Liberty Prairie, Almond Marsh, Oak Openings

Liberty Prairie Reserve is exceptional for many reasons. It’s a big, public-private vision to protect nearly 5,800 acres of land in the heart of Lake County, Illinois, as open space. To date, nearly 60% has been protected by donation, acquisition or easement. The reserve also harbors three dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves. Today, I visited all three.

Fittingly, Liberty Prairie Reserve is anchored by Liberty Prairie Nature Preserve. There are no developed trails in this particular Nature Preserve, although a regional bike trail does run alongside at least a part of it.

George Fell argued strenuously against trails in dedicated Nature Preserves. he had a point that because so little natural land remained in the Prairie State, he was unwilling to give up a single square inch more. In the case of Liberty Prairie Reserve, the case for limited public access and no added infrastructure is particularly apt because it is among the rarest of the rare: it was never plowed and only lightly grazed, leaving intact the soils, the topography, the diversity of habitat types — including graminoid fen, sedge meadow and marsh — and a rich mix of more than 150 species of plants, and some rare fauna, as well.

So, too, am I OK with the fact that the main entrance to Almond Marsh Nature Preserve is closed to the public today. In order to minimize disturbance to the adjacent rookery, the parking area is open only Saturday mornings April through July. A small price to pay to maintain a healthy colony of herons. (Anyway, I’ve been to Almond Marsh many times and yesterday — through my camera lens –I got a close up peek at some of the fledgling herons during the regular open visitation hours.)

 

In the adjacent Oak Openings Nature Preserve, there is a narrow footpath spur into Almond Marsh. But the mosquitoes along the heavily wooded path got the better of me and so I remained on the main trail that runs through wide open space of Oak Openings.

Yes, the trail through the preserve. I empathize with George Fell not wanting wide trails through Nature Preserves, but I have to admit they are kind of nice. The crushed gravel trail through Oak Openings is busy with lots of Sunday morning bikers and joggers. But there is plenty of room for all to enjoy this exceptional landscape, inclusive of prairie, wetlands, woodlands and savanna.

 

The original Illinois land surveyors back in the early- to mid-1800s tended to use the terms “savanna,” “openings,” and “barrens” interchangeably. Today, there are technical differences, but common among them is a combination of prairie understory and open canopy woods, typically oaks.

 

There is a lot of restoration underway at this site , including a major effort to reclaim monoculture corn and soybean fields for richly diverse communities of native plants and animals. Some of this reclamation/restoration work is occurring on land previously owned by the Donnelley family.

I’m incredibly fortunate to work for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. (As a reminder, this blog reflects my personal views and not those of the foundation) Its founders, Gay and Dot, were instrumental in the establishment of Liberty Prairie Reserve, an ethic they passed on to their children. The Donnelleys helped protect some of the first lands within Liberty Prairie Reserve. Now those lands are being restored to their native habitats by Conserve Lake County and Libertyville Township Open Space District, and have been formally dedicated as buffer lands to two of the three Liberty Prairie Nature Preserves.

As memorialized on the Conserve Lake County website, Strachan Donnelley, founder of the Center for Humans and Nature, had this to say about protecting our natural lands:

“How practically can human communities and individuals fit and live well within nature? We can work unflaggingly to promote effective cultures of conservation and help to spread their influence to an ever widening circle of communities regional, national, and global. Is there really any other moral and civic alternative?”

Old Plank Road Prairie, Dewey Helmick and Hickory Creek Barrens

Susan and I recently enjoyed an Illinois Nature Preserve-alooza while getting a good workout. Pedaling our bikes along the Old Plank Road Trail, we cruised through Old Plank Road Prairie and Dewey Helmick Nature Preserves. The third site was the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. A few weeks later, we returned to the trail and took the spur to Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

The Old Plank Road Trail derives its name from the plank road that was authorized in 1849 but never built. In 1855, the right of way became the corridor through which ran the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad, leased to the Michigan Central Railroad. The line ran both freight and rail for nearly a century, but was abandoned in the early 1970s.

It took more than 20 years to acquire the right of way, raise funds and overcome certain local opposition, but in 1997 the first segment of the Old Plank Road Trail was opened to the public. At the ribbon cutting in 1997, Dewey Helmick, a former village trustee for Park Forest, remarked, “We salute all those people who love to walk, run, ride and skate and admire nature in safety and serenity.”

That same year, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission named one of the two new nature preserves in his honor. Dewey Helmick Nature Preserve and Old Plank Road Nature Preserve are prototypical railroad prairies. They survived because they remained relatively untouched since the rails were laid more than a century and a half ago — aside from periodic fires set by sparks from passing trains. But that was a good thing, since prairies are dependent upon fire to keep their soils healthy and to keep invasive trees and shrubs from encroaching.

Directly across from Dewey Helmick lies the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. At 83+ acres, it is more than six times the size of the two nature preserves combined, and is popular for the many cormorants and herons that populate its small island. Land and Water Reserves afford a sort of second tier level of protection by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

 

The Old Plank Road Trail runs for 22 miles from Chicago Heights to Joliet. A little west of Frankfort, a short spur leads to Hickory Creek Reserve. At more than 2,000 acres, it is the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s largest preserve. More than a quarter of it — 575 acres — was dedicated in 1998 as the Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

Like the plank road that was never built, neither was a planned regional stormwater reservoir along Hickory Creek. Instead, the accidental openspace, if you will, allowed for the eventual permanent preservation of an exceptional kind of natural area community — a barrens.

Early Illinois land surveys, conducted largely between 1804 and 1843, were not consistent in their terminology. Different surveyors in different parts of the state used “barrens,” “openings” and “savannas” interchangeably. But a modern understanding of  barrens is that it is a specific type of dry forest with open canopies, with understories of grasses and other prairie plants.

Biking through the preserve is fun both for the beauty of the recovering landscape, as well as for the steep up and down hills.

Among the joys of biking the entire Old Plank Road Trail is its rich mix of woodlands, prairies, dedicated nature preserves and well tended backyard gardens. Next time you’re on the trail, make sure to stop by Frankfort Prairie Park, as well. It’s an outstanding example of green infrastructure, using a complex of wetland and prairie — filled with native grasses and flowers — to help store and filter stormwater, and also provide a beautiful place to take a walk, catch a fish and watch some butterflies. Leaps and bounds better than a conventional detention basin for the adjacent residential community. Kudos Village of Frankfort.

Truitt Hoff

Photo courtesy of Sandy Kaczmarski, The Conservation Foundation

There are two things I love most about having written Force of Nature. The first is traveling around the state sharing George Fell’s story with a broader audience. The second is using these trips to explore more of the nature preserves that George helped to protect.

Today, I was invited to speak at the annual luncheon for The Conservation Foundation. There were about 100 people in attendance at Arrowhead Golf Club in Wheaton, DuPage County. Per usual, only a small handful of them had heard of George Fell. After the talk, a lot of folks bought books to learn more about him — George was as complex and fascinating a man as he was a hugely accomplished conservationist.

After the luncheon, I changed into my hiking gear and set out to explore a few nature preserves. There are eight dedicated nature preserves owned and managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. I decided to visit three of them, beginning with Truitt Hoff, located in West Chicago Prairie — #18 on my way to visiting 50 nature preserves this year.

A terrific online history of Truitt Hoff (would that every nature preserve had such a thing) confirmed what a long-time steward had told me at the annual luncheon. Namely, that Truitt Hoff was one of those forgotten places — former farmland turned to stockyards and eventually sold for development, when former West Chicago mayor Richard Truitt “discovered” the prairie remnant and shared the news with Ray Schulenberg, one of the early pioneers of prairie restoration.

The online history also tells how the other man for whom the site is partly named — Mel Hoff — was appointed the Volunteer Steward in 1982 and formed the West Chicago Prairie Stewardship Group. It took 24 years of sweat equity to remove invasive species, abandoned cars and all kinds of other debris. But eventually, the diverse site — containing freshwater marsh, mesic silt loam savanna, and at least three different kinds of prairie communities — returned to health and was designated as the Truitt Hoff Nature Preserve in 2006.

The work of stewarding our natural areas is never done. The West Chicago Stewardship Group remains active. It is guided by a detailed management plan developed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, in accordance with the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, which requires such plans for all dedicated Nature Preserves.

At the trailhead, the stewardship group had posted its most recent newsletter, that helped me better see and understand the site. Out in the field, I found brush piles, evidence of the clearing reported in the newsletter. I also encountered lusher grasses yet fewer wildflowers than anticipated, which the newsletter chalked up to a wet spring.

The grasses were so dense and lush, in fact, that they all but obscured the narrow footpaths, which reminded me of a question raised at the annual luncheon — about public access to nature preserves. I acknowledged that George Fell was more of a nature-for-nature’s-sake kind of guy. Whereas most of his Illinois Nature Preserves Commissioners preferred wider, more inviting trails to encourage people to explore nature, George was adamant that trails be kept to a minimum, and that visitors should walk single file, like the “Indians” used to do.

George would have been much pleased by the trails at Truitt Hoff. They afforded a particularly up close and personal experience of the prairie. (Along with a few ticks and chiggers.) There may have been fewer wildflowers than usual, and most of the birds appeared to have taken a siesta to avoid the mid-day sun, but the preserve was teeming with all different kinds of dragonflies.

Eastern pondhawk (female), Erythemis simplicicollis

Thanks, George Fell. And Mayor Truitt and Mel Hoff. And all those who continue to steward this exceptional site, which “is different from other DuPage County forest preserves in that it contains no large picnic areas or fishing lakes. Instead, it offers visitors the unique opportunity to enjoy a tranquil walk through one of the state’s rarest — and richest — prairie ecosystems.

Widow skimmer (female), Libellula luctuosa
Common whitetail (male), Plathemis lydia
White-faced pondhawk (female) Sympetrum obtrusum
Twelve-spotted skimmer (female), Libellula pulchella

Churchill Prairie

Following The Conservation Foundation annual luncheon, I headed out to visit three Nature Preserves in DuPage County. My first stop was Truitt Hoff, located in West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve. My second stop was Churchill Prairie, a part of Churchill Woods Forest Preserve.

One of the questions asked at the annual luncheon was what is the difference between forest preserves and dedicated Nature Preserves? The nation’s first county forest preserve district was formed in Illinois. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County was established in 1914. Several other northeastern Illinois counties followed suit, including DuPage County, which established its forest preserve district in 1915.

Our region’s forest preserve districts contain many exquisite natural area gems — areas of exceptional beauty and biodiversity. However, early in his career, George Fell observed that there was nothing in the enabling legislation that prohibited county forest preserves — or state parks, park districts, etc. — from developing even the most sensitive ecological areas for recreational or other purposes.

The restored marsh at Churchill Prairie Nature Preserve

This sparked George’s life long crusade to permanently protect our highest value natural areas, on private lands as well as within publicly-owned lands. In fact, among the first nature preserves dedicated following the passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act in 1963, were 11 within the Forest Preserve District of Cook County — the finest gems, if you will, within the county’s emerald necklace of greenspace.

Churchill Prairie was dedicated as a Nature Preserve in 1993, the year before George Fell passed away at the age of 77. His legacy lives on, however, in the beauty of this and now more than 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves.

The 65-acre Churchill Prairie Nature Preserve actually consists of a “complex patchwork” of different kinds of natural area community types, including a couple  different kinds of prairie, sedge meadow, mesic upland forest, dry mesic upland forest and savanna.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has been conducting some extensive restoration of the site, and it shows. The savanna — known as Babcock Grove — has been cleared of invasive brush, which restores its transitional state between prairie and forest. Ecologically speaking, this is an ecotone — where two natural communities meet and support a particularly rich array of plants and animals.

Earlier in the day, at Truitt Hoff, I was blown away by the diversity of dragonflies patrolling the site. At Churchill Prairie, it was all about birds. Adult bluebirds and Baltimore orioles — flashing blue and bright orange against the green canopy of the savanna — were far too busy gathering insects to feed their nestlings for me to get a good picture. But a downy woodpecker was a little more cooperative.

If there is one thing George Fell may not have appreciated about the site, it is the wide, crushed stone path. As mentioned in the blog post about Truitt Hoff, George preferred “Indian trails,” as he called them — narrow footpaths that maximized the amount of nature. Most Illinois Nature Preserves Commissioners — in George’s day and today — prefer trails that invite the public to enjoy the best remaining natural areas in the state. Sorry, George, but the Regional Trail that runs through Churchill Prairie does just that.  I could have walked it back and forth for hours, but I had one more Nature Preserve to visit…on to Belmont Prairie.

The inviting Regional Trail through Churchill Prairie. But no dogs, bikes or cross country skies, please. Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves are among the very few places where plants and animals can exist without such additional human pressures.

Belmont Prairie

I had a great time talking to supporters of The Conservation Foundation at its annual luncheon. While out in DuPage County, I added three Illinois Nature Preserves to my list — #s 18, 19 and 20 on my way to the goal of visiting 50 this year. My way of celebrating the publication of Force of Nature.

Belmont Prairie is the smallest of the three preserves I visited today. It also may be my new favorite. Truitt Hoff clocks in at 290 acres, Churchill Prairie at 65 acres. Belmont Prairie totals only 10, with an additional 15 acres as buffer.

In 1820, there were approximately 22 million acres of prairie in Illinois. In 1978, George Fell and others completed the first statewide survey of how much natural land remained in Illinois. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory revealed that there were  only 2,352 acres of prairie left, scattered in small parcels throughout the state.

Like several of the Nature Preserves I’ve visited thus far, Belmont Prairie survived by accident, or because someone hadn’t yet gotten around to developing it before it was “discovered.”

The land that includes Belmont Prairie was first bought from the US Government in 1842. By 1890, about half of it was developed as a golf course. By 1920, homes were built.  In 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree collected a rare prairie flower on the site and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum. The Nature Conservancy — of which George Fell was the driving force in its founding — acquired the site. According to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the site was dedicated as an official Nature Preserve in 199. The current owner of the site, the Downers Grove Park District, lists the dedication year as 1994. Either way, along with 400+ other Nature Preserves, it now enjoys the highest level of protection possible.

(Quick side note: it was also an amateur nature enthusiast who collected a rare prairie plant at Truitt Hoff and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, which set the wheels in motion to have both sites dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. The system works.)

Belmont Prairie may be small, but it affords one of the richest displays of wildflowers — with grace notes of dragonflies, butterflies, bees and birdsong — that I have seen anywhere.  To whet your appetite, below is just a small sampling of what I discovered. Enjoy. And then visit. You’ll be glad you did.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa L.
Halloween pennant, Celithemis eponina
Scurfy pea (how can you not just love saying “scurfy pea”), Psoralidium tenuiflorum
Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, with bumble bee
The distinct leaves of compass plant, Silphium laciniatum — soon this plant will send a tall stalk high into the air, filled with bright yellow, sun-like flowers

Edward L Ryerson Woods

I know. I shouldn’t have a favorite. Out of 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, how can I choose one above the others? It would be like choosing which child I loved best. But today, I’m choosing. Today it’s Edward L Ryerson, #15 toward the goal of visiting 50 Illinois Nature Preserves in 2017.

What initially lured Susan and me to make the trip up to Ryerson Woods was the art. The Brushwood Center was hosting an exhibition of photographs by Carol Freeman. Entitled Endangered Beauty, the exhibition featured a sampling of Carol’s quest to photograph all 483 endangered species in Illinois.

Yep. You read that right. 483. There are a lot of plants and animals on that list. Small wonder since 75% of the Prairie State is a corn or soybean field. Carol’s photographs remind us, however, how richly diverse and exquisitely beautiful our native flora and fauna are.

I imagine that what fuels Carol to capture all these many species on film is much the same as drove George Fell to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. George, too, was motivated by beauty and biodiversity to protect every last scrap of prairie, wetland, woodland, bog, fen and every other kind of natural area remaining in the state before they were plowed up or paved over.

Today, Illinois Nature Preserves harbor a third of all threatened and endangered plant species, and nearly half of all mammal species. Fifty different kinds of plants and animals exist nowhere else in Illinois except in dedicated nature preserves. In fact, some entire habitat types — such as globally rare algific talus slope — remain only as dedicated nature preserves.

Inspired by Carol’s photographs, Susan and I venture into the woods.

White trout lily (Erythronium albidum)

Wow.

Woodland wildflowers. Everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

Unfortunately, many of our region’s woodlands are orverrun with invasive tree and shrubs. Here and there, you might find a small patch of spring beauties or a pocket of Virginia bluebells.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

But Edward L Ryerson well deserves its Illinois Nature Preserves dedication by virtue of being a prime example of a wet floodplain forest along the DesPlaines River, as well as for how exceptionally well-stewarded it is. Fire scars on tree stumps are evidence of controlled burns, which help keep the forest clear of invasives, allowing woodland wildflowers — aptly known as spring ephemerals for their fleeting appearance — to thrive.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

To stroll for hours through such beauty. What a gift. Thanks George Fell, for establishing the Illinois Nature Preserves System. Thanks Edward L. Ryerson for  buying the land from “the grandson-in-law of the first permanent settler in Lake County…and I would like it to remain the way it was when the Indians lived there before he came in 1834,” and for sparking the establishment of the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which now owns and manages the site. And to all those who have had a hand in the protection and stewardship of this historic, cultural and biological gem.

Cowles Bog

Cowles Bog is not an Illinois Nature Preserve. Neither was The Nature Conservancy involved in its protection. Nonetheless, this National Natural Landmark provides a direct connection to George Fell.

Cowles Bog is a 205-acre area within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Historically, it was part of a much larger wetland complex known as the Great Marsh, which in turn was part of an even larger complex of dune and swale habitat unique to the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Like the rest of the Great Marsh, Cowles Bog is more accurately described as a wetland complex, comprised of conifer swamp, wet prairie, fen, sedge meadow, marsh, and, yes, bog. This morning, it is ablaze with marsh marigolds, accompanied by the clarion call of sandhill cranes, among the oldest bird species on earth.

Cowles Bog apparently derived its name courtesy of a student of Henry Chandler Cowles. Famous for his field trip excursions, Cowles taught at the University of Chicago for more than 35 years. A pioneer in advancing the field of ecology as an accepted discipline within the natural sciences, he was particularly enamored of the Indiana dunes, a living laboratory for discerning how ecological communities change and evolve over time.

Among Cowles’ students was Victor Ernest Shelford, who, under Cowles’ influence, evolved from a classical zoologist into an animal ecologist. Rather than studying animals independent of their environments, he significantly advanced the understanding of plants and animals being dynamically and inextricably linked as a single community (or biome, to use the technical term.)

Shelford, who spent his entire teaching career at the University of Illinois, stood out from his peers for being activist-minded. Unlike most academics of his time, he was adamant about using scientific knowledge to actually protect natural lands. Accordingly, he founded the Ecological Society of America to do just that. But when his fellow academics grew uneasy with Shelford’s activist agenda, he used his own money to start up a splinter group, the Ecologists’ Union.

George Fell took only one course under Shelford, and apparently didn’t like his professor much. At least at first. Years later, Fell would be elected to the board of the Ecologists’ Union and become the driving force in transforming it into The Nature Conservancy.

The start-up years of TNC were — to put it politely —  dynamic. Big, competing ideas among super smart, exceptionally strong-willed individuals. (Shameless plug alert: I chronicle the necessary sausage making in detail in Force of Nature.)

But when I stroll through Cowles Bog, I think not of the many battles George fought in starting up TNC, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and, in sum, the entire Natural Areas Movement. Rather, I marvel just how interconnected everything is. The many people — yesterday, today and tomorrow — who protect such places as Cowles Bog. And the many different kinds of plants and animals that make such places such as Cowles Bog one of sheer beauty, awe and inspiration.

 

Wolf Road Prairie

Illinois Nature Preserve #15, baby. Well on my way toward the goal of 50 for the year.

At this time of year, a tallgrass prairie may appear a little less than inviting. I imagine that most folks speeding along Wolf Road in suburban Westchester perceive nothing but what appears to be a big patch of weeds waiting to be turned into a housing development, a business park, a commercial strip mall.

Perhaps some might notice the handsome, historic farm house at the north end of the site. For those curious enough to stop to check it out, what they’ll discover that is that the farmhouse is considered to be the oldest remaining structure in Westchester. Moved to its current location in 1980, it was built in the 1850s, when the Prairie State was being transformed to the Corn and Soy Bean State.

Beyond the house, visitors will discover that what looks like dead weeds in early April will soon burst forth into a lush tapestry of tallgrass prairie, with over 360 plant species. At 80 acres, it is one of the largest unplowed prairie remnants remaining in the entire Chicago region, and the best quality black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Oh, and they’ll discover one other thing, too: thanks to George Fell it will never be developed for anything other than what it is by virtue of most of it being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Admittedly a little drab in advance of the official start of spring, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve nonetheless affords wonders for those who know were and when to look.

Through the husks of last year’s towering flower stalks, one will notice a burned area — evidence of the recent controlled use of fire, emulating one of the prime natural forces that historically helped keep the prairie environment free of trees and shrubs, and which today keeps it free of invasive plants both native and non-native.

In the midst of the burned area is a small seasonal wetland — a magnet for the red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teals and great blue herons that we saw today. The wetland is an attractive nesting site for Canada geese, as well. Already, this expectant mother is perched upon her nest as regally as any queen.

But why Susan and I have come to this place, this day, at this time, is to see the skydances of American woodcocks. Save the Prairie Society hosts woodcock viewing events two weekends each year. It’s a friendly affair, with folks arriving around 7 p.m. They gather on the porch of the farmhouse, munching on homemade treats and sipping hot cider to take the edge off the early evening chill.

Those who have seen woodcocks before help the first-timers know what to look for. Someone takes out their cell phone and calls up a youtube video of a peenting woodcock to help attune new ears what to listen for, before the birds — the males, that is, the females, like us, are there to watch — launch themselves skyward with a fluty, flittering sound. Up and up they go, until, having impressed prospective mates, they tumble back to earth with a softer, plaintive tune.

At 7:25, the official time of sunset this day, all chatter stops. Eyes and ears are fixed on the surrounding area. At 7:40, we hear the first peent. And then another. And another. There are clearly several male woodcocks warming up.

A few minutes later, someone hears the fluty-flitter. All eyes search the darkening sky. No one sees a thing.

Another fluty-flitter. Someone points. There! Sure enough, there it is, indeed. A small, dark dot, rising higher, higher, higher, until out of sight.

More fluty-flitters. But they’re hard to see due to the fading light. Our leader saw four. I saw three. Everyone saw at least one.

Perhaps for many, perhaps for most, hanging out on a chill evening for the chance to listen for faint bird calls over the roar of traffic, to spy a tiny dot in the gloaming might not be at the top of their list of things to do. But for the dozen of us gathered, we are in seventh heaven. For a few moments, we are witnesses to an ancient rite. Eons in its evolution to ensure the perpetuation of a species. Strange and wonderful in the joy it affords those of us who take the time to notice.

And because of a guy named George Fell who fought to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves system, the skydances of woodcocks may continue at Wolf Road Prairie for eons to come. And we may enjoy the many species that rely upon Wolf Road Prairie — and the 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves scattered throughout the state — for generations to come.

Upper Embarras Woods

Spring beauties are for everyone to enjoy: they occur in every county in Illinois

This past week, Susan and I didn’t find any pasque flowers at Harlem Hills Nature Preserve. Eager to get a jump on spring, we took advantage of our downstate trip to seek out some woodland ephemerals. We were not disappointed.  The forest floor of Upper Embarras Woods — our 14th dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve of the year — is carpeted with spring beauties.

There is but one dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Douglas County and it is a gem. The Upper Embarras (pronounced em-bragh) Woods is a 65-acre inholding within Walnut Point State Park. It lies immediately adjacent to a stretch of the Embarras River, itself designated by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory as a biologically significant stream for its outstanding diversity of habitat features, including gravel bars, gravel-sand raceways, sandbars, riffles, and deep pools.

The nature preserve encompasses old growth forest of giant white oaks and hickories. These elders provide perfect habitat for a host of woodland birds, including red-bellied, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers–all three of which we relished today, along with oodles of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, brown creepers and white-sided nuthatches,

This time of year, in many wooded areas, you are likely to see only a patch or two of woodland wildflowers, mostly due to a lack of management. Too many of our protected natural areas are overrun with non-native invasives, including buckthorn and honeysuckle. These shrubby invasives quickly spread and crowd out native plant species, which is bad for the health of our woodlands and, well, pretty crappy for those of us who seek them out for their sheer beauty.

The periodic use of fire keeps the nature preserve relatively free of honeysuckle and other invasives

At Upper Embarras Woods, the spring beauties were everywhere, indicative that the nature preserve portion of the park is well managed. Fire scars on the trees indicate regular controlled burns, which emulate the natural wildfires that used to keep the woodland understory relatively open — necessary for a healthy mix of spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and other woodland wildflowers, as well as for seedling oaks and hickories.

Notice the difference? That shrubby wall of green is highly invasive honeysuckle

By way of comparison, just on the other side of the path — across from the nature preserve — there are virtually no spring beauties. Why? Well, at first blush all those bushes might look nice and green. But they are honesuckle bushes. They are the first to leaf out, which robs wildflowers and tree seedlings of the light and nutrients they need to survive.

White-tailed deer are native to Illinois, but sometimes they, too, need to be controlled least they eat and destroy our woodland wildflowers

Sufficiently managing all of our protected natural areas — including dedicated nature preserves — remains a big challenge. Budgets are tight. Resources are scarce. But an early spring walk along the path that separates Upper Embarras Woods Nature Preserve from the rest of Walnut Point State Park reminds us why we need to find a way — on one side, an abundance of health and beauty, on the other side…well, there remains much more work to be done.

Another spring beauty alongside the namesake river of the Upper Embarras Nature Preserve

Starved Rock Nature Preserve

Winter sunlight on St Peter Sandstone in Starved Rock State Park

How Starved Rock State Park got its name remains a matter of debate. But that it harbors one of the most beautiful nature preserves is rock solid fact.

Legend would have it that the namesake feature of the park — a towering limestone bluff overlooking the Illinois River — derived its name from a mid-18th century conflict between native tribes. Purportedly as revenge for a murdered chief, the Pottawatomies and Ottawas waged battle with the Illinois, who sought refuge atop the bluff. The attackers laid siege, cutting off escape, leading to the death-by-starvation of the Illinois.

The namesake feature of Starved Rock State Park

There is scant historical evidence to support the legend, but archaeologists have confirmed that native people inhabited the area around Starved Rock as far back as 8,000 B.C.E. Fast forward to the 1890s when a Civil War veteran purchased the site and developed it for tourists. A couple decades later, the State of Illinois acquired the site as its first recreational park. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the lodge and cabins and made many trail improvements. In 1966, the park was designated as a National Historic Landmark. One year later, 700 of the park’s 2,630 acres was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

On a cold winter day, you can have the canyons all to yourself

In truth, few people visit the dedicated Nature Preserve within Starved Rock. The park, which runs along the southern shore of the Illinois River, is bisected by the north-south running Route 178. The historic lodge, cabins and hiking trails are located to the east of the highway. The nature preserve is to the west. Both boast dramatic canyons, carved through St. Peter Sandstone over the past 15,000 years, or so. The canyons form cooler micro-climates, which support species typically found much further north, such as Canada yew, northern white cedar and eastern white pine.

The original Stairmaster–the final set of stairs leading to the top of Starved Rock

Among the challenges of managing dedicated nature preserves is managing visitors and the impacts they can have on fragile ecosystems. This is especially true at Starved Rock, with its two million visitors per year. The steep slopes of soft sandstone are highly susceptible to erosion. This is bad for both plants and people. Erosion makes it difficult if not impossible for plants to take root and survive. Erosion also makes for bad footing for folks who–in spite of all the warning signs–hike off trail and end up with severe injuries, or worse.

To limit erosion — beyond warning folks to stay on the trails — there are lots of boardwalks and staircases installed in the main portion of the park. But the purpose of a nature preserve is to preserve the landscape in as pristine a condition as possible, which is why there is limited access to the Nature Preserve portion.

Due to the unusually mild winter, there were few bald eagles to be seen save for those that grace the lodge grounds courtesy of talented chainsaw artists

Still, to hike the public trails within Starved Rock is to get a good sense of the rugged but fragile beauty of this ecologically and culturally rich landscape. And after a walk on a cold winter day — a great way to see the park with relatively few people around — it’s terrific to be able to enjoy dinner in the lodge and be warmed by a blazing fire.