Spottings of native Illinois grassland birds – and rare birds of all kinds – are on the rise at the USDA Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. In some instances, bird monitors are seeing species for the first time ever. Recent annual bird surveys point to an increases in some grassland bird species while numbers of other species are steadier here than elsewhere.

In June, hundreds of visitors trekked to the Turtle Pond area on the northeast side of Midewin where a painted bunting was seen way off of its usual southerly course. During one of the Midewin bird tours on the west side of Highway 53, volunteer bird monitor and bird-watching tour facilitator Greg Dubois, along with others, saw a rare black-billed cuckoo for the first time in his life. Later in the month, DuBois and fellow Midewin volunteer bird monitor Fritz Bartels spotted a flock of 15 wood ducks – a mother and her 14 ducklings – swimming in a line in the water.

On June 10-11 Midewin staff and volunteers conducted annual bird surveys on the Midewin  with the Illinois Audubon SocietyIllinois Department of Natural Resources; and The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.

Illinois Audubon Society Executive Director Dr. James Herkert said that numbers of dickcissels and Henslow’s sparrows have been increasing in recent years. Numbers of bobolinks and grasshopper sparrows have remained stable on the Midewin, even though their numbers have not been as steady elsewhere. He credits the bird-friendly habitats on the Midewin for why the birds are returning year after year.

“Midewin offers both a lot of habitat and a wide variety of habitat,” Herkert said. “Recent observations really point to Midewin being a very important area for grassland birds.”

Increasing desirable habitat for grassland birds is essential to the mission of the USDA Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Midewin was established by the Illinois Land Conservation Act in 1996 for four purposes, including restoring populations of native Illinois prairie grassland birds.

To make their observations, skilled bird surveyors return to the same 40-50 fields on the Midewin year after year. They count all of the birds that they see or hear. There are five or six survey teams with four or five surveyors on each team. They begin surveys at 6 a.m. and sometimes even earlier. Surveys can last all day long or for most of each day.

“It is a big operation,” Herkert said, “and a big push to get a lot done in just two or three days.”

Herkert has rarely missed a Midewin bird survey since he first participated in 1991. He has noted amazing advances since then, including that monitors can now be more precise about looking at the exact same locations every year thanks to new and improving technology such as global positioning systems.

Never before in recent years have conditions – both technological and natural – been this optimal for viewing nature of all kinds on the Midewin. Over 30 miles of non-motorized trails are open from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Trail maps are available online in Spanish and English:


Volunteer Midewin bird monitors Greg DuBois and Fritz Bartels counted 14 ducklings with this mother wood duck as she guided her flock through the USDA Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in late June. Native Illinois grassland bird sightings are on the rise on the Midewin. Photo by Fritz Bartels