Birds, Butterflies, and Bison at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

An hour’s drive southwest of Chicago is an 18,000-acre prairie preserve called Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (pronounced Mi-DAY-win). The preserve was created mostly out of lands that had belonged to the now-closed Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Today the land is part of the U.S. Forest Service and is operated in partnership with the The Nature Conservancy and other groups. There is a large volunteer organization called the Midewin Alliance.

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Last Friday, Judy and I drove down to Midewin to take a little hike. About half of Midewin is open to the public. When we got out at the Iron Bridge Trailhead, sounds of the internal combustion engine filled the air: someone’s riding lawnmower, a small plane (crop duster?), and the hum of traffic.

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A clump of Big Bluestem reaches up above the other plants.

The engine sounds gradually faded away as we ambled down the trail, gradually being replaced by the wind and a symphony of songbirds.

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An actual prairie does not have as many flowers as a prairie-style garden, and this is not the most floriferous time of year. However, there were plenty of Early Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) and Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinata) in bloom, along with some Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) that hadn’t gone to seed. Looking out, we saw yellow dots and dashes stretching hazily into the distance.

 

 

There was some Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) as well. This is a little video Judy took that provides some feel of the place. Unfortunately, the wind obscures the sound of the many songbirds.

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Yellow Coneflower.

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The first open bloom of a Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum).

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Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) was also just beginning to open. That butterfly (Painted Lady?) looks rather the worse for wear.

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Speaking of butterflies, they were plentiful on the day we visited, particularly Monarchs and Swallowtails. From the Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) in the picture above, you can see that Midewin is not a pristine prairie. Some of it was never plowed, some was restored from farmland. Either way, exotic plants are part of the herbaceous mix. I imagine they are impossible to exclude completely.

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This is a Painted Lady, I think. Correction: I’m told it’s a Pearl Crescent.

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During the first part of our walk there was a wire fence on the south side of the road. The fence provided a perching spot for birds. Not sure about this bird, but I know I’ve never seen it at home. Help me with an ID, birding friends. And look, he’s singing!

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This may be the same bird as the last one, but I’m not sure.

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Here is an Eastern Kingbird, another one I have never seen before. Kind of a fuzzy picture, but the harsh light of midafternoon was challenging.

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About 1,000 acres at Midewin has been reserved for wild Bison. There’s a growing herd of nearly 100 animals. The park has set up an area for observing the Bison, but we were told at the Welcome Center that the big guys were staying out of sight today.

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So imagine our excitement when we spotted these huge animals having a siesta just a few yards from our trail.

 

 

Here’s another of Judy’s videos.

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Bison can weigh over a ton. In other words, big. And those horns are rather menacing. We did kind of wonder about the sturdiness of the fence separating them from us.

There were once as many as 30 million Bison in North America. Now it’s about 500,000, but many are domesticated and raised for meat and hides.

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It seems we disturbed their siesta, but the Bison didn’t get nasty about it. They just got up, with many grunts and lots of tail swishing, and ambled away.

Illinois’ official nickname (can you really have an official nickname?) is the Prairie State, but in truth hardly any prairie remains. I am grateful to the professionals and volunteers of Midewin, who maintain this small remnant of our natural heritage.

37 Comments on “Birds, Butterflies, and Bison at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

  1. I love seeing herds of Bison. They look so different next to cows and deer, it’s like you can see the way the natural environment was hundreds of years ago when you look at them.

  2. San Jose tried to preserve a bit of it’s heritage by creating a Heritage Orchard, which is literally a tree museum for representative of the fruit trees that grew in the orchards that were once so vast in the Santa Clara Valley. It is nice, but nothing like the real thing.

  3. What a beautiful place! It’s such a treat to see the prairie wildflowers.

    Your unknown bird is a Dickcissel! There were probably some other grassland species in there too; Eastern meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Field Sparrows, and perhaps Henslows and Grasshopper Sparrows as well (those last two are tricky to see as they stay low in the grasses and their songs sound like insect buzzes and clicks)

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful place with us.

    • Yes, there were many other birds but we are not skilled birdwatchers. We only got pics of the ones that were sitting on the fence.

  4. So enjoyable to see / hear some of the prairie sounds and sights. Bison are huge animals. It is always fun to see them. We were in N Dakota a few years ago at the Federal preserve for these animals and only saw one or two of them. They had such a huge area to range. I think you were lucky to see so many of them and to hear them vocalize etc.

  5. What a lovely walk, and I never knew Illinois’s nickname was Prairie state, so glad you could show us a little slice of what is left of it. I love the butterflies, and the birds….. and especially interesting was the herd of Bison.

  6. I loved this post! Just a wonderful visit to Midewin. It has been years since I was there. Your butterflies appear to be, first, a beat up fritillary, and second, a pearl crescent.
    You captured the singing bird so beautifully~wow!

    • Thanks for the butterfly IDs. Judy did the videotaping, and honestly it didn’t do justice to the quantity and diversity of birdsong.

  7. So great to visit this lovely place with you and Judy. And while native plants might have to share some space with newcomers, what I get from your words and images is an abundance of life and beauty. Perhaps, in the end, that is what really counts?

  8. Thank you for the information and photos/videos. I had never heard of this place before. Sounds like an inviting place to birdwatch.

  9. Nice Friday adventure. We lived in KS for many years, and there was a herd of bison in the western part of the state that we’d see when visiting family. It always brought back thoughts of the early settlers. Applause to the conservators. 🙂

  10. That’s awesome! It’s always fun to chase butterflies and pollinators at these types of places. I’ll add this preserve to my bucket list of “not too far away” places. 🙂

    • I think you’d like it. There’s another preserve, about 3,000 acres, near Dixon IL. It’s owned and run by the Nature Conservancy. Haven’t been there yet, but it’s on my list.

  11. It’s strange that I’ve never thought of Illinois as a place with prairies. When I was a kid, and we’d visit relatives in the Quad Cities, Illinois was the Mississippi River and Chicago. That was about it.

    I do love a good prairie, and the bison always are a plus. I had the chance to ride out into the middle of the Tallgrass Prairie herd in Kansas with one of the workers there. I have a big ol’ bunch of buffalo hair as a souvenir. The fellow driving the truck reached out the window and grabbed it for me. Needless to say, the photos were great.

    I think your unidentified bird may be a dicksissel (sp?) although I’m not sure. It tickled me that I recognized the Silphium, although the species we have are different.

    • I think I might get a little nervous getting into the middle of a Bison herd. I think you are right about the dicksissel.

      • It helps to be with a bison-herder in his truck. He did suggest that getting out of that truck wouldn’t be a very good idea.

  12. What an interesting post. Good to know this place exists and has such beautiful birds and butterflies. Lovely to know the bison are only for observing, I get how fragile that fencing looked so close up to enormous beasts like that! Loved Judy’s videos….more of those please!xxxx

  13. Great post! I haven’t been to Midewin in a few years, which means I’ve never seen the buffalo there. Fermilab has buffalo too… You might like Goose Lake Prairie too which is not far from there. By now you know you had Dickcissels. Love the Pearl Crescent.

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