Prairie State of mind, BCN population trends and a ladle of dippers - TWiB Notes for 10.18.21

A visit to Bell Bowl Prairie during what may be its last days

There’s a deep irony in Illinois’ moniker as the Prairie State. Actual prairie is hard to find here: just 2,000 acres of the original prairie remain. Five of those acres are found at Bell Bowl Prairie at Chicago Rockford International Airport. It’s a gravel hill prairie, a landform shaped by glaciers thousands of years ago, where some of the highest quality natural plant communities in Illinois are found. The endangered Rusty-patched Bumble Bee has found a haven there, as have numerous bird species including Loggerhead Shrikes, Black-billed Cuckoos, Bobolinks and more. 

I like to think of the Prairie State as an aspirational concept we can work toward. The more of these grasslands the better. 

Bell Bowl Prairie is wedged between two runways. Roads, buildings, fences are seemingly everywhere. How it’s escaped the plow is uncanny actually, after now having been to the site (video below). I took a drive to the prairie to get a better sense of the place and what’s at stake.

The gravel prairie is fairly distinct, a long slope flanking the area between the runways and Beltline Road. When I arrived, I immediately heard the sound of migrating swallows overhead, a large group for so late in the season. Killdeer, Mourning Dove and Red-winged Blackbird all made appearances, too. 

There’s already all sorts of construction under way at the airport, to meet the cargo handling needs of, yes, Amazon (and UPS), but other logistics companies with names like DB Schenker USA and Senator International. 

The race is on to save the prairie as construction is on hold until Nov. 1 due to the discovery of the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee. It’s a temporary reprieve, and one wonders how a species that overwinters in the soil could survive a prairie removal. 

Kerry Leigh of the Natural Land Institute wrote a piece in the Rockford Register Star on Saturday that outlines a number of alternatives for the airport authority to consider. Save Bell Bowl Prairie is holding a public meeting tomorrow night on the latest. As the days tick by, much of what can be done is contacting elected officials for help. And because of the quirky jurisdiction of the airport authority, there’s a long list of people of contact. But with enough support the tide can turn and the airport can alter its plans. For Bell Bowl Prairie, there really is no other option.


New data shows 20-year population trends for Chicagoland birds

The Bird Conservation Network (BCN) is a coalition of 20-plus organizations from across the Chicago region that exists to preserve and restore bird habitat. One of its chief functions is monitoring public lands for the presence of breeding birds. It’s a mighty effort that involves nearly 200 volunteers visiting prairies, woodlands and wetlands all summer long.

Now there is substantial new data—two decades worth of data—available that tells us just how well Chicagoland’s breeding birds are doing. It arrives at a crucial time, in the wake of the landmark 3 Billion Birds Gone study of 2019 that showed a 30 percent decrease in bird populations across North America since the 1970s.      

BCN has data for just about every breeding bird in the Chicago region. It shows trends, some of which are very dramatic, but also just how many birds we have in general, with the caveat that the monitoring doesn’t take place on private lands.

If you have the time, I recommend sifting through the data a bit. The more eyes on this data, the more it is utilized, the better. You might just see something that really sticks with you and can make a difference for our local birds. 

Two of the birds I was most curious about were the Pileated Woodpecker and the American Kestrel. Interestingly enough, the birds have almost the same sample size. There are just 83 records from the BCN survey of Pileated Woodpecker and 85 records of American Kestrel (in contrast with, say, Red-bellied Woodpecker, which has 4,091 records). Chicagoland has been a gap in the Pileated Woodpecker’s range historically. There are just haven’t been enough mature woodlands to sustain them, though that may be changing as the years go on. Kestrels are declining nationally, unfortunately, due to losing nesting cavities. It’s a sad situation—and runs counter to what one may expect having driven country roads where they appear numerous. The BCN data appears to back that up: with a likely decline of 2.3% per year. Pileateds are increasing by a 29.5 percent clip per year. Though there is a hefty margin of error (+/- 9.8%), it still impressive growth. 

These examples are really just scratching the surface of a data set that includes hundreds of thousands of observations. For anyone concerned about climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use and building collisions, these are data to be taken seriously. 


The story of a mysterious stump and the raptors that flock to it

The Magic Stump is the story of a pair of Prairie Falcons and Tyler Funk’s quest to understand them. An extraordinary array of raptors have been attracted to one small plot of farmland in east-central Illinois. At the center of it all is a mysterious tree stump from a bygone era. The Magic Stump film is currently in the development phase, and I expect it will be released sometime next year. You can help make this project a reality by making a contribution below.

Support The Magic Stump


A diversion for ouzel fans

The above beautiful video from American Bird Conservancy recently popped up in my feed. The American Dipper, aka the Water Ouzel, is the only North American songbird that routinely swims. These are incredible birds of rushing Rocky Mountain streams. And, yes, a flock of dippers is known as a “ladle.” 


“Jesus of Western Avenue” marks Tony Fitzpatrick’s final gallery show

Actor, artist, author and birder Tony Fitzpatrick’s last gallery show opened on Saturday at Cleve Carney Museum of Art on the campus of the College of DuPage. “Jesus of Western Avenue” showcases 60 of Fitzpatrick’s works, featuring two different ideas: the sacred and the profane. Of course, birds figure heavily in Fitzpatrick’s works and are included; check out the new murals in downtown Glen Ellyn while in the area as well. The exhibit runs through January and is free.