Last Saturday about 125 local birders fanned out over Cook County in search of birds. The occasion was the annual statewide Spring Bird Count, an event that has been held every year since 1972 and has now established itself alongside the Christmas count as a major event in the birding year.
In the early days of the count only a handful of birders participated. Coverage was spotty, and those who did take part were sometimes forced into heroic exertions. There were times when the same person had to cover Lake Calumet and the forest preserves near Barrington. This made for extremely long days. It also required good birders to spend several hours of count day driving on expressways, where countable birds are rare.
About ten years ago we got to the point where we had enough people to come close to covering all the likely birding spots in the county at a more-or-less adequate level. That takes at least 100 people in Cook County. Our large forest-preserve system, combined with Lake Calumet and our lakefront parks, provides us with a lot of acreage for birds.
We usually record somewhere between 180 and 200 species on the count. Our best year ever was 1983, when we found a total of 204 species. Counters keep track of numbers of individual birds as well as of species. A typical total for a year might be in the neighborhood. of 40,000.
Some people lay claim to a particular area and bird it year after year. I like to move around. Three years was my longest stay in any one place. That was an area at the far southern end of the county that holds one of our largest grasslands. I wanted to bird it because it was the only place in the county where upland sandpipers occurred regularly. Henslow's sparrows sometimes appeared there, and twice I saw a northern harrier. There was a large marsh next to the grassland where I saw great egrets and black-crowned night herons. That gave me five endangered species in one day's birding.
This year I really lucked out. Diane Murphy, the birder who usually covers the southwestern section of the Palos-area forest preserves, couldn't make the count this year, so I got to cover her territory. It is a very diverse area that includes shallow lakes, marshes, open grasslands, shrubby tangles, and mature woodlands. Cap Sauers Holdings, one of my favorite places, lies within the territory. Named for George Sauers, general superintendent of the Forest Preserve District for about 30 years, the preserve includes more than 2,000 acres, making it the largest roadless area in Cook County. It sits on a glacial moraine, so the terrain is quite varied. You can find real hills there and scattered ponds in the low spots between them. Mainly you can find quiet places. You do get the occasional airplane passing over, but the size of the preserve allows you to get far enough from roads to escape traffic noise. You can't do that very many places in this county.
I arrived on my territory at about 6 AM--the only bad feature of birding is the hours--and started counting at the northern end of a shallow lake called Tampier Slough. Tampier is one of the forest preserves' most popular fishing lakes, which means you have to get there early to see water birds. Later in the day the disturbance created by large numbers of anglers drives them away.
My first bird of the morning was a red-winged blackbird. No surprise there. Most years redwings are the most abundant bird of the count. But then things started to pick up. Standing on the road with water on both sides of me, I heard a male yellowthroat singing, then two male yellow warblers. A wood duck flew over, and a noisy pair of Canada geese landed on the water. Two great blue herons took off from the far end of the slough, and then a green-backed heron flew across the road.
I found a path that followed the upland around the western end of the slough and took it into the woods. The first few hundred yards went through a landscape dominated by shrubby thickets. There were yellow warblers all over the place, the first of 25 of these birds I would see that day. I also got my first blue-winged warbler. I would see or hear eight of them before the day was over.
An indigo bunting popped up out of the weeds, and catbirds and brown thrashers sang around me. A field sparrow gave its distinctive call off to one side somewhere, and the first rose-breasted grosbeak of the morning sang its very loud song right next to the path. By and by, the terrain changed a bit, and I got into a woodland with larger trees. The first of the five scarlet tanagers of the morning flashed fiery red and black, and a great-crested flycatcher sounded its whooping call.
I left the trail about halfway around and walked downhill to the shore of the slough. I was hoping for more water birds, but a pair of mallards was the best I could do. Then my eye caught a black-billed cuckoo sitting very quietly--cuckoos are good at that--about 15 feet up in a tree at the water's edge.
Walking along the edge of the slough, I added a gray-cheeked thrush and a red-bellied woodpecker to my list. Cattails bordering a channel connecting two sections of the slough gave me a marsh wren and a sora. Four double-crested cormorants flew over. They would be my only endangered species of the day.
At the western edge of the county, west of Will-Cook Road between 131st Street and 135th Street, is the John J. Duffy Forest Preserve. When Cap Sauers was running the forest-preserve system, one of his tactics for gaining the support of members of the county board was to name preserves after them. All sorts of our preserves carry the names of obscure machine pols whose votes for the expansion and protection of the forest preserves could be bought with the promise of immortality. Mr. Duffy's preserve is mostly open grassland, where I found a nice selection of prairie birds: savanna sparrows, bobolinks, eastern meadowlarks. The bobolink is one of my favorite birds. The males defy all the rules of camouflage by being brightly colored above and dark below, and they sing their song in flight over open fields. Peterson describes the song as "ecstatic and bubbling, starting with low reedy notes and rollicking upward," which pretty much says it.
I went from Duffy's grassland directly to Cap Sauers's place. I was most interested in visiting the area where volunteer crews have been restoring the prairie. The path leading in was difficult in spots. Cap Sauers Holdings is very popular with equestrians, and for portions of my route I had to follow horse trails. They were very nasty places. Our wet spring had turned them muddy in the low places. When horses walk along a muddy trail, their hooves sink deep into the muck, creating a network of puddles that's impossible to avoid. Where the trails had dried the surface was so rough with hoofprints that I had to carefully watch where I placed each foot to avoid tripping. And where the trails followed a slope the horse traffic had completely removed the plant cover. Every time it rains these trails become temporary streams, and the water they carry erodes the soil. In some places the trails were actually gullies scoured out as much as two feet below the surrounding ground. If horse traffic continues for a few more years, these will be canyons.
I have nothing against horses. They have played a major role in history. Without horses Genghis Khan would not have been able to rape, pillage, and plunder half the world, cossacks, would not have been able to rampage through the ghettos murdering Jews, and the U.S. cavalry would not have been able to attack Indian villages and slaughter helpless women and children. But it does seem that we need a little tighter control over where riders can take their horses in the forest preserves.
The prairie-restoration area gave me a pair of eastern bluebirds and two more singing male blue-winged warblers. I decided to head north from the prairie and do some exploration, and what I found was extraordinary. A very large area--a hundred acres or more--of large, widely spaced trees towering over ground totally covered with the pale pink blossoms of the early flowers called spring beauties. Volunteers had cleared brush in some areas, and controlled burns had done their work to create a magical place. Here I found Cape May, blackpoll, black-throated green, Nashville, bay-breasted, and Tennessee warblers. Not very many of them, but enough to bring my total list for the day to 60 species. I think I will be going back to that place.