Relax, it’s not what you think. I’m not having an affair. But my long term relationships with running/riding and birding do come into conflict this time of year. I’ll be out running (as I was this morning) and hear a species of warbler (or five) singing from the canopy or the understory and think, “I should be birding.”
But then I’ll be out birding and a cyclist will go whipping by on the bike path and I’ll feel guilty that I’m not out making use of a beautiful day for training.
A week ago I combined the two by running five miles in Dick Young Forest Preserve on the edge of our town. There weren’t many woodland species active that day, but the open fields and restored prairie held SIX species of sparrows; savannah, song, grasshopper, swamp, white-crowned and white-throated. Bobolinks were singing along with the two species of meadowlarks, Eastern and Western. All were calling from the recently burned fields where fresh new grasses had emerged.
I’ve been birding that area since the early 1980s. The county has expanded the property to more than 1000 acres. That makes it one of the largest contiguous tracts of preserve in the county. At its heart sits the ancient old marsh that is an Illinois Nature Preserve. Thirty years ago it was an open expanse of water. Now it is closing down in size thanks to natural succession.
That saddens me, because I feel like that marsh and I have been through quite a bit together. Not only have I seen dozens of species of birds over time, it has been my emotional refuge on many occasions as well. I hiked it back when the sliver of marsh property was the only preserve land. I shared trails with cattle on the east side, and with hunters perched in blinds on the west side. It took decades for the entire preserve to come to fruition, and when the last farm property on the east side was sold to the county and the barn was torn down, the tenant farmer who worked the land for years would sit in his car with the radio on drinking beer. It could not have been a happy divorce from the place he loved.
The transition from private property to public land has a history that goes well back in time. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was part of the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey Team that tracked bird populations in all seasons. That helped establish Illinois Nature Preserve status in alignment with the work of Dick Young, a botanist who identified dozens of species of rare plants on the site. For years before that, the marsh had hosted a peat bog mining operation and was a favored site for duck hunters, who erected blinds and nailed the heads of the species they’d shot to the walls of a small hut where the trail ended and the duck boats were launched.
The place held its magic in all seasons. I recall the presence of fringed gentians blooming just as the frost approached in fall. They grew in patches on the margins of the peat bog where the soil bounced if you jumped on it. And in winter months, I’d walk out on the frozen lake, and once heard the whispering call of a Marsh Wren, normally a summer species, calling from a clog of cold cattails.
Only in the last 15 years did the county install true bike paths that circle and transect the property. Before that, all the paths were out and back affairs. It was a true commitment to hike on out to the point overlooking the west side of the lake. There were no shortcuts. One year while birding I broke through some ice over a spring and wound up with pants frozen up to my crotch. I had to limp/run back to the car in fear of frostbite. The marsh has a way of keeping you honest.
I once noticed a coot flapping close to shore and went over to stick my hand down to see why its leg was trapped. I felt the head of a giant snapping turtle and yanked my arm away. Nature has its rhythms.
Now the lake is filling in with cattails. The drought several years back helped that process because plants invaded the lake bottom and siltation hurries up when that happens. We were all shocked how shallow the lake turned out to be. The secrets below its shining surface were left bare and exposed, with soil cracked and forlorn when the drought took away all the water. It has returned some, but the margins of the cattails have closed in even further. Within 20 years there will be no more lake. It will be another memory of open water just like the site of what was once Lily Lake 15 miles northwest. I watched that marsh fill in and complete its destiny as well as many others in the county. We try to keep these things like jewels and they wind up being buried in the dirt and vegetation.
So I go for runs around the property now with a wistful heart. It’s like watching a loved one die. The birds still appear in abundance in spring, but not like it used to be. There were days when 15-20 species of ducks would spread across the great expanse of the lake. White pelicans had even began stopping by about a decade ago, sometimes as many as 150 could be found in a single day. But the lake has gotten so shallow and the fish all died off during the drought. The pelicans showed up in small numbers and did not stay this year.
I mountain bike around the property as well. And on days when I’m not fighting the Strava wars I’ll even pedal my road bike through the heart of the restored prairIe on the smooth asphalt path the county installed. It’s a treasure to ride down and hear the kingbirds and sedge wrens chattering in the fields of big bluestem.
Perhaps it is the fate of those with more than one interest to be torn between activities such as birding and running and riding. I try to make good choices, but when the birds aren’t active I invariably find myself thinking, “I should have gone running,” or, “This would have been a good morning for a ride.”
Such is life, I know. Better to be grateful and appreciate the experiences you are having rather than regret those you cannot abide at the moment.
But there is no pretending that time has not passed in some ways. Change has come to the landscape I love, and for better or worse, not all those changes have been good. I run or ride through the marsh property and listen for the familiar sounds of birds I know and seek evidence of the rarities I hope will show.
And another May comes and goes, and the last crane out in November tells you that winter has truly arrived.
So you had better appreciate the next May day you find.
GIVE FULLY. LOVE LIFE.