Prairie Orrery

110911 moon 2Ever gaze skyward and wonder how the solar system works? Of course you could go to the Adler Planetarium to ponder North America’s largest collection of astrobales, armillary spheres and other devices built throughout the centuries to help explain how the stars and planets wheel about the heavens.

Or you could head out to Midewin to gaze up at prairie dock – a living orrery of the prairie.

orreryAn orrery is a mechanical model of our solar system. It demonstrates how the planets move about the sun. The oldest known such model is of Greek origin and dates from about 150 B.C.E. The first “modern” orrery was built in 1704 in England and presented to Charles Boyle, Fourth Earl of Orrery, hence the name.

Prairie dock, on the other hand, is the largest member of the tallgrass prairie family Silphium. At its base are rough, elephant ear-like leaves from which rise a bare, slender stalk up to 10 feet in height. Atop the stalk are several branches, each terminating in a green bud the size of a melon ball.

prairie dock 1Once the first bud bursts forth in a dazzling yellow flower, it takes little imagination to see it as the sun and the remaining buds as planets. Certainly this botanical orrery lacks the clockwork precision of its mechanical counterparts. But stare up at it long enough and you can’t help but see our entire solar system in a single Silphium terebinthinaceum.

Stare a little longer and you can’t help but notice that there are countless prairie docks and related family members of Silphium in bloom. Just as there are countless solar systems and galaxies beyond our own. The infinite wonder of our universe reflected in the recovering prairie lands of Midewin.

prairie dock universeprairie dock bumble beeAll this would be more than a little mind blowing were it not for the humble bumble bee. Collecting nectar and pollen from the prairie dock blossom in front of you, he brings you back to earth. To the here and now.

Another magic moment at Midewin.

Through the Lookingglass

Midewin is a window into our prairie past. But look closely and you’ll see it is also a lookingglass through which we may step back in time – millions of years ago – when much of North American was emerging from a shallow inland sea.

As a habitat, prairie is the new kid on the block. Following the retreat of the last glaciers, prairie emerged in North America about 8,000 years ago and continued to evolve until we plowed it all up. Beginning in the early 1800s, it took little more than a century for us to destroy 99.9 percent of the prairie in Illinois.

Since the establishment of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, the US Forest Service and its nonprofit partners and volunteers have recovered nearly 5,000 acres of native prairie habitat. That’s about twice as much as exists in all of the other prairie remnant sites combined throughout the entire state.110731 liatrisThese big open spaces at Midewin provide critical habitat for imperiled grasslands birds, such as this young dickcissel still getting the hang of how best to perch on the jungle gym stems of rattlesnake master.dickcissel splitsThere are now nearly 350 plant species flourishing at Midewin, including common milkweed, a critical food source for increasingly uncommon monarch butterflies.

monarch on milkweedBeyond the birds and butterflies, there is a family of bugs (with apologies to entomologists, but the alliteration was too tempting) that likewise call Midewin home and speak to its more ancient habitat roots.

For much of its history, Illinois – in fact most of North America – lay under a warm, shallow ocean. About 325 million years ago, the waters began to recede, leaving in their wake a delta swamp. According to the Illinois State Geological Survey, the great delta forests of the time were patrolled by “dragonflies as big as hawks.”

Dragonflies were among the first winged creatures to evolve over 300 million years ago – before birds. Today, there are about 3,000 species of dragonflies. I’m not sure how many inhabit Midewin, but there are quite few. Including this newly emergent female ruby meadowhawk (notice the forewing not yet fully expanded and hardened.)

ruby meadowhawk on horsetailNote, too, that the meadowhawk is perched atop a spore-bearing cone of common horsetail, itself among the oldest surviving plant families. By the time horsetails appeared – about 150 million years ago – so, too had dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, weathering and erosion are the likely culprits as to why there are no dinosaur fossils yet discovered in Illinois. However, evidence of the ancient coal forests of 325 million years ago remains underground in nearby Coal City, named for the coal that formed as a result of trees and other plants being buried in mud and compacted over time.

Evidence of the ancient shallow seas likewise remains underground within the very footprint of Midewin – in the form of dolomite that was formed of billions upon trillions of seashells. In some areas, this dolomite remains very near to the surface, which underpins a distinct and very rare type of prairie.

Above ground at Midewin, evidence of its ancient past lives on in wetland stands of horsetail and the many different kinds of dragonflies that hunt their prey (and sometimes mate) on the wing, just as they did millions and millions of years ago.

Twelve-spotted skimmer

Male twelve-spotted skimmer

Male eastern amber wing

Male eastern amber wing

Lancet clubtail

Lancet clubtail

Female common pondhawk

Female common pondhawk

An Expressway Dies, a New Path Emerges

no illiana 4 usEvery once in a while, common sense prevails. The good guys win. Yesterday, a federal judge drove a big, fat stake through the heart of the proposed Illiana Expressway.

This decision will save a lot of farms in Will County. It will save Illinois taxpayers a billion dollars. And it will save a lot of birds from disappearing from the earth.

Birds are a big reason that Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie. Grassland birds in particular. As a class, they are the most imperiled birds on the planet due to destruction of habitat. In Illinois, less than one-tenth of one percent of natural land remains. Some grassland birds managed to adapt to most of Illinois being converted to farm fields. However, since 1950 Illinois alone has lost 3.6 million acres of prime farmland to development. The American Farmland Trust revealed that two acres of farmland are being lost to development every minute, with Illinois being among the land loss leaders.

Midewin LogoIt doesn’t take a rocket scientist, then, to figure out that less habitat means fewer birds. Let’s take a common grassland bird – the eastern meadowlark. The poster bird for Midewin. National Audubon reveals that over the last 40 years populations of this sweet-voiced bird have plummeted 72% – from 24 million to 7 million.

At 19,000 acres, Midewin goes a long way toward providing exactly the kind of refuge needed to help reverse this trend; to provide meadowlarks and other grassland denizens the large, open spaces they need to rest, feed and raise their families.

As a volunteer steward at Midewin, it’s my job to count grassland bird species during the breeding season every spring.This data is critical to help guide the restoration efforts underway by the US Forest Service and its nonprofit restoration partners, including the National Forest Foundation, The Wetlands Initiative and Openlands.

website - tract 104Most every Saturday or Sunday from early May through late June, I’m awake before the alarm and out the door by 6 a.m. I arrive at Midewin (after stopping for coffee) around 7. I monitor a part of Midewin known as Tract 104. To most, it probably looks like any old pasture, which is pretty much what it is until such time as the US Forest Service can restore it to tallgrass prairie.

But to me it is an Eden. The cool season grasses provide sufficient habitat to make this patch an oasis for grassland birds. Close your eyes and imagine bobolinks chattering on the wing like over-caffeinated R2D2s.

website - bobolink

The melodious whistles of eastern meadowlarks before they burst out of the short grasses, their white tail feathers flashing in the early morning light like the after burners of a jet plane. The faint hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows, most often heard rather than seen. The insect-like buzz of a grasshopper sparrows. The namesake call of dickcissels, dressed up like Mini Me versions of meadowlarks.

website - dickcissel 2The toy bubble machine cries of rare upland sandpipers. And, of course, the ratchety alarums of red-winged blackbird as they flash their epaulets of crimson in aggressively patroling their breeding territories.

website - rwbYesterday’s ruling doesn’t definitively kill the Illiana. The likes of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and others are working hard to drive the final nails in the coffin. But a year ago, politics and the specter of jobs (for a few) and big profits (for some) conspired to make the Illiana seem like a done deal. Business as usual. No matter the cost, financially, socially, ecologically. Today, at long last, as long envisioned by poets and conservationists, alike, we are poised to choose a different path:

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost‘s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”(Rachel Carson, Silent Spring)

website - common yellowthroat

Spring is Sprung

It seemed like forever since I’d been out to Midewin. How thrilling it was to be back among so many good friends, themselves absent (or slumbering or merely unseen) for so long.

May apples, wake robin and toothwort

May apples, wake robin and toothwort

Where to begin? Let’s start with spring ephemerals since, as their name implies, they are with us but a very short time. Each spring, I make a beeline to Prairie Creek Woods, a remnant oak woodland alongside its namesake creek. The more restoration, the more woodland wildflowers. Spring beauties, smooth yellow violets, common phlox, wake robin and May apples to name a few.

Bluebells

Bluebells

But there is a secret place in the woods, beside the creek, to which I return like a faithful lover. Waiting for me there is a cloistered stand of bluebells. Just for me. And every year, I return their love by searching among the blossoms for sprigs of garlic mustard and yank them out, to ensure the bluebells do not become overrun  with this highly invasive weed; to ensure that bluebells return healthy each and every spring.

Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie

Rattlesnake master emergent

To ensure that the recovering prairie returns each and every spring, the US Forest Service’s Hot Shot Team conducts controlled burns. This year was a record setter for the number of acres cleared by fire, returning vital nutrients to the soil. Man, I do loves me some reemergent prairie vegetation following a burn. Nothing makes me so happy as to spy intensely spring green shoots rising up out of the rich, blackened soils.

Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements

Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements

The cleansing nature of fire reveals, too, some hidden secrets. Cleared of vegetation, the foundations of old farm buildings, shards of pottery and glass, homestead walls comprised of glacial erratics cleared from the surrounding fields, are stark reminders of Midewin’s agricultural past, when pioneer farmers first cleared the land of its prairie vegetation.

And, of course, the birds. My lovely birds. Blue-winged teals and hooded mergansers. Kildeers and snipes. White-throated sparrows and the first palm warbler of the season. Blue-grey gnat catchers and red-headed woodpeckers. Forty species in all. Apologies for the lack of bird pictures – sometimes I need to leave the camera at home and just relish them through the binocs. But I did manage to snap a cellphone pic of the sandhill crane.

crane

It’s no accident, of course, that the name of my blog is A Midewin Almanac, an homage to Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. And for me the sight and sound of that crane crystalizes that connection. It calls instantly to mind a passage from his Marshland Elegy: “When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our unatamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Their annual return is the ticking of the geological clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.”

Midewin is – for cranes, for all prairie plants and creatures, for me – a safe harbor. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. It is, in short, home.

I loves me some fire

 

Thinking like a Prairie

dead coyoteI have encountered many coyotes at Midewin. There is nothing quite like their hair-raising yips and yelps haunting the sunset hours. Theirs is the call of the wild that nourishes that small sliver of wildness that yet remains within me. Therefore, it came as an especially sad shock to come across this coyote, abuzz with flies.

dead coyote close upHow old she was, how long she’d been dead and what she might have died of, I couldn’t say. Looking into her eyes, however – something only death afforded me the chance to do this close up – I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a haunting essay in which he reflected on the”fierce green fire” that he watched go out in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot:

I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

I have never hunted, but I know those who do. And to a person they are united in their wish for fewer coyotes, believing that would lead to more pheasant, more deer. I don’t have children or pets, but there a number of news accounts about city and suburban dwellers likewise calling for the control or elimination of coyotes to protect kith and kin, as well as kittens and canines.

Like Leopold and his youthful “understanding” about wolves, a lot of myth and misinformation surrounds coyotes; something the Cook County Coyote Project endeavors to address through research and public education. Coyotes have adapted their behaviors surprisingly well and become an indelible part of our urban/suburban existence.

However, among the many things I love about Midewin is that its 19,000 acres of recovering prairie affords the opportunity for a coyote to remember what it is to be a true coyote; inhabiting wide open spaces, hunting voles and mice amid tall prairie grasses. Free of cars, people, noise, congestion and the myriad pitfalls that it faces as a refugee in the urban environment.

Midewin also affords me the opportunity to experience a coyote, a “ghost of the praire” as they were commonly known, in its native element. A summer or two ago, I was hiking through South Patrol Road Prairie – one of the earliest restoration areas at Midewin – when a handful of coyote pups tumbled out onto the path. So busy were they in wrestling with each other that they didn’t notice me at first. When they finally did, they were more curious than alarmed, and abandoned me only when they no longer could resist chasing each other back through the prairie grasses.

Staring into the eyes of the dead coyote, I sensed that there was, indeed, something known only to her and the prairie. Which makes her and her kind – no less than the returning grassland birds and the soon-to-be-reintroduced bison – an integral, wonderfully mysterious part of the healing prairie landscape of Midewin.

110206 coyote

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 creekMidewin 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.

three monitorsThis 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.

point count mapOur 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.

bobolinkMonitoring 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.

osage orangeImmediately 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.

three monitors in wetlandBeyond 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

A dickcissel – one of the most abundant grassland birds at Midewin

 

Imagine

A field sparrow in full voice.

A field sparrow in full voice with its telltale “bouncing ping pong ball” trill.

I gave up religion a long time ago. Yet, here I am hiking through the restored woodlands and prairies of Midewin on Easter Sunday with strains of “Jesus Christ is risen today…” wafting through my head. Does this mark a relapse, a return to the religious roots of my childhood?

Perhaps. In a way. The resurrection of Christ, the return of songbirds, the re-emergence of woodland ephemerals, the recovery of the prairie following a spring burn? I’m thinking perhaps, maybe, imagine, it’s all one.

IMG_0672I was raised in the United Church of Christ and attended Sunday school and eventually Sunday services, well, religiously through my high school years. I was a frequent soloist with the adult choir and directed the children’s choir. Graduating from college with a music degree, I was hired by Holy Name Cathedral – seat of the archdiocese of Chicago – to sing in its professional choir. Although I am not Catholic, it is there that I fell in love with the pageantry of the Mass, the sacred grandeur of the sanctuary, the chant that transported me and the entire congregation to an otherworldly place.

For reasons that are the subject of another story, I fell away from church and singing both. And for many years, I searched, I wandered. Quietly.

My backyard garden, brimming with native plants.

My backyard garden, brimming with native plants.

I’m not quite sure how I got bit by the nature bug, other than it took precisely an extended time of wandering and quietude in places ranging from backyard garden to national parks to allow what latent affinity there was to blossom.

A recent controlled burn at Midewin removes invasives and replenishes the soils, setting the stage for the return of more than a hundred native prairie species.

A recent controlled burn at Midewin removes invasives and replenishes the soils, setting the stage for the return of more than a hundred native prairie species.

However, my love for nature came into full flower in discovering Midewin. For here is the living embodiment of the resurrection. Throughout Illinois, there remains less than one-tenth of one percent of natural land; and of that tiny fraction, an even smaller fraction remains of native tallgrass prairie. Once fully restored, Midewin’s 19,000 acres will encompass more prairie in one single place than exists collectively among all the scattered remnant prairie patches across the entire Prairie State.

 

Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom

Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom

At Midewin, staff, nonprofit partners and legions of volunteers clear invasives, sow seed, recycle nutrients to the earth through the controlled use of fire. As a result of our collective labor, an abundance of beautiful flowers and grasses are refilling the landscape. Rare and endangered birds find safe harbor in an increasingly uninhabitable world. Calling frogs fill the spring air with song that would grace any cathedral.

Spring beauties - an early woodland ephemeral - in Prairie Creek Woods.

Spring beauties – an early woodland ephemeral – in Prairie Creek Woods.

The return, the very survival, of these plants and animals, these kinds of entire ecosystems, depends entirely on us. This restoration work we do, therefore, is among the most charitable things we, as a species, can do. The most Christian, the most Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Humanist (the list goes on) thing we can do.

Imagine.

Midewin-Dunes Connection

Along the Miller Beach Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

“The woods are lovely dark and deep/But I have promises to keep…” The Miller Beach Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

Last week, the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission voted in support of the Illiana Tollroad. To assuage my frustration and grief, I head to Midewin, which lies in the path of the proposed tollroad. But part way there, I turn the car around and make my way to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Why? In many ways, the Dunes are to Northwestern Indiana what Midewin is to Northeastern Illinois. Both are large, landscape-scale conservation areas. The Dunes National Lakeshore – along with its sister site, the Indiana Dunes State Park – measures nearly 18,000 acres. Midewin is a bit bigger at 19,000. (A lot bigger at 40,000 acres if you factor in its sister sites – the DesPlaines Conservation Area and Goose Lake Prairie.)

Over the (Grand Cal) River and through the (Miller Beach) Woods...

Over the (Grand Cal) River and through the (Miller Beach) Woods…

Both are ecological gems. The Dunes boasts over 1,100 flowering plants and ferns, making it one of the most biologically diverse of all our national parks. Even as Midewin is being fully restored to its original prairie state, it is a major refuge for all species of grassland birds.

In addition to being havens for native plants and animals, the Dunes and Midewin provide people something they can’t get anywhere else in our highly urbanized area: a chance to get away from it all for a little peace, quiet and introspection. In fact, the home page for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is titled “Sand and Solitude.” And the very word Midewin is a Potawatomi word for “healing.”

Sand and Solitude (and clouds and lake) at the Dunes

Sand and Solitude (and clouds and lake) at the Dunes

Living nearly equidistant between the Dunes and Midewin, it’s frequently a toss-up which one to visit for hiking and birding. Loving them equally, I go to both. A lot. The last thing in the world I would want to happen is for anyone even to suggest running a major tollroad alongside the Dunes. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that doing so would be devastating. For plants and animals. For the people who visit. All the noise, congestion, pollution. Blech.

Along the Indiana stretch of the Illiana Tollroad – which NIRPC just voted to approve – it would run far to the south of the Dunes, mostly through farmland. But on the Illinois side of the state line, the Illiana would run along the entire southern border of Midewin. Again, it doesn’t take a genius to understand what a terrible effect that would have on any natural area.

In approving the Illiana, it’s obvious that NIRPC doesn’t much care what happens on the Illinois side. Unfortunately, neither does the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council’s MPO Committee, in its approval of the Illiana.

no illianaBut others care. Deeply. This tollroad ain’t built yet.

Midewin in Chicago

IMG_1395Through early January, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie can be found in Chicago at the corner of Montrose and Ravenswood. Inside, on the second floor, of Lill Street Gallery.

Nature has been inspiring artists since time immemorial. Think of the unamed artists who inscribed animals on the cave walls of Lascaux. Thomas Cole and the many other landscape artists who comprised the Hudson River School in the mid-19th century. Lorado Taft and his Eagle’s Nest Art Colony along the Rock River in northwest Illinois. Even a certain Midewin blogger who makes original stained glassworks inspired by his award winning garden. IMG_6487

IMG_1399Late this past summer, Artists Nora Renick Rinehart and Liz Ann Kozik spent a 24-hour period at the actual Midewin, located about 20 minutes south of Joliet. According to signage at the exhibit, “Liz drew from that which grows in the earth, the plant life that filled the landscape: prairie restoration, crops, grass, and weeds. These paintings became the wallpaper that now fills the gallery.”

“Nora turned her gaze upward to the sky, photographing the sky every two hours. Using household paint swatches, she captured the exact color of the sky in each particular moment. These photographs hang around the gallery.”

IMG_1406

I’ve been out to Midewin proper more times than I can count. I’ve written about it extensively and taken thousands of pictures. But I also love seeing Midewin through the eyes of others. Nora and Liz are gifted artists, whose talents and perspectives beautifully complement each other in this exhibition that runs at Lill Street through January 5, 2014.

I love how Liz has captured the exceptional diversity of plant life at Midewin with minimal use of color. And how her subtle palette shift from green to gold mirrors the overall progression of prairie color from spring to fall.

IMG_1405And I find it both playful and inspired how Nora helps familiarize the viewer to the prairie landscape by holding up color swatches to match the sky. Whereas many may be unfamiliar with the prairie, virtually everyone has seen color swatches at Menards or Home Depot with such nature evoking names as “blue willow.” Placing the familiar alongside the unfamiliar provides a reference point to help us really see something new. And, if we think about it, to remind us that so much of the man-made color in the world comes directly from nature.

I was further drawn into Nora’s photgraphs in the act of photographing them myself. If you look closely, you will see in the reflection in the glass, me taking a photograph of a photograph of someone taking a photograph of themselves (or at least their hand) in the prairie. Cool.

IMG_1393

Illiana is (not) for the Birds

no illianaAs if we needed another reason to oppose the Illiana tollroad, here’s one more – it would be disastrous for birds.

Roads are bad for all wildlife for the the reasons you’d expect: habitat fragmentation, pollution and collisions. Just this week, a second rare and radio-collared ocelet was killed by a motorist along a state highway in Texas. And today’s NY Times pins the population collapse of monarch butterflies on the loss of native habitat.

But it turns out that roads are “overwhelmingly negative” for birds for these usual reasons plus the simple fact that they are noisy. In a recent, first-of-its-kind study reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, researchers set up speakers in a remote, roadless stretch of Idaho wilderness during fall bird migration season. Every four days, they played traffic noise, followed by four days of no traffic noise. Not surprisingly, there was a 25 percent decrease in the number of bird species along the “phantom road” while the traffic noise was playing, with some species avoiding the area almost completely.

South Patrol Road Prairie

South Patrol Road Prairie

As proposed, the Illiana tollroad would run immediately adjacent to the Midewin complex along its entire southern border – a distance of about seven miles. Midewin already is bordered on the west by I-55 and bisected by Route 53, both of which boast heavy truck traffic. In my experience – as a volunteer bird monitor and one who spends quite a bit of time birdwatching out at Midewin – birds are scarce near these noise corridors. Adding Illiana into the mix would further shrink Midewin’s footprint as a refuge for some of the most imperiled birds on the earth.

And the extra noise, pollution and congestion would, well, simply suck for the human element at Midewin, as well. Part of the joy of Midewin is the fact that it is one of the very few places in the entire state where you can experience something akin to the wide open prairie landscape of pre-settlement times. Most prairie remnants are virtual postage stamps, some measuring less than an acre in size.

Upland sandpiper

Upland sandpiper

At 19,000 acres, Midewin affords the peace and solitude that were as much hallmarks of primeval prairies as was their fabled abundance of wildflowers, grasses and birds. The Illiana would permanently shatter that experience for everyone. Gone or greatly diminished would be the joys of listening to the subtle buzz of grasshopper sparrows, the sotto voce hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows or the burbling cries of state-endangered upland sandpipers.

American Woodcock

American Woodcock

There is nothing quite like standing in the midst of South Patrol Road Prairie at dusk,the early spring air thin and crisp, basking in the twittering mating calls of  woodcocks. Or shushing through this same prairie in mid-winter, sowing native wetland seeds, while the carillon from the adjacent Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery pierces the thin winter air to tickle your ear with its melancholy peal.

The route of the Illiana would run right alongside South Patrol Road Prairie, rendering these and inummerable other experiences as rare as the state-endangered loggerhead shrike. Or northern harrier. Or any number of threatened and endangered bird species who are just barely hanging onto existence because of places like Midewin.

Northern Harrier hunting in South Patrol Road Prairie

Northern Harrier hunting in South Patrol Road Prairie