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Sixteen hundred black-crowned night herons have come to nest in the marshes around Lake Calumet. I helped count them on a bitterly cold evening two weeks ago. The total more than doubles the previous high count recorded for this species in a single day anywhere in the Chicago area. The clouds of herons provide a very clear sign that the Calumet marshes, though surrounded by steel mills and garbage dumps, are still the richest wetland ecosystem in Illinois.

The herons are now nesting at two locations in the marshes. The larger colony is in the wetland at 116th Street and Stony Island, the area that birders have known for years simply as the Big Marsh. But for the second straight year the birds are occupying a second colony, this one in a row of cottonwoods north of 122nd Street just west of Torrence Avenue. A careful count of the occupied nests in those trees--clearly visible before the leaves emerged--showed 288 active nests festooning the branches. Mixed in were a few nests of the great egret and cattle egret. A few great blue herons have been seen hanging about the place, but no one has yet identified a nest belonging to that species.

I was tagging along with Alan Anderson of the Chicago Audubon Society and with Walter Marcisz. Marcisz, who lives in Blue Island not far from the marshes, has been an active birder for many years and once served as president of the Chicago Ornithological Society. With us were several friends of Walter's carrying camcorders to record the scene on videotape. The tapes, along with a press release, will be sent out to local media outlets.

Our visit began near the end of the day at the rookery at 122nd and Torrence. The temperature, according to the radio, was about 45. But a howling gale was roaring out of the north, and in the exposed situations in which we would find ourselves, the windchill was well below freezing. We would be looking into the wind all night, our eyes tearing as we counted the birds.

The sight at 122nd Street was extraordinary. We were a good distance from the row of cottonwoods that held the nests, far enough away that the four-foot wing span of the night herons looked almost small. They were in constant motion, flying to nests carrying sticks to add to the structures. The wind fluffed the gorgeous nuptial plumes of the great egrets as they sat on nests or perched on branches. Almost a century ago these delicate plumes were a hot item in the millinery market. Hunters sought out breeding colonies, attacking at night and killing every adult. Eggs and young in the nests were either destroyed or left to die. The new Audubon societies made protection of the egret their first big cause, and the national group still uses the egret as its symbol. I wonder how that first battle would turn out if it were taking place today. I can imagine the hunters hiring some well-connected PR firm like Hill and Knowlton to point out that plume hunters play a major economic role in many small rural communities near wetlands, and that ultimately the plumes also mean jobs, jobs, jobs for hatmakers, hatbox manufacturers, and thousands of retail clerks all across the nation.

Both the black-crowned night heron and the great egret are on the endangered list in Illinois. They represent two of the six endangered birds that would have vital habitat destroyed if Richard M. "Tunnels" Daley gets his airport at Lake Calumet. Standing and shivering on 122nd Street that evening, I found two other listed species: the common moorhen and the yellow-headed blackbird. If I positioned myself just right, I could look through my binoculars and see four endangered species all at once. It is a feat that probably couldn't be duplicated anywhere else in the state.

Calumet's other endangered birds are the pied-billed grebe--last year 15 pairs nested near the Big Marsh--and the least bittern, which Marcisz found last year at Powderhorn Marsh, a Cook County forest preserve that would be obliterated by the new airport. A seventh endangered species is a possibility. Double-crested cormorants--we saw two flocks totaling about 50 birds--are hanging around on Lake Calumet late into the nesting season. If they could find a suitable location, they could well begin to breed there.

But the endangered species are just the beginning of the story. In the marsh in front of that row of cottonwoods we could also see three species of swallows, American coots, ruddy ducks, blue-winged teal, and shovelers, another duck species. The presence of endangered species is usually a sign of the health of an ecosystem, and a high level of diversity is another such sign.

Dusk was approaching when we left the 122nd Street site to go to the Big Marsh. We drove west on 122nd to Stony Island. Work is currently in progress to pave the stretch of Stony Island that runs from 122nd north to 103rd Street. It was a gravel road before this work started. We left our cars where the pavement ends, which happens to be right in front of the SCA incinerator. This is a facility of ChemWaste, a portion of the vast Waste Management garbage conglomerate, and until recently it burned PCBs, among other noxious compounds. Over the years this incinerator has been found violating environmental laws over and over again. Each violation would be followed by a fine paid with no admission of wrongdoing. The incinerator would start up again, burn for a while, and then get caught again. Finally the EPA demanded a major upgrading of the facility, and the company decided not to spend the money.

So after all these years community and environmental groups can claim a victory. The only urban PCB incinerator in the country is no longer in business. Of course if the airport happens, the victory will be largely meaningless.

We walked north along the shoulder to the path that leads into the Big Marsh. Ten years ago Waste Management tried to put a landfill on this site, but a coalition of environmental and community groups opposed the company with the support of Harold Washington, then a candidate for mayor. His support led to a moratorium on landfills in the city and produced an active investigation into recycling and other alternatives to landfilling. Waste Management still owns the Big Marsh, but it has been forced to leave the place undisturbed.

We walked east from Stony Island, skirting the southern edge of the marsh. We could see buffleheads and more shovelers swimming in the open water away from the reeds. A Virginia rail called from somewhere. Near the eastern edge of the marsh a small grove of trees screened us from the marsh itself. As we passed that grove and approached the water's edge, about a thousand black-crowned night herons exploded into the air.

I have been to the Everglades. I've been to the coastal marshes in Louisiana and Texas. I've never seen a spectacle to top this: clouds of birds, big birds, birds so big that you wouldn't want them anywhere near a runway where planes are taking off.

So I asked Marcisz how we were going to count all these birds. They were in constant motion. There was no way to even guess at how many were there. He told me that we would wait for them to leave the marsh. And indeed, as darkness came on, a few at a time, the birds departed. They were heading out from the marsh in every direction. Night herons feed at night, and these were obviously flying to other wetlands--in the city, in the southern suburbs, in northwestern Indiana--in search of food. I began to wonder just how much wetland acreage it took to support all these birds. I wondered if any wetlands had been destroyed because people visited them during the day and judged them of little value to wildlife.

You would expect local environmentalists to be unanimous in their opposition to putting an airport at Lake Calumet, and they are. But getting support from beyond the Chicago area has taken some work. The initial reaction from elsewhere has generally been that this is a local issue, and besides it's such a crackbrained idea it will die of its own stupidity before anybody turns a shovelful of earth.

Chicagoans have responded that the airport requires federal approval and that even stupid ideas, if they are supported by the likes of Sam Skinner and Dan Rostenkowski, can be approved. They have also pointed out that the destruction of the natural areas around Lake Calumet sets a horrible precedent. We are not talking about a couple of acres of cattails here. We are talking about large, highly productive natural areas that support rare and diverse communities of plants and animals. We are also talking about Chicago congressmen voting in favor of legislation that would weaken wetlands protection nationally in order to get the airport here.

Now the National Audubon Society is beginning to get involved, and last weekend Great Lakes United formally adopted a resolution opposing the airport. GLU is an umbrella organization whose members include environmental groups like the Lake Michigan Federation and the National Wildlife Federation, sportsmen's groups like the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, unions like the UAW, and Native American groups like the Business Council of the Oneida Tribe and the Council of First Nations in Canada. It's nice to have their support.

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