most endangered birds in the world.

midewin logo

As farmers plowed the vast Illinois prairie into one big farm, many grassland birds adapted to life in soy bean fields and hay pastures. But as farm fields have given way to more and more subdivisions and shopping malls, many species of grassland birds have found themselves on the threatened and endangered list. The eastern meadowlark, for instance, a common grassland bird that graces the logo of Midewin, has declined by 72 percent over the past 40 years. As a New York Times editorial pointed out, “this is not extinction, but it is how things look before extinction happens.”

Until such time as more of Midewin can be reclaimed as prairie, modern-day cattle play the historic role of bison, keeping the land free of weedy vegetation. Keeping volunteers and staff on lopper patrol along former arsenal-era rail lines helps keep invasive trees and shrubs at bay, allowing for the wide open habitat that grassland birds require. (Trees and shrubs tend to harbor predators that prey upon grassland bird nests, which are on the ground.)

meadowlarkSo, yes, it’s cold, hard work. And I’m sure to be picking some imbedded prickle tips out of my legs when I get home. But it’s worth it. Beyond my modest membership contributions to conservation organizations, I can’t directly save the rainforests where birds spend the winter, or protect critical “layover” habitat along the thousands of miles of their migration routes. But what I can do is spend an occasional winter morning cutting brush to ensure that critically-imperiled grassland birds have a home here. To feed. To breed. To raise their young. And to return after year to fill our skies with song.