Last weekend we held the first ever North Branch Spring Bird Count. When I say we, I mean mainly my friend David Standish and me, along with Jeff Rovner and Judy Pollock. A couple more people had said they would try to get out to one of the restoration sites along the North Branch of the Chicago River late Saturday afternoon, but they didn't make it.
The idea of the spring count arose in darkest January when a dozen or so people interested in helping with a breeding-bird survey on the restoration sites along the North Branch got together to discuss our plans for the year. (The North Branch Prairie Project is restoring the native prairie and savanna vegetation in nine Cook County forest preserves along the North Branch.) Somehow none of us felt obligated to organize the count, so nothing got done. Last week, Laurel Ross from North Park Village Nature Center and I made some desperate last-minute phone calls, but half promises on the order of "Maybe I'll get over there sometime late Saturday--I'll see" were the best we could come up with.
So the count became Dave and me birding at Somme Woods and Jeff and Judy doing Miami Woods. Actually, for all the birds we saw, we might almost have stayed at home. At both places migrants were scarce. The resident species, the birds now beginning the cycle of nesting, were there in bigger numbers, and their singing, courting, and territorial disputes dominated the preserves. A northern oriole, flying from treetop to treetop, singing loudly at each perch, patrolling the borders of its territory, stands out. Migrants, feeding in the trees, singing less often, are a bit less prominent.
Most of our migrants were Tennessee warblers. We heard their emphatic song again and again. When Tennessees are singing their fierce staccato song, their whole bodies jerk convulsively with each note, the effort looks exhausting, but the birds repeat it several times a minute and keep it up much of the day.
The best place to look for warblers at Somme is in the junky second-growth woods west of the Milwaukee Road tracks. I have tried talking to the birds, pointing out that the other side of the tracks supplies authentically restored Illinois oak savannas, a high-class, endangered ecosystem that supported their forebears but which they have probably never seen. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to eat the classy insects that hang out in such a place.
The warblers much prefer the west-side forest, a jumble of trash species, including copious buckthorn, some white-barked alien poplar, and lots of box elder and ash. The west-side forest is dense and tangled and hard to walk through. The high ground is muddy; the low ground is submerged. The dense growth kills the force of all but the strongest winds. On hot, humid days with heavy air, the west-side woods are so oppressive that taking a breath requires an effort like sucking a milkshake through a straw.
When I think of the place, I remember the feeling that comes with realizing that I have lost the true path, that I am wandering on deer trails that go nowhere in particular and weren't designed for anyone more than three feet tall. It's hot, the air is close, mosquitoes hover around me like wolves around a wounded caribou. But somehow I keep getting lost in the west-side woods, usually ending my visits by struggling through 300 yards of buckthorn to get to open ground. Most of the good birds I have found there have shown up during my struggles.
Things were pretty quiet in the west-side woods when David and I splashed through on the count. We did find a Wilson's warbler and a Nashville, but that was the extent of it.
Oak Pond was quiet too. I have scared up green-backed herons from this pond, and wood ducks, blue-winged teal, and mallards as well. But on count day, nothing. The Somme Woods bluebird, a spectral creature that vanishes and reappears in ways--and for purposes--that cannot be fathomed by reason, was seen on count day by a reliable source we met on the trail, but David and I never found it.
Jeff and Judy found palm warbler, least flycatcher, magnolia warbler, and orange-crowned warbler. We turned up two savannah sparrows on the east side of the tracks and then four more in the big prairie on the west side. This is a species on our wish list for the North Branch prairies. This is a bird of open country. A pair may need only five acres for a nesting territory, but savannah sparrows will not locate their five-acre territory in any prairie or meadow smaller than about 80 acres. These birds are probably just passing through, but we can hope.
We can also hope for the four singing male bobolinks we found perched in a tree at the edge of the prairie. I heard the rush of tinkling notes of the bobolink's song and started a quick, intense search that located the four. They flew from tree to tree along the fence that marks the boundary of the preserve. I was trying to tell them to leave those trees and check out the nice big prairie we have restored for them. Bobolinks are another open-country bird that we would dearly love to see nesting at Somme. I do not expect any of these birds to stay, but who knows?
The restored prairies of the North Branch are beginning to show the seasonal succession of wildflowers that is such a glorious part of true prairie. It took years of patient gathering from unprotected sites to amass the seed. The wide assortment of seed pods had to be cleaned and then scattered by hand and raked into the ground. And now the flowers are coming up. Not just one here and one way over there, but clusters, compact contiguous populations, many of them already reproducing.
The bright yellow clusters of the prairie plant called golden alexander were the most common blooms at Miami Woods. Mixed with them were small numbers of hoary poccoon, a prairie species with dark golden yellow blossoms.
The raggedy, pale yellow flowers of the wood betony were all over the place at Somme Woods, and present but not as common at Miami. Most of the spring flowers of the prairie are small plants. I saw yellow star grass and blue-eyed grass in full and glorious bloom. Neither of these is an actual grass, but they do have long, slender leaves. Violet wood sorrel was flowering at Miami, and wild strawberries were blooming everywhere. Cream false indigo, those the deer haven't eaten, were just coming into flower.
And there were surprises here and there. This year, the pond next to the parking area at Somme is displaying at least 50 golden flowers of the yellow water buttercup. This is not one that was planted. The seeds may have come in on a duck's foot.
The oak savannas along the North Branch have changed the most in the eight or so years since I first visited the restoration sites. Then, they were choked with buckthorn. The shrubs were so dense you couldn't even see the big oaks scattered through the thickets. Now, acre after acre of brush has been cut. The oak groves have opened up. The scattered trunks of presettlement oaks support a crown of gnarled branches that spreads widely, a sign that these old oaks started life in a savanna like this where there was enough space between trees to encourage the growth of picturesquely gnarled limbs.
And on the ground, the floor of this new savanna, I find false Solomon's seal, red trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium, and hosts of mayapples. And again, these grow not as rare and scattered individuals but in clusters, with enough plants near enough to each other to make it at least possible that a hungry bee might fly from one flower to another and thereby transfer some pollen and start a seed.
This begins to be what things must have looked like around here when Long John Wentworth was mayor. Along the North Branch you can find populations of a substantial fraction of the plants that grew here in the 1830s. You can find treeless prairies and oak savannas, both with enough botanical variety to maintain a floral display throughout the growing season, with summer's blazing stars replacing the golden alexanders and being replaced in turn by prairie dock and goldenrod, and so on to the last asters of fall. The display will get nothing but better. Planting continues. Established populations expand. Periodic prescribed burning helps the natives drive out the weeds. Every year you'll see new species and larger numbers of old species.
The North Branch Prairie Project is an act of reclamation. It reclaims the land for the ecosystems that evolved on that land. It also reclaims the land for us. Descendants of the destroyers of the prairie are putting years of their free time into rebuilding the prairie. They are establishing a connection with the native landscape that never before existed in this part of the world. American settlers were far more inclined to turn a prairie into a cornfield than to try to learn to live off--and with --the native products of this soil.
So the prairie comes back, pushing through the cracks in little preserves scattered through the metropolis. It evolved on this land over thousands of years. Give it half a chance and its precise adaptation to the climate of this place will help it drive out the aliens. The prairie restored suggests an ancient presence, a thing that has endured millennia and will survive our depredations as well. It is an other that invites us to dialogue.