Some observations for the end of a very cool August: Last weekend, as a suitable finale to our chilly summer, the Rare Bird Alert reported a possible sighting of a black-backed woodpecker in Lake Forest. The black-backed is a bird of the boreal forest rarely seen even as far south as Green Bay. There have been only nine records in the Chicago area since 1955, and all the previous sightings were winter birds or late-winter birds that lingered into spring. If this Lake Forest sighting is confirmed, we could consider it a Mount Pinatubo special.
I spent last Sunday night at Steve’s Lounge at 132nd and South Baltimore tentatively celebrating the end of the Lake Calumet airport, an affair sponsored by Calumet Region United. We enjoyed an excellent dinner, heard speeches by an assortment of local politicians, and offered our applause in recognition of the efforts of those who had helped fight the airport. Steve’s is in the middle of Hegewisch, a community that would be obliterated if the airport were ever built.
Meanwhile, in the marshes a few blocks west of us, 21 species of sandpipers, plovers, and phalaropes were pausing in their long migration flight to rest and feed. Golden and black-bellied plovers, red knots, and upland and buff-breasted sandpipers fed in the grassy area at the northwest corner of Lake Calumet. A Wilson’s phalarope was discovered at the Big Marsh at 116th and Stony Island, and at Dead Stick Pond at 122nd and Stony birders found lesser yellowlegs, semipalmated plovers, white-rumped sandpipers, and short-billed dowitchers.
The passage of these shorebirds marks the beginning of the fall migration. Many of these birds nest in the high arctic, and their stay on their nesting grounds is very short. They arrive in June or early July and nest immediately. The young are precocial, which means they come out of the egg able to move about and feed themselves. Their parents provide some guidance and protection until the chicks learn to fly, and then the adults head south. The young of this year will follow as soon as they are able.
These birds make some of the longest migration flights known. A white-rumped sandpiper or golden plover that nested on the tundra on Baffin Island, say, at 65 degrees north latitude might spend the winter on Tierra del Fuego, at 55 degrees south latitude.
No bird could accomplish such a journey without a lot of resting and feeding along the way, and that is one of the reasons places like Lake Calumet are so important. We can easily underestimate the significance of these rest stops. After all, individual birds may pause for only a day or two before continuing their flight. Can a place where a bird spends only one day a year mean all that much?
Well, yes. The appropriate analogy is to an oasis in the middle of the Sahara. Caravans crossing the desert may stop only long enough to take on water, but without the oasis the trip might be impossible. To break a chain you need remove only one link. Take away Lake Calumet and shorebirds traveling south through the Great Lakes might not survive. The portion of the total population of the species that uses this route could vanish.
At Eggers Woods and Marsh, another of the natural areas that would be destroyed if the airport were built, birders found more Wilson’s phalaropes (this bird, by the way, nested around Lake Calumet until quite recently) and two wandering snowy egrets. The egrets, an endangered species in Illinois, show up around Lake Calumet from time to time during nesting season. We keep hoping a pair will settle down to breed.
Eggers Woods seems to be one of the first places where migrating warblers appear in the spring, and this year fall is coming early there, too. Birders last weekend found chestnut-sided, mourning, Blackburnian, and Canada warblers enjoying the woodland oasis at Eggers.
The cool weather of our Pinatubo summer has made our prairies even more beautiful than usual. In late August the predominant color of the prairies is yellow, as sunflowers, cup plants, prairie dock, goldenrods, and compass plants, among others, come into bloom. This year two species of blazing star that normally bloom at different times during the summer are in full and glorious flower right now, adding a rich infusion of pale purple to the color scheme.
At Somme Woods in Northbrook this year the floral display is as fine as I have seen. The best show is at the western end of the preserve. There must be thousands of blazing stars in flower, along with the usual late-summer yellows and the white floral clusters of whorled milkweed. A few days ago I started counting flowers along one side of a path that skirts the edge of the largest piece of prairie at Somme. Looking within an imaginary semicircle with a radius of about 15 feet, I counted 12 different species in flower.
We can thank the North Branch Prairie Project for a good part of this show. Volunteers from the project have been working at Somme for 15 years, planting seeds, clearing brush, and carrying out controlled burns. In that time the organization has changed almost as much as the prairies and savannas along the North Branch of the Chicago. Like many volunteer groups, in the early days it was made up of a small core of activists whose energy pulled in less involved people willing to show up from time to time to do as they were told.
Today the North Branch Prairie Project has hordes of activists working independently on a vast range of projects. The organization is loosely structured, with each group sending a delegate to a coordinating committee that is supposed to make sure everyone is working in harmony. There is an ecological-management work group that makes decisions on what restoration work is to be done at the various sites. A publications group produces newsletters and other periodicals. An education work group organizes classes covering everything from identification of prairie grasses to nesting-bird surveys to the proper way to burn a prairie. A science work group keeps track of botanical changes and monitors bird and butterfly populations. There is even a volunteer development group that organizes outings and parties for the benefit of volunteer morale.
The effects of all this varied labor are quite apparent along the North Branch, not only in the prairies’ rich floral displays but in the oak groves cleared of buckthorn brush. The beauty of ecological restoration is that you are working on living systems with a substantial ability to heal themselves. Give them a push in the right direction and they will provide you with joyful surprises. The work becomes a collaboration between human and ecosystem.
The success of the North Branch Prairie Project has inspired imitations. We now have three similar groups working elsewhere in the Cook County Forest Preserves: one in the Palos preserves, one at Poplar Creek, and the third around the Sand Ridge Nature Center in the southeastern corner of the county. There are more than 20 volunteer groups inspired by the NBPP elsewhere in Illinois, and others in Florida, California, and Massachusetts. People have come from England, Czechoslovakia, Australia, and Brazil to study the NBPP in order to apply its methods in their own countries.
Next month the North Branch Prairie Project will be celebrating its 15th anniversary with several events, including a lecture series, canoe trips, workdays, and nature tours. The first event will be a talk by Steve Packard of the Nature Conservancy on the history of the NBPP. Packard, now director of science and stewardship for the Conservancy’s Illinois chapter, was a founder of the project and the man who organized the very first workday at Somme Woods in 1977. The talk will be held at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, 2001 N. Clark, at 7 PM on Friday, September 11. Admission to the talk and reception following is $5. For details on the whole schedule of events, call Joanne Softcheck at 878-3877.