As summer winds down, big seasonal changes are taking place at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Squirrels and muskrats are stocking up on winter food, trees are dropping their leaves to save energy for the cold weather ahead, and many of the Wetlands Initiative’s summer Midewin staff are headed back to school or on to new opportunities.
In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, TWI is currently working to restore 1,200 acres of Midewin’s roughly 20,000 total acres as part of a massive seven-year project—the largest amount of land we’ve tackled at Midewin to date. This is a big task for on-site Project Manager Trevor Edmonson and his second-in-command, Jim Conboy. At the height of the summer growing season, Trevor and Jim rely on a crew of short-term employees to help them meet our restoration goals. The peak size of the 2018 crew was 10 people, TWI’s biggest yet.
This three-month stint as TWI’s boots on the ground is something of a crash course in applied ecology. Since many crew members are college students, or looking for a long-term career in the environmental field, the experience is invaluable. While their time in the field may be fleeting, they have plenty of memories to share of a summer well-spent.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about plants and adding to my knowledge,” reports Sarah Lindstrom-Chapman, who joined the crew in May. “A couple months ago I had no idea the majority of the plants growing along the ditches were invasive, but now I know what they are and how to treat them,” notes Emily Parker, a student at Olivet Nazarene University in nearby Bourbonnais. Parker is one of three crew members who are headed back to school this September.
There’s plenty of grunt work to be done around Midewin, such as pulling invasive plants like sweet clover, learning how to use brush cutters and chainsaws, and planting thousands of native plant seedlings. But seasonal crew members also get a uniquely detailed look at this unprecedented federally-owned conservation site—the largest prairie restoration east of the Mississippi River—and they experience the prairies, wetlands, and savannas that characterize the landscape in a whole new way.
Amazing nature sightings are a daily occurrence. Parker recalls a memorable ride in TWI’s all-terrain “gator” when a coyote accompanied the crew back to their storage container: “I had never seen one so close before that wasn’t roadkill!” Full-time Midewin Restoration Technician Jim Conboy spotted a Great Horned Owl in a tree in broad daylight; Geoffrey Hills, who will stay on the crew through the fall, helped out with a Midewin bird survey and glimpsed a state-endangered Loggerhead Shrike. Other crew members recount run-ins with snapping turtles, snakes, and more.
When they aren’t at Midewin, crew members travel the state to visit and help out at TWI’s other far-flung projects. When TWI collaborated with Audubon Great Lakes and the Illinois Soybean Association on a big volunteer workday at Indian Ridge Marsh in Chicago’s Calumet region this June, the Midewin summer crew was there to help. Whether doling out flats of seedlings to volunteers or picking up trash, the Midewin crew kept busy. “It was great seeing so many people excited to help restore a site,” says Don Gross, who joined the crew this past fall and plans to stay on through fall 2018.
This year, the Midewin crew also had the chance to help out with TWI’s August BioBlitz at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. Crew members helped out at “base camp” and tagged along on surveys of ants, fungi, birds, and bats. “It was an awesome experience and a change of pace compared to the normal workday,” reported Hills. The spirit of collaboration that defined the Blitz particularly appealed to him: “It was great meeting experts in the different fields of environmental science.” Rachel Rohde, another longer-term crew member, participated in the bat survey. “It was interesting and exciting to see how the researchers trap and measure the bats before releasing them.”
No matter how interesting and varied the work is, Midewin crew members have a tough job – facing unpredictable weather, big physical challenges, and seemingly a new invasive species every day. Nonetheless, the job can be a lot of fun. Matt Taber, moving on to another opportunity this fall, says his most memorable moments from this summer are all about the crew. “The crew made a fun and interesting job even better,” he says, “with a lot of laughter.”