Spring is happening right outside my windows. Unfortunately, I seem to be spending all my time inside my windows. I get a few glimpses. A great blue heron flew over my backyard. Robins have built a nest just under our eaves where the drainpipe makes a 45-degree turn. A wasp tottered around my office windowsill for a couple of days and then expired. My guess is that she had come out of hibernation without enough energy to fly. The fact that wasps overwinter in my office is a fairly clear measure of my housekeeping.
People are always complaining about spring in Chicago, and with good reason. Our early May snowstorms, our endless days of northeast winds blowing clear, clean, icy air off the lake. After you’ve gone through a winter, spring can drive you crazy
When it’s 70 today and 34 tomorrow I tell myself spring is about change. A dreary succession of warm days is summer. But when the cold goes on and on I start to get anxious. I begin thinking doomsday. This will be the year when summer doesn’t come. When thousands of Illinois farmers will watch their corn wither in the fields after a hard freeze in early July. Back in the late 70s journalists were able to find actual scientists whose analysis of data on the early Pleistocene could be manipulated in such a way as to at least mildly suggest that a mile-high wall of ice would reach Chicago in four to six weeks.
Ice has been replaced by fire as the apocalypse of choice. The summer of ’88 was the hardest one so far for us worriers about the greenhouse effect. Temperatures in the 90s and low 100s and no rain at all for two solid months–it made a lot of people nervous. Ever since, I feel a great weight lifting from my shoulders every time I hear the pitter-patter of raindrops on a summer day. The rain means the system is functioning–for now. Long soaking rains are my favorite kind. Maybe–they say to me–it won’t happen this year.
The robins’ nest sits in the angle between the drainpipe and wall. It is the second robin nest to be placed on that spot in the nine years we have lived here. The female wrapped a few strands of string around the drainpipe to anchor the nest. I saw only the female working, but I wasn’t looking all the time.
She had laid the foundation and started on the walls before I noticed her, and she worked for another two days before the nest was finished. Major rainstorms gave her the mud she needed to line her nursery. Did you know we are six inches above normal for precipitation so far in 1993? Maybe it won’t happen this year.
The rain was keeping me from the ritual turning of the soil in my two raised beds. Our yard is small, but we garden intensively. I dug those beds down a foot below ground and added another foot of soil aboveground. Turning two feet of topsoil requires about 15 percent more calories than we get from the tomatoes, poblano peppers, and tomatillos we grow in the beds.
I had to buy the dirt I needed to pile up that additional foot of topsoil. Was it cheap? you might ask. No it was not. Even dirt costs these days. Our neighborhood garden-supply store assured me my truckload of native earth came from a cornfield in Schaumburg. It was a comment on American agriculture. There was absolutely nothing alive in it. No sow bugs, no ants, no earthworms. Your typical Illinois cornfield is so dosed with biocides it doesn’t have soil anymore. It has friable substrate. A few pieces of corncob and some husks were scattered through it like the walnuts in jamoca almond fudge. It occurred to me that with every organism of decay killed off by chemicals those cobs and husks might last as long as a Peruvian mummy.
I am happy to report that, after two years of gentle additions of manure and compost, we have a thriving population of earthworms. Is this a happy outcome? Or are these earthworms pulling molecules of various chlorinated horrors out of the soil and passing them along to the robins? If the baby robins leap from their nest and fly straight into a wall I will be really worried.
Once the robin finished her nest, she and her mate both disappeared for a few days. I would see robins in various yards, but no birds came near the nest. Today I saw a pair of robins copulating in my next-door neighbor’s backyard. She will probably stay away from the nest until she is ready to lay. No use calling attention to it. Or she may abandon it. We saw robins building several early nests last year at Somme Woods, nests they never used. I watched them fall apart over the summer.
I have been rained out at Somme Woods so far this year. Every time I had a chance to go, a downpour got in the way. There is very little point in doing a survey of nesting birds in a rainstorm. You won’t see or hear anything.
The big news from Somme is not avian; it’s mammalian. Bill Valentine saw a coyote there twice. For a couple of years now we have been seeing signs of coyotes, but as far as I know this is the first time anyone has seen one plain. One immediate result of their presence may be the absence of red foxes. They used to live at Somme, but their dens are abandoned now. Coyotes may not like competition.
I am hoping to spend a lot of time during this nesting season at Middle Fork Savanna, a very intriguing place in Lake County west of Lake Forest. One of the few good examples of oak-grove savanna left in Illinois lies along the middle fork of the Chicago along with some wetlands, grasslands, and brushy areas. The middle fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River as it flows past Lake Forest is also known as the Skokie Ditch. The engineers have straightened it, dug it steep, sterile banks, and curved it–where necessary–as precisely as an expressway off ramp. But some nature remains. We know little about what lives there, and I get to explore it for the Nature Conservancy.
The first crow’s nest I have found in my neighborhood is just about a hundred yards north of our house. It is way up in one of the silver maples in the parkway, but with the leaves still in bud it is plainly visible.
Crows nests are bulky affairs as large as a good-size squirrel’s nest. You can easily tell one from the other. Crows make their nests of sticks; squirrels make theirs of leaves.
Late April is the peak season for migrating kinglets. Even if you don’t pay much attention to birds, you might notice these. They are very tiny–second smallest birds in North America after hummingbirds. They are constantly active–leaping from twig to twig, flashing their wings frequently. Their overall color is dull olive, slightly darker on top and pale underneath. Males of the golden-crowned kinglet have a golden yellow patch on their crowns. In females the patch is orange. Males of the ruby-crowned kinglet have a red patch on their crowns.
These bright-colored patches are often concealed, but you can tell one species from the other without them. The golden-crowned has a black streak running down each side of the crown. The ruby-crowned has a plain crown when the red is hidden and a pronounced ring of pale color around the eye.
Kinglets are ridiculously tame. A few days ago I was standing next to one of our forsythia bushes when a ruby-crowned landed in it. It hopped from branch brahch seemingly ignoring me I completely even though I was close enough to touch it.
The great blue heron that flew over my house was the 70th species on my backyard list. It was the second species I’ve added this spring. The other was a mockingbird I saw sitting on our back fence. I am always surprised that I have run up a total that high on a dinky patch of ground in the middle of a city neighborhood. I am a bit loose about the list. I call it my backyard list, but it doesn’t have to be in the backyard. I just have to see it from there. Or from the front yard or the alley behind the house. I’m more interested in the number of birds that pass through than in the question of whether they stepped on this or that side of an imaginary line.
Spring is a good time to add species to the list. The warblers should be passing through in the next couple of weeks. Unless they don’t come at all this year.