Tiger swallowtail on prairie blazing star (Tim Wallace)

Late July through mid-August is usually a slow period for birding around here. At the later end of the period, a few warblers begin trickling through and of course there are shorebirds, but no one has found any really good habitat nearby. One spot, a detention basin in Will County, drew a little variety but the day that Josh Engel and I went out to look, water and lightening descended from the skies in copious amounts. No more shore bird habitat, and then after some time, the site dried out: such places are designed to hold surplus water for but a short time.

But there are the prairies- Markham is at its most glorious this time of year. I made three visits to ensure I hit the peak.  And twice, we headed to the Calumet region, that matrix of marsh that has been attracting seekers of birds since the days that the Pottawatomi held dominion over the territory.

The first trip to Markham this year was with Gary Hantsbarger and Tim Wallace. The first unusual sighting was a homeless man who emerged from the grass in the distance. He ambled off but when we eventually reached where he had been we saw the flattened vegetation where he sleeps. It was like a deer bed. Social problems of the human world intrude upon the serenity of a 10,000 year old prairie. All things considered, it is surprising that Markham’s natural oasis doesn’t draw even more wandering sleepers- a pretty thought though not likely true is that somehow even the uniformed recognize in some inchoate way that damaging such a lovely place amounts to a desecration that should be avoided, at least as long as other options exist.

The prairie blazing stars were in nearly full bloom on that first trip. The following week some were already in quiescent but the marsh blazing stars were starting up. In rare years, there is an ever so brief period when they both are in high color tinting large sections of the prairie cerulean. Inlaid amidst the emerald grasses and lapus-like Liatris are cabochons of gold, stands of the deep-rooted sylphium- prairie dock and compass plant- and cone flowers.  Growing not as tall, partridge pea contributed more yellow. Wild quinine and rattlesnake master add texture and paler shades of white and green. We night have been too early in the day for the regal and Aphrodite fritillaries but the eyed browns, viceroys (the first I had seen this season), and two kinds of swallow-tails flitted from one clump of color to another.    By are third visit, much of the color had muted but the goldenrods stood their ground, for it was their turn to bask in the sun.

Sedge wrens and common yellowthroats were everywhere. And on the first visit, we saw two or three groups of red-headed woodpeckers totaling seven birds. There are trees on the periphery and this open aspect is what they like. On two of the trips we left Markham to focus more on birds by visiting the Lake Calumet region, Shorebirds at the regular spots were zilch, but for most of the summer one and or two neotropical cormorants would spend most of the day basking at Burnham Prairie, one of the best natural areas in the Calumet area. Sure enough, on both are visits, there was an adult, dwarfed by the nearby double-cresteds. It is only a few miles from Indiana, but until this summer, that state had never recorded a neotropical. I wonder if the Burnham adult ever leaves, but an unsuccessful try was posted on the local birders listserve, so I know the bird is ambulatory.

The third trip I made was with Angelo Caparella, a biologist who teaches at Illinois State University. He and his wife Gretchen Knapp have become dear friends. Years ago Franklin’s ground squirrels were introduced into Markham but as far as I know they are no longer present. Angleo was telling me about a study that is going on in near Springfield, IL which has revealed that these rare prairie mammals can survive in surprising places and are extremely difficult to locate. What they need is well drained areas like railroad berms or borrow piles. He is finds them in areas where no one has previously thought they were. So maybe they still inhabit Markham- a thought good for morale.

Adult and immature neo-tropical cormorants at Burnham Prairie (Photo by Walter Marcisz)

Red meadowhawk at Markham Prairie (Tim Wallace)

Prairie balzing star and goldenrod (sp?) at Markham Prairie (Tim Wallace)

Red-headed woodpecker at Markham Prairie (Tim Wallace)

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