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Thursday, April 7, 2005 01:30 am

Bird's-eye view

art1968
COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM HANDY

Sunrise over the Merwin Preserve at Spunky Bottoms wetland is breathtaking. The water is aglow and alive with vegetation rising from its shallow depths. Great numbers of waterfowl are here as well, but, for the moment, the sky is empty as they rest on the water. Suddenly a group of ducks springs up, as if on tiptoe, dancing across the surface like the early sun’s reflection. Just as suddenly, the commotion stops and the birds come to rest once again in a nearby place now inexplicably deemed more suitable.

On the perimeter of this scene is the intimation of something just as striking. Here the water is groping its way onto barren land in a reminder that I am witnessing a transformation in progress. Not so long ago, rather than water and vegetation and dancing ducks, I would have been standing before a clearing of farm ground. This oasis for migratory species is a land in transition, and that’s why I’ve come — to verify the possibilities. While following the process of another nearby Illinois River Valley wetland restoration called Emiquon, a project still in its infancy, I had tired of imagining its future potential. So I came here to this similar, more established project near Meredosia, about 65 miles west of Springfield, in the hope that the birds would tell me that something is going right in their world and that although snow had swirled in the sky earlier this morning in March, spring had indeed arrived.

Like the landscape at Emiquon, for 80 years this ground had been separated from the Illinois River by levees, drained by pumping stations, and planted in row-crop agriculture. The much larger Emiquon restoration, near the towns of Havana and Lewistown, had been a glimmer of possibility for the Nature Conservancy when the land at Spunky Bottoms, then an 1,157-acre farm, was put up for sale in 1997 by its owner, the John Hancock insurance company. Farming continued for two years after the land’s purchase while plans were prepared. Then, in the spring of 1999, the pumping was slowed, allowing the water level to creep up slowly.

Apart from a natural drying-out period a couple of years ago, the water has risen steadily. Now Spunky Bottoms has expanded to 2,026 acres and is so far a glowing success story. The land appears to be reclaiming its former purpose with relief.

But the story is far from over.

To those unfamiliar with the restoration process, it may at first seem a simple matter: Turn off the pumps and allow the water to rise and the plants to reestablish themselves, and there you have it — a wetland restored.

But even for the scientifically challenged mind, commonsense questions begin to suggest themselves. Are native plants capable of returning? How can the right numbers of the appropriate creatures be enticed to move back in? And the all-encompassing question: Just how does one go about duplicating nature’s plan, a plan that no one now living has seen? For this question there is no immediate answer. Spunky Bottoms and Emiquon are in fact testing grounds of sorts, their overseers relying on research methods and surveys to achieve hoped-for-results that the architects of future projects around the world — from the United States to Brazil to China — will follow.

My husband, Tom, and I are met by Tharran Hobson, the Nature Conservancy’s restoration specialist at Spunky Bottoms. He attempts to explain the complex process: “What we try to do is re-create a mosaic of floodplain habitats that probably would have been here historically.” Surveys of small mammals and reptiles show that not only are the more mobile creatures returning rapidly but the less mobile ones are making their way here as well.

The progress has been impressive. Spunky Bottoms now boasts migration peaks of more than 16,000 ducks and geese, plus the return of uncommon species such as the river otter and the most abundant population of northern cricket frogs in Illinois. Wetland plants that have lain dormant for many years, such as the American lotus and water lily, are also reestablishing themselves. Does this mean that the preserve is capable of taking care of itself? No way.

A tremendous amount of planting has been done, and Hobson identifies one such area. “This is where the tallgrass prairie would start,” he says, pointing out a stretch of 120 replanted acres. Hobson’s voice competes with the bird sounds issuing from the grasses like a singing endorsement of his efforts. Singing. How naturally this term is used for bird communication: The birds may be bickering, warring, or mating, yet we call it song.

“A couple years ago we saw Henslow’s sparrows in here, setting up breeding territories, and they’re a threatened species,” Hobson says before stopping to note a mink swimming across the water.

Another big project has involved the planting of bottomwood forest, about 7,000 trees, since it was determined where this forest would have occurred historically.

“Before they put levees up to contain the river, it meandered back and forth across the valley,” Hobson says. “In its meanderings, it would stay in a channel, maybe for a few hundred years or so. After the spring floods, it would keep building up more and more sediment closest to the original bank of the river and create a natural levee, a high area, running parallel to the river, and those are the areas that would stay just high enough that the trees were able to keep their root systems out of the water during most of the growing season.” All of this means that there were gallery forests of bottomland hardwoods that provided a migration corridor for neotropical birds up and down the river. But good bottomwood forest is now hard to find.

Hobson clears room for Tom and me in his pickup truck, and we head out onto the levee to get a better look at the waterfowl. Migration is now in full swing, and pairs and groups occasionally propel themselves from terrain to sky, their heads jutting forward in determination. Waterfowl may migrate from as far south as Mexico to as far north as the Arctic. Early conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote elegantly of these epic journeys: “By this international commerce of geese, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds to the Arctic tundras, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a nightless June to grow goslings for all the lands between. And in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.”

It is hard to understand why they undertake such tremendous journeys, but migration somehow makes genetic sense to these birds, a trait that has evolved over time to help them secure year-round habitat and food sources. Evolution, of course, implies that the benefits of migration must have outweighed the disadvantages. The abilities that allow this migration to occur are extraordinary. Birds use many navigational tools — among them the position of the sun and stars, magnetic fields, even low-frequency sound waves — to find their way. In addition to these aids, ducks, geese, and swans, unlike most other species of birds, also learn from their elders. For this reason — again unlike other birds — they maintain family groups while migrating so that the young may learn specific routes and memorize landmarks along the way.

There is no doubt that the loss of suitable habitat has put much greater pressure on this already strenuous mission. Birds need migration corridors, unbroken chains of habitat where they can rest and refuel, to make it from one destination to another, but the chain has lost more and more links over time. I wonder what it was like for the ancestors of these birds when the habitat at Spunky Bottoms first disappeared all those years ago, when they toiled for miles to find this spot, the place their family had taught them would offer safe haven. What was it like for them when they realized that the habitat on which they had relied was missing, forcing them to continue on in the beleaguered hope that the next place would still exist as they remembered it?

Like the migration patterns of birds, human needs and expectations have evolved over time — and hopefully we are learning as well. Once agriculture was understandably deemed most important, but current farming methods permit more efficient production. In the meantime, we have also begun to understand the importance of wetland habitat to migrating birds — and of the importance of the existence of birds in both fundamental ways, as important ecosystem links and food sources, and in ways much deeper but less tangible.

Dr. Stephen Havera, a waterfowl expert with the Illinois Natural History Survey, puts it this way: “There is an incredible lure about waterfowl that captures our interest, whether we are birdwatchers, conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, or hunters.” There is something uplifting in their presence, and although it often seems that their populations must reach the brink of disaster before we take notice, we usually respond to their losses. We haven’t let them go.

When songbird numbers were declining as a result of the use of DDT, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book describing a hypothetical “silent spring” without songbirds caused people to rise up and fight the powerful chemical companies, eventually forcing a ban on the pesticide.

Waterfowl numbers have been driven perilously low in the past as well. In 1985 came the realization that waterfowl populations were plummeting. In the contiguous United States, 53 percent of the original 221 million wetland acres, habitat crucial to waterfowl, had been destroyed, and this habitat was continuing to disappear at a rate of 60 acres per hour. The same thing was happening in Canada, where a large percentage of the United States’ wintering waterfowl nest. In 1986, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, with which the Nature Conservancy and Spunky Bottoms are now affiliated, was created and signed by Canada and the United States. When it was updated in 1994, Mexico signed on as well.

Like the coalitions that are now being forged by diverse individuals and groups all along the Illinois River for the protection of the birds, the NAWMP has brought together soil and water conservationists, land- and water-resource managers, local communities, private landowners, and First Nations and other indigenous groups. The NAWMP map of “Areas of Continental Significance to North American Ducks, Geese, and Swans” depicts points of migratory importance for waterfowl, numbered 1 to 67, from the far southern reaches of Mexico to the northernmost point at the Bering Sea. And there we are — central Illinois, Spunky Bottoms, and Emiquon — at No. 9. Birds know no borders or divisions, forcing us to view the world in this same way if their continued existence holds any meaning for us — and it appears that it does.

Hobson stops the truck and turns off the engine. “Have you heard the sound of white-fronted geese?” he asks. We listen for a moment. “They sound like a bunch of people blowing party horns,” he says. “I just started seeing them here on the Illinois about four or five years ago. I don’t ever remember seeing white-fronted geese when I was growing up.”

These geese are here now because of the improved quality of the Illinois River. Better water quality has encouraged the return of more species of fish on which these birds feed. In turn, the variety and population of fish are growing because of increased numbers of zooplankton and phytoplankton — which is a result of better water quality. The circle of dependence continues.

With each new bit of information, the complexity of this project and the intricacy of the ecological ties reveal themselves. Will there ever be a time when management of this preserve is longer needed, when the natural species and processes are strong enough to carry on without human intervention? Hobson notes that the Spunky Bottoms restoration is only a first step: The wetlands need to be reconnected to the river. Spunky Bottoms is not an end unto itself.

“We’re doing these projects for the Illinois River,” he says. “These are nice wetlands for certain types of organisms now, but they’re still off-limits to a whole lot of other things. So even though this is a nice wetland, it’s still not serving some of its larger functions.” These larger functions include bringing in floodwater, recycling nutrients, and providing breeding areas for fish.

But there are numerous problems all along the length of the Illinois River — tough problems — that need to be solved before a true connection can be made. So first there will be a managed connection, open probably less than 10 percent of the time — perhaps when certain species of fish are breeding.

“We’re working with the Army Corps of Engineers,” Hobson says, “and they can give us a manual on how to run it, how to put the boards in and take them out [of the levee opening]. But they can’t really give us a manual telling us how to operate a structure to manage for things like exotic carp species — they don’t know what to tell us on that.”

And that’s the problem: Even with all of the surveys and scientific studies and amazing progress, duplicating nature’s plan is still an iffy thing. What does it take to re-create a wetland? A lot.

A great blue heron takes flight, and we watch in awe as its expansive wings thrust it across the sky. Tom mentions that his grandparents had camped in the Meredosia area when they were young, and we wonder if they too had watched great blue herons with awe. Perhaps one day, if all continues to go well, we will begin to see a semblance of the habitat that our ancestors saw so long ago. Surely the generations that follow us will know the former richness of this land.

A visit to Spunky Bottoms tells us a lot about connections — that species cannot survive alone, nor can states or countries. Birds force a world so adept at dividing and then subdividing to come together in a common cause. They force us to realize that despite the borders, there are no real boundaries; that despite the divides between generations there should always be unbreakable links; and that even though an early-March sky may be filled with swirling snow, spring will always return.

For permission to visit the area, call the Nature Conservancy office at Lewistown at 309-547-2730. For more information about the Nature Conservancy’s work in Illinois, visit www.nature.org/illinois.

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