CHICAGO WILDERNESS MAGAZINE: Discovering the Inner Naturalist
July 27, 2015
Discovering the Inner Naturalist
On the Trail of the Cuckoo in Cuba Marsh
By Nancy Shepherdson
Sometimes life-changing events don’t slap you in the face. Rather, they float in, as if on the wings of birds. Two springs ago, my evening walks in the middle reaches of Cuba Marsh, a Lake County Forest Preserve property, were accompanied by a haunting, hollow cu-cu-cu-cu coming from somewhere beyond the pines.
“A black-billed cuckoo,” my husband, the birder, said.
“You’re the one who’s cuckoo,” I replied. There couldn’t really be cuckoos nesting in this narrow swath of wilderness surrounded on all sides by the suburban sprawl of Barrington, Long Grove, and Lake Zurich, could there?
But I had to admit that in this place, almost anything was beginning to seem possible. In the four years since we moved almost next door to it, Cuba Marsh has continued to amaze me. Here I saw my first sandhill crane mating dance, all flopping wings, awkward jumps, and amorous squawks. I witnessed my first turtle laying eggs beside one of the wide gravel trails. (Bad choice, honey.) I saw my first double rainbow, arcing and re-arcing over a rolling open space that somehow screens out the signs of civilization just beyond the trees. I experienced my first restored oak savanna and my first virgin, unplowed black soil prairie.
Those last two, admittedly, didn’t penetrate my consciousness at first and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been on the trail of an elusive cuckoo. Casual visitors to Cuba Marsh receive little guidance in appreciating its wonders, aside from the maps the forest preserves will send by mail. Most folks wander the three miles of trails with their bikes, dogs, sweethearts, or binoculars, discovering on their own what the Marsh has to offer. Many see nothing beyond a pleasant place to exercise, populated with perhaps too many mosquitoes in the summer.
Closer observers may notice the squadrons of dragonflies that keep the biters at reasonable levels, or the hoards of tiny frogs that migrate across the trails at the same time each year. Birders grow weak in the knees during migration seasons, when water birds of all kinds descend on the marshes and passerines (perching birds) dot the trees. Plant lovers swoon at the variety and color of vegetation (more than 237 known plant species, many of them rare) that thrives in the Marsh’s four distinct habitats: prairie, marsh, oak woodland, and oak savanna.
To discover if cuckoos were likely residents, though, I had to dig deeper. The Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds says that cuckoos are most likely to be found in “moist thickets in low, overgrown pastures and orchards.” As it turns out, for most of its history since European settlement, the majority of the Cuba Marsh property was farmed or used for pastureland.
Two farms occupied the 780-acre site, which is comprised of the larger, gravel-trailed portion on the west side of Ela Road and a smaller prairie on the east side. Drainage tiles dried up the extensive wetlands, and most of the trees had been cleared except for a few stands of oaks at the edges of the farmland. Thus, the area must have seemed like no more than a couple of Lake County “vacant lots” when developers asked permission in the mid 1970s to build single family homes on the east side (also called the Ela Marsh addition) and condos and a light industrial park on the west side (what is now the Cuba Marsh public area).
It’s chilling to me to think what might have happened to Cuba Marsh had the Citizens for Conservation and The Nature Conservancy not stepped in at this point. I was still in college at the University of Illinois and, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of the uncontrolled urban sprawl encroaching on open space in much of our region. Sure, I sang along when Joni Mitchell scolded those who would “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” but it didn’t mean much to me then. It wasn’t my backyard, after all.
Thank heavens people like Waid Vanderpoel, former president of Citizens for Conservation, were looking out for my interests, even though they didn’t know it. Vanderpoel, a tall, retired banker who remains distinguished-looking even in overalls, met me at Cuba Marsh one day to explain what had been done on behalf of the people of Lake County. “Cuba Marsh and the Ela Marsh addition were only protected after a massive campaign by civic organizations, the Barrington Courier-Review newspaper, and the efforts of many volunteers going to meetings and speaking up,” he told me. “There’s always a fight over land use in Lake County. Developers never give up; conservationists must always be wary.”
During the fight to preserve this land, it became apparent that these properties were much more than simply “open space.” An old growth oak savanna, choked with brush, was clinging to the railroad right of way on the northwest edge of the farmland. Later, an undisturbed black-soil prairie was found at the far south edge of the Ela Marsh addition. Even the existence of these rare habitats, however, did not end the fight to develop these tracts. In the 1970s, in fact, it was not accepted wisdom that partly degraded habitats could be restored to good health. If a site was already “degraded,” the thinking in some quarters ran, what’s wrong with putting a nice, money-generating building there? Of course, such thinking still is all too common today.
The fight only ended when the Lake County Forest Preserves agreed in 1976 to acquire the 550 acres that make up the main portion of Cuba Marsh. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the drainage tiles from the property, allowing the marshes to return to their natural water levels. “The number of waterfowl just boomed after they did that,” remembers Vanderpoel.
The marshes here are known as hemi-marshes, which are normally somewhat dry during the warmest months but hold deep water between patches of tall vegetation in spring and fall. The varying level of water keeps cattails in check and allows a great diversity of wildlife and marsh plants to flourish. Along with great blue herons, now common in Lake County, endangered and threatened species like the Cooper’s hawk, northern harrier, pied-billed grebe, and black-crowned night-heron — and more than 80 other recorded species of birds — find Cuba Marsh immensely attractive now. Moreover, in the last breeding bird survey, conducted in 1997, two rare black-billed cuckoos were recorded.
Volunteers with Citizens for Conservation also planted thousands of oaks in the preserve in those early years. Those young trees were in the area where I thought I had heard the cuckoo. “Ever seen one?” I asked Vanderpoel. He hadn’t.
My efforts to understand Cuba Marsh and its cuckoo potential led me eventually to a northern Illinois conservation classic, Miracle Under the Oaks by William K. Stevens. Stevens recounts the success of groundbreaking savanna restoration efforts in this region’s forest preserves that set the stage for more widespread projects. In 1988, restoration work began on the oak savanna at Cuba Marsh, with both Citizens for Conservation and the Lake County Forest Preserves providing manpower. Clearing and herbiciding invasive, nonnative European buckthorn formed the bulk of the backbreaking work. Volunteers then seeded big-leaved aster, nodding fescue, and other native plants. Areas of invading buckthorn have been cleared twice more since then.
The tiny patch of pristine oak savanna in the northwestern portion of Cuba Marsh, west of the EJ&E railroad tracks that cross Cuba Road, was never threatened with development. Too wet and marshy to be drained by even the most zealous farmer, this section was once a Victorian pleasure garden, a hideaway of winding canals and bridges, overlooked by the landowner’s mansion. Remnants of the bridges remain, but the house was destroyed by fire years ago, leaving that section of Cuba Marsh to the enjoyment of the water birds. Those brave enough to walk down the tracks a mile or so will find two heron rookeries.
Many parts of Cuba Marsh, however, are clogged with buckthorn. Once I learned to identify it, I saw it everywhere. Forest Preserve restoration ecologist Ken Klick showed me a draft management plan that expresses great concern about buckthorn, which spreads quickly and shades out local species, as well as 21 other invasive plants that pose a threat to the natives of Cuba Marsh. Forest preserve staffers often field calls from upset residents whenever a tree is cut or a prescribed burn is completed. “Why are you destroying habitat?” the well-intentioned callers ask.
Of course, they are not destroying habitat, but restoring it to health. In my search for that elusive cuckoo, I have discovered that as lovely as Cuba Marsh is to look at and as filled with rare species as it is, it cannot be left to face the invasive species on its own. I couldn’t help thinking that just as it once needed to be saved from development, it now deserves to be rescued from neglect. I realized that, as I had followed the cuckoo into a more intimate relationship with the Marsh and its needs, I had changed as well: from a mere appreciator of nature to someone motivated to contribute to its preservation.
These days, I join other volunteers as often as I can for the workdays at Cuba Marsh, where we work up a sweat chopping invasive trees, pulling weeds, or planting seeds. And I finally did see a black-billed cuckoo disappearing into a stand of trees not far from where I’d been hearing him call all those evenings — tan back feathers, white belly, sloped-back wings, and long, elegant tail. At least I think it was a black-billed cuckoo. Could have been a yellow-billed — they’ve nested in Cuba Marsh, too. I guess I’ll just have to keep looking while I work.