Guest Author: Matthew Bucher
Breaching waves broke on the shore. There were singing sparrows, and the morning sun shone onto grass waving in the wind. Wildflowers glowed and young oak trees dotted the land. An indeterminate distance away, a car alarm was going off. After all, Northerly Island is only a half mile away from Lake Shore Drive.
Where do you go when you need a break from the city? Do you need to plan a vacation to Oregon or Florida? The truth is, a Chicagoan does not need to go all that far. During my time exploring the preserves of the region in a professional capacity, I have come to find that our area is often overlooked. Friends, family, and even myself in earlier years glorified other parts of the country when it came to hiking and “getting out into nature.” The truth is that in our sprawling city and surrounding suburban landscape, the secret is knowing where to look. In this series, we’ll be looking at the parks that make up Chicago’s own backyard, exploring their history, ecology and the activities you can find to do there, beginning with Northerly Island.
Northerly Island has undergone a tremendous transformation in only the last 15 years. On what was formerly Meigs Field, Huntington Bank Pavilion got its start. Nine years after Meigs closed, a contractor began work in the peninsula south of the pavilion. The project was to create a sandy oak savanna habitat, typical of the area along the lake in pre-settlement times.
Savannas, like prairies and woodlands, are characterized by the plants that thrive there. Prairies have little to no trees, savannas have some trees, and woodlands have many trees. Within the savanna title, there are closed-oak and open-oak savannas. A closed oak savanna will have more canopy trees and more shade than an open-oak savanna. Most remnant savannas are either overgrown or have been destroyed, leaving them difficult to study. For a great deal of time, savannas were written off as transitional points between prairies and woodlands, but the work of people like Chicago’s own noted “conservation entrepreneur” and head of the Volunteer Stewardship Program Stephen Packard has changed many minds.
All ecosystems see disturbance. An important form of this disturbance in our Midwestern ecosystems is fire. Fire is a driving force. Where fire is frequent and intense, prairies live out. Tree saplings cannot survive the fire, but native plants have evolved with it. Their roots grow deep enough that even if surface features are destroyed, they can quickly regrow. Where fire cannot touch, woodlands tend to dominate. Savannas see fire, but the trees that live on afterward are fire tolerant. Big, gnarly, thick-barked Bur Oaks are found in savannas, and are as fire tolerant as oaks get.
Without fire, an open field will eventually become a closed canopy forest. This is particularly why remnant savannas are difficult to find. The wildflowers and grasses that characterize savannas thrive with partial sun and shade, but should fire-intolerant trees move in unchecked, the shade becomes too much, and the seed of these plants wait in the soil for proper conditions. For a great deal of time, fires were suppressed in our preserves and discouraged because of safety issues and the general lack of knowledge surrounding the ecological importance of fire. That is changing quite drastically. During late fall and early spring, you may find plumes of smoke from prescribed burning taking place all over the region.
If you choose to visit Northerly soon, you’ll see a host of flowering native plants such as Wild White Indigo, Butterfly Milkweed, Wild Quinine, Spiderwort, and the confusingly named Foxglove Beardtongue. White flowers dominated my visit, but the blue Spiderwort stands out, as well as the orange Butterfly Milkweed that was just starting to bloom.
Northerly Island also has several flowering invasive plants. Viney plants like Crown Vetch and Bird’s Foot Trefoil seem to be the most threatening while white and yellow Sweetclover are flowering as well. If left alone, expect Milkweed, Quinine, and the other native species to struggle for their own survival. Invasive plants are plants non-native to the region that have been brought over either accidentally or with some purpose and flourish without competition from plants from their home range. Posing a problem for native plants and animals, the invaders disrupt the natural occurrences of the ecosystems to which they were introduced. Invasive plants are a prime reason why pristine prairie, savanna, and woodland habitats are difficult to find. Where native trees may overgrow and shade out savanna plants over time, invasive Buckthorn and Honeysuckle do it much faster. I will wager that if you are in a forest preserve and cannot see more than 10 feet into the woodland, you are looking at a wall of invasive species, likely Buckthorn, Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, or a combination of all three.
Summers at Northerly also yield your typical Midwestern birds. The aptly named Savanna Sparrow is identifiable by a yellow stripe above the eye and a buzz to its song. The Dickcissel is a similarly sized bird, but with a yellow breast and a black V-shape just below its neck. Red-winged blackbirds are most frequent, and the common name here makes sense. Look for a very vocal blackbird with red wings. If you’re near a nest, it will let you know. They’re aggressive and are often seen chasing hawks out of their territory.
Northerly Island Park is situated just south of Huntington Bank Pavilion. If you’re planning a visit, keep in mind that a pavilion attendant may tell you it’s closed if the music venue has nothing going on that day, but you can still go ahead and head south down the path. The loop is just over a mile long and great for a morning walk or run. As the sun rises, cyclists, joggers, early morning strollers, and fishermen take to the paths.
Unfortunately, the trail is closed to the East, but a trip to the southern extent and back is worth the time. It’s a site that can be seen in an hour and, like the Field Museum, offers a glimpse into the past before towering skyscrapers and city streets.
People all over the region are hard at work to fight invasive species and assist in establishing native plant populations. Some are federal or state employees, some are contractors, but many are volunteers. The volunteer networks across the state comprise people driven by a passion and appreciation for our parks. Their only payment is the satisfaction of flourishing native plants. I encourage you to attend a Stewardship Day at a site near you and see what gems that park down the road may hide. This week’s volunteering link is for Stewardship days for the Chicago Park District, managing entity of Northerly Island Park.