Seven weeks and counting. Who would have thought that the Illinois River would be above flood stage for so long in June and July? Normally, I make a weekly stop at a few of the birding hotspots to keep track of migration in the summer, but this year those spots have been under water for a record period. What will the river reveal when (and if) the waters recede?
Normally in Illinois, spring floods recede and expose mudflats in the backwaters of major rivers. A myriad of sandpipers and other shorebirds migrate through in July and August enjoying the exposed mudflats, and the numerous invertebrates and nematodes that hatch in the mud. These backwaters then begin to dry, and vegetation grows up in moist soil providing food for migrating waterfowl that will travel through in October and November. This year, that schedule has been thrown off kilter by the late flooding.
When migratory urges push shorebirds off their arctic breeding grounds, what will the landscape of Illinois look like? If we get a good dry spell and the river can recede, there should be ample mudflats, but these mudflats need time to aerate and develop if there is to be enough food to carry the migrating shorebirds to their wintering grounds in South America. These mudflats also need time to mature and produce moist soil vegetation before they can be ready for the waterfowl migration that happens later in the fall. The clock is ticking in the Mississippi flyway. Will the migratory birds be able to adapt to an uncertain schedule? We can only hope.
Meanwhile, as Illinois was officially the “wettest state in the nation” in June, other areas of the country are experiencing record drought. The Pacific flyway, which has it’s own migratory clock, is greeting its shorebirds with parched mudflats void of life. Forks Washington, with the Hoh Rainforest in its backyard and over 100 inches of rain per year, is experiencing its driest year on record. It’s an upside down weather pattern where costal rainforests get tinder dry at the same time a Midwest summer sees corn standing in water.
A wise man once said, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” That remark was first attributed to Charles Dudley Warner and was made popular by his good friend Mark Twain. The irony is that it was penned sometime in 1897, around the same time that the industrial revolution and use of fossil fuels was beginning to explode. Unwittingly perhaps, but as a society we were making that old chestnut of a weather quote obsolete. Climatologists point to the undisputable fact that the increased burning of fossil fuels does lead to increased CO2 in the atmosphere. Climate prediction models indicate that increasing CO2 can affect weather patterns. The extreme weather conditions we are seeing today follow the most accepted predictions of this cause-effect relationship. I’d say that we have managed to do quite a bit about the weather, very little of it positive.
If there is one thing about nature that we can have some solace in, it is that nature is adaptable. But as with all things, we shouldn’t take nature for granted. It’s up to each of us to do our part in understanding our place in the preservation of nature for future generations. A good first step is to understand the parts of this incredibly diverse planet. August is upon us, and the shorebirds will be here soon. I will be there to see how our odd weather has shaped their migration patterns. There is room for you to join in on the adventure. On Saturday, Aug. 15, Peoria Park District and Peoria Audubon will be leading a trip to experience the shorebird migration. We invite you to join us for a daylong visit to some of the most productive wetlands on the planet (which are in our own backyard). We regularly see dozens of species of shorebirds on these trips. Info can be found at Peoria Audubon’s website, http://www.peoriaaudubon.org, or by calling Forest Park Nature Center at 309-686-3360.