Thursday, June 02, 2011

Accidental wetlands a boon for wildlife

Accidental wetlands a boon for wildlife

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When people contemplate the Illinois landscape as it might have been prior to the advent of industrial agriculture and urban development, their thoughts naturally turn to prairie—after all, we live in the Prairie State. But as the planting delays and basement flooding of this spring remind us, many low spots in east central Illinois were once wetlands of one sort or another. And when our drainage systems fail, or we disrupt them on purpose, wetlands of one sort or another are quick to come back.

If you drive the mile of Curtis Road between Staley and Rising in southwest Champaign you can see what I mean. The farm fields there have drained poorly in recent years, so wet Aprils, like the ones in 2009 and this year leave widespread, shallow pools that persist for weeks after the rains end.

For the farmer who’s hoping to grow corn there, I imagine those pools are, in restrained terms, objects of great resentment. But for wildlife and wildlife watchers, they are something else. (Indeed, some people who post on the local birders listserv jokingly designate the area the “Curtis Road National Wildlife Refuge.”)

Among the more unusual birds those pools have attracted are black-necked stilts, whose uniquely long, pinkish-red legs lift their bodies above the shallow water as they forage for food. A pair of stilts even bred and raised four chicks near Curtis Road in 2009. [Photos by author taken at locations mentioned in text: Black-necked stilts, pectoral sandpiper, white-faced ibis.]

Of course, birds that are just passing through constitute the great majority of those observed at temporary “wetlands,” beginning with ducks and geese in late winter and continuing with more than a dozen species of waders and shorebirds into early summer.

Get this. A pectoral sandpiper that stops to feed in Champaign County during spring migration likely began its journey in South America, and will continue on from here to the arctic tundra of far northern Canada, Alaska or even Siberia. And what does it take to get that bird to layover here? Just a small part of a field that stays flooded long enough for insect larvae to develop, a temporary, unintended fragment of the historical landscape.

An undrained field behind the UI’s dairy barns on South Lincoln Avenue in Urbana demonstrates the same principle on an even smaller scale. There, earlier this month, another birder and I discovered more than 50 solitary sandpipers feeding in a wet area no larger than a couple of city lots. And on the day following, a friend’s daughter discovered at the same place a true rarity for Illinois, a white-faced ibis, while her father was scanning the sandpiper flock through his binoculars.

While I privilege here these unintended wetlands, it’s not because I prefer them to the natural areas where wetlands are being preserved or restored, it’s just that they are nearer where I live and work, so easier to visit often.

I’ve also enjoyed recent trips to the Urbana Park District’s marsh restoration at Weaver Park, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s Stidham Marsh at Lake of the Woods. And that’s not to mention wetland restoration projects elsewhere in the county. Perhaps a column surveying area wetland projects is called for.