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Field & Street

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It was as close as I have ever been to a red-tailed hawk. The bird flew off the vast slope of the CID landfill and came to rest on top of a light pole. I was standing in the parking lot of the O'Brien Lock and Dam at 134th Street and the Calumet River, and the bird was no more than 50 feet from me. Looking through my binoculars, I could practically count every feather.

The bird was presenting its left profile to me. I could see the eye--yellow or pale green, depending on the angle of the light. Light feathers surrounded the eye except for a thin strip of darker color extending toward the back of the head. The yellow green pupils are typical of immature birds, according to the field guides, but I clearly saw the brick red tail of the adult bird.

The breast feathers, which usually register as white from a distance, were a soft cream color with just a touch of buff. A band of mottled darker brown crossed the belly. The flight feathers on the wings were solid brown, and the back was dark brown with pale mottling.

The bird posed for a good long time. Then it began to study the grass on the other side of the chain-link fence that surrounds the landfill. By and by, it launched itself on a swift downward glide that carried it over the fence and into that grass. Red-tails are soaring hawks with broad wings and tails that can keep them aloft for hours with a minimal expenditure of energy. They typically hunt from on high, but they can also do as this bird was doing and hunt from a perch, watching for movement on the ground around them. Small mammals--mice, rats, rabbits, ground squirrels--are the usual food.

Hawks and eagles have extremely acute vision. On the retina of each eye are two highly sensitive areas called fovea that provide very sharp images. The resolving power of these fovea depends on the number of receptor cells in each. A red-tailed hawk has about 1,000,000 cells per square millimeter. We have about 200,000. We are looking at a world as fuzzy as a large-screen projection TV compared to red-tails, which see images as sharply defined as the best that National Geographic can provide. That's why they can spot a rabbit from 200 feet in the air. And why they can see movement in grass that would entirely escape our notice.

At first the animal that had attracted the hawk's attention escaped. But the hawk stayed with it, stepping slowly through the grass, looking about it carefully, pausing as if to listen. And then, with one sweeping motion, it turned and hopped and came down hard. I could tell it had something in its talons. It was looking intently at its feet, and then it bent down and quickly stood up again with a rat in its beak. A slight shake of its head administered the coup de grace. It dropped the animal and began to pull it apart. Six times it bent down into the grass and came up with a bloody hunk of rat. Each piece was swallowed whole, and then the rat was gone.

The bird flew back to its perch on the light pole. This time it gave me a full-face look and posed for a moment. Then it cleaned the gore from its beak with quick rubs on the crosspiece of the light pole, first one side, then the other, like a cook sharpening a carving knife. And that was breakfast.

This sanguinary little episode was the highlight of my first visit to the Lake Calumet area in over a year. I was not surprised by it. Lake Calumet seems to provide extraordinary nature experiences every time you go near it. The last time I was there I led a small group of people into the marshes south of 122nd Street that birders call the Heron Pond area. We got about 50 yards south of the road when a black-crowned night heron flew up from the reeds next to the path. Then another arose, and another. The day was windy, making it easy for the herons to hang in the sky, scarcely moving, hovering over us. We were roofed with herons, close to 100 birds, hanging in the sky waiting for us to get out of their marsh.

This was not supposed to happen. According to my Rand McNally/ Chicago Tribune Chicago and Vicinity Six County Street Finder, all those black-crowned night herons were hanging over the intersection of 124th and Oglesby. Crandon and Luella are the next streets to the west, and to the east, just the other side of the railroad tracks, in the ditch where we usually see common moorhens swimming, are Bensley, Calhoun, and Hoxie streets.

These are part of the phantom neighborhoods of Lake Calumet, ghost blocks that exist only on maps. They were platted long ago in anticipation of the destruction of the last of the Calumet marshes. But those marshes were not destroyed, and the streets remain totally imaginary.

The next plan for Lake Calumet, the plan that was laid over the imaginary grid of streets and houses, was for landfills. Unfortunately some of these really exist. The CID landfill where I saw the red-tail occupies space that was once a lovely marsh. North of 122nd Street, just across the road from the Heron Pond, are the Paxton and Land and Lakes landfills, mountains of garbage encircled by clouds of gulls. And northwest of those is the old city landfill, which has long been closed. The plateau that is its upper surface has been optimistically turned into a treeless golf course. Trees have to be kept out because their roots would grow down into the garbage and possibly pull up toxins into their leaves.

For some reason, tires in landfills tend to work their way up through the accumulated trash and burst through the cap into the open air. I keep hoping that someday a golfer will be lining up a 20-foot birdie putt, and just as he is about to stroke the shot a Firestone 6.70x15 will burst through the creeping bent like an alien popping out of somebody's abdomen.

The landfill business suffered a major setback in the Lake Calumet area about 15 years ago, when Waste Management Inc.'s plans to turn the largest remaining marsh into a garbage dump ran head-on into the Clean Water Act. Section 404 of that act requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit to anyone seeking to fill a wetland. The corps can refuse permits, and they did. Since that time we have not lost an acre of wetlands in the Calumet region.

This is good news, but not as good as we might like it to be. We have succeeded in preventing the loss of what remains of the once vast Calumet marshes. But these marshes, which are owned by various private interests, have become orphan lands. Nobody is destroying them, but nobody is actively protecting them either. They survive, but they are losing some of the quality that made them worth saving.

The most noticeable problem is purple loosestrife. This is a plant that was accidentally imported into North America from Europe. It produces beautiful flowers, tall purple spikes as much as a foot long. But its effects on wetlands are seriously harmful. Given a foothold in a marsh, it quickly expands, ultimately taking over the whole place. Native plants are driven out, and native animals as well.

When we held off Waste Management's plans 15 years ago there was no purple loosestrife around Lake Calumet. Now it is everywhere. Pure stands of purple flowers surround the Heil marsh at 134th and Torrence. And they are everywhere in the marshes along Torrence between 130th and 116th streets.

There are other problems as well. The Heron Pond area is so choked with vegetation that it seems impossible for any animals to squeeze in. The open water that birds such as the yellow-headed blackbird need is almost entirely overrun with tall reeds and purple loosestrife. No one is officially responsible for any of this land, and no agency--public or private--is in a position to do anything about the destructive trends that are plainly visible.

A proposal to create a Lake Calumet Ecological Park out of the remaining wetlands and other natural lands in the area has been floating around for years. Studies galore have been done. The feds show interest but do nothing concrete. The state and county follow suit. Meanwhile the chance to watch hunting red-tails and hovering night herons might pass away before anything is done.

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