As readers of this blog know, I am inordinately fond of prairies and Warren Woods. The latter is far enough away that I rarely visit more than a couple or three times a year. This year’s trip started as a series of e-mail conversations with Jon Wuepper (Mr. Berrien County Birds and one of those rare folks who loves historical natural history as much as I do) and Steve Sass. Steve, besides being a first rate birder, is a wonderful all-round naturalist. He has been monitoring the phenological changes at Warren Woods throughout the spring and has been posting some lovely pictures of the wildflowers that bejewel the understory. Steve’s frequent field companion is his absolutely delightful oldest child Sarah: it is hard to imagine a more perfect father-daughter team. (Cindy and I first met Steve and Sarah last fall at the Indiana Audubon Society meeting and we fell in “deep like” at first sight. Sarah’s intelligence and exuberance is awe inspiring.) Throw into the mix former Illinois birder Tom Steele, who is converting his Michigan property into prairie, and the imperative for an outing was beyond question. So it was that on April 29 I met this distinguished group in Three Oaks, Michigan for a day of birding, botanizing, musing, and marveling at the energy of a ten-year old.
Warren Woods is one of, if not the, finest beech maple forest in the world. To walk among the giant trees is a privilege that fosters inspiration and pure pleasure unsurpassed by any of the other things I do. Phalanxes of passenger pigeons fed on the fruits of these trees, and it does not strain credulity to think that some of these ancient behemoths might have sprouted from nuts lodged in the crops of dead pigeons. Storms over the months since I last visited a year ago toppled some of these and crews have employed chain saws to clear trails. Jon started counting the rings and came up with an age of between 250 and 300 years. Even at the younger age, it is older than the Republic. Given what we know of the fauna of those times, it is possible that a porcupine gnawed on the bark or the blood of an elk-calf mauled by a cougar moistened the young roots. Jon suggested that a high resolution photo or scan would allow us to pair the rings with events of the day, either those in the human arena or possible scenarios that took place beyond the ken of scriveners.
Years ago I was with Jon at Warren when he called in a barred owl to the delight of a bird group I was leading. His rendition of “who cooks for you all” produced the very same effect. A barred owl replied and flew right in. We had to jockey for position to see it through spaces in the canopy but all of us had great looks. Louisiana waterthrushes appeared and a pileated woodpecker also called. One of the floral highlights that Steve pointed out was beech drops, a woodland plant that lacks chlorophyll. But despite our efforts at turning over a myriad of logs and branches, Sarah, Jon, and I failed to find any salamanders.
Yellow-throated warblers are among the southern species that have steadily moved north, although Berrien harbored a small population before northeastern Illinois ever did. They are early singers and if you don’t get them in April or early May you have a good chance of missing them, although Jon reminded me that despite my skepticism we did find a bird in August once. One good place for them in Berrien is at the Kessling Preserve along Forest Lawn Road. We heard and saw one as it worked in some trees but more amazing was the bird feeding leisurely in a short shrub literally next to the road. I have rarely, if ever, had better views.