(This is a longer post than usual)
For the last few years, I’d heard of the Kankakee Sands as someplace where Illinois herpers would go to visit for rare reptile species, where Illinois botanists would go to see plants found nowhere else in the state, and where Chicago birders would go to see such incredible rarities as Northern Mockingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and Northern Bobwhites. That last part made me laugh a bit, because a visit to the sandlands of the Illinois River should get you all three species within a few hours in the summertime. However, I was curious about the rest, and how it would compare to the sandlands of the Illinois River that I know better…
Indeed, the Kankakee Sands were generally held up as better than my beloved Mason County sandlands… something I wanted to argue with. So, I asked several very good friends of mine to come along and visit. I had three lined up, and only one, Jesse, actually came along. This is usually how life works. We drove up to the Kankakee Sands, roughly a three hour drive from home. For comparison, it would take about the same length of time for me to drive to the Ozark foothills. Sangamon County may not have much going for it in and of itself, but it is within half a day or so of a great number of amazing natural areas- the Shawnee Hills, Driftless Area, Chicago-area preserves, the Illinois River Valley, the eastern Ozarks, Indiana Dunes, and more.
Kankakee comes from a Native American word meaning open country, specifically in reference to the second largest swamp in the U.S., the Great Kankakee Swamp. If it doesn’t sound familiar to you, that’s because it no longer exists. What is now the Kankakee Sands used to be sandy dunes surrounded by marshland, almost all of which has been drained and farmed. There was a chain of massive swamps in this part of the Midwest, and this was the largest one. To the northwest lay the Great Winnebago Swamp, to the west the backwaters along the Illinois river, to the north along Lake Michigan’s south shoreline were large interdunal wetlands, and to the east lay the Great Black Swamp- a belt of wetlands stretching, with several gaps, from Wisconsin to Ohio. While all of this may be long gone, this particular area still contains a number of original, unaltered natural areas as well as MANY restorations:
The marshes are gone, but many of the dunes remain, covered in oak savanna and sand prairies. At our first stop, we walked through several of these, noticing grassland birds such as the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) … but we were here for something else, a bright-orange flower. I kept seeing yellow flowers in the distance, a hundred feet away from the rut in the grass serving as a “trail” . However, none of them appeared to be what I was after, once I looked closer.
As I began saying “We aren’t seeing any Orange-fringed…” I spotted what I was after, directly alongside the “trail”, and in great numbers!
Orange-fringed Orchids (Platanthera ciliaris) are a State-Endangered species of orchid found only in two Illinois counties. They almost become common in parts of the the Southeast, and its presence in the Kankakee Sands is what is referred to as a disjunct population, separated by a number of miles from any other populations of these orchids.
I spent a good amount of time photographing the orchids. The “fringed” part of their name becomes quite obvious when you look at the flowers.
These flowers are exclusively pollinated by butterflies, but I didn’t see any land on a flower while we were there. To be fair, I was distracted by another type of insect, but we’ll get to that…
If you’ve noticed, I don’t give out exact locations on orchids. That’s because, in addition to their rarity, North American orchids are often taken by poachers to be sold to unscrupulous or unknowing gardeners. The reason they have to be taken out of the wild in the first place is that native orchids do not do well in gardens, and almost invariably die. Orange-fringed and other native orchids are beautiful plant that are best left in the wild, for everyone to enjoy.
There were tons of other unusual or new-to-me plants at this site, too, like the Royal Fern (Osmunda spectabilis) growing behind/left of the Orange-fringed Orchids above.
Another disjunct more common in the Southeast is this, the Colicroot (Aletris farinosa), which is in seed and bloomed a month ago. In flower, its white spikes are occasionally confused for orchids, and it often grows in the same habitats as Orange-fringed and other orchids.
Another oddity of the same habitats was this, Virginia Meadow Beauty (Rhexia virginica). This community of plants has a lot of Southeastern disjunct species, or species at least more common in the Southeast, whose habitats are far more common on the Gulf Coastal Plain than in Illinois. One of the defining features that all these plants like is acidic soil. If you’re familiar with the PH scale, these plants prefer acidic soils. Other rare plants, including some carnivorous ones, can be present in the same habitats- wet, sandy acidic soils with some peatmoss mixed in.
Of course, when you have Florida-esque plants, you also get other Florida-esque life, too, what I like to call the orchid defenders, though some call them gallinippers and worse names:
The American Giant Mosquito (Psorophora ciliata), or Shaggy-legged Gallinipper, is a mosquito the size of a quarter. That may not seem large, until you realize how big the average mosquito is, about four to six times smaller. These are, in fact, the largest mosquitoes in the entire world. Despite their size, Gallinippers are stealthier than the average mosquito, at least in my personal experience. A few dozen swarmed us, biting through our clothing and caring nothing for the fact that we had Deep Woods OFF on. (The ticks cared, though. I’ve never had zero ticks in a sand prairie before!) Gallinippers are thankfully limited by their habitat- they lay their eggs in temporarily-flooded areas. Once those areas flood, the larvae emerge and devour other mosquito larvae, as well as even small tadpoles and other small water creatures. Tied to wet areas, these giant mosquitoes left us when we went away from the orchids.
Other, nicer insects also lived here, including this grasshopper that landed on Jesse’s arm.
There was also this beautiful little red dragonfly, whose name I do not know.
We ventured along the roads for awhile and spotted a prairie, which we visited. Having found the goal species, I hadn’t planned anything for the rest of the day. This was deliberate, as planning too much sort of ruined the joy of my last big Northeast Illinois trip for me. I knew what was in the area, but unlike most trips I hadn’t come up with a list of things I wanted to see.
This pink flower is Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa), one of the little bonuses I didn’t expect up here and a relative of garden spirea. It likes wet sandy acidic soils- sensing a pattern?
Field Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) also bloomed in this field, another new plant that likes acidic sandy soils. Acidic sandy soils are almost entirely restricted to this part of Illinois, which is why many of these plants are found only here or mostly here . However, Field Milkwort ranges across the state. I’m not sure why I missed it before, but I found it this time!
We went over to Indiana, and into Willow Slough State Fish and Wildlife Area.
This frog with a tail is a very young Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), converting from tadpole to adult. In order to get better views of it and the rest of the area, which looked worthy of further exploration in rubber boots, I decided to jump to the base of a tree four feet out in the water.
I told Jesse to hold my camera while I leapt for it. I don’t say “Hold my beer” if I’m about do something dumb. I say “Hold my camera.”
But, I made it without falling into the water, and in doing so got much closer to some American White Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata) in full glorious bloom, which is, I believe, a first for me.
So too was the sight of a Bullfrog on a lilypad. I had always thought that frogs on lilypads was more of a poetical convention than the petrified truth. (I found that phrase, “the petrified truth” in a Mark Twain short story the other day, and I intend to go on using it.)
The thousands of waterlilies on this pond were too far off for good views, so we went onwards to the main lake of Willow Slough, which has even more waterlilies:
It also had a few Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri), which I did not expect, far off on buoys.
One of the more interesting bird encounters I’ve ever had occurred while we were eating our lunches by the shores of the lake. A Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) approached us, closer and closer, far closer than this normally somewhat skittish bird should ever do. To test out my theory further, I dropped a piece of my sandwich on the far side of the table, and it swooped down and took the bread crumb. No! Bad!
This is the first time I’ve ever seen or heard of a woodpecker begging for food from people. Googling it, it appears to be extremely uncommon. I hope so, because overdependance on people food is never good for wild animals. Bears for instance, are more likely to attack people if they associate people with food. I doubt that this woodpecker would attack me, but I also don’t think bread is healthy for it. Geese and ducks, when fed bread too much, develop more diseases, become obese, become more aggressive towards people and, most important of all, they poop a lot more. I doubt there’s been any study about woodpeckers being fed bread, but I’d imagine that similar problems and concerns might arise. At any rate, despite the ethical concerns, the Red-headed Woodpecker’s close approach did allow for better photos to be taken.
Next, we ventured to the Kankakee Sands Nature Conservancy preserve. This area lies in the sight of a giant former lake, Beaver Lake. In the middle is a large sand dune, Bogus Island, where, back in the days when a lake was here, counterfeiters would hide out. Nowadays it serves as a lookout spot for bison, though the herd was hiding out in the brush when we visited.
Spotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata) bloomed atop Bogus Island, with a Six-lined Racerunner lizard running into it before photos could be had. A Northern Harrier had flown past on the way here, earlier, so the wildlife was around, just not the bison. I also heard a lifer Marsh Wren, too!
Here’s a closeup of the real flowers of the Spotted Horesmint- the majority of the “flower” is actually a colored leaf! These are close relatives of Bee Balm- even if they don’t look it.
We stopped briefly by the Wet Prairie Trail, near the visitor’s center, which had a gate that was to be kept shut. I don’t know why that was, but when about a hundred American Giant Mosquitoes descended on us fifty feet down the trail, I began to theorize about its purpose much harder. I don’t know how many of my readers remember the scene from the first Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones and his hired guide, Satipo, are walking through the temple at the beginning of the film. Indy knocks off a couple of spiders, and then his guide turns around:
I’m Indy, and Jesse is Satipo, in this scene. I’ve never seen so many mosquitoes on someone’s back before. We literally ran back to the gate, stopping only to photograph the female Dickcissel in the photo above the video. The gate, I feel, is to keep the mosquitoes IN, as none of them went past it, despite their ability to literally fly over the top.
We then went off to our last stop, Conrad Station Savanna, an oak savanna growing over the ruins of an old town. The trail stared out beautifully marked, running through open savanna. The only problem was that some sort of gnat kept making a determined effort to fly into Jesse’s eyes, though they left me alone. We wandered out to the far side of the savanna…
… where we scared up some young Ring-necked Pheasants and found a few blooming Prairie Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.). Then the trail rapidly narrowed. It was still marked, but thorny briars had crept across the trail and made it rough going through certain bits. And Jesse’s eye-flies never let up, which really annoyed him.
Still, there were a few good finds, including this lingering Leadplant (Amorpha canescens). However, we were greatly disappointed when we came to the ruins of the town:
A single wall remained unobscured by the foliage- the rest was hidden or gone! We stopped to look at it and beat away a few mosquitoes and “eye-flies”, before crashing through to the parking lot. The drive back through the hundreds of acres of prairies, and a stop at a local diner in St. Anne for burgers and ice cream, renewed our spirits for the journey home, where we discussed everything from the new Doctor Who to whether Jesus was ever married, to what the ultimate purpose of humanity should be. (My answers were, in order, I don’t care, possibly yes… actually no, and very inconclusive.) It was a great conversation, but you had to be there.
As for the Kankakee Sands, I’ve decided it’s one of the great natural areas of Illinois, especially for plants. I definitely think interesting birds are unquestionably easier to find in the Illinois River, but a Northern Harrier in the summer is always a good find, and so is a lifer like the Marsh Wren. The jury’s out on reptiles- I can’t find them anywhere, so one spot’s as good as another. Overall, despite a few giant mosquitoes, I can’t wait to return and find more here!