I saw three eastern meadowlarks last week in the restored prairie at the western end of Somme Woods. For me this is big news. I’m doing a breeding bird survey on this 150-acre piece of Cook County forest preserve, and nesting meadowlarks would just about make my spring.
The restored prairie is connected to a small remnant of primeval Illinois, a few acres that didn’t need to be restored, a top-quality natural prairie with northern dropseed and leadplant and other species that tell botanists that this piece of ground has come through the past 150 years relatively unscathed.
The restored parts–and the grasslands that have yet to be restored–have not been so lucky. Much of the restored land was robbed of its fertility by barbarous farming practices. The North Branch Prairie Project volunteers, who are restoring all of Somme Woods to its presettlement state, have been able to establish native prairie species in this old field, but the plants are all very runty. They grow, they flower, they set seed, but when you run a fire through them, the flames are short, scant, and slow moving. The poor soil can barely grow enough fuel to keep the fire alive.
One patch of ground right up against the fence that marks the western edge of the preserve used to be a Nike base, home to antiaircraft missiles that were supposed to fend off the Red Menace. The fill that covers the old missile site is itself covered by bluegrass or some other alien that seems to stay green all year.
Together, this combination of virgin prairie, stunted restoration, and former missile site is the largest unbroken piece of open, treeless land at Somme Woods. If we are ever going to have prairie birds living at Somme, this is where they will be.
So far, the prairie birds haven’t taken up residence. No meadowlarks, bobolinks, savanna sparrows, or upland sandpipers have reared young on these expanses. In spring and summer, the land seems deserted. The only visible birds are redwings and robins who come out from the woodland-prairie edges to feed.
So this spring’s meadowlarks are a very hopeful sign. If they stay–and nobody can tell if they will yet–they will demonstrate a connection between our restoration efforts and the natural world. Restoration of natural areas has been compared to the building of cathedrals in medieval Europe. In both cases the project required generations. The masons who laid the foundation stones could not hope to be alive to see the last cross placed on top of the tallest tower.
The difference is that cathedrals are dead. They cannot build themselves. Every stone, every pane of stained glass, must be created and laid in place by a person. Natural systems are living things. If we can get the northern dropseed and leadplant started, and create the conditions they need to thrive, they have their own ways of driving out the bluegrass. Our bodies operate the same way. The doctor does not cure your broken leg; he just makes it possible for your leg to heal itself.
The meadowlarks are a sign that the healing is working. We have created the conditions, and now the system is making itself whole. If those meadowlarks stay, Somme will become only the second prairie in Cook County big enough to support prairie birds. The other is Gensberg-Markham Prairie in the far southern suburbs. Elsewhere, the birds have to make do with weedy old fields because our prairies are too small to support them.
In early April the bird life anywhere in northern Illinois is very unsettled. In most cases, we can only guess which of the birds we see are migrants and which are residents preparing to nest. A few are obvious migrants. The tiny golden-crowned kinglets I saw feeding in the crowns of the oaks in Vestal Grove are heading for northern Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, or the north shore of Lake Superior. The pine siskins I saw nearby are northern finches whose nearest likely nesting grounds are several hundred miles north of here.
Vestal Grove is the restored oak savanna at the southeast corner of Somme. I was upset about its name when I first heard it. I thought the North Branch Prairie Project had named it for the Roman priestesses, and that seemed too old-world for a genuine North American ecosystem. I have since learned that the grove was named for a botanist named Stanley Vestal, who began campaigning 70 years ago for the restoration of savannas in Illinois.
We may have two pairs of downy woodpeckers nesting in Vestal Grove and the adjoining Circle Grove. I saw two males furiously displaying at each other in a way that suggested they were marking boundaries. They were flying together from tree to tree, landing a foot apart on a trunk or a horizontal limb. Once perched, they bobbed their heads at each other and repeatedly spread their wings. Later I saw a male and female together in Circle Grove.
I also saw two flickers doing a head-bobbing courtship display on the western side of the preserve. There are a lot of flickers passing through the Chicago area right now. I am hoping the display indicates that at least this pair will remain at Somme Woods.
Woodpeckers are essential forest birds. Many birds require holes in trees as nesting sites, but the woodpeckers are the only group provided with the physical equipment to make their own holes. Ornithologists have demonstrated that a shortage of suitable nesting sites can prevent birds from breeding in otherwise good habitat, so we need the woodpeckers badly. This year’s downy woodpecker nest could be next year’s bluebird house.
The pair of wood ducks was once again at Oak Pond at Somme on April 5. I originally saw them there March 18. The pond was once completely hidden in the woods. Tall trees grew right out of the middle of it. These trees have now been killed by girdling, but they are still standing. There might be a suitable nesting cavity in one of them.
Other waterfowl news from Somme includes a pair of mallards hanging about Oak Pond and a pair of Canada geese landing on the prairie pothole pond near Waukegan Road. I also flushed three great blue herons from a small pool called Middle Swale. I know that these birds will not nest here. They live in large colonies in dense woodlands. But they range far in search of food, so they could visit here from time to time.
The brown-headed cowbird population at Somme continues to grow. On April 5, I saw six birds on the west side of the preserve and four on the east side. The males are beginning to chase the females, which means that egg laying will probably follow soon. The females will begin searching for the nests of song sparrows and robins and other birds. They will lay their eggs in these nests and leave the young to be raised by foster parents. Each egg hatched–and a cowbird may lat 30 in a season-means one less young bird of the fostering species.
I don’t expect the red-tailed hawk to nest at Somme, but I regularly see an adult on the western side of the preserve. It often perches in the isolated cottonwoods along the western fence. I think I am seeing the same bird every time. It has an unusually bright orange-red tail that looks distinctive. My guess is that it will nest elsewhere and use Somme as a hunting ground.
My other major raptor sighting was of a large accipiter passing over on April 5. Accipiters–or true hawks–are bird eaters. Their short broad wings and long tails give them instant acceleration for short bursts of speed and a great deal of maneuverability. They usually hunt from perches in the woods, springing after their prey and chasing it through the underbrush.
My sighting was of a fairly large bird, which means it could be a Cooper’s hawk, one of the species I’m hoping for this year, but it could also be a female sharp-shinned hawk. My look was too brief to catch any field marks beyond the general outline and the approximate size. Female birds of prey are usually larger than the males, and in accipiters the difference is so great that it may affect their choice of prey. This sort of partitioning of the environment would allow a pair of Cooper’s hawks to live together without competing for the same food sources. He would go after the small birds; she would hunt for the larger ones.
While I wait for Cooper’s hawks to set up housekeeping, I am keeping busy tracking the song sparrows and redwings and robins as they begin to settle down on their nesting territories.