Essay: Marsh Madness

“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.”
–E.E. Cummings

By Don Miller 
Contributor 

Many eyes of March focus on the madness taking place across America on hardwood floors filled with hoop hysteria and squeaky tennis shoes. However, March marks another madness that is simultaneously occurring within the natural world all around us. It is March here in the Midwest and the spring season is (or at least was) upon us, easily matching the college basketball enthusiasm of the “Cameron Crazies,” the attitude of “The Izzone” and the shenanigans of “The Show.” Spring comes first to the marsh and other wetlands loud and clear. It takes longer daylight hours and warmer nights before spring arrives in the woodlands and prairies.

If I had to pick brackets as to my favorite sights and sounds bringing in the season in the wetlands, it would be hard to do. Would I choose out of loyalty, colors, quirky names, a peculiar mating ritual or would I just flip a coin? Would one come out victorious and be the champion or are WE all the winners IF WE get outside and enjoy the natural world before the weather really warms and tempts us to?

Even before the ice melts off the ponds and sloughs the red-winged blackbird makes it appearance. The males come back first to northern Illinois with their bright red shoulder patches, displaying and claiming their territories. The red-wing sound is that of “okalee” as the bird books describes it. The pronounced chorus of “okalee” relays throughout the marshes. Their call is the starting gun of the race for others to come to life.

If one reads Aldo Leopold’s The Sand County Almanac (which you should), his words are poetry about goose music, describing the Canada Geese returning to their northern nesting areas decades ago. Many folks have lost their romance with the geese over the years because of their numbers and so-called trouble they cause. Their arrival to the marsh is a welcome sight to me and to be a witness with your ears as 100’s of geese lift off the water is a remarkable experience. The air is filled and moved with primordial sounds.

March for many is the time for courting and mating rituals. Arriving home after a tedious migration or coming out of a long hibernation, why not? A relative newcomer to the marsh scene in our area is the return in good numbers of the Sandhill Cranes. Sandhills have been known to dance around wings flapping, bowing, jumping, much like celebrating a winning basket during their courtship! These stoic birds have an ancient call that matches their prehistoric flight. Sandhill Cranes make a rattling “kar-r-r-r- o-o-o” sound. However, that description doesn’t do the bird justice, it needs to be heard in person, as it resonates across the water and grasses of its habitat.

The strangely built woodcock puts on a show like none other. The male flies high into the twilight sky and then does his “sky dance.” The dance is somewhere in-between a flutter and a spiral as he dives toward the ground with a winnowing whistle coming from his wings. He lands and gives off a nasal “peent.” Only a face and sound that another female woodcock could love, but a dance that pulls us all in.

The wood frog’s duck-like call is the first amphibian to make it out of the frozen tundra, but the spring peepers immediately follow and to me are more of a sign that spring is here. Almost impossible to find, but a voice not to be denied is that of the spring peeper. Smaller than an inch in size, but what they lack in stature they make up in volume. Is the female really attracted to the one that can scream the loudest?

If you are a “true” Midwesterner you have on many occasions uttered the phrase, “I love the four seasons we have.” There is something I believe in all of us that responds to the vernal equinox, when the light of day finally out last the darkness. The days grow longer and events happen quicker, skunk cabbage is in full bloom, pussy willow trees have furred up, silver maple buds have exploded on the river banks, and duckweed is vibrant green. It is biological bonanza as the Earth begins to warm up.

Just as the “March Madness” comes to a finale so does the madness in the marsh. We need to pay attention because the season like life itself is a fleeting amazing time, get outside and connect to nature. (To see some of these happenings visit: Nygren Wetlands, Rock Cut State Park, Ferguson Forest Preserve, several other wetlands around the region.)

Don Miller is a nature educator and has lived his entire life in north central Illinois. He has explored by foot and canoe this area for over 55 years. He has received the distinguished “Atwood Award” and the Illinois Environmental Education Association’s “Malcolm D. Swan Award for Outstanding Service Award.”

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