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.

 

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.

bluebells
bluebells

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

 

 

Thinking like a Prairie

I have encountered many coyotes at Midewin. There is nothing quite like their hair-raising yips and yelps haunting the sunset hours. Theirs is the call of the wild that nourishes that small sliver of wildness that yet remains within me. Therefore, it came as an especially sad shock to come across this coyote, abuzz with flies.

How old she was, how long she’d been dead and what she might have died of, I couldn’t say. Looking into her eyes, however – something only death afforded me the chance to do this close up – I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a haunting essay in which he reflected on the”fierce green fire” that he watched go out in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot:

I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

I have never hunted, but I know those who do. And to a person they are united in their wish for fewer coyotes, believing that would lead to more pheasant, more deer. I don’t have children or pets, but there a number of news accounts about city and suburban dwellers likewise calling for the control or elimination of coyotes to protect kith and kin, as well as kittens and canines.

Like Leopold and his youthful “understanding” about wolves, a lot of myth and misinformation surrounds coyotes; something the Cook County Coyote Project endeavors to address through research and public education. Coyotes have adapted their behaviors surprisingly well and become an indelible part of our urban/suburban existence.

However, among the many things I love about Midewin is that its 19,000 acres of recovering prairie affords the opportunity for a coyote to remember what it is to be a true coyote; inhabiting wide open spaces, hunting voles and mice amid tall prairie grasses. Free of cars, people, noise, congestion and the myriad pitfalls that it faces as a refugee in the urban environment.

Midewin also affords me the opportunity to experience a coyote, a “ghost of the praire” as they were commonly known, in its native element. A summer or two ago, I was hiking through South Patrol Road Prairie – one of the earliest restoration areas at Midewin – when a handful of coyote pups tumbled out onto the path. So busy were they in wrestling with each other that they didn’t notice me at first. When they finally did, they were more curious than alarmed, and abandoned me only when they no longer could resist chasing each other back through the prairie grasses.

Staring into the eyes of the dead coyote, I sensed that there was, indeed, something known only to her and the prairie. Which makes her and her kind – no less than the returning grassland birds and the soon-to-be-reintroduced bison – an integral, wonderfully mysterious part of the healing prairie landscape of Midewin.

 

Illiana Illin’

Following the recent vote by the MPO Planning Committee to approve running a major tollroad through the heart of the Midewin complex, I simply had to come out to Midewin and relish the peace and quiet of the place before major road construction begins. In truth, there remains a slim chance that the tollroad won’t be built. It yet may prove too expensive for the much heralded (but still unidentified) private partners. The state yet may balk at having to backstop millions of dollars of profits for private interests.

But lost in all the raging debate about dollars and politics and legal challenges are the simple, unquantifiable joys of Midewin. And a late-autumn afternoon provides the perfect lens through which to relish them.

131020 aster

131020-godenrod.jpg

For many, I would imagine, this time of the year the restored prairie lands of Midewin appear little more than fallow fields. Of weeds. Dead weeds. Of course, just below the surface, the roots of some 250 different species of native grasses and flowers are very much alive. And to the patient observer, there remain last, lovely snatches of life and color to be observed above ground.

But even as their life energy recedes into the soil for a long, winter slumber, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to view the husks of towering prairie plants – some reaching more than ten feet tall – as sculptural works of art, set against scrims of scudding clouds.

Among the many joys of strolling through the 750-acre prairie husk gallery of South Patrol Road Prairie is listening to the subtle sounds of the prairie. Juncos and American tree sparrows delicately chirp their return for the winter. Crickets sing from hidden caches in the grasses. Grasshoppers, as you walk along the path, leap frog out your way, throwing their hard bodies against the dry, sandpaper paper leaves of compass plants.

Occasionally, a semi-truck will wend its way along River Road, that runs along the edge of South Patrol Road Prairie – just as the Illiana is proposed to do along nearly the entire southern boundary of Midewin. Just that one truck, its whining wheels like nails on a chalkboard in the otherwise serene soundscape of the place, is enough to drown out the prairie, to shatter the sanctuary that it is.

Mercifully, the truck passes. Your ears and eyes reatune themselves to the prairie. And you love it all the more in light of its potential loss.

 

Easter Blessing

Oh, good people. Let’s to the fields of Midewin. Spring is springing.

At first blush, the landscape may look rather grey and uninviting, but look first with your ears. The meadowlarks have returned and are among the earliest songbirds to fill the air with their melodies: sol-ti-do-mi-do. (For those of you who know solfege, feel free to sing along.)

Not to be outdone, song sparrows throw back their heads and let loose with a tuneful blend of whistles, chirps and buzzes.

If songbirds are today’s featured soloists, downy woodpeckers peep piccolo-like descants, the wing beats of wood ducks are fluttering flutes, red-winged blackbirds ratchet out a rhythm, and chorus frogs comprise the back-up band.

With its wings spread wide as it glides low over the prairie, a northern harrier seems less hunter than conductor. A coyote cocks its head and listens intently. For a mouse? A vole? Or, might she, too, be taking a moment out of her day to delight in the sounds, sights and smells of early spring?

For me, this moment, this clear, warming morning, this natural symphony is underscored by a leitmotif that runs involuntarily through my mind; the opening line of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Like Leopold, I cannot. And for that, on this day before Easter,  I give thanks for Midewin and the return, the recovery, the resurrection of my native prairie state. Amen.

Easter

Easter. To my way of thinking, there’s no better church to celebrate the essence of the day than Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Like many Christian holidays, Easter has strong pagan origins. According to some sources, the word Easter comes from Eostre (or Eastra), the Teutonic Goddess of Spring and fertility.

Midewin is a 20,000-acre altar in which fertility, re-birth and resurrection are everywhere apparent. If you know where to look and what you’re looking at.

At first glance, Iron Bridge Prairie may seem nothing but a shorn farm field.

120408 iron bridge prairie

But look closely and you’ll see tender shoots of prairie grasses and wildflowers emerging from the dead stubble. Two years ago, this area was a monoculture of soybeans. Today, it has been re-born as a prairie teeming with upwards of 100 different kinds of prairie plants.

meadowlarkIf you listen closely, you’ll hear eastern meadowlarks – which require healthy prairie habitat to feed and raise their young – fitted out in their golden choir robes with black stoles, singing celebratory descants that rival those sung in any church. (And I say this with some authority, having sung professionally at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.)

In spite of the mild winter and early spring, it’s still a little early for prairie plants to be in bloom. But the wooded areas of Midewin are another story. Under the sheltering canopies of ancient oaks in Prairie Creek Woods lie a host of spring ephemerals.

120408 phlox
Woodland Phlox
120408 spring beauties
Spring Beauties

May Apples are not yet in bloom, but their umbrella-like leaves shelter promising buds. (To see May Apples in full bloom, check out the next blog post.)

120408 may apples

And for those who require something distinctly more church-like, may I recommend a Jack in the pulpit.

120408 jack in the pulpit

On my knees to better appreciate the spring wildflowers carpeting the woodland floor, I can’t help think of the Psalm: “For as much as ye did unto the least of mine, ye did unto Me.”

It is, unfortunately, another Psalm that too often has guided us in our relationship to most if not all things great and small in nature: “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.” Certainly this is true in Illinois, where less than one-tenth of one percent of quality natural area remains. When Midewin was established in 1996, less than three percent of its 20,000 acres remained in native vegetation of any quality at all.

But at Midewin – and many other restoration sites scattered throughout the region – I believe that we as a people yet have a shot at redemption. We can roll up our sleeves and volunteer to help preserve and restore what little nature is left. And in so doing, give meaning to the hymn that’s being sung this very morning in churches all across the world: “For the beauty of the earth, For the glory of the skies…hill and vale and tree and flower, Sun and moon and stars of light…For the joy of ear and eye, For the heart and mind’s delight…Lord of all to thee we raise, This is our hymn of grateful praise.”

Perhaps that’s essentially what the meadowlarks are singing. And perhaps what a lone garter snake – that most reviled of Biblical creatures – likewise senses from the same sun that warms us both on this brisk Easter morning.

120408 garter snake

A View from the Bunker

010127 bunker 1

From a certain distance, they might be mistaken for haystacks. Or Indian burial mounds. Or Hobbit homes. Even up close, it can be a little hard to imagine them for what they are: storage bunkers for millions of bombs and a million tons of TNT. Harder still, perhaps, to imagine them returning to prairie.

The bunkers are relicts from the former Joliet arsenal, without which there would be no Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

120211 bunker field

Prior to the United States’ entry into WWII, the federal government launched a massive armament campaign. It built 77 ammunition plants all across the country, with six located in Illinois. The largest and most sophisticated combined facility was the one constructed just south of Joliet along historic Route 66. The federal government originally acquired more than 36,000 acres of farmland at a cost of $8.1 million. It laid down hundreds of miles of rails and roads, built more than 1,500 buildings, and constructed nearly 400 storage bunkers (or igloos as they were originally known) for an additional cost of $113 million.

120211 bunker side view

The bunkers were constructed of reinforced concrete and mounded with earth in such a way as to withstand and direct any accidental explosions upward rather than to the sides, which might ignite a chain reaction among surrounding bunkers.

120211 bunker interior

A small number of bunkers have been removed from one wetland restoration area, but the cost of dismantling structures that were built to withstand concentrated bomb blasts is, as you might imagine, prohibitive. In the mean time, they are a good place to escape the bitter winds on such a sub-zero wind chill day as today. Even more importantly, they provide a promontory from which to survey the dynamic interface between former farm fields, former arsenal land and future prairie.

120211 bunker view pond
Across an access road to one of the bunker fields, some natural hydrology is reemerging; the likely result of failed drain tiles from Midewin’s agricultural past.

 

120211 bunker view osage orange
Bunkers aren’t the only non-native elements that need to be removed – the osage orange trees in the foreground are “volunteer” escapees from hedgerows planted by pioneer farmers prior to the establishment of the arsenal.

 

A Winter Walk

At long last, winter has arrived at Midewin. The welcome cold quickens the senses. A fresh blanket of snow reveals some of her secrets and subtler beauties. Enjoy.

120114 seed beds
River Road Seed Beds
120114 prairie forest
A “forest” of spent wildflowers in ice
120114 oak
The architecture of oaks in Prairie Creek Woods
120114 hawthorn
A hawthorn tree in sharp relief in Prairie Creek Woods
120114 creek
A creek meanders to Button Bush Pond
120114 beaver dam
A beaver clan reclaims a remnant drainage ditch

 

120114 fencerow
A hedgerow of glacial erratics
120114 sprp compass plant
A compass plant carcass in South Patrol Road Prairie