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.

Upper Embarras Woods

Spring beauties are for everyone to enjoy: they occur in every county in Illinois

This past week, Susan and I didn’t find any pasque flowers at Harlem Hills Nature Preserve. Eager to get a jump on spring, we took advantage of our downstate trip to seek out some woodland ephemerals. We were not disappointed.  The forest floor of Upper Embarras Woods — our 14th dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve of the year — is carpeted with spring beauties.

There is but one dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Douglas County and it is a gem. The Upper Embarras (pronounced em-bragh) Woods is a 65-acre inholding within Walnut Point State Park. It lies immediately adjacent to a stretch of the Embarras River, itself designated by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory as a biologically significant stream for its outstanding diversity of habitat features, including gravel bars, gravel-sand raceways, sandbars, riffles, and deep pools.

The nature preserve encompasses old growth forest of giant white oaks and hickories. These elders provide perfect habitat for a host of woodland birds, including red-bellied, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers–all three of which we relished today, along with oodles of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, brown creepers and white-sided nuthatches,

This time of year, in many wooded areas, you are likely to see only a patch or two of woodland wildflowers, mostly due to a lack of management. Too many of our protected natural areas are overrun with non-native invasives, including buckthorn and honeysuckle. These shrubby invasives quickly spread and crowd out native plant species, which is bad for the health of our woodlands and, well, pretty crappy for those of us who seek them out for their sheer beauty.

The periodic use of fire keeps the nature preserve relatively free of honeysuckle and other invasives

At Upper Embarras Woods, the spring beauties were everywhere, indicative that the nature preserve portion of the park is well managed. Fire scars on the trees indicate regular controlled burns, which emulate the natural wildfires that used to keep the woodland understory relatively open — necessary for a healthy mix of spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and other woodland wildflowers, as well as for seedling oaks and hickories.

Notice the difference? That shrubby wall of green is highly invasive honeysuckle

By way of comparison, just on the other side of the path — across from the nature preserve — there are virtually no spring beauties. Why? Well, at first blush all those bushes might look nice and green. But they are honesuckle bushes. They are the first to leaf out, which robs wildflowers and tree seedlings of the light and nutrients they need to survive.

White-tailed deer are native to Illinois, but sometimes they, too, need to be controlled least they eat and destroy our woodland wildflowers

Sufficiently managing all of our protected natural areas — including dedicated nature preserves — remains a big challenge. Budgets are tight. Resources are scarce. But an early spring walk along the path that separates Upper Embarras Woods Nature Preserve from the rest of Walnut Point State Park reminds us why we need to find a way — on one side, an abundance of health and beauty, on the other side…well, there remains much more work to be done.

Another spring beauty alongside the namesake river of the Upper Embarras Nature Preserve

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

 

 

Imagine

A field sparrow in full voice with its telltale "bouncing ping pong ball" trill.
A field sparrow in full voice with its telltale “bouncing ping pong ball” trill.

I gave up religion a long time ago. Yet, here I am hiking through the restored woodlands and prairies of Midewin on Easter Sunday with strains of “Jesus Christ is risen today…” wafting through my head. Does this mark a relapse, a return to the religious roots of my childhood?

Perhaps. In a way. The resurrection of Christ, the return of songbirds, the re-emergence of woodland ephemerals, the recovery of the prairie following a spring burn? I’m thinking perhaps, maybe, imagine, it’s all one.

I was raised in the United Church of Christ and attended Sunday school and eventually Sunday services, well, religiously through my high school years. I was a frequent soloist with the adult choir and directed the children’s choir. Graduating from college with a music degree, I was hired by Holy Name Cathedral – seat of the archdiocese of Chicago – to sing in its professional choir. Although I am not Catholic, it is there that I fell in love with the pageantry of the Mass, the sacred grandeur of the sanctuary, the chant that transported me and the entire congregation to an otherworldly place.

For reasons that are the subject of another story, I fell away from church and singing both. And for many years, I searched, I wandered. Quietly.

My backyard garden, brimming with native plants.
My backyard garden, brimming with native plants.

I’m not quite sure how I got bit by the nature bug, other than it took precisely an extended time of wandering and quietude in places ranging from backyard garden to national parks to allow what latent affinity there was to blossom.

A recent controlled burn at Midewin removes invasives and replenishes the soils, setting the stage for the return of more than a hundred native prairie species.
A recent controlled burn at Midewin removes invasives and replenishes the soils, setting the stage for the return of more than a hundred native prairie species.

However, my love for nature came into full flower in discovering Midewin. For here is the living embodiment of the resurrection. Throughout Illinois, there remains less than one-tenth of one percent of natural land; and of that tiny fraction, an even smaller fraction remains of native tallgrass prairie. Once fully restored, Midewin’s 19,000 acres will encompass more prairie in one single place than exists collectively among all the scattered remnant prairie patches across the entire Prairie State.

 

Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom
Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom

At Midewin, staff, nonprofit partners and legions of volunteers clear invasives, sow seed, recycle nutrients to the earth through the controlled use of fire. As a result of our collective labor, an abundance of beautiful flowers and grasses are refilling the landscape. Rare and endangered birds find safe harbor in an increasingly uninhabitable world. Calling frogs fill the spring air with song that would grace any cathedral.

Spring beauties - an early woodland ephemeral - in Prairie Creek Woods.
Spring beauties – an early woodland ephemeral – in Prairie Creek Woods.

The return, the very survival, of these plants and animals, these kinds of entire ecosystems, depends entirely on us. This restoration work we do, therefore, is among the most charitable things we, as a species, can do. The most Christian, the most Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Humanist (the list goes on) thing we can do.

Imagine.

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 

Fire

111126 burn 4Fire. It’s more than a Chicago soccer team. More than a song written by Bruce Springsteen and made famous by the Pointer Sisters.  (And perhaps even more famous when parodied by Robin Williams singing in the voice of Elmer Fudd.) Fire is also a force of nature I help control today and use as a tool in the recovery of our prairie heritage.110422 seed bed burn

Even as the prairie is being newly re-created at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, it needs to be burned every few years or so. (Even the seed beds need to be burned from time to time.) An historically fire-dependent habitat type, prairie requires periodic burns to restore its soils, maintain diversity and keep invasive plant species – both native and non-native – in check.

As a Midewin volunteer, I’m having the time of my life working alongside US Forest Service staff in many restoration activities – brush clearing, native plant planting, species monitoring and the whole spectrum of seed propagation from collecting to cleaning to sowing. But the one activity not available to volunteers is participating in controlled burns. That responsibility perforce lies entirely with the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew – crack aces who help fight major forest fires out west.

However, since fire both was and is such a critical component of the prairie ecosystem, last year I enrolled in the two-day Midwest Ecological Prescription Burn Crew Member Training Class offered by Chicago Wilderness. And today, with certificate in hand, I’m out for my first burn at Indian Boundary Prairie.

110713 markham 3

The five suburban Markham parcels that make up IBP comprise one of the highest quality prairie remnants in the entire state – home to an especially rich diversity of plants and animals including several rare plants, birds and mammals. At 200 acres, it also represents one of the state’s largest prairie remnants – a reminder how little prairie remains in Illinois (less than 1/10 of one percent statewide) but also how ambitious and critical Midewin is, with its goal of 20,000 acres of restored prairie.

111126 burn 2

Back to the burn. Dressed in our fire-resistant Nomex suits, we little resemble the Pottawatomie that used to ignite the prairie to drive game to the slaughter. But with lots of collective training and experience, our band of a dozen or so volunteers – expertly led by The Nature Conservancy’s Stuart Goldman – are savvy in the use of fire for particular, restorative ends.

With winds gusting up to 35 mph today, our goal is limited to burning a wide strip at the north end of one of the parcels, which will serve as a fire break for a crew to burn the balance of the parcel on a more favorable weather day.

With some crew members stationed as lookouts to make sure no embers escape into an adjoining section of the prairie, other crew members light drip torches – fueled by a mix of diesel and gasoline – and “drop fire” along small slices of our strip, working into the wind to keep the fire manageable. Then, to keep the fire contained within a relatively straight line on both sides of the strip, crew members follow the fire with water pumps, dousing the flames as needed.

My job is to use a flapper – a large, heavy rubber flange –for the same purpose. One or two flaps is all it takes to both stamp and blow out modest flames.

111126 burn 5

Small slice by small slice, we light the prairie grasses. In spite of a high moisture level, the dry husks ignite readily, fueled by periodic gusts of wind. All it takes is a few seconds and there before you is a small wall of flame licking upwards of a dozen feet. The heat, too, is instantaneous and powerful, feeling like a burst from a hot oven.

And then just as quickly, the fuel is spent and the fire dies down to dribs and drabs along the margins. A sharp burst of pressurized water, or a strong flap, and the flames are extinguished. Here and there, some stumpish clumps of prairie grasses smolder. Squirt. Flap. Extinguished.

111126 burn 1

Left behind, where just a minute ago stood a mix of spent but still towering prairie plants, is largely ash. Here and there remain some naked stems of woody shrubs, but nothing much left to burn. When, in a few days, the next crew runs fire through here, when it reaches this strip the head fires will die almost instantly for lack of fuel. Just as planned. Controlled. Safe. Effective.

For a newbie, I didn’t eat too much smoke, save for my spell as a downwind spark spotter. But even that was bearable because next spring – here at IBP, at Midewin, and at restoration sites throughout Chicago Wilderness – the prairie will return richer and healthier than ever for the application of a little controlled fire. That is something worth singing about…fire (doo-de doo doo doo.)

110713 markham 2