As many as 16 of Illinois' 43 species of endangered and threatened birds may have nested in Cook County in 1993. I'd bet that no other county in the state could boast a total that high.
We get these numbers because over the years our enlightened political leaders have set aside here the largest forest-preserve system in the state--a system larger than the state park system. And because our unenlightened political leaders have so far been unable to succeed in their schemes to destroy the Calumet marshes.
We know about all these birds because of yet another unique feature of Cook County. In 1993 154 birders volunteered their time to survey a piece of our remaining natural lands during the nesting season. No other county in the state can muster that many skilled observers. Of course given the minuscule amount of natural land that remains in the typical Illinois county, you could say that no other county needs that many observers.
Cook County also has Alan Anderson, another unique resource. Alan--who does his work under the auspices of the Chicago Audubon Society--has been compiling nesting surveys for more than a decade now. He is willing to hang on the phone until his ears bleed, nagging, begging, and cajoling that small army of birders into actually going out to cover the areas they promised to cover and then nagging, begging, and cajoling them into sending in reports on what they discovered.
And when he finally gets all their reports, he sits down and compiles them the old-fashioned way--with pencil and paper. He does not have a computer.
I just got my copy of his report for 1993. It makes for fascinating reading. The convention in birding reports is to list the names of all contributors at the beginning of the report. Those whose contributions are cited in the text are given distinctive initials, which are printed after the citation. So naturally the first thing I did when I got my copy was skim the report in search of the initials "JSu." Getting my byline in a birding report is as big a kick as getting it in the New Yorker would be. It just doesn't pay as well.
And I am in there with the tufted titmice I heard singing at Black Partridge Woods, with the Bell's vireos and yellow-breasted chats that Alan, Fred Kase, and I found in Richton Park, and with the prairie birds I found in the forest preserves around Vollmer and Central at the far southern end of the county.
The fields around Vollmer and Central are not botanically interesting. They are just cropland now grown up in weeds. But they are among the largest pieces of grassland habitat left in the county, and birders have been patrolling them for years. They were the last place in Cook County where upland sandpipers nested. The threatened Henslow's sparrow nests there sometimes, and there are substantial populations of the more common prairie species: eastern meadowlark, bobolink, and savannah sparrow. When I was the compiler of the Cook County Spring Bird Count, I always reserved that area for myself, just because I loved walking through fields while bobolinks sang their flight song in the air around me.
Recently the board of the Chicago Audubon Society voted to name these fields the Bartel Grasslands. This in honor of Karl Bartel, who died recently. Karl was a guy from Blue Island who got interested in birds early in life and spent 60 years pursuing that interest. He got a banding permit in the early 30s and was an active bander for the rest of his life. When the Chicago Academy of Sciences published Birds of the Chicago Region in 1956, the bibliography cited publications of Karl's dating back to 1932. When Steven Mlodinow wrote Chicago Area Birds in 1984, KBa was cited many times in the text. He maintained bluebird houses on the grasslands around Vollmer and Central and banded the young they produced.
Chicago Audubon has no plans to petition the county to make Bartel Grasslands an official name. The plan is just to spread the word among birders that this is what these lands should be called. Several such unofficial place names already exist. Montrose's Magic Hedge and Lake Calumet's Big Marsh and Dead Stick Pond appear on no maps (though Dead Stick Pond did make it into a Sara Paretsky novel), but every active birder in the Chicago area knows exactly where they are.
The unofficial character of the name seems quite appropriate. Karl's memory will be kept alive not because Rand McNally or the Cook County Forest Preserve District prints his name on a map, but because the community of birders continue the work--and the play--that shaped his life.
This year's list of Cook County nesters begins with the pied-billed grebe, one of our endangered species. Birds nested this year in the Calumet marshes, in marshes near Barrington, at McGinnis Slough, in the Palos preserves, and in the preserve at 167th and LaGrange Road that birders are now calling Orland Hills. There were also sightings in Chicago Heights, Riverdale, and Streamwood.
This sort of distribution is encouraging. When a species is found in only one nesting location--even if it is present there in good numbers--it is very vulnerable. A purely local disaster could wipe it out.
This year Audrey Smith verified nesting for the black-crowned night heron along the North Shore Channel, the canal that runs from Wilmette Harbor on Lake Michigan to the North Branch of the Chicago River near Foster Avenue. The birds have been seen there every summer for some years, but until Audrey's find nobody had been able to discover a nest. This is also good news for this endangered species. We now have three nesting colonies around Lake Calumet, one at Baker's Lake in Barrington, one near Palatine, and this one in Evanston.
The first Chicago-area nesting record for the red-breasted merganser was the big news of the 1991 season. The birds nested on Metropolitan Water Reclamation District ponds in Stickney. They were back in 1992 and again this year, but this year we also have confirmed nesting for this species at the Paul Douglas Forest Preserve near Barrington. A female with flightless young was seen three times in early June, and Annalee Fjellberg photographed the birds. Males were also seen at Wolf Lake and Lake Calumet during the summer.
A sandhill crane hung around Crabtree Nature Center near Barrington until June 11, and another was seen several times in Cherry Hill Woods--one of the Palos preserves--between June 6 and July 17. This species had been extirpated from the state, but birds--presumably from the Wisconsin flock--began recolonizing a few years ago. They now nest in Chain O' Lakes State Park. Cranes are open-country birds who need wet prairies and shallow marshes for nesting. I don't know whether there is enough such habitat in Cook County to support cranes, but the presence of these birds at least arouses hope.
In other news of new species, Margo Milde heard a pileated woodpecker calling in Chipilly Woods in Northbrook and Sue Friscia found a barred owl at Plum Grove Forest Preserve in the southeasternmost corner of the county. Both of these species nest at the Indiana Dunes, and barred owls also nest along the Des Plaines River in Lake County, so there is potential for both species to recolonize Cook County.
The continuing bad news in the nesting report is the low numbers and short species list for wood warblers. In 1956 Birds of the Chicago Region described the cerulean warbler as "an uncommon summer resident," and Chicago Area Birds called it "locally common" in the northern part of the area. This year we had only one sighting of one bird on one day in the entire county.
The Cook County Forest Preserve District has found some money to hire a person to enter all of the data Alan and his volunteers have collected into a computer. Once that is done we will have an atlas of Cook County's nesting birds. As far as I know, this will be a document unique in the world. There are other atlases, but they tend to be either very detailed looks at very small areas or sketchy looks at very large areas. The combination of detail and geographic scope that we will have just doesn't exist.
And birds are only part of the story. We currently have volunteers at work studying lichens, sedges, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, and practically every other group of plants or animals known to inhabit this part of the world. Thanks to groups of volunteers--in numbers and in skill they outdo everybody--we know more about the natural areas of Cook County than we do about natural areas anywhere else on earth.