Partnering to Protect our Region from Storms and Floods

The catastrophic flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey underscores the human and ecological devastation that occurs when massive amounts of rain fall within a limited period of time.

Although not in danger of a hurricane, Chicago, built on a swamp and land partially reclaimed from Lake Michigan, is hardly immune from destructive storms and the stormwater they bring. Floods now impact our region regularly, and the storms that bring them have grown more unpredictable. So-called hundred-year storms have become regular occurrences in the Great Lakes region, and those we have seen are by no means the worst possible. Imagine the destruction if a low-pressure system dumped even a quarter of the rain on Chicago that Houston has seen.

All this water needs somewhere to go. Too often, that somewhere is basements, streets and highways, and our region’s natural waterways, including Lake Michigan, which returns to its former status of sewer during the most extreme weather events. Innovative programs and partnerships between communities, organizations, and government agencies, however, can offer solutions with benefits far beyond keeping stormwater out of basements.

One such partnership is Space to Grow: Greening Chicago Schoolyards, a program run by Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign and funded by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Department of Water Management. Space to Grow leverages public investment to redesign CPS schoolyards with green infrastructure features that absorb high volumes of stormwater. Not only can parents and neighbors rest easier without concern for flooding, but students also enjoy new playgrounds, gardens, and outdoor learning spaces.


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Restoring portions of the open space in our region to the wetlands they once were can also keep stormwater out of sewers and basements. Over the past twelve years, Openlands has conducted five restorations in the Des Plaines River Watershed in partnership with the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicago Department of Aviation. Last year, a study led by Stantec Consulting, Inc. found that the restoration at two Forest Preserves of Cook County sites reduced the amount of water leaving the restored areas by 50 percent. That translates to 110 million fewer gallons of stormwater impacting homes and businesses surrounding the preserves during storms each year.

In addition to protecting lives and property from floods, an associated study found that wetland restoration efforts in Cook County yield a return on investment of more than $8 for every $1 spent. Construction costs, including jobs, as well as long-term benefits from increased visitation to the restored preserves, better flood control, and cleaner water account for this financial return on restoring nature.

Flooding this past July in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties—only the most recent flooding event here—are but a glimpse of what we may face as climate change makes storms larger and more unpredictable. But our region is built on innovation, and we can find solutions to threats like flooding when we come together and work creatively. The images and videos from Texas, Florida and all-too-often what we see in our own basements and backyards compel us to invest in big, bold, multi-faceted solutions that will protect our homes, drive our economy, and make our region more livable.


For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for the health of our region’s waterways. From protecting the Great Lakes to restoring the Chicago River, we improve our water resources for generations to come.

Join the #ChiUrbanHike Saturday, September 16

“Hiking” triggers images of winding trails, quiet forests, and unexpected vistas. But nature surrounds us, even in the heart of the city, and is just as compelling. Join us for the 2017 Openlands #ChiUrbanHike, a trek through Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. We’ll be exploring Humboldt Park itself, school and community gardens, parkways, greenways, and all the ways that nature enlivens and enriches our lives as city dwellers, guided throughout by Openlands experts.

The hike starts at Mitchell Elementary School (2233 W. Ohio St.) on September 16 at 2pm, and ends, as all good hikes do, with local beer and snacks at the Boathouse in Humboldt Park from 5-6:30pm. See you then!

Register today!


For more information, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.

At the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Ravine Restoration Nearing Completion

Since the fall of 2011, visitors to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve have explored nearly 80 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline and restored ravines. They are the regular users of the Preserve’s trail system and the supporters of our educational programs. And as much as we have worked to make the Preserve about people, we are also working to restore the site’s natural landscapes, native plant communities, and its unique ecosystems.

The Lakeshore Preserve is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, meaning it is home to some of the rarest natural habitat in northeast Illinois and will remain open to the public in perpetuity.

The Preserve’s topography offers glimpses into the dynamic geological nature of the Chicago lakefront region. The steep ravines, each named for a former notable area resident, were formed by erratic lake levels and glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. The high gravel and clay bluffs are also remnants of a bygone glacial era. Many original remnants of prairie, oak woodland, and shoreline plant communities still can be found within the Preserve’s boundaries. The site is also home to seven plant species on the state’s endangered and threatened lists, and it provides crucial stopover habitat to birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway.

Openlands has been actively researching and stewarding the Preserve’s rare natural communities since 2008. With the generous support of many donors, Openlands began to restore the Preserve’s sensitive ecosystems soon after the first phase of acquisition. The Preserve contains four distinct natural communities: lakeshore, lakeshore bluff, tableland, and lakefront ravine. Within these ecosystems lay many diverse sub-communities and micro-climates. It has been and still remains Openlands’ goal to restore these communities to pre-settlement conditions, or to the closest approximation possible. Much of that work has focused on the careful restoration of the Preserve’s three lakefront ravines.


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Three Models of Restoration

Today, the Lakeshore Preserve is one of the few publicly accessible ravine ecosystems in the Chicago metropolitan region. Openlands assumed management of this site to ensure public access to the lakefront at a time when housing development threatened to privatize some of the last remaining stretches in Lake County. With that commitment, came the opportunity to restore three lakefront ravines, a topographic feature rarely found beyond the North Shore.

Van Horne Ravine (pictured above) is approximately 1,325 feet in length from the head of the ravine at Patten Road to its outlet at Lake Michigan. A small stream carries stormwater from Patten Road to the lake, meandering along the base of the ravine. Restoration of this ravine included the installation of a variety of best management practices to stabilize the base of a ravine and several side ravines.

The Van Horne restoration has returned the ravine to our closest approximation of its natural state. Our work reintroduced native plants, trees, and shrubs to contain the slope of the ravine and prevent erosion. Small pools and riffles were created along the ravine base to provide a natural habitat for aquatic organisms and plants. These techniques – native plantings, revegetation, and mimicry of natural hydraulic patterns and functions – allowed us to restore the ravine without artificial engineering.

Shenck Stormwater July 2017

Schenck Ravine, pictured here, is located in the southern section of the Preserve and is being restored to a semi-natural state, meaning that we have used artificial reinforcements to support the success of native plants as they stabilize the steep walls of this ravine. The Chandler Bridge, accessible from the southern end of the Preserve, affords a treetop vantage point for visitors to observe this restoration along with some of the Preserve’s best views of Lake Michigan.

This restoration removed nearly 10 acres of invasive and opportunistic trees and shrubs such as buckthorn, black locust, and cottonwood. Opening the ravine floor allowed the existing seed bank to germinate and was complemented by the reintroduction of native plants. The ravine’s wide mouth at the lakefront leads to cooler air moving into the ravine, which allowed us to plant native species. Restoration of Schenck Ravine also reintroduced riffles and small pools along the ravine base to mimic natural hydraulic flow of stormwater towards Lake Michigan. The goal is to restore the ability of small fish like mudpuppies and dice to easily navigate up the ravine to breed in these cool, small pools.

Bartlet Ravine July 2017

Bartlett Ravine, located at the north end of the Preserve, is the largest of the three. The road at the bottom of Bartlett Ravine was originally a cavalry pathway, and eventually it was used for Jeep training. However, Openlands realized early on that this road was helping to stabilize the ravine slopes. The restoration of Bartlett Ravine (pictured above) returned it to a state more common and traditional to what is found along the North Shore, meaning that we are using artificial methods to control stormwater and prevent erosion. Given the infrastructure in place since Openlands took ownership of the site, this is in some way the optimal condition as it maintains the integrity of the ravine while balancing the artificial structures in place, and it is a model for restoring other heavily developed ravines on the North Shore.

The restoration of Bartlett Ravine is nothing short of spectacular. What began as a place that was dark and barren, this landscape is today bright and thriving. An open tree canopy and rich soils unleashed the wildflowers, grasses, and sedges found in the ravine today. Bartlett Ravine is home to more than 150 varieties of native plants and trees, six of which are state-designated threatened and endangered species. Complementing the restoration is an ADA-accessible trail system and an innovative, art-based interpretive plan, which together offer a unique outdoor experience for visitors.


Bartlet Ravine Lakeshore July 2017

The Lakeshore Preserve and Water

While efforts to protect and restore these areas have increased significantly over the past twenty years, there is simply little precedent to guide restoration approaches. Further complicating this is the fact that the historical record lacks details regarding the original site conditions, and the ravines themselves are dynamic, shifting their composition in response to stormwater. However, we do know much about the hydrology of this region prior to European settlement. The ravine systems represent Illinois’ last remaining natural drainage systems in the Lake Michigan watershed. Whereas more than 650 square miles of Illinois formerly drained into Lake Michigan, today it is less than 90 square miles, the bulk of which sits in Lake County.

For many years, it was common practice to pipe water down into ravines from streets and homes. Over time, this caused damage to ravines up and down the lakeshore. The high volume and velocity of piped water created serious erosion and brought in invasive plant species that competed with native plant communities. This makes preservation of the ravine ecosystems ever more important.

Bartlet Mural Stormwater

Today, we are looking to keep stormwater out of the ravines. The necessity of restoring the ravines at the Preserve was a direct result of increased stormwater. With both people and wildlife living in close proximity to the ravines, Openlands needs to reinforce their slopes in order to prevent further erosion and a collapse. Green infrastructure installations above the ravines control flash flood conditions, both protecting the structure of the ravines and improving water quality before it enters Lake Michigan.

Rain gardens are found along the upland trail, engineered as depressions in the ground and designed to help stormwater infiltrate into the soil. This provides a functional and aesthetically-pleasing way to prevent stormwater from flowing over land or overwhelming existing sewer infrastructure. Thriving ravine ecosystems are phenomenally important to ensuring the health of Lake Michigan, as they provide pools and riffles that organically manage stormwater, reduce erosion, and serve as habitat for local fish.

Between our techniques to retain stormwater and our careful effort to restore the ravines each in its own way, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve offers three different models for communities across the North Shore to restore their own lakefront landscapes and protect the health of our Great Lakes.


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A Living Laboratory

We hope the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve will not just be an oasis for the region’s residents and wildlife, but also that it can serve as a learning landscape, a laboratory to monitor systemic changes to our planet’s climate.

In and above the three ravines, we are regularly testing and sharing best management practices. We work with partners regularly to monitor species and beach erosion. And we are working with conservation organizations and municipalities to develop a watershed plan for the North Shore, both creating new stormwater management plans for some areas and revising older plans in other areas. A comprehensive watershed plan for the North Shore will help us and our partners complete projects to improve the health of Lake Michigan.

The three ravines themselves each harbor their own micro-climates, created by cool air moving off Lake Michigan and shaded under the tree canopy overhead. A change in wildlife found within these micro-climates sets off alarms to Openlands about planetary changes we face.

As our region’s climate changes, floods impact our lives more regularly, and the storms that bring them have grown more unpredictable. All that water needs somewhere to go, and too often, that somewhere is basements, streets and highways, and our region’s natural waterways, including Lake Michigan. The dramatic flooding in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties during the summer of 2017 is symptomatic of the new reality northeast Illinois faces in a changing climate. Climate resilient landscapes like the Preserve, however, can retain these flood waters, mitigating the risk to homeowners and filtering stormwater before it enters clean water resources like Lake Michigan.

Here, where the Great Lakes meet the Great Plains, ensuring that our landscape is healthy and resilient is our great responsibility. Like you, Openlands is a part of this region and this planet. We work to directly address the negative effects of climate change, making our region healthier for nature and people alike. By managing stormwater, providing a haven for rare wildlife susceptible to changes in our climate, and creating a landscape that puts carbon back in the ground, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is a model not just for ravine restoration, but also for addressing head on the crisis of climate change.


Ready to discover the Preserve for yourself? It’s open to the public year-round, and easily accessible for anyone in the Chicago metropolitan area. For more information on the Lakeshore Preserve restoration projects, please contact lakeshorepreserve@openlands.org.

In Memoriam: Timothy Ritchie

Ritchie_photoOn Monday, August 14, we lost a beloved member of the Openlands community, Tim Ritchie.

J. Timothy Ritchie joined the Openlands Board of Directors in 1996, and through his 22 dedicated years, he provided leadership and guidance for many initiatives to protect open space. He loyally served on our board in various leadership positions and championed an effort among our lifetime partners to make lasting contributions to conservation through the Green Legacy Society. We were fortunate to have him as a steadfast leader and dear friend.


Tim’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions in memory of Tim may be made to Openlands, the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, or other environmental organizations of your choice.

Have You Discovered Illinois State Beach Park?

Just an hour’s drive from the heart of Chicago, Illinois State Beach Park is home to six and a half miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. This 4,160-acre, two-unit natural area offers abundant and scenic recreational opportunities, with hiking and biking trails replete with wildlife, access to Illinois’ largest marina, swimming beaches, picnic shelters, and campsites. With expansive dunes and swales, marshes, prairie, and black oak forests, Illinois State Beach Park’s diverse ecosystems contain over 650 plant species, shoreline birds, and rich aquatic wildlife.

The park’s northern unit is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, and offers lengthy biking and hiking trails, fishing at Sand Pond, and public access to Lake Michigan via North Point Marina. The southern unit contains extensive camping and picnic areas, nature trails along mixed wetlands and dunes, and a scenic overlook along the Dead River, a perfect spot for birding.

The Lake Michigan dunes area was originally part of the “Three Fires” of the Algonquin Nation. In 1836, the area was incorporated into Lake County as the result of a treaty with local indigenous peoples. Preservation efforts have been in place since 1888, with southern unit established in 1964 as the first Illinois Nature Preserve. Nature Preserves like Illinois Beach represent the highest quality habitat in Illinois. The northern unit was acquired between 1971 and 1982. For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for and helped to protect the shoreline ecosystems of Lake Michigan.

Located across Winthrop Harbor, Zion, and Benton Township, Illinois State Beach Park is owned and operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.


Directions

The Illinois Beach State Park Visitor Center is located in the park’s southern unit, at 1 Lake Front Dr, Zion, Illinois, 60099.

Exit I-294 at Route 173 and head east to Sheridan Road. Head south on Sheridan Road and continue to Wadsworth Road. Take Wadsworth Road east, and you will be in the southern unit of the park. You can access the northern unit via 17th Street off of Sheridan Road. Ample parking is available at both units.

The park is open during the following times:

  • January to March: 8am – sunset
  • April to Memorial Day weekend: sunrise – sunset
  • Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend: sunrise – 8pm
  • Labor Day weekend to October: sunrise – sunset
  • November to December: 8am – sunset

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What can you do at Illinois State Beach Park?

Illinois State Beach Park has something for everyone, including beaches, swimming, picnicking, camping, fishing, boating, cross-country skiing, and more!

  • Visitor Center: Illinois State Beach Park has one visitor center in the southern unit, which contains restrooms, exhibits, and classroom space.
  • Swimming: Both the park’s northern and southern units have designated swimming areas in Lake Michigan. There are no on-duty lifeguards, but water conditions are marked in the park each day.
  • Hiking: The southern unit hosts five miles of multi-use and nature trails, including Dunes Trail and Dead River Trail. The northern unit contains the 1.8-mile Camp Logan Trail, which is also available for cross-country skiing.
  • Biking: There are multi-use trails throughout the northern and southern units for biking, as well as Zion Bike Trail, which connects the two units.
  • Fishing: Fishing is allowed along the beach (except in swimming areas) and multiple inland ponds in both units. At Sand Pond, a fishing pier is available. No fishing is allowed in the nature preserve.
  • Boating: North Point Marina, managed by the IDNR, is a high-quality facility just adjacent to Illinois Beach State Park, with a protected floating dock system of 1,500 slips and a boat service center. For information about paddling along Lake Michigan, visit our online paddling guide!
  • Birding: Multiple parts of the park are perfect for birding, including an outlook along Dead River Trail. Birders can see rare migratory and breeding birds, including Solitary Sandpiper, Willow Flycatchers, Brewer’s Blackbirds, and Whip-poor-wills.

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Make a Day or Weekend of It!

  • Lyons Woods, a 345-acre Lake County Forest Preserve, is just across the road. With 2.5 miles of gravel trails, pine grove, prairie, and oak woodlands, this preserve is perfect for birding and exploring nature.
  • Greenbelt Forest Preserve and Greenbelt Cultural Center are just a 20 minute drive away from the beach. The preserve has over 5 miles of hiking trails, and a 1 mile self-guided nature trail; the center offers educational programming and festivals regularly.
  • Explore Waukegan: There are many local attractions to see, including Genesee Theatre, multiple golf courses, a BMX race track, and more!
  • Glacial Park, one of the top five locations in the region to view migratory birds, is just 30 miles west and offers opportunities to paddle, hike, horseback ride, and more on over 3,400 acres of restored open space.
  • Discover! Illinois Beach State Park is an excellent way to experience Lake Michigan’s shoreline and the diverse ecosystems natural northern Illinois has to offer. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Illinois Beach State Park! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.

Openlands Launches New Online Paddling Guide

Start paddling northeastern Illinois’ waterways!

Openlands’ new paddling website, Paddle Illinois Water Trails, is a comprehensive guide for canoeing and kayaking in the Chicago region. Covering over 500 miles of Water Trails across 10 of northeastern Illinois’ waterways, this new guide provides rich information about paddling, including step-by-step trips along each trail. The site contains trips and resources for everyone, from first-time paddlers to seasoned boaters.

The guide provides in-depth information on each waterway, including important notes about water safety, interactive maps, and multiple, in-depth trip descriptions. Each trip description includes information on skill levels, trail length, directions, and equipment rental locations if available. Interactive maps display launch sites, dams, and the paddling difficulty level along the trail. Paddlers can also leave comments and share their paddling tips on individual trail pages.

Visit the guide now!

BMO Harris Bank Gives Back in Community Gardens

On June 14, approximately 50 volunteers from BMO Harris Bank weathered blistering 90 degree heat to assist the school gardens at Hearst Elementary and the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC). The neighboring schools on Chicago’s southwest side are home to schoolyard gardens supported by Openlands’ Building School Gardens program.

BMO Harris Bank is the Principal Sponsor of Building School Gardens, and through this program, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.

“Volunteer workdays should be part of a company’s DNA,” said Bill Clarkin, Openlands Board Member and Vice President at BMO Harris Bank. “Being visible in a community is a two-way street, and as a business we have a responsibility to give back.”

This volunteer event was a part of the BMO Volunteer Day. All employees were encouraged to get out of the office and give back to their communities. Throughout the day, nearly 5,000 BMO Harris Bank employees assisted with projects across North America. In the Chicago area, more than 800 employees contributed over 2,200 hours of service to 17 projects.


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Many volunteers helped with weeding, planting, and mulching, while Openlands’ staff assisted the volunteers in building raised plant beds and providing tree care. Other volunteers worked with the school staff to facilitate outdoor lessons for the students.

The school gardens at Hearst and AGC, which are planted with a mixture of annual and perennial plants, edible plants, and native plants, are used to connect students to the natural environment. This year in the garden, third graders practiced fractions using seed depth and square foot gardening; fourth graders applied their knowledge of erosion by planting cover crops; and middle schoolers explored and designed their own biomimicry, using patterns and concepts found in nature to create solutions to human problems. The garden is also an essential space where students can meditate, relax, and take breaks.

“It is always so great to have volunteers out in our garden space,” said Marney Coleman, a teacher on the garden team at Academy for Global Citizenship. “Not only does it really help with the heavy lifting as far as time and labor, but with all the district budget cuts this year, the impact of Openlands being able to bring supplies like compost, plants, and tools to do this kind of work has a tremendous impact.”

Even BMO Harris Bank’s newest commercial banking summer interns — and one of their partners, Chicago Blackhawks’ Tommy Hawk — joined the workday and helped make this possible. As a commitment to healthy communities, BMO Harris Bank and Chicago Blackhawks have a standing partnership to support schools in the Chicago area.


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Marc Romito, Vice President of Commercial Banking at BMO Harris, explained the decision to volunteer with Openlands. “Partnering with Openlands is an example of leadership in giving back. We recognize Openlands as a partner in caring for communities, which is why Bill serves on the Board of Directors and why we volunteer with them.”

BMO Harris Bank has partnered with Openlands for their annual Volunteer Day on several past occasions. “Collectively, we give back and we connect with our communities no matter which position we hold,” said Clarkin. “It’s a great way to show we are part of the community and are helping the greater good.”

Many staff members and families commented that this was the best the garden had looked in a long time. Coleman expressed that a well-kept garden makes it much easier for students to learn outdoors, and helps build a sense of ownership, pride, and respect for the garden as a community space.

About BMO Harris Bank

BMO Harris Bank is committed to the principals of sustainable development and, in particular, to the belief that the quality of our lives improves when economic growth is achieved while respecting the environment. Our goal is to be one of the leading financial institutions in the area of Environmental Sustainability.


Openlands provides volunteer workday opportunities at community gardens, tree plantings, and beach clean-ups year round. If you are interested in learning how your workplace can get involved, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.

How To: Self-Guided Bird Walk

The following entry was written by Openlands Education Programs Coordinator, John Cawood. In his position, John helps to manage our Birds in my Neighborhood® program.

Want to go on a self-guided bird walk? Here are some tips!

Recently I had the joy of leading a bird walk with fourth grade students in Ms. Coleman’s class at Lavizzo Elementary, as a part of Openlands Birds in my Neighborhood Program. Lavizzo is in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on the south side, just west of Lake Calumet, and there is a high level of bird activity year-round. How do I know? The kids told me! They told me of the sparrows, blue jays, robins, cardinals, hawks, ducks, and geese that they had seen in their neighborhood. They told me that sometimes the birds are building nests, looking for food, singing in the trees, or soaring high in the sky. Then each student researched a bird and told me all about what they had learned.


Before we went out on a bird walk around the schoolyard, they also told me what you need to do in order to see birds. Here are their suggestions:

  1. Be quiet, so that you don’t scare the birds away. Also, if you are quiet then you might even be able to hear them sing.
  2. Try not to shout when you see a bird; just point so that other people can see the bird too.
  3. Be sneaky. Move slowly and quietly so you don’t scare the birds away.
  4. Be observant. Birds could be on the ground, behind a bush, in a tree, or in the sky, so look everywhere!
  5. If you are using binoculars, be very careful with them. Make sure they are focused so that you can see through them clearly.
  6. If the others in your group don’t seem to be doing the things you need to do to see birds, quietly remind them. That if they are observant, quiet, and slow moving, everyone has a better chance of seeing more birds.

This is a great list! Ms. Coleman has a lot of smart kids in her class. If you decide to go on a bird walk in your neighborhood, using their list will definitely help you to see more birds.


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If you are looking for suggestions for binoculars (you don’t need binoculars to see birds, but they do help with Rule #4 on the Lavizzo List), Birds in my Neighborhood uses the Leupold BX-1 Yosemite 8×30 model. They cost around $100, and are very sturdy and easy to hold on to. You can also hit Rule #4 by going birding with multiple people. Having a larger group presumably means that there are more eyes looking around for birds, but don’t forget Rule #6!

If you need a guide to help you along the way, Forest Preserves of Cook County offer a printable bird ID checklist. Our friends at the Field Museum offer some excellent guides to ID common Chicagoland birds including common sparrows, common winter birds, and common summer birds.

Lastly, don’t let these lists intimidate you – one of the best parts of birding is that anyone can do it!


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Where to Go

During migratory season in the spring (April-June) and in the fall (September-October), there is no better birding spot in the Chicago area, and arguably the entire Great Lakes region, than Chicago’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. If you travel further north, Illinois Beach State Park provides great birding opportunities along Lake Michigan, as well as in its expansive wetlands. Situated along the border of the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway, the Great Lakes region is immensely important for migratory birds.

Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water like at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, or Deer Grove East are great locations to find birds. But you can even witness an impressive array of birds in a local park or in your neighborhood. Be sure to post the list of everything you see on www.ebird.org, and check out their hotspot map, which shows what everyone else is seeing in your area.

Bird life in the Chicago region is breathtaking at this time of year, so have a wonderful time on your trip – be it in your own neighborhood, at your local park or forest preserve, or at a larger natural area.

Finally, if you’re a photographer or avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and show the world the birds you spot! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on Openlands’ stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

For more information, please contact schools@openlands.org or call 312.863.6276.

Department of the Interior “Reviews” the National Monuments

On May 5, the US Department of the Interior announced their list of National Monuments that will be “reviewed” by the Secretary of the Interior and potentially reversed as directed in an April 26 Federal Executive Order. A National Monument designation permanently protects America’s finest landscapes and cultural areas for all to enjoy, and Openlands adamantly opposes any effort to curtail protections for conserved Federal lands.

The original Executive Order instructed the Secretary of the Interior to review only those National Monuments greater than 100,000 acres in size and designated since 1996. Particularly troubling to Openlands was the specific inclusion on Interior’s list of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in northern Maine, which is smaller than 100,000 acres. Unlike the other monuments under review, which were designated through the Antiquities Act on existing federal lands, Katahdin was created through a private land donation of 87,000 acres with the express understanding that the land would be protected in perpetuity by the National Park Service as a National Monument.

Openlands is a non-profit land trust, and private land donations are the types of conservation partnerships we often facilitate. We work with private landowners to acquire lands with high conservation potential, and we hold them in trust until a government agency can acquire and permanently protect the lands as a state park, as a National Wildlife Refuge, or as a National Tallgrass Prairie.

Were Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument’s status to be reversed, it would set a dangerous precedent for all other federally protected land across the nation that began with a donation from a land trust or other private landowner. We see this as a legal precedent to undo protections for all conserved federal lands, especially lands donated to the Federal Government for conservation.


On August 24, the US Department of the Interior announced their recommendations to reduce protections for an unspecified number of national monuments. The Secretary of the Interior disclosed that he is recommending changes to a “handful” of monuments, but has not publicly shared any site-specific information.

Our public lands need you to speak up now more than ever. Tell your senators and congressperson to protect our monuments.

Birds in my Neighborhood Explores Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

On Saturday, May 13, the students and families of Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class at Peck Elementary headed to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a Birds in my Neighborhood® field trip. Around 50 members of the Peck community spent the day spotting birds, searching for bison, and exploring the bunkerfields of Midewin.

Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class learned about Chicago’s birds in the classroom, and had already completed two bird walks on school grounds and in Marquette Park. Saturday was an extra field trip, and one of the first Saturday field trips that Openlands has helped facilitate, and the result was spectacular.


Birds, Bison, and Bunkers

The field trip to Midewin started early at the Visitors Center where our friends from the Forest Service offered a brief overview of the area’s ecological and cultural history. Ms. Caponigro (Ms. Cap to her students) helped everyone in the group get acquainted with Midewin by translating the overview into Spanish.

“The Saturday field trip to Midewin was an amazing experience for our students and their families. To see such an expanse of nature and to learn about the history of the space along with identifying birds was something many of us will never forget,” explained Ms. Cap.

Openlands volunteers then led the students on a bird walk along the Explosives Road trail, and the families divided into two groups – one walk facilitated in Spanish and the other in English. Both students and families successfully spotted and identified many of the species using a bilingual guide provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.

The third graders correctly identified a tremendous array of bird species including great blue herons, turkey vultures, eastern kingbirds, killdeer, blue jays, common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissel, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, a scarlet tanager (pictured above), American goldfinches, red-tailed hawks, and more!

In the afternoon, the families had time to explore the retired US army ammunition bunkers that dot the Midewin landscape and after a lunch break, we headed up to Iron Bridge Trailhead in search of the bison herd. By the end of the day, most of the students were proclaiming it the best field trip ever.

Midewin is truly a breath-taking place to visit. At 19,000 acres, it is the largest open space in the Chicago region, it contains 22 miles of mixed use trails, and the biological diversity present is simply stunning. One student, speaking somewhat overwhelmed, expressed their disbelief not just at the number of bird species they saw, but that so many bird species even existed!


An Important Grassland Habitat

Massive open spaces like Midewin are vital for numerous reasons: they are home to some of Illinois’ last fragments of native prairie and they offer shelter to hundreds of species in need of conservation support. But research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an indicator of future environmental stewards, and this data drives our education work.

For Openlands, schools are the intersection of people and nature. Our Space to Grow partnership transforms CPS schoolyards into green campuses and gardens after seeking community input to address its needs, and schools are where we often gather communities for gardening workshops and to plant trees. Those trees and gardens become home to wildlife for students to learn about through Birds in my Neighborhood, and together, these communities foster new voices and new generations in the conservation movement.

When we forge new partnerships with schools, we listen to the needs of communities. For example, when Openlands began these Saturday field trips, we reached out to schools that we knew have an established interest in the nature of our region. Peck Elementary, located in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood has been one of those inspiring schools. Peck was one of the first schools to sign up for Building School Gardens, and they were among the first schools to embrace a Birds in my Neighborhood curriculum. Ms. Cap has dozens of stories of her former students returning to her classroom to discuss birds, and her students have always appreciated the Birds in my Neighborhood class lessons.

“The bus ride back was buzzing with nature disscussions. Not to mention all the jealous comments on Monday from kids who didn’t attend,” said Ms. Cap.

Sharing these experiences with students demonstrates the value of conserved public lands, and furthers our mission to connect the residents of the Chicago region to the nature around them.


Peck Elementary_Iron Bridge

Peck’s field trip to Midewin was a tremendous success. Many thanks go out to our Birds in my Neighborhood volunteers, the Forest Service staff who helped with site orientation, and to the staff at the Midewin Visitors Center, who offered us their shaded outdoor lunchroom for our break.

Saturday field trips to Midewin are made possible by the generous support of BNSF Railway and US Forest Service – International Programs. And of course, we couldn’t make these field trips happen without the passionate support of teachers like Ms. Cap and our generous Openlands members.


Ready to discover Midewin for yourself? We have a few suggestions on where to start.

If you are interested in becoming a Birds in my Neighborhood volunteer, please contact schools@openlands.org. If you wish to support the program, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.