Springbrook Prairie offers great summer birding
(published 7-7-05)

It’s natural for birders to feel a letdown when summer arrives. The spectacular birds that filled our treetops in May are just memories now, making our resident robins, starlings, grackles and house sparrows seem far more conspicuous. My backyard, and maybe yours too, just isn’t very exciting this time of year.

Times like these call for a change in scenery. Pick any one of our local forest preserves and you may be surprised by the variety of birdlife—even in the summer. Following my own advice, I joined a DuPage Birding Club outing to Springbrook Prairie in Naperville on June 18.

It always helps when you have a ringer leading the way. Our guide was Joe Suchecki, who monitors Springbrook’s bird populations and serves as site steward for the 1,800-acre preserve. He knows the birds there better than anybody, and was eager to show them to our group of about 20 birders.

Over the years, Suchecki has documented 214 species at Springbrook, including such rarities as black rail, cinnamon teal and Mississippi kite. But our focus this morning would be grassland birds, most notably Henslow’s sparrow, a threatened species in Illinois. Suchecki estimates that 25 pairs of these birds are nesting in Springbrook’s short-grass prairie this summer, up from zero when he began his volunteer monitoring duties 12 years ago.

Ongoing restoration efforts at Springbrook—prairie plantings and the removal of non-native vegetation—are clearly paying dividends for Henslow’s sparrows and other birds that need open spaces. The National Audubon Society’s 2004 “State of the Birds” report revealed that 70 percent of grassland species are in significant decline, so habitat improvement and preservation are vitally important.

Seeing a Henslow’s sparrow takes patience and a good ear. They are secretive birds that usually stay low in the grass. The trick is to listen for a Henslow’s telltale “tsi-lick” song. That gives you the direction, then it’s a matter of watching for movement. We were lucky to view several Henslow’s, including a singing bird that perched on a grass stalk less than 50 feet from the trail.

Among the other grassland specialties we observed were bobolink, sedge wren, Eastern meadowlark and field, song, grasshopper and savannah sparrows.

In addition to prairie, Springbrook features wetlands, woodlots and scrub areas—and that means more kinds of birds. In one area by a creek we found several willow flycatchers and listened to their distinctive “fitz-bew.” Orchard orioles were another nice find. While not quite as flashy as their Baltimore cousins, they are far less common. Marshes and ponds produced killdeer, spotted sandpiper and four kinds of herons.

We identified 46 species during our three-hour tour. For many of us, the best of the bunch came at the end. That’s when Suchecki guided us to a shrubby area where, for the third straight year, several pairs of clay-colored sparrows are nesting. We heard one of the birds right away, and a few minutes later we had binoculars on it—a nice finish to a great morning of birding.

When visiting Springbrook Prairie, begin your walk from the parking lot on the west side of Plainfield-Naperville Road, just south of 75th Street. More details about the preserve, including a map, are posted on the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County website, www.dupageforest.com.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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