Another update on doings of the Northwest Illinois Prairie Enthusiasts. Here's the story of how a happy accident led to the arrival of a rare bird at Hanley Savanna.
This is the time of year many of us get ready to participate in the Illinois Spring Bird Count. We dust off our field guides, get out the birdsong tapes and refresh our memories. The hubby and I have been doing this count together since 1992; in fact, that's how I met him. But that's a story for another time. What I really want to tell you about is the happy accident that led to the arrival of a rare bird at Hanley Savanna.
When we contracted to have the non-native White Pines removed from Hanley Savanna in 2005, we had grand visions of turning that area into an oak savanna. Black Oak seedlings were already present, and we figured that clearing out the pines would give them a much-needed boost to achieve the majestic girth they are known for. But then along came another talented NIPE member, Barbara Bernard.
Barbara is a retired veterinarian and a skilled birder. She and her husband, Gary, a retired physician, started to spend birding time at Hanley and offered to provide us with a species list. They quickly swelled that list from a paltry 37 to 103 different birds heard and seen; many of them breeding there.
Barbara's most exciting discovery came in 2017, when she thought she heard the vocalization of the Yellow-breasted Chat, a bird of concern in Illinois and very rare in our area.
Once considered the oddest of the wood warblers, it was reclassified in 2017 by the American Ornithological Society from the family Parulidae into its own family Icteridae. The chat has a stout body and long tail and makes an odd assortment of sounds—liquid whistles, low chortles, mechanical-sounding clicking, etc. which are reminiscent of mockingbirds. A secretive and elusive bird, it skulks undercover in dense thickets, but at times it will sing from the top of a tall tree or fly, with legs dangling, from bush to bush. Thorny locust trees, blackberry brambles and honeysuckle shrubs are abundant in the area we call ‘The Pines' where Barbara first found the birds. We alerted Ed, our land manager, and eradication plans for those non-natives were put on hold to give Barbara a chance to do a more detailed bird survey.
At the end of 2018, she submitted her report to us. Referencing the Pines, she states:
“There is apparently some combination of vegetative species diversity, density and stratification that is attracting these birds to this specific location. During observation of the Chats during transect surveys, it was noted that the males frequently used the tops of the tallest trees, both deciduous and pine, for singing perches and as launch sites for aerial displays. Shorter mid-sized trees were also commonly used as singing perches. The large height variation in the woody plant community in the Pines area is apparently a desirable parameter for the Chats, and together with the dense, brambly understory is providing good breeding habitat.
“This unique area is providing an invaluable complementary habitat to the prairies and woodlands that surrounds it and enhances the avian and wildlife value of the property as a whole.”
With the help of NIPE's Kyle Van den Bosch, M.A. and Leanne Martin, PhD., management plans are being revised to accommodate the needs of the Chats and other sand barrens birds of conservation importance. Kyle has started work on the savanna areas by clearing some trees to open the canopy and Leanne will complete her work by surveying the savannas and woodlands this summer.
I hope you will plan a visit to Hanley Savanna this spring and search out the Yellow-breasted chats for yourself. Pat yourself on the back if you have volunteered for NIPE in the past and be generous with your dollars when our fund-raising letter shows up in your mailbox in May. Who knows what other wonderful surprises await us with proper management of Hanley Savanna?