Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fire on the prairie (but no woodcocks)

Yesterday my husband and I went out for a stroll at Sugar Grove Nature Center after work. I was hoping to see an American woodcock doing his evening display, which is apparently quite impressive. I knew that woodcocks were in residence because the previous week the nature center had had an evening woodcock walk, which I missed, since I hadn't been on their web site in a month or so.

When we got there, instead of the empty parking lot we were expecting, we found a group of men (I think they were all men) wearing yellow suits and carting around containers of liquid. What was going on? Was the Grove being invaded by some particularly noxious weed, which required a whole pesticide SWAT team to eradicate? I didn't like the looks of this at all -- who wants their nature walk spoiled by poisonous fumes? The yellow-suited fellows were heading towards the trails to the left of the visitor center, so we headed to the right.

Sugar Grove Nature Center is one of the nicer places to bird in McLean County. I won't try to describe the entire place in one post; for the purposes of this walk, the relevant feature is the restored prairie. The largest field stretches for a ways to the right of and behind the visitor center, with a wooded section jutting out into the middle.

The evening was overcast, with a premonition of rains to come stirring the air--one of my favorite kinds of days for atmosphere; unfortunately, not that great for seeing birds, as they all looked kind of like dark shapes against a gray background. Even so, we had a very nice view of a harrier flying and I saw my first Eastern kingbird of the season, and the air was filled with the songs of meadowlarks. (We also saw the severed head of an opossum -- mostly skull, showing a ferocious line of teeth, with enough fur attached to the top of the head that we could identify the critter. Of the rest of the body, there was no sign.)

When we turned towards the trees to our left, we saw what the men in yellow were really up to -- the back prairie was ablaze. I know that prairie restoration involves periodic burning, to help control invasive plants and doubtless for other reasons as well, but I had never actually seen it being done before. As evening drew in, and the blaze grew larger, it started to look like the whole Grove was going to burn up in a hideous conflagration. My inner pyromaniac wanted to get a closer look at the fire -- for a moment, I even forgot to be disappointed about the lack of woodcocks.

By the time we got back to the parking lot, the fire had been put out. The expanse of prairie looked like nothing more than blackened, charred earth -- hardly more appealing than a parking lot. And yet in two or three months' time, it will be filled with waving grasses and wildflowers.

As we left, the birdsong was fading for the night...and three firetrucks were heading down the road. As usual, it was not the experience that I had expected; but, in its own way, was even better. And I will go out looking for woodcocks again!

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