A day at Midewin: grassland birds and more
(published 7-1-04)

There are many kinds of birds that most likely will never turn up in your yard. But some of them are not that far away. With a little effort, and if you know where to go, you can find them. I call them “destination” birds.

My destination on one of the first really warm days of June was Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, about 15 miles south of Joliet. The site is widely known for its abundance of grassland bird species, and now it’s more accessible than ever. On June 5, about 5,000 acres of Midewin were opened to the public for the first time. I was there the very next day, taking advantage of one of this region’s prime birding opportunities.

Midewin was established in 1996 as the first national tallgrass prairie in the country. It’s on the site of the former Joliet Arsenal, where explosives were manufactured, packaged and stockpiled by the U.S. Army. Grass-covered concrete storage bunkers still dot portions of the 20,000-acre property.

Birding groups have been going to Midewin during the last eight years for pre-arranged tours conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. Now you can experience the prairie on your own. Several easy, self-guided hiking trails are set up that offer a nice variety of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.

My target, of course, was grassland birds. Two minutes into Midewin’s new Henslow Trail I was watching a singing Dickcissel. I’d only seen this species once before, and throughout the day I’d see many more. There were plenty of Bobolinks too, filling my ears with their bizarre in-flight vocalizations.

True to its name, the Henslow Trail takes visitors through ideal habitat for the endangered Henslow’s Sparrow, another bird I really hoped to see. Well, I didn’t see one, but I heard several. My luck was better with Grasshopper Sparrow, another grassland specialty. Twice I was able to watch one perform the high-frequency trill that inspired this species’ name.

Midewin’s bird variety is not limited to grassland residents. My “bird of the day,” in fact, was a Loggerhead Shrike. I’d never seen one before in Illinois, where it’s designated as a threatened species. Other sightings included Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler and numerous Eastern Kingbirds and Indigo Buntings.

One of the pleasures of Midewin is the wide-open prairie itself. There are some impressive vistas already and the best is yet to come. The goal is to restore the entire preserve to native prairie and build many more miles of hiking trails. It’s a massive undertaking that could take up to 20 years.

Now is a great time to explore Midewin. The Forest Service is offering birding tours at 7:30 a.m. on July 3rd, 17th and 24th. Details about these and other nature programs are available by calling (815) 423-6370. Or visit Midewin’s website at www.fs.fed.us/mntp/.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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