Saturday, March 27, 2010
Burn, prairie, burn (and some woodcocks)
Today I had a serious problem getting out of bed, which happens to me sometimes, for although it's the early birder that gets the birds, I am, by nature, just NOT a morning person. But even though I did not have a lot of expectations by the time I got out to Sugar Grove Nature Center around 1:00, I wanted to see the prairie, post-fire, since those of you who read my post from earlier this week know, I saw some prairie-burning in action last Wednesday when I was looking for some woodcocks.
Since I did not get up in time to try for a dawn viewing of the woodcocks, I researched prairie restoration on the Internet instead. Illinois once held over 22 million acres of grasslands, of which only around 2,000 acres, or 0.01% of the original amount, remains. The rest has been taken over by agriculture or seemingly unstoppable suburban sprawl. For those who are trying to restore the land to its original state, periodic burning is, indeed, the most effective technique, once the prairie has had a few seasons to get started. Many invasive, non-native plants cannot withstand the fire, and some of the native plants depend on periodic burnings to help with growth and seed germination. In addition, fires help kill saplings, thus preventing the prairie from turning into woodland. (Some trees, such as burr oaks, can hold their own against a fire, creating a different, but equally beautiful, habitat known as the oak savanna. I will probably write more about savannas in the future, as they are one of my favorite ecosystems.) Before European settlers took over Illinois, native Americans and lightning strikes both helped with periodic fires.
I do not pretend to be an expert on prairies, although I have developed quite a fondness for them, especially since last year, when I became devoted to finding as many grassland birds as possible, and in the process, saw a lot of beautiful prairies. Funk's Grove (Sugar Grove Nature Center) in Mclean County and Humiston Woods in Livingston County both have very nice restored prairies. Venturing a little farther afield, I also recommend:
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
The Morton Arboretum
Goose Lake Prairie
Prairies, I have learned, consist of grasses and forbs. Typical prairie grasses include: big bluestem, indian grass, little bluestem, switch grass, and prairie dropseed. Forbs are in a category of their own. They are plants, but don't fit into the categories of grasses, shrubs or trees. Most prairie wildflowers fall into this category, although not all forbs are flowers. Some examples of common prairie forbs are: wild bergamot, yellow and purple coneflower, black and brown-eyed susan, compass plant, prairie dock, rattlesnake master, and wild indigo. I'll always remember prairie dock, because its leaves feel like sandpaper. If you want to learn to identify all these, a good place to start is the Prairie Parcel Restoration website.
Prairies are important, not only to vary the landscape, but because they help preserve topsoil from erosion, and attract native butterflies and, most important, BIRDS, including the bobolink, dickcissel, greater prairie chicken, Henslow's sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, meadowlark and upland sandpiper, many of which are endangered in Illinois (and probably elsewhere).
Today, as I walked around Sugar Grove in the early afternoon, I saw the parcel that was burned: it was not the larger "back prairie" as I assumed from seeing the blaze, but the small field to the left of the visitor's center. The blackened, charred area still smelled strongly of ash and smoke, and attracted (for reasons that I am not sure of) large numbers of brown-headed cowbirds and robins.
I kept walking, with few expectations beyond a pleasant nature walk because of the time of day. Once in the woods, I heard some cardinals singing "what cheer, what cheer" and saw more robins. Then, I flushed a bird, which took off making hysterical noises. I cursed myself for looking up at the trees instead of at the ground. A few feet later, I flushed another, and got a wonderful look at it: long bill, coloration -- AMERICAN WOODCOCK!! Then, further down the trail, I flushed another. I might not have seen their evening courtship display, but still I saw them...
AMERICAN WOODCOCK, BABY!!! Overall, it was a very good day.