where the writers are
Of cranes and pelicans
White Pelicans: Painting by Christopher Cudworth

Four miles from my home sits a perfect depression in the earth that was laid there by a glacier 10,000 years ago. The ice compressed the earth and when it melted, left a serious lake that at one point reputedly stretched six miles to the southwest. All that's left is a 20 acre "lake" surrounded by cattails. It used to be the property of a hunting lodge. Then a peat mining operation took over and dug up thick mats of peat, leaving long, shallow trenches that filled with water.

A group of environmentally conscious volunteers recognized the value of the peat bog, the lake and surrounding savanna woods. It took them years and millions of dollars but now the county owns all the property, the center of which is an Illinois Nature Preserve. Which is parlance for "this is the part of the environment we fucked up the least." See, Illinois is completely raked over when it comes to the landscape. Less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the original native prairie now remains. If that was your body we were talking about, we've basically preserved the glint in your eye. 

But we take what we can get. And if the glint in your eye is all the love we can manage, sister, we'll take it. Love you, Illinois.

So the birds flock to this nature park, which is named Dick Young Forest Preserve (formerly Nelson Lake Marsh) in honor of the botanist who did so much work to chronicle the plants and justify its protection. I did my small part by counting birds four seasons of the year with an ad hoc crew with the self-designated title of Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey Team. One member was a biology teacher at the high school. Another worked as a scientist at the Max McGraw Wildlife Center, a privately funded operation that released pen-raised pheasants into the wild so hunters could shoot them. I was a college student and there were one or two others that made up our team. We were very dedicated, had territories within the property and diligently recorded the common and rare birds that showed up.

All these memories and history flood back to me when spring comes to Dick Young Forest Preserve. I think of how many years I've been coming out to this marsh. How I've matured, for better or worse. How many springs? Exactly 30 it turns out. 30 fresh seasons of red-winged blackbirds returning in early March. And nowadays, sandhill cranes too. They were quite rare in our area 30 years ago. Then a pair settled in to breed and kept at it for years to come. Then another pair. And another. Now there are thousands of cranes that stop and go in northern Illinois.

But it is the pelicans that have really gotten the attention of birders and curiosity seekers at Dick Young Forest Preserve. Starting six years ago with a flock of perhaps 20 birds, American white pelicans began a 2 week stopover at the marsh before heading to North Dakota or beyond to breed. Each year the numbers of white pelicans visiting Dick Young Forest Preserve has increased until it became a whole pelican celebration. Masses of them gather along the shores like snow drifts. From a distance you see their white shapes surrounding the lake. They look like foam or salt around a margarita class. Pelicans upon pelicans.

Novice and expert birders alike flock to the marsh the first two weeks of April. Some photographers last year crept into the muck to get within 50 feet of the birds, the better to gather great images of the colorful birds whose bills turn bright yellow, red and black in early spring. Their bills have pouches, as you know. But they fish less than preen, so the real sport is staring at the pelicans through spotting scopes while they flip their bills around to keep their powdery white feathers in good order. 

They are massive birds, pelicans. Wing spans of seven feet. They are graceful fliers, however. Not heavy at all in the air. Flick of the wing and a quick turn. Real animal athletes.

They congregate and eat fish from our lake, which is full of junk fish anyway. Then they lift their wings in mid-April and leave, just in time for the warblers to arrive. It all has this rhythm, spring, when you are a birder.

A few years ago one lone pelican stayed behind. He or she looked sick, with weakened posture and sodden demeanor. The bird likely crept off to die in some quiet corner of the marsh. Many birds die in migration. Spring is death as well as renewal. The strain of going places bears with it the risk that you will not make it. That makes the going all the more significant.