This is the 30th in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
For Oliver Burrus, every day is a celebration of biological diversity, much like the International Day of Biological Diversity that takes place tomorrow. Oliver, 16, spends an hour or two daily on the iNaturalist app, recording sightings of flora and fauna and helping others with identifications.
"I got everybody in my family into nature and birding and pretty much everybody in my family uses iNaturalist," says Oliver. "We have a sand prairie next to us that I go to every day."
Oliver coordinated Chicago's participation in the City Nature Challenge the last two years. The Challenge is a competition among cities worldwide to see who can make the most observations of nature. Observers recorded as many sightings as they could via iNaturalist last month, 4,500 as part of the Challenge in all.
"The previous organizer had shared she wasn't able to do it, so I volunteered," says Oliver, a Carpentersville native who is staying in Wisconsin during the pandemic. "I've co-organized it the last two years. Last year we had naturalist-led walks, which was pretty cool."
With iNaturalist, users can take a photo of a species and immediately receive an identification. Other users then confirm the sighting. With International Day of Biological Diversity here, there's an opportunity for folks to try out iNaturalist for the first time. Every iNaturalist observation has the potential to contribute to biodiversity science.
"People are trying out new things right now," Oliver says. "People are getting into nature and exploring the outside world more. It's been a really positive impact."
Click here for more information on how to use iNaturalist.
This is our 29th post in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Red Admirals are one of the few butterfly species that overwinter in the Chicago region. Matt Beatty joined us again from West Beach in Indiana Dunes National Park to talk about a few butterflies that are around even though peak activity is later in spring. In addition to Red Admirals, Matt features Mourning Cloaks and Olympia Marbles.
This the 28th post in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature, read previous posts here.
On a small island in the Kankakee River, about 60 miles south of Chicago, there exists a wildflower found nowhere else on earth.
The Kankakee Torrent, a near biblical flow of water after the last glaciation, washed through these parts and left just the right conditions for this relative of the hollyhock to thrive. The isolation of a 20-acre island ensured its survival down through the ages into the 20th century. The Kankakee Mallow, though, which is just beginning to re-emerge this spring, is briefly isolated again due to a state park closure.
"They should be up to about calf high by now," said Trevor Edmonson of Friends of Langham Island, where the mallow grows. "It's definitely going to be a triage year for ongoing island restoration efforts."
Such is the plight of a species whose fortunes have risen and fallen in the past, just like the Kankakee River that surrounds it. The waterway is well above flood stage at the time of this writing, and due to flooding the river is currently closed to all boat traffic. Kankakee Mallow is a species that has and will require human assistance.
The story of the Kankakee Mallow is one of the mighty pre-pandemic conservation successes in the Chicago Wilderness region. Six years ago, the plant was on its way to functional extinction, with no adult plants left in the wild. It was right around then that Trevor moved to the Kankakee area from DeKalb.
"I didn't know about it until I moved here," Trevor says. "I became aware of it after I started doing volunteer work at Kankakee River State Park. I had been clearing some honeysuckle in a little sand savanna, but had my efforts redirected after got involved with the [Illinois] Native Plant Society and met our local Nature Preserves Commissioner Kim Roman. I do restoration as part of my job and knew what an opportunity I had when this project [the mallow] kind of fell into my lap."
The next step was to rally Chicago's community of habitat volunteers and get them out to the island. People came from as far away as the North Suburbs of Chicago for a work day on an autumn-like day, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. Trevor rowed them the 100 yards or so to the island on a small boat.
"The Native Plant Society had a canoe trip that summer, but they went out on canoes and couldn't even get on the island, it was so thick with [invasive] honeysuckle," Trevor says. "On our first work day, we made it a point to look for mallow plants and couldn't find any. The savanna was completely overgrown with a wall of 10-foot honeysuckle."
The mallow hadn't been documented on the island since 2003.
"Our goal was to begin the process of healing what was there and let nature sort of fix itself," Trevor says. "We were hoping the seed bank was still viable. We haven't seeded anything out there throughout this process."
The years of management, still largely an all-volunteer effort, has resulted in approximately 600 plants on the island.
"It was a nice confluence of events, I had moved to the area, the Native Plant Society did the field trip, and we all converged on the island at the right time," Trevor says. "Six years later, we've made a lot of progress."
There's still a chance volunteers will get out to the island this year. But it's also possible vegetation will begin to close in on the mallow again during a lost field season.
"It's a great responsibility, and there are a lot of other projects like that around the region that are worthy," Trevor says. "I take pride that this one is a Kankakee thing, and it is a great tool to start a conversation about nature with folks. Most people still don’t know that it exists, even here locally. We hope to change that."
Enjoy a guest post from University of Chicago's Audubon Chapter today about historic Washington Park.
As South Side, inner-city naturalists, we tend to daydream of far away naturescapes and the potential they possess. In our digitally connected world, instant reports from these places (e.g., eBird Alerts) can further tempt us to leave our own neighborhoods which may themselves contain plentiful biodiversity. One such diamond in the rough is Washington Park located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. First established in 1870, the park has become especially important to many as it remains open and available for safe use during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is an ideal place for urban birding, ” University of Chicago Audubon member Xiaoni Xu says of Washington Park. “This is one of the best city parks I have ever seen in terms of birding potential with a combination of factors that attract migratory birds: geographical location, a diversity of small habitat patches, being one of the only green spaces in a heavily urbanized area, good vegetation coverage, etc.”
The park is a haven for birdwatchers in the UChicago Audubon Chapter such as Xiaoni, other individuals from the community, and more long-standing birding groups. One such group is the Washington Park Birders who laid the foundation and baseline for citizen science observations in the park and diversified the advocates of greenscape conservation by holding spring and fall bird walks open to all members of the community. As spring migration has commenced and more popular hotspots have closed, Washington Park has put itself on the map among other members of the Cook County birding community. With migration in full swing, birdwatchers have been observing incredibly high species counts, with one duo even finding 100-plus species in one morning!
Sheer number of species aside, the birds “showed great balance and variance in habitats and niches,” Xiaoni says in reference to one morning with 86 species in total.
“Geese and ducks take over the open-water stretches of the lagoon, with sandpipers, herons, and kingfishers foraging near the marshy shorelines. The lower banks of the lagoon were visited most often by sparrows, while the treeline echoed the raucous calls of circling gulls and terns. The wide area of open ballfields on the north side offered opportunity for shorebirds and gulls too. Even higher up were the falcons, and higher than that were the traveling cranes and cormorants. Sparrows, blackbirds, and palm warblers perch on the grass of the park under the bigger trees, and the thrushes hid under the branches of the bushes on the ground. On the tree trunks there were woodpeckers and creepers, and higher among the leaves were other warblers and flycatchers.”
With such plentiful biodiversity, Washington Park provides endless opportunities for outdoor activities to the surrounding community.
“Something I really appreciate about the park is that you don’t need to be an advanced birder or have binoculars to see something cool,” says Rossy Natale, another member of UChicago Audubon. “It’s so cool to me that I can go for a run in an expansive, natural area right by my apartment and regularly see things like possums and herons as well as abundant plant diversity. It’s a very special find.”
In addition to the photos and videos within this post, we encourage everyone to come check out this hidden gem and point interested birders towards the eBird and iNaturalist pages for Washington Park to browse a collection of wonderful photos, videos, and audio that have been compiled over the years.
*As a final note, all photos, videos, and instances referenced within the text were pairs of folks who live together or distanced pairs birding apart from one another.
Thursday night, May 14, 2020, was a stormy night. The rain was just starting to end when a few folks walked up the steps to the Longshore Tower at Indiana Dunes State Park the next morning. The overnight south winds were promising for bird migration. What happened next was one for the record books.
"One of the most amazing bird spectacles I've ever witnessed in my life," wrote Caleb Putnam of Grand Rapids, Mich., later that day. "A constant morning flight of mainly westbound birds which mesmerized us for over six hours."
The sheer numbers of species were staggering: an estimated 900 Baltimore Orioles and 500 Indigo Buntings. A giant movement of at least 200 Cape May Warblers smashed the previous state record of 60. The scale of the flight is hard to comprehend for those who've struggled to find just one of these migrants on any given day.
"Every time I thought it was going to stop they just kept on coming," Caleb said. "For every 10 birds that flew over, we probably only identified 10 to 20 percent of them."
The tower is one of the great birding locales in the Midwest, if not the eastern half of the country. It's perched 60 feet up on a dune overlooking Lake Michigan, which is a barrier for birds and acts as a natural migration funnel. Most of the birds on Friday were headed west, around the south end of the lake.
"Some of the high counts for the entire Great Lakes region occur at this site," said Brad Bumgardner, Executive Director of Indiana Audubon Society. "We've seen things like 7,000 Blue Jays fly by in one day. [Friday] was so intense I couldn't put my binoculars down."
For more information on the Indiana Dunes Longshore Flight Count, click here.
We're celebrating Indiana Dunes today and later in the week in the run-up to International Day for Biological Diversity, which takes place this Friday, May 22.
As we mentioned in our post on Arctic Bearberry, Indiana Dunes ranks fourth among national parks in terms of biological diversity. Dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, rivers and forests are all found here.
Brad Bumgardner, Executive Director of Indiana Audubon Society, joined us from the Dunes to highlight the annual effort to count up to 250,000 birds from an observation tower at Indiana Dunes State Park. Today would have been the final day of the annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, one of the premier birding festivals in the eastern United States.
Saturday morning hot take: Should the Red-headed Woodpecker replace the Northern Cardinal as Illinois' state bird? I know, I know, it's a controversial position--how can we just dispose of the brilliant Cardinals that grace the backyards and neighborhoods all around us. But yet that is what one of Illinois' pre-eminent ornithologists has suggested.
Here's Doug Stotz, Senior Conservation Ecologist at Keller Science Action Center at the Field Museum.
"There isn't really a bird when you hear their name, you're like 'Illinois,'" says Doug, citing examples like the Greater Roadrunner in New Mexico and the Cactus Wren in Arizona. "Red-headed Woodpecker comes close. We're at the heart of its range. It's a common bird here, they breed here and are common in winter. They're really common in the woodlands in southern Illinois. They're the characteristic bird of the oak savanna, which represents our state tree, the White Oak. And it's a spectacular bird."
Doug has argued for the Red-headed Woodpecker as state bird in the past, even proposing it to then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn years ago. Last year, he participated in a panel organized by Morton Arboretum, arguing for the Red-headed Woodpecker. Another birder argued for the Bobolink and another for the status quo.
Let's face it, though, six other states also have Northern Cardinal as their state bird. Though the birds are readily accessible to ornithologists and non-ornithologists alike, their status as state bird may not have been very inspired.
"We would be the only state with the Red-headed Woodpecker, and woodpeckers are underrepresented as a state bird," Doug says. "Red-headed Woodpecker is a good emblem of oak woodlands and oak savannas and they are a bird that really responds to habitat restoration."
What of the proposal to the Lieutenant Governor?
"He was interested," Doug says. "But then he became Governor and had other things to do."
Fair enough, and maybe a pandemic isn't the time to breathe life back into the concept. But many of us do have the idle time to contemplate the idea once again.
As we reach the halfway point of these 50 days, one of the themes has been the genuine joy of discovery, the pleasures of happening across an unusual species in a Chicago spring. One of those birds that captures that feeling upon most every sighting is the Red-headed Woodpecker, a bird of oak woodlands and oak savannas, the only eastern woodpecker with an entirely red head. Its crimson stands out in sharp contrast to its white body and sharply black-and-white wings. This is a species that will have you texting your friends in delight.
The Cerulean Warbler doesn't appear in the Chicago area often. A state threatened species, Cerulean Warblers are birds that reside in the treetops of mature woodlands. In Illinois, there aren't too many of those tall woods left.
So when Cerulean Warblers do show up, mostly on their way to places like Wisconsin, they're typically hard to see. But that hasn't been the case the last few days at LaBagh Woods, a Cook County Forest Preserve site on the Northwest Side. A male and female Cerulean Warbler have been present at LaBagh, not far from the Edens Expressway, and spending a surprising amount of time at eye level. The leading theory is that they are seeking insects that are lower to the ground this year because of the cool spring.
Many warblers are here now, some even more readily visible than usual. With skies clearing this afternoon, it's a good day to explore the hidden nature in your neighborhood.
By Dan Lory
Sora (空) is the Japanese word for sky. It is also the character that means nothingness, emptiness.
Sora is also the English word for nothing, or empty, like the status of my camera's memory card ninety-nine times out of a hundred when I'm trying to catch a glimpse of and photograph this elusive marsh bird.
If you are walking along the edge of a marshy area and you flush a small brownish bird that looks like an upside-down 60-watt light bulb trying to fly, you've probably seen a Sora. Once it disappears into the bullrushes, forget about ever seeing it again. You'll see the rushes move to your left, and then to your right, and after countless blurry photos of mud and reeds, you'll know that you've been had by this sleuth of the wetlands.
It is more likely that you will hear a Sora than see one. Its demeanor is as diminutive as a mouse, but its voice is as big as the sky. Its loud call starts with a quick squeal, followed immediately by a series of short squeals descending in tone. It reminds me of the alternator belt on the 1959 Ford Fairlane that I drove in college, when I started it on cold mornings. It's very loud, and often it erupts without warning from the immediate vicinity. On a recent visit to a local marsh, a birding expert reported hearing fifteen Soras; he was able to catch a glimpse of only one of them.
Ironically, it's when you're not looking for a Sora that one will show itself right out in the open, strutting like a fashion model on the runway. Its long toes allow it to walk right across the top of lily pads and other marsh vegetation. It moves slowly--most of the time--like a tiny chicken, reaching down to peck at seeds, snails and insects on the water's surface. With a yellow beak that looks like candy corn, and a bright white stubby tail that usually points straight up, you can't help but wonder why this bird is so hard to find. But then it will suddenly scamper back into the reeds, and you will understand. Nothing again.
Soras migrate to Central and South America (Yes, that flying light bulb can make it non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico!), and they are on their way back north now, passing through the Chicago area in good numbers. Some stay and nest here. For the next several months, any time you are near a marsh, listen for the Sora's distinctive call. If you are lucky, you may even see one. But if not, that's OK. Be satisfied with an earful of "nothing."
You can read more Feathursday posts by Dan Lory here. We featured Dan in a previous post here.