Monday, May 28, 2012

Fanfare for the grasslands (and, the Bird of Birds)

Nachusa grasslands

I love prairies: an expanse of waving grasses stretching to each horizon, with a mix of wildflowers giving the land a touch of whimsical paintbox color; the sense of the infinite promised by the endless blue sky above; the gentle undulations of the earth that appear as you begin to walk across land that once seemed so flat, and the shimmering of a patch of wetland or a lazy stream meandering through; and of course, more than anything, the buzzy, busy chorus of dozens of grassland birds singing all around. My affinity for the flatlands has been an enduring theme of this blog, to the extent that I sometimes think of it as an extended (and occasionally crabby) love letter to central Illinois. (For the musical accompaniment for this post I have selected Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." I think it has the right mix of hope and wistful longing. Right click to open in a new tab.)

But here's the thing--sometimes I wish I could move to Kansas. Or South Dakota. Maybe the flat part of Colorado. Because, despite being known as "the prairie state," finding an actual, intact grassland in Illinois requires a bit of driving. There are some remnants and restoration projects here and there, a small taste of what it used to be at Sugar Grove Nature Center in McLean County, for example, or Humiston Woods in Livingston, or at Weldon Springs State Park close to my home, which has been my refuge over the past year, and the inspiration for poems and contemplation.

And they are all lovely, but the fact remains that less than .01% of the 22 million acres of grassland that once covered the state remains, not that much for a prairie-lover, or for the grassland nesting birds, of which shamefully many are now state-endangered. To find them, I must travel a couple of hours out of my way to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, or Nachusa Grasslands, the destination of yesterday's bird quest.

I chose the Nachusa Grasslands for three reasons: one, because I love it there; two, bobolinks!!, and three, two species had been recently spied there which would be new for my Illinois State List, the lark sparrow and the western meadowlark (both previously seen in Texas). Despite another scorcher in the forecast, I convinced Greenturtle to rise at "stupid o'clock" with me so we could arrive bright and early at the grasslands, and so we did. Well, relatively bright, and almost early. It was 8:30 to be exact, and already quite hot.

The first thing I heard as I stepped out of the car was a chorus of dick-dick-dickcissel coming from every direction, not a new bird for the year list by any means, but still a favorite. Even more exciting was the call of tsi-lick, tsi-lick, a sure sign of nearby Henslow's sparrows. Without too much fuss or bother, one soon flew up and landed on a stalk of grass, bobbing up and down in the breeze while he proclaimed his territory. I love it when sparrows sing...makes the job of identifying the little boogers a snap.

I did not have any such luck with the Bell's vireo cheedling in a nearby group of shrubs, and after a few minutes suggested to Greenturtle that we move on.

"Don't you want to wait for it?" he asked.

"Waste of time," I said. "They're champion skulkers. He's not coming out." Even though I always feel like I'm cheating when I add a "heard only" bird to a list, that rule exists for species like the Bell's vireo. I did get a good look at one...once. Mostly, they skulk.

The next bird we saw was an old favorite, the bobolink.


I wish I knew why bobolinks won't nest here in Dewitt county. The prairie at Weldon Springs seems suitable. If only I knew the exact habitat requirements, and had the resources to buy up land for bobolink conservation; they are just so precious. But, nice as bobolinks** are (and that is an understatement if I ever made one), they were not the reason I went to the grasslands.

After staggering around through the grasses for a while, we sat atop one of the knobs and rested for a while, observing brown thrashers and eastern meadowlarks below.

A turkey vulture slowly wheeled overhead, making me think of previous trips with my mother on hot days, and how much she would complain about dying in the heat. There was always a vulture nearby, and I would gesture to it, teasing her that it was just waiting for her imminent demise from heatstroke.

Greenturtle mentioned how these nature jaunts always make him introspective, freeing up his mind to think about things. Of course, the things one thinks about aren't always so pleasant, but in my case, I can safely say that I love birding, and being in nature, because it's the only time that I am completely at peace with myself. As soon as I am outside, binoculars around my neck, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, everything makes sense. Nothing is wanting. I think that humans have an innate need for nature, as demonstrated by the Japanese fad for "forest bathing." Prairie bathing works just as well. (My unpleasant thoughts always like to spring up when I am doing boring, data-entry type stuff at work.)

As we descended from the knob and found a mowed trail, I saw movement, raised my binoculars, and begin to sing, "Hallejujah!," for one of my "target birds" was in sight, the lark sparrow. (Right click to hear my internal jubilation as you read.) The patterns on his face were quite distinctive, but the first give-away that I was looking at something different were the white scallops on the tail as the bird flew away, kind of like a kingbird's, only on a sparrow.

Before we left, I got two more year birds, the summer tanager and the grasshopper sparrow (the latter of which sung for me, and did I mention how much I love it when sparrows sing?), and everything was peachy.

But: it was hot. And we were on the prairie. The sun beat down relentlessly.

"Was that the last one you came for?" Greenturtle asked, after the grasshopper sparrow.

"There's still the western meadowlark," I replied. "Oh. And I'd like to see a sedge wren."

"Oh, yeah," he said, in a resigned tone. "The wren."

But for the time being, we had lunch on our minds, and we ended up eating in the smallish town of Rochelle, which had a Chinese buffet...yum, my favorite. Greenturtle wanted to try a mom and pop American-style place, but I tend to stay away from those, having eaten, and worked, at some pretty greasy spoons. In fact, the cockroach-infested family diner I once worked at in Arkansas has pretty much turned me off that type of restaurant for life. (I think the worst moment--the one that still gives me flashbacks--is when I picked up the reeking, bloody plastic bag which had once contained chicken pieces, and which had been tossed in the sink and left to sit for hours in the 100+ degree kitchen, only to see a few dozen roaches scurrying for cover in every direction...bleech!!!)

On the way to Rochelle, I felt something wriggling around in my cargo pants, and although it was just a beetle of some sort and not a tick as I'd feared, I managed to smash it and coat the inside of my pants with its gooey guts, so I unzipped the pants to create shorts, which meant having to apply sunscreen to my legs as well as a touch-up to my arms. Greenturtle (who, being part Cherokee, does not tend to fry and sizzle in the sun as I do) likes to disparage my sunscreen habit, but I say...always practice Safe Sun!

Even if sweat and sunscreen tend to create a rather unpleasant mixture. In fact, I remember an occasion when Sunwiggy and I tried to apply both sunscreen and insect repellant at the same time, only to create a nasty, smelly paste on all exposed areas of the skin...and this is making me wonder why, exactly, exposure to nature is supposed to be so good for us?

After lunch, we tried another spot, in DeKalb county, where western meadowlarks might be seen, but it was so hot by then that I felt nauseated and dizzy, and had to call it a day. Still, I summed up with 170 year birds, which is not bad at all.

With so many birds under my belt, this morning I felt the need for yet more, and after checking recent sightings on the internet (bless you, ebird!), I noticed that a prothonotary warbler had recently been spotted at Centennial Park in Heyworth, which is right on our way to Bloomington, where we had to run some errands and Greenturtle wanted to watch Men in Black Three.

As we wandered around, seeing only Canada geese and robins, I suggested to Greenturtle that he pull up the warbler on his smart phone and play its song, because, who knows, maybe one was listening. And sure enough, after he played it a couple of times, the hoped-for warbler flew in, perching right above our heads and singing sweet sweet sweet.

But really, this was a bad thing to do. Playing a bird's song like that makes it think that there's a rival in the vicinity, invading its territory, and the bird will take up time it should be eating or bringing food to nestlings to try to drive the rival away. And this poor little guy did, indeed, seem a bit confused, as the interloper was actually a phone about the size of my moleskine notebook, and not a male prothonotary warbler at all. So feeling triumphant, but slightly guilty, about year bird #171, I moved on.

At times, the laws of karma can be swift, for just as I had messed with that poor warbler's brain, a scarlet tanager soon messed with mine. It sang and sang and sang...and gave me a brief glimpse of its tail end disappearing into the the treeline, but never a good look did I see. Still, a heard bird is a counted bird, and although it was frustrating, I suppose that, after the cruel trick played upon the warbler, I deserved it.

**The Bobolink -- by Emily Dickinson

The Way to know the Bobolink
From every other Bird
Precisely as the Joy of him --
Obliged to be inferred.

Of impudent Habiliment
Attired to defy,
Impertinence subordinate
At times to Majesty.

Of Sentiments seditious
Amenable to Law --
As Heresies of Transport
Or Puck's Apostacy.

Extrinsic to Attention
Too intimate with Joy --
He compliments existence
Until allured away

By Seasons or his Children --
Adult and urgent grown --
Or unforeseen aggrandizement
Or, happily, Renown --

By Contrast certifying
The Bird of Birds is gone --
How nullified the Meadow --
Her Sorcerer withdrawn!


  1. I just love this poem by Emily Dickinson! I'm so happy that "the Bird of Birds" is nesting here in the UP this Spring...his presence must be uncommon, as no one up here has ever heard of him! Along with forest bathing, and prairie bathing, I put forth bird bathing as beneficial to one's mental health. I was fuming as I got out of my car for work this morning, but the sight and sound of a little chipping sparrow put a big smile on my face. And, I remember our sun lotion/bug spray combo. It bubbled on my skin! Glad you "got" your lark sparrow! Mom

  2. I very much enjoyed this post and the last one, which included your trip to El Paso. Glad you are racking up the birds. Next time you go to El Paso to see shorebirds, stay in your car and drive around the lagoons close to the rocks. If you are slow and quiet, you can get close enough to the shorebirds to reach out and touch them. That is what I love about El Paso. Your not looking at shorebirds hundreds of yards out through a spotting scope. This Fall keep your eyes open for Baird's, Buff-breasted, Sanderling, Black-bellied, and American Golden Plovers at El Paso. Good hunting! I'm also looking for Sedge Wren and Western Meadowlark as lifers. There is a Bell's Vireo pair easy to see at Schroeder as well as singing Willow Flycatcher within yards of the vireos. Let me know if you need directions.