Grant Creek

Chalking up Illinois Nature Preserve #17 of 50 this year was a piece of cake. Sort of. I spent the early part of the morning monitoring grassland birds — as I do every spring — at Tract 104 within Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Then I jumped in the car and headed to the southwest side of Midewin to visit Grant Creek Nature Preserve.

According to Google Maps, the preserve was accessible via a frontage road to I-55. However, turning onto the road, I immediately came to a closed gate, beyond which lay an unpaved, overgrown two-track.

That’s one of the things I love about Nature Preserves: many of them lie in seemingly lost or forgotten places. When it was dedicated as a Nature Preserve in 1978, Grant Creek lay between I-55 and the mothballed Joliet Arsenal.

To most folks, speeding by on the highway, then and now, Grant Creek Nature Preserve — if noticed at all — probably seems a fallow farm field at best. A weed patch at worst, waiting for some better use to come along. But, according to the Illinois Natural Areas Protection Act, all nature preserves are put to their “highest, best and most important use for the public benefit.”

Leaving my car at the frontage road gate, I have to agree that the two-track is in fact mostly a patch of weeds. Honeysuckle and other non-native invasives abound. Not that I’m complaining, as they provide habitat for a wealth of shrubland birds: willow flycatchers, field sparrows, orchard orioles, and yellow warblers.

 

But here and there between the dense shrubbery, I spy glimpses of open space. A mile down the road, I find an open gate leading into 78 acres of “high quality wet prairie and mesic prairie communities with over 110 different native prairie plant species.”

The yellow umbrels of wild parsnip appear pretty enough, but they can burn people and crowd out the likes of native spiderwort and other native plant species

In truth, this rare patch of probably unplowed prairie — the presence of limestone too close to the surface made it unfit for anything other than grazing — could use a little TLC. The continuing state budget woes have resulted in cutbacks and other compromises in the ability of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to adequately steward their sites.  For instance, native spiderwort is in full bloom, but competes with wild parsnip. In addition to being a weedy, non-native invasive plant, wild parsnip is a danger to people — contact with the plant can result in painful, blistering burns. More benign, but equally unhealthy are the number of shrubs dotting the preserves. Grassland birds — the most imperiled class of birds — require large expanses free of shrubs in order to breed successfully.

This said, perhaps the very highest value of Grant Creek Nature Preserve is that it provided the template for restoration at the Grant Creek restoration area at Midewin, with which it shares a border.

Historically, the soils of the Grant Creek area within Midewin were a little more substantial, which led early farmers to ditch and drain the area for farming. Even then, the soils were thin enough that they had to cut into limestone to lay the drain tiles.

Gary Sullivan of The Wetlands Initiative unloads a truckload of native plant plugs during a volunteer workday

Working hand-in-hand with the US Forest Service, The Wetlands Initiative removed the drain tiles, cleared the area of non-natives grasses and fallow farm weeds, and — using the adjacent nature preserve as a guide — replanted the site with native plant species.

Over the years, I spent more than a few volunteer days helping to restore Grant Creek, ankle-deep in wet prairie, hand planting native plant plugs. And as the mix of wet and dry prairie has recovered, I’ve joined with others to monitor the recovery of grassland birds to the area. Today, the site is particularly rich with dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the occasional Henslow’s sparrow, a state-listed threatened species. Rare is the day that I don’t see great egrets, impossibly white against the emerald green of their wetland habitat. And although no one yet has confirmed it, I suspect that sandhill cranes may be nesting in Grant Creek or some other similarly-restored area at Midewin.

Bobolink on the wing — emitting its burbling mating call — over the restored prairie in Grant Creek

In its entirety, Grant Creek is part Nature Preserve and part National Tallgrass Prairie. It also stands the intersection of our past and future efforts to protect the natural lands we love. Because of George Fell, we have a strong nature preserves system (when it is fully funded) that provides permanent protection for our best and most important natural area gems. Because of the US Forest Service, The Wetlands Initiative and other nonprofit partners, and a growing army of dedicated volunteers, we are reclaiming more and more of our natural area heritage. Acre by acre, we are putting the prairie back in the Prairie State.

The restored wet prairie land of Grant Creek

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

 

Green Fire at Midewin

It was a perfect trifecta: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, The Wetlands Initiative and a film about Aldo Leopold. Actually it was a perfect quadfecta, because the screening took place at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Midewin is the most ambitious tallgrass prairie restoration effort in the nation. The Wetlands Initiative – working in close partnership with the USDA Forest Service, which manages Midewin – is the driving force behind many of the individual restorations at Midewin.

green fire poster

Midewin doesn’t actually appear in the documentary Green Fire, Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time. But it embodies, on a grand scale, what Leopold stood for. Following the film, staff from TWI and the Forest Service described how Leopold’s land ethic, written more than 60 years ago, drives the recovery of Midewin today.

For me, it boils down to this: during the course of the past century and a half, the 20,000 acres of Midewin have been sorely abused; first in the production of crops, secondly in the manufacture of arms. Following the closing of the arsenal, it would have been an easy thing to pave the land over and throw up some subdivisions and strip malls. In fact, there were many that were itching for the dollars that would flow from that very thing.

But as Leopold pointed out in perhaps his defining essay, “The land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against…modern trends.”

At Midewin, a small but determined number of groups and individuals had a different vision: to restore the land to its native state. In so doing, they revolted against “the belief that economics determines all land use.” (Again, using Leopold’s words.) But rather embraced his idea that those involved in land use decisions should consider “what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

110127 cutting honeysuckle

In the end , a part of the former Joliet arsenal was sliced off for a landfill. Another part for an intermodal transport facility. Another part for a union trade school. Another for a national cemetery. But by far most of the land – 20,000 acres – was reserved for nature. No, that‘s not quite right. Midewin is reserved very much for people, too.  Without people, the land could not recover. It takes people to heal an abused landscape. Lots and lots of people. From all walks of life. From professional staff to volunteers. To help return the native plants and animals to the land. And in so doing, they recover a close relationship to the land. They breathe life into Leopold’s concept of a land ethic as well as the very meaning of the word Midewin: healing.

110423 garlic mustard pull 2

110217 seed planters110301 margaret110705 seed collectors