Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Hunter-Gatherers vs. The Corporate Machine

Huge machines (and the corporations that own them) are clearing the last trees and brush from one of the finest and most important prairies in the region. 

See video ... for years we did this with hand-saws and muscle:

But to plant all this newly bare ground ... with the rare seeds it needs for recovery ... we have to do that by hand. There's no other way. 

Let's be clear, both the machines and the people are working for the good of the prairie. But there's an imbalance here that needs Many, MANY people's help. Can we, the people, let the machines win this race?

For more than 40 years, we volunteers have been chipping away at brush and planting seed. The 70-acre Somme Prairie had less than two acres of high quality prairie, but that was some of the finest in the region. Prairie rightfully needed to be restored to the whole 70 acres - which indeed had been all prairie, for thousands of years, until invasive brush started eating away at it. Three years ago, half of this Illinois Nature Preserve and Cook County Forest Preserve was still tall or short brush. 

But with good leadership from President Preckwinkle, the Forest Preserves found resources to hire private contractors to get rid of all that prairie-killing shade, fast. These are the same folks that clear brush to build a factory or a shopping center, so they know how to "Get 'er done!" 

Now, forty acres is free of shade and waiting for seed. Unfortunately, if there isn't enough prairie seed, then nasty weeds will get too much of a head start. 
Blazing star seeds

Over the decades, volunteer seed gatherers have been able to harvest enough for the couple of acres a year that the volunteers have cleared. But now somehow, from somewhere, Somme Prairie needs a vastly larger community of Hunter-Gatherers.

More people are chipping in. Stewards of nearby sites (see "Where does this seed come from?" - below) are devoting some of their time to gathering and giving some of their local seed to Somme Prairie. Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves are rising to the challenge. A big push is needed for this fall. 

When you gather seeds, you're in the ecosystem, as a partner. 

When the time comes to broadcast all those seeds, it will be a celebration of rare new life.

Anyone with normally functioning hands, feet, and mind can learn to do it. Might you find it fun - to be a modern hunter-gatherer - to learn to recognize purple prairie clover, or dropseed grass, or sky-blue aster, or bottle gentian? Different species will be coming ripe each week in September and October. 

We usually work 9 AM till noon. Sometimes from 3 PM to sunset. If you can come, let us know, so we can have enough supplies.
And then on into the richness of fall ... you can find inspiring lists of event dates at: 


Endnote: Where does this seed come from?

The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have established "seed provenance" guidelines for this preserve. Seed from plants that someone bought on line or got from a neighbor is not what's appropriate here. The conservation goal of this nature preserve is to maintain the genetics of plants that have been evolving with each other and the rest of the biota here for thousands of years. Somme Prairie Nature Preserve accepts seeds from spontaneous populations within 15 miles of the North Branch Prairies. To restore the robustness of the genetics of the former unfragmented prairies here, these prairies share seed with each other and with other sites within that limit. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Hunter-Gathers and Our Gossip

By Emma Leavens

We work, and we interact. As we harvest rare seeds for restoration, there is often a casual exchange of stories about plants, that is also part of our restoration work. 

There are descriptive stories about peculiar pollination, the why and how of seed structures, and what those seeds require in order to start new life. There’s no shortage of fascinating backstories, evolutionarily speaking. Some of my favorite stories, though, are the ones that make characters of the plants. They help me get to know how species behave as members of a community.
Their "parachutes" loft these savanna blazing star (Threatened species) seeds far and wide.
But will they land on top of a building or in a parking lot?
We toss some of them in good habitats on days of light wind. It seems to help. 
Around Somme, in the short time I have been helping collect and disperse seed, I have already heard a good deal:
·      This stubborn species showed up in several places this year! 
·      How did this one get over here? 
·      Look at what established itself there, of all places! What is it telling us that we don’t yet know how to listen to? 
·      Oh, and this plant produces a ton of seeds but just try to find them!
·      This species seems to only reproduce under particular conditions. 
·      We have no idea how this plant got here - we’re just glad it sticks around. 
·      I’ve noticed this other species seems to prefer this micro-habitat over that one. Have you noticed that too?

If you have some practice with science, you might recognize these little stories as anecdotal evidence. If you’ve spent time among friends, you’ll likely recognize that this is also a type of gossip. Ecology gossip. Plant gossip. The very best kind. And like lesser gossip, you may get a slightly different sense of things depending where you go and who you ask. You get hints at what is going on that you won’t find in ecology textbooks. 
Seeds and seed-gatherers come in great variety.
Accomplishments, surprises, and satisfaction - as we recover the sources of our roots.

Hopefully, in time, these happenings will be researched with rigor. The anecdotes will get confirmed or clarified, and added to the books. In the meantime, they are still valuable for the emerging practice of ecological restoration. They give clues as to how we can support those species, what factors we maybe overlooked or got right when we distributed seeds in previous years, and what we might do next to help those species recover healthy populations in their communities.
A sign of the times: hunter-gatherers with Covid masks.
Will we decide at some point that in the open air, this far apart, we don't need them? 
Last year, the Somme crew collected seeds of more than 300 species of plants. Then we redistributed them in our prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands. Each of those species has some fascinating behavior worth talking about plus plenty to tell us about the community. The more people who help to observe, collect, and repeat, the more stories we get to learn and share in order to ensure that those species endure. 

If you’re interested in helping out, please email us at sommepreserve@gmail.com or sign up at sommepreserve.org. We currently have opportunities to collect seed and share stories at least twice a week. 

Photos by Lisa Musgrave

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Learning nature by its seeds

by Christos Economou

There's a scene in Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Seven Samurai that has captivated me for years.    As a bit of background for those that haven't seen it (it's a great movie, watch it!), the story is about a group of downtrodden farmers hiring samurai to defend their village from grain-stealing bandits.  But they don't know what they're in for, and a lot of time passes with no success.  We finally see a farmer in the scene I'm thinking of worriedly rush to a patch of grass growing in the foreground.  "It has ripened!" he exclaims, to which one of his companions responds, "Well, it's been ten days already!" and another asserts dismissively: "This is an early kind, not like ours!"                
Botanizing in Tokugawa Japan…
There's a lot to unpack from these 30 seconds.  But what strikes me is the way in which these farmers experience the world.  Their rhythms are cyclical, human.  No clocks or calendars; these destitute, illiterate peasants know the time of year by when the barley is ripe.  Their knowledge of plants is so deep that they discern (or at least can pretend to discern) varieties that ripen within weeks of each other. 

Even at risk of romanticizing a bit, I contrast this with my own experience.  Many years of schooling have left me ill-informed about when corn is ready for harvest, or when the rough blazing star is about to bloom.  Slight differences in morphology confuse me when trying to identify the few plants I've learned.  All of which distresses me, because I've always felt there was something eminently worthwhile in that sort of deep familiarity with the processes of the natural world. 

Recently, on a beautiful, sunny, warbler-filled morning at Harms Woods, I saw with hope that this familiarity is very much alive today, and that there are people happy to teach it to anyone willing to learn.  Hunting garlic mustard there with some of the North Branch's bipedal treasures, Jane and John Balaban and Eriko Kojima, I saw something that took me back to that scene with Kurosawa's farmers.  And there where yours truly was placidly enjoying the sunlight filtering through the leaves above, the rest of the party was focused on what was underfoot.  Suddenly, they stopped.  Eriko knelt, and gingerly rolled the inconspicuous seed-head of a miniscule plant between her fingertips.  "Hepatica's not quite ready yet," she informed us coolly.

Hepatica acutiloba in flower.  Photo credit to Eriko.  Unlikely I could catch something so small…

"The what?  How did you see that!?  How do you know?"  I thought to myself.  And then: "How long until I'm able to tell when the hepatica is ready?"

I just can't wait until I am.  The joy of seeds, and all that those little specks of life signify for the future, is simply thrilling.  But beyond that, the degree of care – I hope she wouldn't mind me calling it love – for living things that I saw Eriko embody in that moment cut deep.  She's put her all into understanding and cultivating the wondrous nature that was here long before we were, and that, through her and all the North Branchers' efforts, will be here long after we are gone. 


The rare golden sedge (Carex aurea) and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), encountered recently at Watersmeet Preserve.  "Not quite ready yet," as Eriko might say.

We need this nature, both in practical ways that we are only just beginning to comprehend, and for more important, if less tangible reasons.  But if nature is to thrive into the future, it needs our help just as we need it.  One imagines the farmers feel this reciprocity, even if only in a shallow, transactional way.  Eriko most certainly does, in a broader and more inspiring way.  I want to be like her.

She later told me, "Just cutting the bad stuff down doesn’t heal the ecosystem.  It's a part.  But monitoring, collecting, spreading seeds, that's when restoration starts.  That's what got me in deep, hooked."  Yes. If we are to uphold our side of the bargain with nature, we need to be intimately with it.  Learning where the plants are, what they do, what they look like, and when their seeds are ready to pick are all part of the process.  To grow with nature, we need to get out and collect seeds as often as we can.

From a recent, COVID-conscious seed collection workday at Watersmeet.

We humans may be at a weird point in our history, but nature is still plodding along its familiar course.  Summer is here, and with it the first fruits of spring.  All along the North Branch, there are ripening seeds waiting to start life somewhere new, and calling out to us to help them achieve it.  Many of us are learning how to help them do it.  I hope you will too.

Many thanks to Eriko and Stephen for their editing, the Balabans for their generosity with time, and all the other teachers on the North Branch.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Small, Dull, Roundish Things? (nothing could be farther from the truth!)

What I think is cool about seeds is the unbelievable diversity. Many people think of seeds as small, dull, roundish things. Nothing could be farther from the truth! 

Looking at them close up reveals how much they differ in size, texture, color ... and the strategies they have for spreading themselves around ... and suggests mysteries.

Eared False Foxglove (Tomanthera auriculata) - Endangered

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)

Cream gentian (Gentiana flavida)

Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens)
Eileen Sutter, a leader of the Wednesday Seeds Team of the North Branch Restoration Project, wrote: 
"Every year I get excited about once again growing my seed collecting eyes. I love seeds!"

Photos by Lisa Musgrave

To volunteer to help with seeds, contact:

Monday, June 08, 2020

A Personal Relationship With Wild and Wooly Seeds

by Eriko Kojima

This is a good time for us to reflect on seeds. Every year we have a record harvest. How? Not a mystery. We focus on it – with strong will and intention.

More and more people are becoming seed-harvest leaders. We offer opportunities twice a week throughout the harvest season. Experienced leaders and new volunteers go together into the woods and prairies. We pick a lot of seed - passionately - so many kinds of beautiful seed. Week by week, the need and importance of this work become clear. After a while we learn the sorts of places where we can find seeds of all kinds. We scout for good locations and make sure that everyone's time is used effectively. We are all instruments of this work. 
As bloodroot pods fill out, a clock is ticking. 
In recent years, we have especially been trying to get as much prairie seed as possible, given the huge needs at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve. I remember a student from Whitney Young, who came with his father, and they both came to love the prairie through its seeds. It’s important to us, as it is to them, that the volunteers be as effective and gain as big a sense of accomplishment as possible. 
People fall in love with seeds. Why not? They're the future - and magic.
Above: fringed gentian capsules and seeds.
Joe Walsh brings students from Northwestern … in so many cases first-time seed gatherers. And they work so hard – picking huge amounts of seed – much more in many cases than even experienced seed pickers – because this was newly inspiring to them. The students often walked long distances across the prairie, tirelessly, a lot farther than most of the older people would walk. They’d harvest the bounty of the far reaches.

I remember when site steward Laurel Ross would take charge of the brush cutters and ask me, “Would you lead a seed team?” I would accept with humility and determination. I try to inspire hearts as well as I can, so that the day's seed crew would be as motivated and productive as possible.
During the growing season, we tread lightly, but we have to gather early species as they ripen. 
Over the years many of us have come to be effective leaders of picking both woodland and prairie seed. We prospect, study where the seeds are – and which are ripening at what times. 

We dream that more and more people will grow in commitment and dedication, but we know that people are coming from so many different perspectives. All of us think differently, have different excitements and dedications and focuses. We offer people the training, in little and big things, and many people are increasingly teachers and learners. We grow as people, conservationists, leaders, and members of the community. That’s the way forward. 

A few more seed photos, in case they might tempt you to join in:
Doll's eyes. We want more! We get few - but more and more each year, as we restore.
There's a seed inside each wild plum. We eat the plums to get at them. Nice work if you can get it.
Bellwort seeds have "ant candy" attached, so the ants will drag them. But we can carry them farther.
By fall, we'll have massive amounts. We'll broadcast right away - and revel in their memories all winter.
Then as spring warms up, the next magic starts. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Woods, Prairie, and the Puzzling “In Between”

On March 21st, after the burn, we were hungry for the warmth of the growing season. We were hungry for some green.
These two bur oaks stand amid a rich ecosystem. We know that from memory. Now it's mostly under ground.
The next photo shows how this spot looked on August 13, 2018. Beneath those blooming Woodland Sunflowers and Joe Pye Weeds are more than 100 species of shorter plants that bloomed in April through July.
After three decades of invasives control, local seed gathering and broadcast, and fire - the woodland is stable and rich.
But see that sunny area behind the oak on the right. A photo taken there on June 17, 2018 tells a very different story. It's just fifty yards away and looks colorful and rich, but in this case, the species may be temporary.
Columbine (red), Beardtongue (white), and Spiderwort (blue).
This area has not been stable. It has "intermediate light levels" - not as shady as woods and not as sunny as prairie.  We have less confidence that we know how to manage these intermediate communities. The quality species in this photo are mixed with Tall Goldenrod and Woodland Sunflower. Both of those species sometimes act "thuggish" - that is, over the years, they somehow kill off most other species.

Wild Bergamot, Joe Pye Weed, and Starry Campion flower, but Tall Goldenrod makes up most of the green ... and may be a threat to the others. 
Above is an area where the problem is more obvious. Tall Goldenrod, with its narrow pointed leaves, probably makes up 90% of the vegetation. Some such areas have become all Goldenrod for years, which is poor fuel, so our controlled burns skip it, and then Buckthorn kills off the Goldenrod, and our work starts over from the beginning.

The Illinois Native Plant Society recently funded research by Dr. Karen Glennemeier in cooperation with the Somme stewards to test some approaches. Perhaps all that's needed is more seed of species that are better adapted to such intermediate-light areas. Eriko Kojima, below, has been leading our seed gathering in recent years.
Wide-leaved Panic Grass
Can you even see the rare grass in the photo above? The thin leaves belong to Spiderwort. The grass has deep green, wide leaves and sprays of tiny purple flowers.

Most people hardly notice sedges and grasses. Botanists cherish them. Ecosystems depend on them for structure, fuel and many animals' food and habitat.

Q: Why is this woman happy? A: Because she's broadcasting rare spring seeds.
We broadcast most seed in mid summer and late fall. The spring-ripening species are the most challenging to collect. We're very happy to be doing so much better with them.
A handful of rare, costly treasure.
The spring seeds include Hepatica, Shooting Star, Wood Betony, Violets, Phloxes, and a great many Sedges. They would be very expensive to buy, and for most species, the local gene pools we most want to conserve are not available for sale. Perhaps when such species are dense, they compete better with "thugs."

Does it sound like we aren't sure what's the best management? We'll admit that that's sometimes true. That's why we need more science. But possibly to restore your confidence a bit, look at the last two photos.

The first is from April 8, 2020. The black char of fire is finally being replaced by green. And out here in full sun we're confident (as we were under the oaks) that we know what to do.
In this case we have a companion photo from the same spot on August 13, 2018.

Cowbane, Spotted Joe Pye Weed, Sweet Black-eyed Susan, and Virginia Mountain Mint.
This area was freed from dense brush a few years ago, was planted with rare local prairie seed, and is already well on the way toward quality. But what you see here are all fall-bloomers. The spring and early summer prairie species take more work and more time, but down underneath, they're slowly increasing, and we continue seeding them here.

Orchard orioles, red-headed woodpeckers, and great spangled fritillaries already thrive here, where silent, dark buckthorn once stood.
Life is good.

For scientific names and more details... 
(but, sorry, not the study, yet) ...
check out a slightly more technical version of this post.

Thanks for proofing to Kathy Garness.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Spring, such as it is ... March 20, 2020 ... Dreams?

Burned clean. Here's how it looked on March 20, "the first day of spring."
Ecologically, can we really call this "spring"?

Even more graphic, "spring" in the open grassland:
Those clumps represent thriving Dropseed and Little Bluestem plants, but today they're thriving only in their roots.

As with this deer pelvis, the sense may seem death and drear.

Yet, on south-facing slopes, there is assurance of the life to come. Here we have the first harbinger of grassland spring at Somme - the temporary purple of Prairie Betony leaves, starting to emerge and unfold.

Betony will soon be spreading green, fern-like leaves topped with yellow flower clusters. Those sprigs of green today are nodding onion that will bloom mid-summer. It's all starting.

One hundred years ago, in 1920, E. S. Millay rather insulted Spring in a "cynical" poem. We’ll get to her stirring words later in this post. I invoke Ms. Millay here at the start because these days seem to many of us to be (or not to be?) life’s most trying spring in memory. Angst roams the land. Can spring help us? 

In the woodland, spring is much more advanced. Here, as usual, the spring flora races to complete its version of 2020 before tree leaves block too much light. The green above is False Mermaid - an uncommon, conservative annual. Soon it will sprawl like mermaid hair. It will flower, set seed, and be gone before many prairie plants have even emerged from the ground. It's a part of the wow of diversity. 

Most of the burned woodland still looks like this. Soon to be a riot of color, bird-song, and butterfly flutters, it's now soaking up sun, warming, getting ready, yesterday's equinox unreflected. 

Of course, much of the woods wasn't burned this year. Above, a stream was the firebreak used to protect some of this habitat. Some animals will survive better with unburned cover - though truth to tell, they'll migrate quickly to the burned area once the vegetation emerges. 

The plants of the burned area will emerge much earlier, as sun warms the black soil weeks earlier than where cold dormancy lies under an insulating carpet of dried leaves. The burned areas will have taller grasses and more abundant wildflowers. Oak woods and prairies thrive on fire. 

Yet fire is a harsh force. Here: the way of all flesh is mirrored by the way of all plants. Old and sick trees die and burn. They make way for the new. Just not too many, and too soon, we hope.

Parts of Somme were farmed, one hundred years ago. In former corn field, trees are eager to reproduce, but they need some protection from fire when they're young. We protected five of the young oaks shown here from fire by raking grass and leaves away from their little trunks. On the ancient natural landscape, young oaks burned off and re-sprouted with every fire. They developed resistant thick bark only when chance left them unburned for a few years. For decades, we waited for some of these young oaks to develop bark thick enough to withstand and frequent fires. None did. They're burned off every few years and started over. So now, in some places, we rake around some trees, as nature seems to need that help, these days. 

Back in the woods, Cow Parsnip emerges: destined to be five or six feet tall with foot-wide flower heads - even before summer sets in. It may be our most massive example of spring flora - but today, just a toddler.

The sculptural shape here is the remains of a hickory nut. The green will soon be lush Chicago Leeks. Beautiful and delicious - but leave them alone at Somme. In some areas they've been badly depleted by poaching. All the interdependent parts of this treasure of an ecosystem are protected by preserve status.

Closely related, these are the shoots of Wild Leek - long considered just a variant of the Chicago Leek. Now they're recognized as two separate species, very distinct in many ways, at least to those of us who enjoy seeing as much of diversity as we can. (Here what's left of the hickory nuts are their husks.)

We don't see many animals yet. But a Prairie Crayfish clearly has been busy improving its burrow. Soon on rainy days we'll see crayfish walking toward ponds with their babies.

Does spring inspire you every year? It does me. Edna St.Vincent Millay resisted that inspiration in a poem:


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily. 
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing.
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. 

Why have I always liked that alienated poem so much? She's such a clear and keen observer. She inspires us to want more - and not to be lulled and satisfied by the superficial. 

Possibly her most famous poem is short and equally impatient:

My candle burns at both ends;
     It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - 
     It gives a lovely light!

In these days with fear of plague - and heaps of college kids writhing in mucus on Florida beaches -  there seems to be little room for such idealistic impatience. The Earth increasingly is ecologically fragile. We abuse it, complacently, at our peril.

So, this season, for some time, I look forward with modest hope to our culture's re-examination of purposes, priorities, and possible futures. Life can be good. Ecosystems need our help, and we need them. 

Another poet, Bob Dylan, once ended a song about nuclear obliteration, “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.” Joining Bob’s hope with Edna’s impatience, that could be good.

Thanks for reading. It's a pleasure to share with you. Change is in the wind.

This final photo is not from Somme. But somehow it seemed right here. It show four Somme volunteers who helped out last week on a desperately-needed burn at Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in rural Grundy County: (from left to right) Eriko Kojima, Katie Kucera, Christos Economou, and Peter Kim. We (and the new local stewards) all felt happy about it. We want to help. 

Thanks to Christos Economou for many helpful edits. 

Thanks to Bob Dylan for the "Talking World War III Blues"

As Dylan talks it, he told a doctor that he'd dreamed that after the bombs, there was no one left but him. Bob ended his song this way:

Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then
Sayin, Hey I've been havin' the same old dreams.
But mine was a little different you see:
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me.
I didn't see you around.

Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody's having them dreams.
Everybody sees themselves walkin' around with no one else.
Half of the people can be part right all of the time;
Some of the people can be all right part of the time;
But all of the people can't be all right all of the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours:
I said that.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Somme Prairie: questions and answers - maps and science

When we first saw Somme Prairie, the best parts looked like this: two acres of high quality prairie in small openings scattered within 68 acres of brush, weeds, and invasive trees.  
Can two acres of rare prairie ecosystem become seventy acres? Can hundreds of vulnerable species - that have been hovering on the edge of oblivion - recover a robust and sustainable future?

If so, how? Who is planning and doing it? This is a follow up to an earlier attempt to clarify what now - to many - has looked like a shameful mess. Back in December, this blog tried to answer some basic questions.

This post brings us up to date and provides maps and additional details. Let's start with answers from the Forest Preserve's project manager Troy Showerman to some Northbrook residents' questions.

Q. and A. 

Do you expect all the trees to be removed this winter? What if the ground isn't frozen?

I am still hopeful they will complete the project this winter. The machinery and moving the heavy logs makes it hard to work without completely tearing up the ground, which is why it has been sitting for a while with our warm winter temps. I am pushing them to get out there next week to take advantage of low temps and some snow cover. It is more than a week of work that is left, so we'll still need favorable conditions.

What’s the total cost of the whole project?

The entire grant project is approximately $150,000, half of which is being paid for by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That includes the brush removal completed last winter, tree removal this winter, two years of follow up on resprouts, and the planned seed collection for this coming growing season.

How much does the contractor recoup by selling logs, chips, or whatever?

Based on how hard it is for us to get rid of woodchips, not much. The majority of the logs are collected by another company for free, and they turn them into wood pallets. The contractor doing the work will take some of the better logs to sell as firewood. The biggest cost with any tree or brush cutting project is tied up in disposing of the material. We consider it a plus if any of the wood can be reused as a by-product, even if it is just firewood and pallets. As a counterpoint, the invasive trees cut by some of our contractors are just ending up being burned on site.

Does the Fish and Wildlife grant cover the whole cost of the Somme Prairie restoration? Does your grant proposal give figures for the value of what the FPD staff contributes? and/or the volunteers?

Partially answered above, but we did not include staff or volunteers as part of our match, just cash. We did include the volunteer history and commitment to the site in our grant application (I think) as a way to show the long-term commitment to the site. This match, plus staff time, is implied but not monetized. Having the cash usually helps us procure grants instead of being reliant on "in-kind" match.

The work at Somme has a long history. Two hundred or 2,000 years ago, if you stood on a highpoint of the gently rolling Somme Prairie, you would have seen rich treeless grassland rolling to the horizon – to the south, the west, and the north. To the east, you would have seen a mile of prairie before your gaze reached scattered savanna oaks and some denser woodland on the moraine top (now Waukegan Road). Today from that same spot, to the east you see forest preserve. To the south, west, and north, you see businesses, a post office, billboards, busy roads, and homes for people. Many of those people are glad a prairie survives and can recover. 

The tallgrass prairie was the richest ecosystem in the temperate world - in that it created the richest soils for agriculture, and today those soils feed people around the world. In many Illinois counties that were entirely prairie, not a single acre survives. The survival of any prairie at Somme is something like a miracle.

Forty years ago at Somme, two acres of very high quality prairie remained, in scattered, shrinking patches - as invasive brush closed in. Prairie species need full sun. They don't survive under trees. Many animal species were already gone; large and mid-size animal species are not sustainable in a two acre habitat. All surviving prairie plants and animals back then, as you can imagine, were shivering in fear. 

The Forest Preserve staff, at that time, had no plan to rescue it. We volunteers, when we first started to help out, had to learn what to do. Our best coaches were Dr. Robert Betz of Northeastern Illinois University, the staff of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and Forest Preserves nature center director Chuck Westcott. They all said: "cut brush and burn." In the absence of fire, brush kills every grass, flower, bird, butterfly, and nematode of the prairie. For forty years, volunteers cut shrubs and trees. We concentrated on expanding the biggest and best quality openings. We lost some. We didn’t have as many volunteers (or as much fire and seed) as we needed to make faster progress. 

By 2010, Steward Laurel Ross and the volunteers of the North Branch Restoration Project had about thirty acres of prairie under restoration. But forty acres were still under shade. Volunteers are mighty, but we are spread over many sites. Thousands of generous friends and neighbors have contributed here, from a few hours to hundreds of hours each, but we had only been able to do so much. 

Increasingly in recent years, Forest Preserve staff have focused resources on Somme. In 2014, President Preckwinkle and the Forest Preserves board approved its "Next Century Plan." By 2020, as a result, there should be no brush in Somme Prairie. This is huge.

On September 20, 2018, conservationists met to refine bird conservation elements of the plan. Shown here, from left, are Laurel Ross (volunteer steward), Dr. Doug Stotz (ornithologist, Field Museum), Becky Collings (Senior Resource Ecologist for the Forest Preserves), Debbie Antlitz (Forest Preserve ecologist), and Dr. Jim Herkert (ornithologist, Illinois Audubon Society).  See Endnote 1.

The Somme Prairie work is a model of collaboration. Forest Preserve staff, volunteers, partners, and scientists work together. What comes next in this post is a summary of the discussions the bird conservation planning group had that day. Be clear, bird conservation was just one part of the overall plan. The most important overall conservation goal for the 70-acre Somme Prairie is the restoration of a whole prairie community – as large and diverse as possible. But many people are interested in birds, and your blog writer (me, Stephen Packard) was part of that field meeting and thought you, dear reader, might be interested.

Bird Conservation Plan

Birds of the eastern grasslands, as a group, are the most threatened birds on the continent. A healthy prairie needs its birds, but Somme had shrunk too small. The basic bird-conservation objective here is a large and unbroken grassland of good structure for breeding prairie birds, especially Henslow’s sparrow, dickcissel, sedge wren, savanna sparrow and possibly meadowlark. Currently no prairie birds nest in the Somme Prairie fragment. But with increasing size and quality, breeding birds can be expected, in time. Currently, some prairie species breed at Air Station Prairie (a few miles to the south) and Willow-Sanders preserve (a few miles to the southwest).

The rare Henslow’s sparrow, if you get a good look, has a greenish head and rufous wings. It’s a high priority for conservation, declining rapidly as its habitat is the eastern tallgrass prairie. 
Grassland areas the size of Somme have significant contributions to make. There are potentially about 100 acres of quality prairie habitat here, if we remove the brush barrier that separates Somme Prairie from formerly contiguous habitat in Somme Prairie Grove east of the Metra tracks. Recent studies suggest that smaller suburban grasslands are especially good for some species. The proposed work at Somme could combine with, inform, and inspire similar work at scores of existing and potential grassland bird breeding sites in the Chicago Wilderness region.

Would we also be wise to save shrublands here? Many shrubland species are in trouble too. But the experts today decided, no. For a site of this size, a single focus on grassland bird habitat is far superior to a compromise that would attempt to restore both grassland and shrubland. Other sites (including the adjacent Somme Prairie Grove) are successful and superior for shrubland bird conservation. More importantly, shrubs (and the predators they harbor) are a major threat to grassland birds. The best strategy here is for the entire site to be restored as it was – prairie.
The photo above shows the 19 acres of brush to be removed in winter 2020. These areas have black backgrounds. The areas of brush and trees removed last year has white hatched lines. The other areas are original and recovering prairie. The darker areas are trees, brush, tall goldenrod, or other prairie-destroying invaders.  
After trees and brush have been cleared, it’s still a lot of work to eliminate such malignant invasives as crown vetch, reed-canary grass, and teasel.

But the major threat here is shrubs and trees. When just a foot or two tall, a few shrubs are not in themselves a detriment to the grassland birds. But, in two or three years, between burns, woody plants with well-developed root systems grow and shade out the grass and wildflower plant diversity that make for successful grassland bird nesting habitat. The plan treats shrubs, trees, invasive weeds, and seed planting in a step-by-step process.
The new Forest Preserve plan (above) shows Somme Prairie outlined in red. The woodlands and oak savannas to the east are Somme Prairie Grove (orange), Somme Woods (yellow and green), and Chipilly Woods (blue). 
We then crossed the Metra tracks and visited the 85-acre Somme Prairie Grove (adjacent to the east) and considered relationships between it and Somme Prairie. A coordinated plan for the two preserves makes sense. The prairie portions of these two preserves are divided from each other by the North Branch of the Chicago River (which flows unnaturally in a deep, straight ditch) as well as by the Metra right-of-way. Neither the ditch nor the tracks would impede prairie birds from using both sides as one larger grassland.
Most prairie birds populations are down more than 90% in recent years. This dickcissel could one day return to the Somme preserves. Prairie birds feed their young mostly on insects. The return of prairie birds may thus restore a more natural balance to the prairie here. 
A special feature of Somme is a continuum from quality prairie to quality savanna and shrubland to quality woodland as we go east through the 695 acres of Somme and Chipilly Woods. The restoration of such a rare continuum would benefit birds, plants, invertebrates, and the ecosystem generally.

We were entertained during our walk in Somme Prairie by a merlin (an uncommon mid-size falcon) which was being mobbed by blue jays in between bouts of the feisty merlin harassing a kestrel (a smaller falcon) and a sharp-shinned hawk. Perhaps this performance was a good omen for our bird conservation planning efforts here.


Endnote 1

The planning session on bird conservation was assembled by Becky Collings and Laurel Ross. The full roster for that field meeting included: 

Forest Preserve staff: Becky Collings and Debbie Antlitz
Bird conservation and ecology: Jim Herkert (Illinois Audubon), Doug Stotz 
and Dave Willard (Field Museum)
Stewards: Laurel Ross, Lisa Culp Musgrave, and Stephen Packard

Volunteer steward Laurel Ross has also long been a conservation leader as staff of The Nature Conservancy and the Field Museum. She is also a member of the Conservation and Policy Council that helps guide the implementing of the Forest Preserve's Next Century Plan. 

Endnote 2

Some photos that show the process.
The area behind this sign looked like "nature" to many. But to an ecologist is was invasives with little habitat or conservation value. 
The transformation of Somme Prairie started to become visible from Dundee Road on December 13th, 2018 with step one. A large "mower" chopped up the understory brush, as shown below: 

From Dundee Road, looking north, with the small brush clearing just completed. The existing prairie is that pale horizontal line behind the trees.
Photo by Forest Preserve resource project manager Troy Showerman.

This is the machine that ground up the small brush. The plan called for herbiciding brush resprouts in summer 2019 and removing the remaining trees (all invaders) the following winter.
Photo by Troy Showerman.
Above, from the Post Office parking lot, the chopped up remains of mowed brush on the left, compared to a still untreated area on the right. Following the brush and tree clearing, rare locally-collected prairie seed will be broadcast. Staff and stewards will combat new infestations of invasives. The ecosystem is temporarily in an "intensive care" stage. In the future, when the scene is all waving flowers, grasses, butterflies, and birds, people will find it hard to believe that the prairie was for a time reduced to this.

As "wide angled" a photo as we could take of high-quality Somme Prairie in 1980. How long will it take before the desired 100 acres looks like this? No one knows. It's never been done. But progress has been steady and impressive. 


Beyond those already mentioned in this post, as always, there are many more who deserve recognition. To mention a few, let’s acknowledge:

John McCarter, Wendy Paulson, Arthur Velasquez, and Eric Whitaker: co-chairs of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission – along with the scores of people who contributed to the planning process. And forest preserve President Toni Preckwinkle who coordinated the adoption of the plan. 

Dozens of Forest Preserve staff and contractors as supervised by John McCabe who has much upgraded the professionalism of the Forest Preserve’s Resource Management Division.

Volunteers by the hundreds, including Somme Prairie co-steward Lisa Musgrave and Eileen Sutter who, with many leaders and volunteers, has headed up the seed-gathering crews of the North Branch Restoration Project.

Jeanne Muellner who took the great photos of the Henslow’s sparrow and the dickcissel at Orland Grassland, where they both thrive in restored habitat. 

Thanks for proofing and edits to this post to Becky CollingsTroy ShowermanLisa MusgraveEriko Kojima, and Kathy Garness.


For an introduction to Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, check out captions and photos of Somme Prairie from a walk in late May - and a set of very different photos and comments from July.

The social benefits and conservation vision represented by the work at Somme are well summarized in The Next Century Plan of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County  

For a summary of the Somme Prairie plan, see: fpdcc.com/spnp

Conservation of the Chicago Region “Bird Conservation Network” birds of concern is at:

The birds of conservation concern in the Somme preserves:

Woodland birds regularly breeding in Somme Woods include red-headed woodpecker, American woodcock, and northern flicker.

Shrubland and savanna birds regularly breeding in Somme Prairie Grove include brown thrasher, willow flycatcher, field sparrow, American woodcock, northern flicker, and eastern kingbird. 

Prairie birds currently breeding in Somme Prairie include none at all, for decades. The pitiful fragments of surviving prairie were too small. Thanks to all who are helping the recovery of the plants and animals of Somme Prairie.