By Brett McNeil
The trail is muck.
And the air is damp, the snow gone for good after so many punishing relapses.
We are finally out of the cold and into the mists of late-April, the trail wet and muddy underfoot in Miller Meadow. Nothing blooms but birds are now gathering and a song sparrow heralds busy woods from a perch about 20 feet up just off the north lot.
Ahead, a field full of Northern Flickers and Eastern Meadowlarks. Trees and reeds just lousy with the reprimands of Red-wing Blackbirds.
Working south into the preserve along a broken path paralleling the Des Plaines, the trail arcs west toward Loyola. It ends at Grove No. 5 and the grove's orange-brown gazebo. Beyond the gazebo is a partially flooded field.
A veteran classmate in Triton's spring birdwatching class introduces us to a new portmanteau: Fluddle. As in, flood puddle.
She says you can often see Teal in this particular fluddle.
And there they are: Blue-winged Teal with bright white half-moons on their marsh duck faces. Male and female pairs are nestled into the sodden grass, not swimming and not standing but rather kind of bedded down low. Compared to mallards they are slight, effete.
Working the fluddle edge nearby are some bobbing shorebirds. What are they? We spend 10 minutes consulting field guides and field marks and decide they are two different species of Yellowlegs -- Greater and Lesser. They stilt around, dabbing at the water.
No one would notice them but for looking, which is the story of Miller Meadow.
What a place.
From First Avenue, it presents as a picnic spot with a dog park. True, but very much more.
Head east into the preserve and it's a wild in miniature -- hillock, shallow ravine, interior stream and wetlands. Further in toward the Des Plaines, the meadow's contour dips and, standing just off the bike path, the surrounding urban world recedes. No hospitals or high school. No Chevy dealership. It's just riverine woods and reeds and smoke gray sky.
Yes, you can still hear dump trucks.
But we flush a half-dozen Snipe and they take flight with wings that beat in sharp triangularity, all thrown elbows. They stay low and then bank and then dive.
We follow them with our binoculars -- bulbous, needle-beaked -- and they drop quickly from the sky, disappearing into grassland cover.
What a show, five minutes from home.
Trail Conditions explores the woods, waters and trails out our back doors. Brett McNeil lives in North Riverside.