Sunday, April 17, 2011

The enchanted floodplain (spring ephemerals)

Summer and winter seem to last forever. Fall is a lovely season, but lately the close of the warm season, and the departure of the birds, a little death of sorts, has been depressing to me.

Spring is one of the best seasons for birding, and it is quick, that tiny window when everything bursts forth in perfection. You have to be really paying attention to catch it. A couple weeks' preoccupation and it is gone, the flowers faded, the leaves unfurled.

Ephemeral = lasting a very short time; transitory. As in, the wildflowers that bloom for a week or two, after the spring sunshine has arrived and fading with the closing of the canopy into leaves. Here in Illinois, these include: spring beauties, marsh marigold, Virginia bluebells, blue-eyed mary, dutchmen's breeches, red (and occasionally white) trillium, and shooting stars.

My reluctance to miss the wildflowers was part of what swayed me into going to Parklands Merwin Preserve this weekend, instead of the more local option of Ewing Park here in town. As I lay in bed this morning, my Green Angel and my Consuming Angel had a brief debate in my mind as I pondered where to bird today.

Green Angel
: Just go to Ewing Park; it's so close, you could even walk there and get some extra exercise on the way.

Consuming Angel: No way, that park is small and boring. You want a nice long hike in nature, right? Go to Parklands!

Green Angel: Sure, Parklands is nice, but with gas almost $4.00 a gallon and the new drilling in the Gulf to resume, wouldn't it be less self-indulgent to walk to Ewing? Besides, people have seen some warblers there!

Consuming Angel: There's warblers in Parklands, too, and it won't be full of noisy people walking their dogs! Besides, the bluebells are blooming....

DONE! And the winner is...Consuming Angel! Because who wouldn't want to see the bluebells?

It really was a lovely day for a nature walk, sunny and just a little chilly...especially when the wind picked up...and the wind is like, always blowing here in the flatlands! So, OK, a bit chilly and I will be so grateful when I can stop wearing an extra layer when I go out, but the sun was shining and I'll take what I can get, especially since the last two days were rainy and gray. (And since Sunwiggy has reported that, up in her new homeland of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, it is snowing with a vengeance this weekend!)

My first bird sighting, as I pulled up to Parklands' west gate, was of an eastern towhee singing "Your tea! Your tea!" from a wire.

I will warn you now, I had the worst time getting bird photos today. They were all either perching way up high in the treetops, or skulking in the shrubbery, or insistent upon staying in the shadows. Some days are like that.

There was also a brown thrasher in the parking area, and as I walked into the woods, a brown creeper and a slew of white-breasted nuthatches. I was a little disappointed not to see any red-headed woodpeckers or eastern bluebirds, which normally love the open, savanna-like area above the Mackinaw River, but none of those were apparent today.

The river was beautiful in the sunlight.

I thought, for a moment, how different it had looked in winter--for comparison, you can see the photos we took on our Winter Walk.

As the trail descended to the Mackinaw's floodplain, the true magic of the woods revealed itself, a carpet of bluebells stretching in every direction.

I turned the other way, and it was still all bluebells.

The only birds I could see were robins, but at least they were surrounded by bluebells.

There is something so utterly magical about being surrounded by vast swathes of bluebells. When people thought of fairies and enchantments, bluebells or similar wildflowers must have been nearby.

Parklands doesn't normally have a wide variety of spring ephemerals, but I also saw some red trillium:

And spring beauties:

And although they won't bloom for another couple of weeks, evidence that there will be many a mayapple:

And the Lord Voldemort of the plant kingdom, ready to spread out and do evil as soon as it gets its chance, garlic mustard:

Unfortunately, I saw plenty of those while I was walking around. Soon they will form delicate little white blossoms on top...and then they'll grow and grow like a straggly weed, and propagate themselves far and wide, and take over the whole forest...goodbye, bluebells and trilliums! If I were a Dalek (any other Doctor Who fans out there?), I would yell, "Exterminate! Exterminate!" at the very sight of them.

There was a lot of excitement in the plant world today, as you can see, but the birding remained disappointing. I did see a Canada goose along the river.

As soon as it saw me it starting honking for its mate.

And then the two of them started swimming along the river, honking in tandem.

And honking and honking. (OMG, a human, a human!) Has anyone ever tried to tell you how peaceful it is to be out in nature? Yeah, don't believe them. At least Canada geese don't (yet!) demand your wallet....

In a tangled, thorny area by the creek, I saw white-throated sparrows and more eastern towhees. They were all skulking in the underbrush, but this was their preferred habitat.

Shortly after this, I saw my first house wrens of the season, but they were skulking, too. The hermit thrush I tried to photograph also took off before I could the camera up. The only bird that would hold still for a moment was--guess what?--a robin.

I took a short walk onto the oak savanna, where a mammoth oak tree holds its court.

I have always loved oaks, be they white oaks, red oaks, bur oaks, chinquapin oaks, or the lovely dancing live oaks of Texas. Nothing like an oak to get your animistic spirits up! They are trees with such a presence.

Right before I left, I did see a red-headed woodpecker by the savanna area. What a relief! Since they are birds in decline, I always like to know they're happy and healthy in their known locations. I haven't seen any at Evergreen Lake for a couple of years now, for example, which kind of bothers me.

After this, I drove around to the South Gate for a quick walk, getting a few new species for the day: chipping sparrows in the pines, giving their buzzy songs; a blue-gray gnatcatcher, my first for the year (and the bird I was most hoping for today, hooray!), also a quick look at a wild turkey walking down the path. I was distracted from taking the turkey's photo by a cacophony of crows harassing a hawk, but here is the evidence of its passage.

And finally, I saw an eastern bluebird in the meadow before I left, so all hoped-for species accounted for.

In case you are ever in the area, I have a word of advice, which is to ignore this sign. Don't even bother panning for gold...or dollars. It's just a name.

I did see several lovely turkey vultures in this area, however. And speaking of vultures, today is the last day that our local Borders Books store is open. If you haven't heard, many of their stores are closing, which is sad, not only because I love bookstores, but because Greenturtle worked there for several years.

I wanted to stop by since the few remaining books were going at 90% off, and it turns out that I wasn't the only one to resist a bargain. The entire store was packed.

I had to elbow my way through the crowds just to look at the few remaining books (don't worry, I succeeded!), and I even found a few good titles at bargain prices, but the whole thing is rather sad. Not only for our friends who are losing their jobs, or because I love bookstores in general. But it all goes with what I have been feeling lately, that things are always changing, and never for the better. Sunwiggy and I spent many happy hours browsing through piles of books as we sat in the cafe...and Greenturtle worked here for so long...and now it's all gone.

Well, as the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, whether it's wind farms taking over your county, or beloved stores closing, or the ephemeral pace of the seasons, "Change alone is unchanging." And he said that, what? A couple millennia ago? That doesn't make it any easier to deal with!

In the meantime, do you have any favorite wildflowers, or places to see them? Or are any recent changes getting you down?


  1. Love the photos, especially the turkey footprint! I'll have to find where the wildflowers like to grow here in the UP...Central Mine, for one, and there used to be trout lilies on our 20 acres. Next year I'll come and visit you in bluebell time! So lovely! We've had 6 or 7 inches of snow, and the sandhill cranes, crows, and seagulls are still gleaning in the old corn fields. We had to buy more birdseed for your juncos! Mom

  2. If there used to be trout lilies, I bet there are trout lilies still.... And I would say I want my juncos back, but you can keep them for the summer.