Spring is Sprung

It seemed like forever since I’d been out to Midewin. How thrilling it was to be back among so many good friends, themselves absent (or slumbering or merely unseen) for so long.

May apples, wake robin and toothwort
May apples, wake robin and toothwort

Where to begin? Let’s start with spring ephemerals since, as their name implies, they are with us but a very short time. Each spring, I make a beeline to Prairie Creek Woods, a remnant oak woodland alongside its namesake creek. The more restoration, the more woodland wildflowers. Spring beauties, smooth yellow violets, common phlox, wake robin and May apples to name a few.


But there is a secret place in the woods, beside the creek, to which I return like a faithful lover. Waiting for me there is a cloistered stand of bluebells. Just for me. And every year, I return their love by searching among the blossoms for sprigs of garlic mustard and yank them out, to ensure the bluebells do not become overrun  with this highly invasive weed; to ensure that bluebells return healthy each and every spring.

Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie
Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie

To ensure that the recovering prairie returns each and every spring, the US Forest Service’s Hot Shot Team conducts controlled burns. This year was a record setter for the number of acres cleared by fire, returning vital nutrients to the soil. Man, I do loves me some reemergent prairie vegetation following a burn. Nothing makes me so happy as to spy intensely spring green shoots rising up out of the rich, blackened soils.

Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements
Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements

The cleansing nature of fire reveals, too, some hidden secrets. Cleared of vegetation, the foundations of old farm buildings, shards of pottery and glass, homestead walls comprised of glacial erratics cleared from the surrounding fields, are stark reminders of Midewin’s agricultural past, when pioneer farmers first cleared the land of its prairie vegetation.

And, of course, the birds. My lovely birds. Blue-winged teals and hooded mergansers. Kildeers and snipes. White-throated sparrows and the first palm warbler of the season. Blue-grey gnat catchers and red-headed woodpeckers. Forty species in all. Apologies for the lack of bird pictures – sometimes I need to leave the camera at home and just relish them through the binocs. But I did manage to snap a cellphone pic of the sandhill crane.

It’s no accident, of course, that the name of my blog is A Midewin Almanac, an homage to Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. And for me the sight and sound of that crane crystalizes that connection. It calls instantly to mind a passage from his Marshland Elegy: “When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our unatamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Their annual return is the ticking of the geological clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.”

Midewin is – for cranes, for all prairie plants and creatures, for me – a safe harbor. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. It is, in short, home.I loves me some fire



Earth Day at Midewin

120421 garlic mustard

If it’s April, it must be time to pull garlic mustard. Even at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which contains several stands of remnant woodland areas.

Garlic mustard is a pretty plant, with clusters of white flowers atop slender stalks swirled with heart-shaped, scalloped-edged leaves. Introduced as a culinary herb, its leaves make for a nice, garlic-tinged pesto.

But particularly in this instance, looks (and taste) can be deceptive. Non-native to North America, garlic mustard escaped the kitchen gardens of early settlers and invaded woodlands throughout the northeast and Midwest. With each plant producing hundreds of seeds, it quickly displaces native wildflowers, turning our woodlands from healthy tapestries to unhealthy monocultures.

In this, garlic mustard reminds me of Bill Cosby’s “The Chicken Heart that ate New York City.” But instead of spreading Jell-o to avoid being devoured by the monster invader (listen to Cosby’s sketch and you’ll know what I mean), getting rid of garlic mustard typically requires spending only a pleasant day in the woods pulling the invader out by the roots.

120421 garlic mustard volunteers

As pernicious as garlic mustard is, it pulls out of the ground fairly easily. Today, with nearly 50 pairs of volunteer hands making light work, we manage to clear enough garlic mustard out of Midewin’s Bluebell Woods to fill dozens of large garbage bags (a record-setting 1,155 pounds, according to Volunteer Coordinator, Alison Cisneros.)

120421 bluebells

Part of the reward for this work is getting up close and personal with the many different kinds of spring wildflowers we’re trying to save. With the early spring, the bluebells for which Bluebell Woods is named are nearly past their peak blooming.

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But woodland phlox has more than stepped up with myriad clusters of pale lavender blossoms.

And then there are swamp buttercups and red trillium.

120421 red trillium

Among the many kinds of woodland wildflowers, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But near the top of the list has to be May apples, whose creamy white blossoms lie half-hidden under Lilliputian, umbrella-like leaves.

120421 may apple

And then there are Jacks in the pulpit, which would be right at home in a children’s book illustrated by Dr. Seuss. Getting down on your hands and knees to pull garlic mustard is a great way get a good peek at these exquisite spring ephemerals.

120421 jack in the pulpitAnd if any more reward for the day were required, today the Midewin Tallgrass Alliance has provided a picnic lunch alongside Prairie Creek.

120421 garlic mustard volunteers 2

A Tale of Two Aliens

OK. So I’m a bird snob. I admit it. Aside from the occasional cardinal, mourning dove or goldfinch – or once in a blue moon, some passing-through warbler – the only birds to visit my backyard pond are house sparrows and starlings. The avian equivalents of garlic mustard and buckthorn.

house sparrow with stop sign I admit I harbor deeply unpleasant thoughts about the house sparrow. The first 50 pairs of this Eurasian-originated bird were intentionally released in Brooklyn, NY in 1851. Within two decades, the house sparrow was the most populous bird species in Illinois and many other states. As early as 1891, Illinois put a bounty on the head of this noisy, obnoxious bird for its devouring of livestock feed and decimation of many native bird species. Sadly, it didn’t work.

Even as I write this, a specimen of this Satan species is perched just outside my window, its incessantly repetitive shrieks of a call like having a gym teacher from hell blowing short, sharp whistle bursts directly in your ear every two seconds.

Deeply unpleasant thoughts.

And so I escape as often as I can to Midewin, to bask in the company of birds. Native birds. Midewin is big enough and diverse enough in its habitats – even at this early stage of recovery – to accommodate lots of different kinds of native birds. I’ve seen more than 100 different species so far this year. Many of them at risk because of non-native species, both plants and birds.

Yes, there are non-native birds at Midewin, too. Like starlings, for instance. First released in America in 1890 by some New Yorkers obsessed with introducing all of the bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, this species expanded into Illinois by 1922 and today effectively saturates the entire state.

During spring and fall, you’re likely to find them in great, locust-like swarms.

At Midewin, starlings flock around the cows. Or, more accurately, around the cow pies, feasting on the bugs they attract. ‘Zounds, what would Shakespeare think of that?

While the debate around the issue of native vs. non-native (or exotic or alien) species is a complex and often heated one, for me, the key difference between the two is naturally-introduced vs. introduced by humans. In contrast to house sparrows and European starlings, the cattle egret made it to Midewin all on its own. Native to subtropical Africa and Asia, this species found its evolutionary niche in foraging in the wake of zebras, wildebeests and other large mammals.

With the spread of domesticated cattle herding, the eponymously-named cattle egret greatly expanded its territory on it own. It first made it to North American shores in 1941. Today, this smallest of our “native” egrets, is found at Midewin.

cattle egret 3As widespread as the cattle egret has become, it doesn’t cause crop damage, as do sparrows and starlings. It doesn’t compete with native bird species, such as bluebirds and woodpeckers, leading to their demise. In fact, this morning, while monitoring grassland birds, I enjoy watching an evolutionary symbiotic relationship unfold: a cattle egret nipping insects directly from the hides of the local herd. While starlings pick their vittles out of the poop.

Invasives at Home

110511 garlic mustard 1

Perhaps it’s only fitting that during Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month I would find one of the most pervasive plants invading our woodlands growing just down the very urban block where I live. Whether the several garlic mustard plants growing in a neighbor’s front yard were purposefully planted, I don’t know. They are pretty and their leaves make for a nice pesto.

But certainly the garlic mustard growing up out of cracks in the sidewalk are volunteers and indicative of just how aggressive this non-native species can be. Each plant can produce up to nearly 8,000 seeds, which, unchecked, will certainly spread to neighboring yards, down railroad corridors and into our local forest preserves.

110511 garlic mustard 2

So far this year, volunteers have helped protect our woodlands by removing 12,206 pounds of garlic mustard from several sites throughout northeastern Illinois, including Bluebell Woods at Midewin. (For updates and more information, go to the Northeast Illinois Invasive Plant Partnership http://www.phcwpma.org/GarlicMustard.cfm.)

Even if my neighbor purposefully planted some garlic mustard, like most people he was probably unaware that such plants are destroying what remains of our native woodlands, wetlands and grasslands.

110511 buckthorn and honeysuckle

Another neighbor boasts fine, manicured specimens of European buckthorn and Japanese honeysuckle. Every time I walk past his house, I can’t help but think of the hours I’ve spent hacking and chopping these highly aggressive non-native shrubs out of grassland bird habitat at Midewin.

110511 honeysuckle

Every October, another neighbor of mine ventures into some of the Calumet wetland areas and harvests armfuls of phragmytes, which overruns wetland areas even more so than garlic mustard does woodlands. He ties up the 10-foot stalks with feathery seed heads into something resembling bundled corn shocks and then displays them in his front yard along with Halloween decorations. At Midewin, this ill-considered import from Asia has escaped from roadside areas and established a toehold in the middle of South Patrol Road Prairie – the oldest and largest restoration area at Midewin.

110511 barberry

Several Pullman neighbors have Japanese barberry bushes in their yards. Although not as aggressive as buckthorn and honeysuckle, they are showing up with increasing frequency in wooded areas at Midewin and elsewhere, courtesy of birds who feast on their berries and leave the seeds behind in their droppings.

Like many of my friends and neighbors in Pullman, I am equally proud of my garden (the subject of a profile in the current issue of Chicagoland Gardening Magazine, by the way.) In line with my love of wild nature, my garden boasts more than 40 different species of native prairie and woodland plants. However, I’ve got a few non-natives growing. Some roses. Clematis. Nothing that is an ecological threat. Or so I thought.

110511 lily of the valleyTurns out Eurasian lilies of the valley are proving a slow but steady threat to forest areas, as well as to my parkway where they are battling native anemone for dominance. I haven’t yet seen any at Midewin, but I’m not taking any chances. Out they’re coming this weekend.

Dappled Things

110423 bluebells

Bluebell Woods at Midewin. The perfect place to celebrate Earth Day. (Or at least the first Saturday after.) As the name implies, Bluebell Woods are teeming with bluebells and many other woodland ephemerals – tiny flowers that burst forth from the leaf litter before the tree leaves emerge and shade out the sun.

Unfortunately, our native wildflowers are at great risk of being overrun by non-native garlic mustard. Over the past couple of years, the garlic mustard at Bluebell Woods has been kept in check by a dedicated volunteer effort to remove it. And so, today it’s our turn to venture into the woods with collection sacks strapped to our waists.

110423 garlic mustard pull 1

Truly, there is little to rival a healthy spring woodland in the morning. I’m hardly a religious man, but upon entering the woods the first line of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem springs immediately to mind: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” The early morning sun slants through the budding trees, throwing dappled light upon dew-washed mosses and greenery dotted with the yellows of swamp buttercups, the pink and white of spring beauties, the speckled leaves of trillium and trout lilies…

110423 trillium

The Lilliputian umbrels of May apples…

110423 may apples

And of course the purple-periwinkle of Virginia bluebells.

110423 bluebells 2

110423 spring beauties and mustard

Yanking garlic mustard out of a woodland feels a little like liberating France. An overstatement, sure, but there is something profoundly gratifying in removing such a pernicious invasive from an area dotted with so much beauty. Once established, colonies of garlic mustard can blitzkrieg through our woodlands at a rate of up to 120 feet per year to the virtual exclusion of all other woodland wildflowers.

Or, a handful of volunteers can spend a lovely morning in the woods, liberating them for the sheer love of dappled things and the God or Gods that made them.

110423 garlic mustard pull 2


Cavorting with the Enemy

white tail deer 1

This past weekend I attended a state-sanctioned Hunter Safety Training course, a first step toward going on my first deer hunt next fall at Midewin. In some circles, this makes me a traitor. A Benedict Arnold. Hunters are the enemy. They’re not nature lovers. They’re killers.

The fact is, most everyone involved in natural areas restoration is a killer of some kind. While some may limit their activities to monitoring birds or butterflies or planting native plant plugs, many saw, chop and lop down invasive plants – including some aggressive native species such as gray dogwood – and treat the stumps with a heavy concentration of herbicide to kill the plants at their roots. Many participate in prescribed burns, setting controlled fire to natural areas, which kills off undesirable plant species along with a fair number of native insects and other critters that fail to escape the flames.

deer browse lineMany restorationists likewise understand that excess populations of native white-tailed deer must be killed in order to restore the health our woodlands. Drive by most forest preserves in Northeastern Illinois and you’ll see a distinct browse line, with deer having consumed virtually everything on the ground and on trees up to a height of about five feet. At Midewin, nine-foot chain link fences now surround the native plant seed beds to keep out deer that previously mowed through the beds like a plague of locusts. However, few restorationists actually take up a gun and do the deer killing themselves. But that often doesn’t stop them from looking down their noses at the hunters they rely upon to do the dirty work for them.

Of course, the hunting community is hardly short of individuals who return the favor by disparaging the entire environmental community as a bunch of “tree huggers” and “Bambi lovers.”

I didn’t have to attend hunter safety training in order to apply for a hunting license in the State of Illinois. Anyone born before 1984 is exempt. However, never having hunted before, it seemed to me the common sense thing to do, just as last fall I had enrolled in a course to be certified to assist with conducting controlled burns.

In truth, there was a significant degree in common between the two training courses. Both of them lasted about the same amount of time over two days. More importantly, both emphasized safety, safety, safety. Hunting and burning are activities that can have beneficial effects, but both involve no small amount of risk. To property. To human life.

For this reason, hunting and burning also share in common a fair amount of opposition. In part because some fundamentally oppose them, no matter their positive effects. Or for moral and ethical reasons. Or because they don’t understand the why’s and wherefore’s of each.

I’ve never hunted in my life. Never had the least desire to do so. The closest I’ve come is holding a trapped squirrel over a big bucket of water to drown it. Over the years, I’ve trapped a hundred or more squirrels in my backyard and transported them to various forest preserves. The main reason I do so is to keep squirrels from taking up residence in my attic as they have done on several occasions, repeatedly chewing through the wood soffits on my historic home. On one occasion, a squirrel some how got into my house while I was out of town and tried to get out by chewing through the sashes of my newly-installed historic replication windows. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to drown even a squirrel that caused significant damage to my home. So it will be interesting to see if I can pull the trigger on a deer that causes significant damage to a treasured natural area.

The two-day hunting safety course was good. In addition to firearm safety, a great deal of emphasis was placed on being a responsible and ethical hunter. Quoting Aldo Leopold, “the father of wildlife management,” the instruction manual stressed “ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Doing the right thing includes respecting natural resources, landowners, hunters and non-hunters alike. It includes obeying the law, exercising good judgment, safe judgment. It includes the concept of “fair chase,” a concept first purportedly developed in the Middle Ages and formalized in this country by the Boone and Crockett Club (founded by the conservation president Teddy Roosevelt) and woven into the laws of many states.

For all the information about doing the right thing ethically, there ran through the comments and conversations of the 60 or so people taking the course, and even occasionally among the instructors, a polite but pointed undertone of “us” against “them:” we need to do the right thing because “environmentalists” want to take away our sport; the government wants to take away our rights. Or, as one camo-clad dad of two young kids preparing for their first hunt chimed in unapologetically, “Democrats suck.”

hunter safety card

When I explained to a few folks why I was taking the course, they appreciated that someone from the “other side” would bother to walk in their shoes (or Gore-Tex hunting boots) for a change. “No one understands nature better than a hunter” was a common refrain. Come next November, I’ll see for myself. Between now and then, however, as I learned from the course, I’ve got a lot of practicing with a firearm to do so I can go into the field confident, prepared, safe and responsible.

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.

Restoring a Bedside Table-Worth of Prairie

A light dusting of snow is falling as I leave the house at 8 a.m. Traffic is light, but the skies thicken as I head southwest from Chicago. Within a mile of Midewin, the light dusting turns into a near squall, with big, fat flakes coming down fast and furious in a swirling wind.

010127 bunker 1

But that doesn’t keep 14 volunteers from heading out to cut brush. We caravan to a sight immediately west of where I did my grassland bird monitoring last year – part of a 350-acre parcel that includes a former bunker field. Throughout Midewin, there are several bunker fields. Built of reinforced concrete and covered with mounded earth, the Quonset hut-like structures – also know as “igloos” – were used to cure TNT or store munitions during the Joliet arsenal years. Today, the constant temperatures within the bunkers make them ideal for overwintering native prairie plant seedlings. But in the swirling snow, it would take little imagination to see them as Hobbit hollows if only a little wood smoke escaped from their vent stacks.

Until such time as the bunker field can be returned to prairie, it has been regularly mowed to keep invasive plant species at bay. Soon, the entire site will be herbicided to kill off all of the non-native weeds and grasses, providing a clean slate for prairie plugs and seeds. However, here and there are a few pockets where rare native prairie species have hung on in spite of all the changes to the landscape over the years. To protect these rare species, such pockets will not be blanket herbicided. Rather, it’s our job today to cut invasive brush by hand and then dab each cut stump with herbicide that kills only the intended target.

And so we get to work on multiflora rose, autumn olive and some kind of willow. Left untended, these non-native invasives will form thickets that crowd out native species. Fortunately, other work crews have done the heavy lifting before us. What’s left for us to do is nip sprouts that have sprung from seed or resprouts from insufficiently treated stumps. Pencil-thin, the sprouts and resprouts are easily snipped using hand pruning shears. For the occasional thicker stems, a pair of loppers makes short work. We snip and lop in teams, with one or two cutters trailed by a state-certified herbicide applicator, who “paints” each six-inch stem with garlon dyed a deep blue so it’s easy to see what’s been treated.

sullivants coneflower

Without an application of herbicide, invasives will only resprout, often more vigorously than before, crowding out such rare prairie gems as Sullivant’s coneflower (Rudbeckiafulgida var. sullivantii.) Found in just a few counties in Illinois, this native forb – a flowering plant that dies down to the ground over winter – is one of several varieties of coneflower. In the dead of winter, it’s merely a branched stem of spent seed heads. But come next August, it will burst forth with deep yellow flowers to rival those of black-eyes Susans; a species with which it is often confused. In a conservation assessment for Sullivant’s coneflower published in 2004, Midewin’s horticulturist, Eric Ulaszek, identified several remnant populations on site, including its occasional colonization of bunker fields such as the one we’re working in this morning.

In brief, our goal in cutting brush is to help native prairie species such as Sullivant’s coneflower successfully compete. Prior to human settlement, naturally-occurring fires largely kept competition from woody species – trees and shrubs – from overrunning the prairie landscape. Once humans suppressed fire, trees and shrubs crept across the landscape almost as aggressively as the farmer’s plow. And if that one-two combination wasn’t enough, the introduction of fast-growing non-native species all but killed off the prairie. A survey conducted in the late 1970s revealed that seven-hundredths of one percent of quality native prairie remained anywhere in Illinois.

cw report card

As I pointed out in The State of our Chicago Wilderness: a Report Card on the Health of the Region’s Ecosystems (http://www.chicagowilderness.org/pdf/cw_report_card_summary.pdf), to get a sense of how little that is imagine a 2,500 square-foot home. Seven-hundredths of one percent equals 1.75 square feet – about the footprint of a small bedside table. Now imagine that table broken up into hundreds of smaller pieces and scattered throughout the house. That’s about the state of our prairie in the Prairie State.

Once Midewin’s 20,000 acres are restored – and it’s going to take many years to undo the changes wrought over the past century and a half – they will constitute nearly enough prairie to equal that bedside table – all in one place – in a 2,500 square-foot home.