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.

Earth Day at Midewin

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Woodland Phlox
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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.)

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

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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.

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About this time last year, I came across a newborn fawn at Midewin. Perhaps only a few hours old, it was nestled in tall grasses alongside Turtle Pond; too new in this world to be afraid of the large, two-legged creature staring down at it from three feet away. Wondering if lightning might strike twice, I retuned to Turtle Pond this year in the hope of glimpsing another fresh fawn.

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Not a hundred feet down Chicago Road, which leads to Turtle Pond, I hear a rustle in the roadside grass. A few seconds later, a spotted fawn appears. A little older, but still lovely. Intoxicatingly cute. Truly, you just can’t help but grin like a child.

For me, such chance encounters are the true treasures of life. Chicken soup for the soul. Call them what you will, I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for all the world. Even as I wrestle with the fact that as adults, deer are highly destructive.

Deer are voracious. They eat five to nine pounds of vegetation a day. Nearly hunted to extinction in Illinois in the 1800s, there are now more white-tailed deer in our state than at any time in history. To make matters worse, they are concentrated in our remaining natural areas, which amount to but a fraction of their original territory. As a result, many of our natural areas are virtually devoid of vegetation up to the height a deer can reach with its sharp incisors.

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At Midewin, the native plant seed beds – like those next to Turtle Pond – must be fenced off from deer, which would eat virtually every plant in sight.

So, where I see cute in a fawn, natural area land managers tend to see a future pest to be controlled. And so they turn to hunters, who are just as likely to see a future trophy. Or meat.

hunter safety card

This past January, I passed my hunter safety training toward the goal of going on my first deer hunt. I don’t need the meat. And I certainly don’t want the trophy. But I realize that we, as a people, have created the conditions that allow deer populations to explode. Left uncontrolled, deer will effectively undo all the dollars and hard work invested at places like Midewin to make them havens for a full spectrum of living creatures, both plant and animal.

And so the herd must be culled. And while some might view the opportunity to do so as sport, and others as an ecological necessity, to me the need to do so presents more of an ethical and emotional challenge. And so, later this fall, while sitting cold and silent in a deer blind, hours before the dawn, waiting for my prey, I’m sure I’ll spend no small amount of time thinking back to a warm summer day and the large, liquid eyes of an exquisite creature.

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Dappled Things

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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.

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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…

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The Lilliputian umbrels of May apples…

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And of course the purple-periwinkle of Virginia bluebells.

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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.

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