Features

Birding in the Old Northwest Territory

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Love birds? So do we. Jamie Johannsen leas us on an insider’s tour of the best birding hot spots in our region. Get tips from local amateur birders about the species you can expect to find in these wild, beautiful places.

Baltimore oriole (David C. Olson photo)

Birding is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the United States, a fact underscored last fall by the release of The Big Year, a Hollywood movie centered around the activity of sighting wild birds.

The Old Northwest Territory is especially well-positioned to support this hobby, because of its premier inland birding habitats on both public and private land. Our region’s rivers, prairies, wetlands and woodlands are magnets for migrating and nesting birds. In public ownership alone, more than 17,000 acres of protected land allow easy access for birders; more than 325 species of birds have been documented here.

People are drawn to birding for many reasons. Many naturalist types, like Rockford resident Jeff Donaldson, are introduced to it by other bird buffs. Donaldson first learned bird identification as a young child watching his father sketch birds. That childhood curiosity evolved into a lifelong hobby, and he’s now a first-rate field guide.

Birding aficionado and blogger Eddie Callaway, also of Rockford, says birding is a way for him to connect with the natural world. “Birders ultimately want to see the birds,” he explains. “But we realize how important it is to observe and study everything else around us, as well. When we’re not zeroing in on birds, we occupy our time looking at insects and flowers.”

Want to hear some cool bird calls for yourself? Check out the Macaulay Library, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Onithology: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/103203

The social benefits of birding appeal to novices and veterans alike, and are among the most common incentives for participation. Photography is what first led veterinarian Steven Servantez, of Milton, Wis., to birding, but he found much more. “What started out as a desire to photograph some of the birds I saw at my home has led me to a whole new level of awareness and appreciation for these amazing creatures,” he says. “Birders are a great group of people. I’ve met dozens of people while birding. It’s great to get outdoors and enjoy the great states of Illinois and Wisconsin. We’re blessed to have such diversity and abundance of wildlife to enjoy and share with others.”

Birding is easy and enjoyable for all ages and doesn’t require expensive equipment. The most important and useful tools are your eyes and ears. Spring and fall migrations are the best times to see the widest variety of birds, but any time of year can be rewarding. Some of the most spectacular sightings occur in winter, when the trees are bare. With millions of wild birds flying through in spring and fall, our region becomes a feast of color, sound, beauty and fun. But how does one get started?

Bird bander and educator Mike Eickman strongly recommends accessing a good field guide. “Learning the birds can be overwhelming at first,” says the Harrison, Ill., resident. “If you educate yourself a little bit before you go out, so you know what local species to look for, and some of the basic ways to identify them, it will be more rewarding.”

Arriving at a correct identification is largely a process of elimination as you narrow the possibilities to solve the mystery. For example, it’s pretty easy to tell that a red-tailed hawk is not a songbird, and that eliminates nearly half of all possible species. The growing popularity of birding has resulted in a proliferation of wonderful resources, in print and online. Birding reference books range from very simple pocket field guides with basic tips on common species for a particular region, to comprehensive tomes featuring gorgeous illustrations and in-depth scientific descriptions, classifications, geographic ranges and population statistics.

Birding by ear is a valuable and widely used technique. With experience, birders learn to identify each species’ unique call or song. While visual identification requires a clear line of sight, hearing provides a 360-degree field of opportunity. Most bird identification websites include bird call recordings, and many birding CDs and downloads are available for purchase.

Beyond a field guide, the most necessary piece of equipment is a pair of binoculars. While not essential, it’s really fun to get a close-up look at an elusive bird. Detailed views allow people to note subtle features that help with identifying the birds. Knowing the best birding locations, and what birds appear during various times of the year, help to ensure a successful and enjoyable outing.

The following are among the many excellent birding locations within the Northwest Quarterly Magazine coverage area. Please note that the terms “common” and “uncommon” are general categories intended to indicate the relative abundance and frequency of the species in the locale.

Avon Bottoms, Rock County, Wis.

Owner/Manager: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR)
Description/Habitat: The Sugar River transects the 1,500-acre Avon Wildlife Area in the southwest corner of Rock County. The river travels through several thousand acres of bottomland forest. The property is owned primarily by the WDNR. Within the wildlife area are two State Natural Areas: the Swenson Wet Prairie and Avon Bottoms. In recent years, the WDNR has purchased additional farmland and added it to the wildlife area. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has enrolled 1,900 acres of land into the Wetland Reserve Program; they’re being restored to prairie wetlands.

Common Species: Yellow-billed cuckoo, whip-poor-will, barred owl

Uncommon Species: Yellow-throated warbler, yellow-crowned night-heron, blue grosbeak, loggerhead shrike, Mississippi kite, northern mockingbird, prothonotary warbler, red-shouldered hawk

Don’t Miss: Birding this area by canoe or kayak on the serene, unspoiled Sugar River.

Expert’s Tip: Quentin Yoerger, field trip coordinator for Ned Hollister Bird Club:
“The Bottoms area is known for several species of birds uncommon elsewhere in the state. Whip-poor-will can be found calling on spring evenings. Lark sparrows nest in the sandy soil common around Avon. Henslow’s sparrows have been found the past couple of years in some of the restored prairie. This winter, up to seven short-eared owls have been seen hunting over the wetland restorations at dusk. The floodplain forest hosts pileated woodpecker, acadian flycatcher, cerulean warbler, prothonotary warbler and yellow-billed cuckoo.”

Castle Rock State Park, near Oregon, Ill.

Owner/Manager: Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR)

Description/Habitat: This park is located high on a bluff overlooking the Rock River. With more than 2,000 acres, 710 dedicated as the George B. Fell Nature Preserve, this is one of the largest significant natural areas in northern Illinois. It features spectacular rock formations, deep ravines and several unique plant communities, including 27 different ferns.

Common Species: Osprey, bald eagle, Cooper’s hawk, wild turkey, barred owl, yellow-billed cuckoo, rose-breasted grosbeak, veery, ovenbird, wood thrush, Louisiana waterthrush

Uncommon Species: Black-billed cuckoo, whippoorwill, pileated woodpecker, cerulean warbler, worm-eating warbler

Don’t Miss: In a rare occurrence, St. Peter Sandstone comes to the earth’s surface here, and this weather-sculpted outcropping is the source of the park’s name. A wooden walkway allows safe access up and across the formation. It’s a magnificent view when you get to the top and look at the river far below.

Expert’s Tip: Jeff Donaldson, birder, and land advocate:
“The best birding area is the George B. Fell Nature Preserve. In 1990, state biologists documented small nesting populations of several bird species that were either rare or absent from much of the state. Seventeen species of warblers have been found here.”

Colored Sands Forest Preserve, Shirland, Ill.

Owner/Manager: Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD)

Description/Habitat: The 303-acre Colored Sands Forest Preserve is tucked away on the Sugar River in the northwest corner of Winnebago County. Known for its many birds and bird banding station at Sand Bluff Bird Observatory (SBBO), it also has unique geology and wonderful wildflowers. A dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, it contains unique river, wetland and sand prairie habitats that harbor Illinois endangered and threatened plant and animal species.

Common Species: Yellow-throated warbler, vireo, barred owl, saw whet owl, eastern bluebird, lark sparrow, house wren, mourning warbler, Savannah sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, prothonotary warbler
Uncommon Species: Henslow’s sparrow, dickcissel, pileated woodpecker, American woodcock, black-billed cuckoo

Don’t Miss: SBBO has banded more than 265,000 birds within more than 175 species. Banding takes place on weekends in spring and fall; visitors and groups are welcome to observe. The annual Bird Fest celebration is held during the second weekend of May, and features bird banding, crafts, guided hikes to the capture nets and live bird demonstrations.

Expert’s Tip: Mike Eickman, bird bander and president, SBBO:
“This is a very good place to catch the male woodcock’s aerial ballet in March. Go at dusk and listen for this amazing and unusual mating display.”

Elkhorn Creek Biodiversity Preserve, Forreston, Ill.

Owner/Manager: Northwest Illinois Audubon Society

DESCRIPTION/HABITAT: 130 bird species have been recorded at this 43-acre mix of oak savanna, stream, seep and sedge meadow that’s perched over a small series of geological faults. The preserve features outcroppings of both St. Peter Sandstone and Ordovician-age dolomite. Several small springs feed into sedge meadows, then slowly drain into a small brook, which empties into Elkhorn Creek. More than 235 species of plants and animals have been catalogued at the preserve so far.

Common Species: Eastern meadowlark, willow flycatcher, yellow-billed cuckoo, tree swallow, rose-breasted grosbeak, great blue heron, green heron, Wilson’s snipe, dickcissel

Uncommon Species: Yellow-breasted chat, sedge wren, American woodcock, orchard oriole, prothonotary warbler

Don’t Miss: The annual Elkhorn Creek Butterfly Festival, slated this year for July 30, provides a family-friendly afternoon of exploring for the many butterflies found at the preserve. Participants may join butterfly tours or search out winged beauties on their own.

Expert’s Tip: Mary Blackmore, Northwest Illinois Audubon Society:
“Get the best view of the property by taking the trail diagonal from the parking lot, going southwest to the campfire hill. You’ll be walking on a ridge, which affords a wide-open view of the lower land. Here you can see and hear the birds, and see the other trails, then decide where you want to explore.”

Galena River Trail, Galena, Ill.

Owner/Manager: River Trail by City of Galena; Buehler Preserve by Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF)

Description/Habitat: This scenic 6-mile biking and hiking nature trail is home to more than 100 plant species and abundant wildlife. It features towering bluffs and views of the Galena River. The trail has two sections. One goes southwest along the river, stopping just short of the Mississippi River backwaters, and is good for finding woodland, pasture, riparian and forest birds. The second, upper section goes north and east along the river to Buehler Preserve.

Common Species: Gray catbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, American redstart, belted kingfisher, wood duck, song sparrow, American goldfinch

Uncommon Species: Red-shouldered hawk, cerulean warbler, Bell’s vireo

Don’t Miss: Nearby Casper Bluff, another JDCF property, can be reached via Blackjack and Pilot Knob roads. In addition to fantastic, unique archaeological features, the location offers the opportunity to spot grassland and savanna birds. Red-headed woodpeckers and bobolinks are among the more interesting residents found here.

Expert’s Tip: Dr. Dan Wenny, biology instructor, Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa:
“Forest birds that can be hard to find elsewhere, such as cerulean warbler and wood thrush, can be found along the second half of the southern section of this 3.5-mile trail. At the end of the other section of trail, Buehler Preserve is good for sparrows in the fall.”

Gibbs Lake, Rock County, Wis.

Owner/Manager: Rock County Parks

Description/Habitat: As the largest natural lake in Rock County, this is good for waterfowl in spring and fall. Adjacent to its northeast side is 299-acre Gibbs Lake County Park, enclosing three-quarters of the lake’s shoreline and the north half of the shoreline of Little Gibbs Lake. This park is comprised mostly of former farm fields that are slowly reverting to woodland.

Common Species: Common loon, osprey, Virginia rail, sandhill crane

Uncommon: White-winged crossbill, black-crowned night-heron, northern saw-whet owl, long-eared owl, varied thrush, red-shouldered hawk

Expert’s Tip: Quentin Yoerger:
“Several pine plantations make excellent roosting locations for overwintering birds. The small outflow from the spring-fed lake remains open in winter, attracting birds to the water. The lake edge is a very nice location for finding migrant passerines in spring and fall.”

Hanover Bluff State Natural Area/Hanley Savanna Area, Hanover, Ill.

Owner/Manager: IDNR/Northwest Illinois Prairie Enthusiasts/JDCF/Nature Conservancy

Description/Habitat: This area is a mix of land owned and managed by four dedicated conservation groups. The specific sites include Hanover Bluff Nature Preserve, Hanley Savanna, Wapello and others. Hanover Bluff, on 450 acres, is the first dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve located in the “Driftless Area,” known for its scenic topography and rare plants. Hanover Bluff is located on a high dolomite ridge that forms a valley wall of the Mississippi River. Here, six native plant communities survive: sand hill prairie, dry dolomite prairie, dolomite cliff, dry-mesic, mesic upland forest and seep springs.

Common Species: Scarlet tanager, wood thrush, dickcissel, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker

Uncommon Species: Lark sparrow, bobolink, bald eagle, barn owl, sedge wren, grasshopper sparrow

Don’t Miss: The trail to the old quarry at the south end of Hanover Bluff affords a fantastic view of the Mississippi River.

Expert’s Tip: Dr. Dan Wenny:
“This cluster of sites offers probably the most diverse set of habitats in close proximity to one another in Jo Daviess County. Hanover Bluff is great for forest birds. Hanley is great for grassland and savanna birds. Wapello is a prairie restoration that promises to get better with age. Public use of Hanover Bluff is limited, with trails and parking available on South Hanover Hill Road. Hanley Savanna access is on South Whitton Road. Access to Wapello is on Route 84, south of Hanover.”

Lima Marsh Wildlife Area, Milton, Wis.

Owner/Manager: WDNR

Description/Habitat: These 2,048 acres consist primarily of wetlands. Lima Bog, one of the largest in south-central Wisconsin, is a 4-acre water bog lake surrounded by more than 100 acres of forest. It contains flora more typical of northern Wisconsin bogs.

Common Species: Common loon, American redstart, American bittern, bobwhite quail

Uncommon Species: Least bittern, red crossbill, red-headed woodpecker, black tern

Don’t Miss: Lima Bog is a tamarack bog, and its proximity to nearby oak woods creates an unusual combination of habitats that attracts birds that may be rare in other parts of the state.

Expert’s Tip: Dr. Steven Servantez, owner, Badger Veterinary Hospital, Janesville, Wis.:
“Great all year long, but especially in spring and summer. This area of wetlands and bog hosts waterfowl, including rails, snipes, geese, ducks and cranes. Wilson’s snipe can be heard here in the spring.”

Lib Conservation Area, Belvidere, Ill.

Owner/Manager: Boone County Conservation District

Description/Habitat: This 200-acre area, on the banks of the Kishwaukee River, supports flora and fauna typical of a northern Illinois flood plain forest. Silver maple, sycamore and willow trees dominate lowlands adjacent to the river. Hardwoods, including red and white oak and hickory trees, dominate the ridges. The area supports a healthy population of cavity-nesting songbirds.

Common Species: Sandhill crane, gray catbird, fox sparrow, eastern bluebird, hermit thrush, wood duck
Uncommon Species: Rusty blackbird, pileated woodpecker, American kestrel, osprey, blue-winged warbler

Expert’s Tip: Jeff Donaldson:
“The backwater sloughs and edge growth at Lib are good places to see edge birds such as vireos, eastern kingbird, yellow-breasted chat, woodcock and sandhill cranes. Blue-winged teal ducks and river otters breed in the backwater ponds.”

Lowden-Miller State, Forest, Oregon, Ill.

Owner/Manager: IDNR

Description/Habitat: This 2,225-acre scenic park features 120-foot bluffs along 3.5 miles of riverfront forested with hardwood and pine. An unusual and surprising breeding bird community lives here, representing a blend of northern and southern species found nowhere else in the Midwest. At least 100 species have been recorded here.

Common Species: Least flycatcher, brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglet, veery, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, vesper sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet

Uncommon: Black-throated green warbler, whip-poor-will, yellow-throated warbler

Expert’s Tip: Jeff Donaldson:
“Twenty species of warblers have been recorded here, including the black-throated green warbler, the only confirmed place in the state where this species breeds.”

Oakdale Nature Preserve, Freeport, Ill.

Owner/Manager: Freeport Park District

DESCRIPTION/HABITAT: More than 4 miles of trails wind through 133 acres of forests, streams and restored prairies, including a one-third-mile, hard-packed accessible trail. The preserve also includes two small streams and some open prairie that make for a wonderful birding experience. Gelwick Nature Center’s displays include the natural history of plants and animals in the Midwest, a few live animals and outdoor bird feeders.

Common Species: Eastern bluebird, white-breasted nuthatch, northern flicker, American goldfinch, red-winged blackbird, wild turkey, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, Tennessee warbler, great crested flycatcher, eastern kingbird, American redstart

Uncommon Species: Eastern screech owl, pileated woodpecker, yellow-bellied flycatcher

Don’t Miss: The Jane Addams Trail near Freeport gives all people easy access to a great variety of birds, animals and plants found in Stephenson County. In springtime, see sandhill cranes and migrating flocks of robins. During winter, expect to see warblers, brown creepers, wild turkeys, downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, mallards, belted kingfishers and several other species.

Expert’s Tip: Teresa Smith, president, Northwest Illinois Audubon Society:
“Oakdale Nature Preserve offers several wooded trails. The best birding areas are the riparian areas along Yellow Creek.”

Nygren Wetland Preserve, Rockton, Ill.

Owner/Manager: Natural Land Institute (NLI)

Description/Habitat: The NLI has restored this former farmland to its native state – about 100 acres of prairie, 150 acres of woodland and 450 acres of wetlands, where Raccoon Creek once again meanders in its original channel. Among the many bird and animal species that have returned are river otters, Blanding’s turtles, sandhill cranes, and most recently, rare whooping cranes.

Common Species: Great egret, great blue heron, American goldfinch, belted kingfisher, hooded merganser, blue-winged teal, ring-billed gull, eastern meadowlark, wood duck

Uncommon Species: Short-eared owl, whooping crane, snow goose, American woodcock, canvasback, bobolink, cattle egret, cackling goose

Don’t Miss: When the prairie is in full bloom in July, stroll a wide-open waving sea of grasses and flowers, spread like a tapestry across the landscape, while butterflies dance in the air.

Expert’s Tip: Dan Williams, president, NLI:
“Located about a quarter-mile west of the entrance at 3190 W. Rockton Road is the Dianne Nora Nature Trail. Visitors are welcome to hike the 2.5-mile grass footpath of moderate walking difficulty. The path is open most of the year, but may be closed during spring and fall migrations. The best place to observe birds at the preserve is at the overlook platform at the head of the trail, where there’s a small parking area.”

Rock Cut State Park, Loves Park, Ill.

Owner/Manager: IDNR

Description/Habitat: The two lakes in this 3,092-acre park make a unique destination for those who enjoy water recreation and wildlife. A variety of habitats, including hardwood forest, make Rock Cut a rewarding destination for bird watchers. Restored prairies showcase beautiful prairie grasses and flowers, and provide habitat for rare grassland birds.

Common Species: Mallard duck, red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, pied-billed grebe, Cooper’s hawk, yellow-rumped warbler, Tennessee warbler, double-crested cormorant, ruddy duck, great horned owl

Uncommon Species: Long-tailed duck, snow goose, cerulean warbler, Swainson’s hawk, black-billed cuckoo, northern parula, horned grebe, common nighthawk, canvasback, northern shrike, acadian flycatcher

Don’t Miss: The 110 varieties of wildflowers delight visitors throughout the spring and summer.

Expert’s Tip: Barbara Williams, North Central Illinois Ornithological Society:
“In windy or inclement weather, the sheltered area of the creek corridor, below the dam, can be a good place to find migrating songbirds. On a spring day, you may find Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-rumped warblers and northern parula.”

Severson Dells Forest Preserve, Rockford, Ill.

Owner/Manager: WCFPD

Description/Habitat: With 369 acres of woodland, stream and dolomite cliffs, this preserve is home to the Severson Dells Nature Center, which sponsors many educational programs and events for students and families. A two-thirds-mile accessible loop trail allows an easy jaunt for all.

Common Species: Western kingbird, yellow-bellied flycatcher, great crested flycatcher, blue-winged warbler, indigo bunting, gray catbird, eastern towhee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, barred owl, Baltimore oriole, purple finch, great horned owl

Uncommon Species: Veery, black-billed cuckoo, pileated woodpecker, yellow-bellied flycatcher, red-headed woodpecker

Don’t Miss: Amenities here include a nature center with gift shop, paved two-thirds-mile accessible loop trail, and a pond and observation deck.

Expert’s Tip: Jeff Donaldson:
“I’ve been birding in this special place since 1976, and have found nearly 200 migrating and nesting species here.”

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