CHICAGO | Rebecca Schillo sees hope in a single plant in Chicago's Hegewisch neighborhood.
"It's a good sign," the ecologist from The Field Museum said on a recent hike while bending to touch an arrowhead leaf.
Schillo is part of a team working with the Cook County Forest Preserve District to restore a 40-acre marsh in the Eggers Grove Forest Preserve near 112th Street and Avenue E.
The marsh is visible from the Chicago Skyway, which lies to the east. The Burnham Greenway bike trail is to the west and Avenue O is to the south. Sounds of semis roaring by on the Skyway compete with the buzzing and chirping of insects.
A $100,000 grant from Walmart's Acres for America program and a $56,350 grant to The Field Museum from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Sustain Our Great Lakes Program is helping the project along. Ecologists and contractors are partnering to remove invasive plant species to restore native plants and nesting habitat for native and migratory birds.
"Like with all sites in the Midwest, the property suffers from invasives, mostly non-native species that reproduce out of control or out-compete native plants for resources," Dan Spencer, resource ecologist for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County said.
The most plentiful invasive species is phragmites, specifically purple loosestrife. The plants, which resemble corn stalks, surround the marsh, with some standing as high as 10 feet. Schillo said she and other researchers at The Field Museum have studied birds at the site and concluded the influx of phragmites has changed the nesting habitat for the worse.
"This is an important stop for migrant birds and for birds to nest in the summer," Schillo said. "The number of breeding pairs has declined."
Yellow-headed blackbirds, a threatened species, used to nest at the site.
"We're not seeing them here anymore," Schillo said.
"They kind of became a poster child for the project, but they're just one of many species that we'd like to see come back," Spencer said.
Swans, green heron, American coots, and swamp sparrows all have been known to nest at the site as well as common wood ducks and mallards.
"A lot of ducks use the marsh during migration," Schillo said.
Species they would like to see return to the marsh include pied-billed grebes, coots and common moorhens.
"Common moorhens used to be common in Calumet, but now they're rare here," Schillo said.
Schillo said the restoration will involve the use of herbicides and controlled burns to remove the invasive plants from the marsh in hopes of making way for the native species to once again thrive, creating more suitable nesting habitat for birds.
"We'll monitor the response and see if it is effective," Schillo said. "We'll see if the seed bank, the native seeds, once they get light will pop back up. … That variation in habitat is what the birds are looking for."
The funding for the project expires in the fall of 2014. Herbicide applications and burns are scheduled to begin this fall and continue through two growing seasons to monitor the response of the native plants and seed banks.
Stantec Consulting, a Chicago contractor on the project, is in the middle of a study of the marsh to try to determine how the water fluctuates to be certain there are no hydrologic conditions that could hamper restoration efforts. Conservation Land Stewardship Inc., of Elmhurst, has been hired for the invasive species mitigation efforts.
Schillo and Spencer both said they are thankful for the funding from the Sustain Our Great Lakes Program and Walmart that make the project possible.
"There's really a great synergy going on at this site," Spencer said. "Some of the problems we deal with are on such a large scale and scope, without those partnerships, we couldn't really accomplish anything."