Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Habitat restoration efforts on the Midewin highlighted by Annual Bird Survey

Mamma duck swimming with her ducklings
Volunteer Midewin bird monitors Greg DuBois and Fritz Bartels counted 14 ducklings with this mother wood duck as she guided her flock through the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in late June. Native Illinois grassland bird sightings are on the rise on the Midewin. Photo courtesy of Fritz Bartels.

ILLINOIS – Sightings of native Illinois grassland birds – and rare birds of all kinds – are on the rise at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. In some instances, bird monitors are seeing some species for the first time ever. Recent annual bird surveys point to increases in some grassland bird species while numbers of other species are steadier here than elsewhere.   
In June, hundreds of visitors trekked to the Turtle Pond area on the northeast side of Midewin where a painted bunting was seen way off of its usual southerly course. During one of the Midewin bird tours on the west side of Highway 53, volunteer bird monitor and bird-watching tour facilitator Greg Dubois, along with others, saw a rare black-billed cuckoo for the first time in his life. Later in the month, DuBois and fellow Midewin volunteer bird monitor Fritz Bartels spotted a flock of 15 wood ducks – a mother and her 14 ducklings – swimming in a line in the water.

On June 10-11, Midewin staff and volunteers conducted annual bird surveys on the Midewin with help from the Illinois Audubon Society, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.

According to Illinois Audubon Society Executive Director Dr. James Herkert, the numbers of dickcissels and Henslow’s sparrows have been increasing in recent years. Additionally, numbers of bobolinks and grasshopper sparrows have remained stable on the Midewin, even though their numbers have not been as steady elsewhere. Dr. Herkert credits the bird-friendly habitats on the Midewin for birds returning year after year to the area.  

“Midewin offers both a lot of habitat and a wide variety of habitat,” Herkert said. “Recent observations really point to Midewin being a very important area for grassland birds.”

Increasing desirable habitat for grassland birds is essential to the mission of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Midewin was established by the Illinois Land Conservation Act in 1996 for four purposes, including restoring populations of native Illinois prairie grassland birds.

To make their observations, skilled bird surveyors return to the same 40-50 fields on the Midewin year after year, counting all the birds they see or hear. There are five or six survey teams with four or five surveyors on each team. Survey work begins at 6 a.m. and sometimes even earlier. Surveys can sometimes last all day long.  

“It is a big operation,” Herkert said, “and a big push to get a lot done in just two or three days.”

Herkert has rarely missed a Midewin bird survey since he first participated in 1991. He has noted amazing advances since then, including that monitors can now be more precise about looking at the exact same locations every year thanks to new and improving technologies such as global positioning systems.

Conditions on the Midewin – both technological and natural – have not been as optimal for viewing nature of all kinds as they have been in recent years. Over 30 miles of non-motorized trails are open from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Trail maps are available online in Spanish and English.

Three bordwatchers in the field, watching birds!
From left, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Natural Heritage Biologist Dan Kirk, Midewin volunteer Arthur Pearson and Midewin Restoration Technician Bridget Peed count the sounds and sightings of birds on the South Patrol Road Prairie at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Sightings of unusual birds – including some species of the native Illinois grassland birds that are at the heart of the mission of the Midewin – are on the rise. Photo courtesy of Allison Cisneros, The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.