Connecting Children to Nature with Birds in My Neighborhood

This week marks the first week of spring, and with the warmer weather and increased sunlight comes more opportunities to get outside and enjoy the many benefits of nature. Spring also marks an important period for bird watching as birds begin their spring migration.  

In the past, bird watching was often stereotyped as being an activity mostly enjoyed by older adults wearing long vests and deerstalker hats. However, birdwatching is incredibly accessible to all, and more and more people of all ages and backgrounds are discovering the joys and benefits of birdwatching.  

Bird watching is one of the primary tools used by Openlands to get youth outside and help them foster an appreciation for nature, and over 8,000 students have learned about the joys of nature and birdwatching through our Birds in My Neighborhood® (BIMN) program. Established in 2013, BIMN introduces students in the Chicago Public School system between Pre-K and fifth grade to common birds of the region through in-class lessons and field trips. In partnership with the US Forest Service International, this classroom-based and volunteer-driven program is offered to schools in the City of Chicago, McHenry County, and Lake County, Illinois.  

Because birds are all around, bird watching is incredibly accessible and affordable. Birds exist just outside the classroom doors, and while binoculars can be used, they are not necessary. All that is required for bird watching is your eyes and sense of focus to tap into observational skills. Birdwatching fosters a connection to nature through the process of observing the natural world and using the senses to identify the sounds and sights around. The BIMN program teaches children to slow down, think, process, and listen. In a world where children spend increasing amounts of time focused on screens, the experience of learning to focus their eyes and ears on nature is invaluable.  

Kids love a field trip, and the BIMN field excursions give students a sense of freedom while also teaching them deep reflection skills through the use of take-home journals, where they document key learnings and process their experience. This year, Openlands will also be providing journals in Spanish for bilingual students.     

While most of Openlands bird-watching programs are focused on youth education, adults can get involved by becoming a volunteer with Birds in My Neighborhood. Volunteers are an essential part of the program, as BIMN relies on volunteers to assist our in-school programs. Volunteers help run the program by working with teachers to schedule two classroom visits and a field trip to a local natural area. Volunteers are not required to be experienced birders, however; passion for connecting youth to nature is a must.  

The BIMN program also aims to inspire teachers to find more unique ways to engage students in their classrooms, and to seek out other opportunities to further enrich their students. After inviting the BIMN into her classroom, CPS teacher at Wadsworth STEM School Cynthia Brawner wrote a “Neighborhood Birds 101″ proposal through DonorsChoose, and she received funding for binoculars, wooden birdhouses, and books including a field guide and journal for her students. 

According to Openlands’ Education and Outreach Coordinator, Lillian Holden, bird watching is one of the best entry-level ways to get outside and connected to nature, making it an excellent activity for all people, including children and people who don’t consider themselves to be outdoorsy. A teacher from Saucedo Elementary explains how BIMN transforms students into advocates for nature, “I always see such growth and learned knowledge in the students after going through the program. Students actively become aware of the species found in their urban setting.” 

According to Lillian, for people new to birding, spring migration is one of the best times to get started. During this time of year, trees and flowers begin to bloom, inviting hundreds of species of songbirds and tropical species travelling over the Midwest and to stop for food and rest on their journeys. Chicago is one of the biggest bird migratory routes in North America, known as the Mississippi flyaway, and birds can be spotted near water, especially Lake Michigan, and near woods and grasslands.   

Top left to right: Lillian Holden, Kelly Escarcega, Danielle Russell. Bottom left to right: Jorge Garcia, Jessica Fong.

Openlands Education team (pictured) recently welcomed new staff members Jorge Garcia, Volunteer Coordinator for BIMN, as well as Kelly Escarcega, Openlands’ new School Gardens Coordinator. Along with Director of Education Jessica Fong, School Garden Coordinator Danielle Russell, and Lillian Holden, the team will continue to provide nature-based education programs for students, teachers, and volunteers throughout the Chicagoland region. To get involved with the education community, join the first-ever Green and Growing Summit on May 6th! Updates will be posted on our events page and social media.   

Celebrating Stories of Black Excellence along the African American Heritage Water Trail

The Calumet region contains internationally significant history and stories of Black excellence from the past 180 years in the Chicago area. Flowing through the region are the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel, which pass through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and the remarkable stories of African Americans who settled along the river. This waterway is a witness to freedom seekers who traveled the Underground Railroad, trailblazers who defied discrimination and became Tuskegee Airmen, and pioneers in the struggle for civil rights and environmental justice. In 2020, Openlands, in partnership with neighboring communities, developed the African American Heritage Water Trail brochure and story map, which serve as a catalog and inventory of the major sites of Black history along seven miles of the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel, from the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods to the Village of Robbins, so that anybody can explore and appreciate this valuable and inspiring history. 

Three years after the creation of the African American Heritage Water Trail brochure and story map, one of the sites highlighted by the Water Trail, Chicago’s Finest Marina and historical Ton Farm, boasts a new feature: signage. A new marker has been placed on the corner of 134th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue, the former site of Ton Farm and the current location of Chicago’s Finest Marina, educating all those who pass by about the history of Ton Farm as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The sign was created by the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project with a National Park Service Network to Freedom grant. The installment of what will be the first of many signs to commemorate the Ton Farm site marks an important step forward in the evolution of the African American Heritage Water Trail. While exciting press like a feature in the New York Times has introduced the Trail to the world, installing signage is a critical step in establishing the region as a Heritage Area for passersby.  

The installation of signage at stops along the Trail will infuse the area with new meaning and reconnect the place with the memory of the land, water, and former slaves who traversed the Little Calumet River on their journey to a free life. Formerly the location of Ton Farm, the site was a place where freedom seekers sought refuge on their journey north. The Ton family was one of several Dutch families that settled in the area between 1847 and 1849. People escaping slavery in the South used what was known as the “Riverdale Crossing,” now the Indiana Avenue Bridge just west of Chicago’s Finest Marina, before stopping to rest with the Ton family, who then helped transport them via covered wagon up through Chicago or Detroit and eventually Canada. Reaching Canada was the ultimate goal for freedom seekers, as they were not guaranteed safety even in northern states. The National Park Service accepted the Jan and Aagje Ton Farm site into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom registry in 2019. 

According to Laura Barghusen, Openlands’ Blueways Director, the importance of signage for placemaking cannot be overstated: “If people are coming to the area for reasons other than the trail, signage raises people’s awareness in a way that nothing else will. For example, Ron [Gaines, owner of Chicago’s Finest Marina] rents his place out for family reunions. With the sign in place, people who are coming down for events are suddenly going to see that it is also an Underground Railroad site.”  

As humans, we are all typophiles. The term topophilia was coined by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan and refers to the emotional bond that a person has with their environment —a person’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to a place. While places exist whether or not people feel connected to them, having a strong sense of place is what bonds us to the places we inhabit and helps us feel connected to our surroundings and community, whether it be our neighborhood or a single tree. Developing a sense of place in nature can help us feel more connected to the outdoors and motivated to take care of the natural wonders that surround us. In places that contain important history, signs act as a way of establishing an emotional connection to the place for visitors. 

While the significant places along the trail have existed for the past 180 years, the creation of the trail and its new signage is an important form of placemaking that provides visitors with a way to connect to the history of the region. When thinking about Black Americans and history, stories are often focused on land as a concept. The trail takes a unique approach to Black history, as it focuses on water and the way in which the Little Calumet River flows and connects the history of the region through time and space. By learning more about the stories of those who previously traversed along the trail, all while paddling and taking in the sound of lapping water and bird songs, lush green trees, and fresh air, visitors are given a deeply embodied, multisensory experience of nature and history.   

Each time someone visits sites along the African American Heritage Water Trail, whether a visitor or resident, they take an active role in the placemaking of the area by contributing new memories to the trail. We invite you to plan a paddle trip this summer to enjoy the beauty and history of the trail using our story map.  

Openlands’ Lillian Holden Discusses the Historical Significance of Chicago’s Finest Marina on NBC5

Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator, Lillian Holden, was interviewed by NBC5 Chicago about the historical significance of Chicago’s Finest Marina, which is the oldest Black-owned marina in the Chicago region and sits on the former Ton Farm property, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Openlands and Community Leaders Talk about the African American Heritage Water Trail on Fox 32

Openlands’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Lillian Holden was interviewed by Fox 32 on Sunday, February 12 for a video segment about the African American Heritage Water Trail and the historically significant landmarks along the trail that represent over 100 years of Black history in the region. Ronald Gaines, owner of Chicago’s Finest Marina, and Adella Bass, a community organizer who is helping restore the Little Calumet, were also interviewed.

Celebrating the Passage of the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act

Conservation easements play a critical role in landscape conservation and the preservation of wildlife habitat. And thanks to the passage of the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act (CCEPIA) in late December, the integrity of conservation easements now receives permanent protection like the land that easements preserve. The Act, which is part of the omnibus spending bill, will play a powerful role in stopping the abuse of conservation easements by tax cheats, saving billions in taxpayer dollars. 

A conservation easement is a voluntary and legal agreement that allows landowners to retain desired rights to their private land while protecting a property’s important natural features like woodlands, water sources, and native plantings. Landowners keep many of their rights, including the right to own and use the land, sell it, or pass it on to their heirs, but give up the right to cut down or destroy the parts of the property protected in the easement.  

Currently, conservation easements save around 40 million acres of open space and wildlife habitat in the United States and provide tax incentives for landowners, with land trusts stewarding about half of those 40 million acres. Conservation easements are a critical part of achieving the goal of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. Easements are a pillar of Openlands’ land preservation work, and over the past 40 years, Openlands has assisted over 100 communities across northeastern Illinois in acquiring land and conservation easements to directly preserve over 15,000 acres of open space. 

In 2015, Congress increased tax incentives to encourage landowners to use conservation easements. Unfortunately, a small number of bad actors have abused this system, taking advantage of tax break benefits for their own gain. In doing so, they jeopardized the reputation of conservation easements. According to the most recent publicly available IRS data, investors claimed nearly $36 billion in unwarranted deductions between 2010 and 2018. 

To put that into perspective, approximately 2,000 to 2,500 conservation donations are made annually for truly charitable purposes, resulting in about $1 billion in claimed deductions per year. Meanwhile, between 2016 and 2018, the IRS found $22 billion in unwarranted tax deductions claimed on fewer than 300 easements. And while the number of bad actors is small, the discovery by the IRS of this tax abuse called into question the entire system and connected the concept of conservation easements with fraud in the public eye. The CCPEIA puts an end to these abuses and will protect the federal conservation easement tax incentive and preserve the integrity of our tax laws and the conservation community as a whole. 

Conservation easements like the one protecting Hoffman Farm in McHenry County can create a family legacy that ensures the enjoyment of the land for future generations. Elena Spiegelhoff, who grew up playing among the natural wonders of the property, inherited the family farm in McHenry County and wanted to protect the farmland and natural features she had known since childhood. Through a partnership between McHenry County Conservation District and Openlands, the 153 acres that sit within the greater Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge are now permanently protected. Openlands is now working with a sustainable farmer to keep the land healthy and productive in its new role as a native plant nursery. You can hear more from Elena about the process in the video below.

While conservation easements are often used on private land, they can directly benefit the public, as in the case of North Park Village Nature Center located on the northwest side of Chicago. Formerly the site of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, the sprawling campus grounds provided fresh air for patients and a natural setting for the treatment of tuberculosis. After the Sanitarium’s doors closed in 1974, the public gained access to the site and recognized the over 140 acres of natural areas as a special nature hub within the city. Throughout the years, multiple development plans were proposed for the area, but thanks to the help of Openlands’ collaboration with the local community and an advisory council, it was decided that the site would remain in the hands of the City through a conservation easement with Openlands, who would ensure the open space would stay protected. This was the first time that Openlands applied a conservation easement to publicly owned property.

You can learn more about how to protect your land in perpetuity with a conservation easement through Openlands here.  

10 Places to Get Outside this Winter

Finding the motivation to get outside in the Midwest winter can feel impossible when the choice is between staying warm and cozy indoors and facing the cold winter temperatures. However, even in the cold, getting outside is incredibly good for mental and physical health, and going outdoors for even a little bit each day can provide tremendous benefits to your health. Especially in the dark winter months when Season Affective Disorder (SAD) can take hold for many living in colder climates, getting outside provides Vitamin D from the sun and an immediate boost to mood. In fact, cold weather can provide its own health benefits, as getting active in the cold actually burns more calories than in warm weather.

The quiet, dormant state of nature in the winter has its own peaceful beauty, and just a few hours spent in a forest preserve or restored prairie can help you feel more connected to nature and the landscapes of our region. With the right clothes, getting out into nature in the winter can feel incredibly refreshing, and the more you get outside in cold weather, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. As the Swedish say, there is no bad weather, only bad clothes!

The Chicago region contains hundreds of beautiful nature preserves. We have compiled a list of ten beautiful locations where you can get outside and hike this winter. For more ideas, check out our Get Outside Map!

Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Preserve

Since 2008, Openlands has managed restoration at Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve, which is located at Tinley Creek Wetlands, all part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Together, they have become high-quality habitat for birds and a birding destination for the region. The two nearby sites are both in proximity to Orland Grassland Land and Water Reserve, another legacy project of Openlands, which has created a network of pristine grassland and wetland habitats in southern Cook County.

Once an agricultural area, Bobolink Meadow is now home to an increasing variety of native plant and bird species as restoration efforts open the landscape and encourage natural habitat. Located in Tinley Park, Bobolink is an excellent location for bird watchers, as it is regarded as one of the best birdwatching destinations in the region.

Churchill Woods

At 255 acres and part of the Forest Preserves of Dupage County, Churchill Woods Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn is one of DuPage’s smaller forest preserves and is home to an impressive range of habitats. Churchill Woods features a one-mile trail for biking, hiking horseback riding and cross-country skiing in the winter. Trails at Churchill connect to the regional Great Western Trail.

Elizabeth Lake Nature Preserve

Located in Richmond, Illinois, and part of the McHenry County Conservation District, Elizabeth Lake Nature Preserve is a large, diverse wetland community composed of every different stage of high-quality wetland, including: graminoid fens, calcareous floating mats, graminoid bogs, marshes, low gradient creek, pond, lake, sedge meadow, wet prairie and dry Mesic savanna.

Several different kinds of wildlife can be spotted, including white-tailed deer, raccoon, rabbit, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, marsh wren, sora rail, green frog, smooth green snake and other small animals. The diverse wetlands are important for amphibian breeding and provide a habitat for various waterfowl, migrating birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. A small woodland area exists on the southwestern portion of the preserve. Visitors to Elizabeth Lake will experience a landscape and lake formed over 10,000 years ago by glaciers moving across the region.

Forty Acre Woods – Palos Park

At the 57-acre Forty Acre Woods, visitors can access miles of looping and connecting unpaved trails through the Palos Forest Preserves. This location contains a variety of wide trails for hiking and trail running. Forty Acre Woods is also a destination for horseback riding.

At 15,000 acres, the Palos Preserves in southwest Cook County are the largest concentration of preserved land in the Forest Preserves. Thanks to more than three decades of habitat restoration, they also hold some of the highest-quality natural areas in the county. These trails join many popular sites, such as the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Pulaski Woods, Saganashkee Slough and Maple Lake which is home to a mountain bike staging area that provides access to almost 40 miles of unpaved trails.

Heron Creek Forest Preserve

Located in Lake Zurich and part of the Lake County Forest Preserves, visitors can explore 2.3 miles of gravel trails for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing. Heron Creek is an excellent place to bring the whole family, as an innovative playground provides a colorful series of tunnels, slides, ladders, bridges, decks and swings for children to climb and explore. The playground has two separate areas, one for ages 2–5, and one ages 5–12. Much of the playground is ramped for handicapped accessibility. There is also a sand pit, and lookout stations with views into the woods.

Heron Creek Forest Preserve is home to more than 116 species of birds, including a resident population of waterfowl and herons. Six state endangered bird species, black tern, black-crowned night heron, yellow-crowned night heron, osprey, Forster’s tern, and three state threatened bird species, brown creeper, pied-billed grebe and red-shouldered hawk have been found in the area.

The preserve features a rolling landscape of scenic woodlands and open fields. The Indian Creek basin, which flows through the site, is an Advanced Identification Wetland (ADID), the highest wetland classification in Lake County. It offers exceptional wildlife habitat and plant communities including a sedge meadow.

John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve

This state-dedicated nature preserve protected by the Shirley Heinz Land Trust located in Portage, Indiana, features a complex of sand prairie, oak savanna, and wetlands. More than 400 species of plants have been identified, many of them state listed. John Merle has a short, well-maintained trail, along with forest, prairie, and dune landscapes.

Kettle Moraine State Forest

More than 22,000 acres of glacial hills, kettles, lakes, prairie restoration sites, pine woods and hardwood forests protected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources can be found in the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest in Washington County, Wisconsin, making this a popular area for a wide variety of visitors.

Hikers can enjoy miles and miles of rolling hills through pine plantations, prairies and southern hardwood forests. Trail maps help to prepare visitors for the distances they will encounter and the natural areas that surround them. Hiking is available on the Scuppernong, Emma Carlin, John Muir and Nordic trails, as well as the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.  There are also several shorter self-guided nature trails.

Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve

At the Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve protected by the McHenry County Conservation District in Hills, Illinois, you can see nearly 500 acres of unspoiled native Illinois landscape. Over a mile of maintained trails wind through three diverse habitats: dry hill prairies, sedge meadows, and rare and beautiful fens.

Opened in April of 2011, this area has 229 acres adjacent to the 27-acre Lake in the Hills Fen State Nature Preserve. Over 400 species of plants, 80 species of birds, 40 species of butterflies, and a myriad of other animals depend on this preserve for a place to live. There are only 26 acres of hanging fens in the nation and the Lake in the Hills Fen has approximately four of them.

Ottawa Trails Woods

The Ottawa Trails Woods in Lyons is a forest preserve with picnic groves and shelters that is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the historic Chicago Portage waterway. Visitors can enjoy an accessible stretch of paved trails with an abundance of wildlife, and many have attested to seeing deer and a variety of birds, including hawks, while hiking.

Salt Creek Greenway

One of the region’s best-known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail.

Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change at COP27

This past Sunday, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) concluded.   Climate delegates, advocates, and leaders met for two weeks in the Egyptian city of Sharm el Sheikh for discussions and negotiations surrounding the mitigation of global warming and the payment of loss and damages for developing nations that are bearing a majority of the climate crisis.

While much of the conference centered around finding ways to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably below 1.5 C, (which we are not currently on track to achieve) COP27 did yield an important conservation-related discussion: nature-based solutions to climate change.

On November 16, dubbed the “Biodiversity Day” of the conference focused on nature and ecosystem-based solutions, the Egyptian COP27 Presidency, Germany, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced the Enhancing Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for Climate Transformation (ENACT) Initiative for nature-based solutions. The initiative will coordinate global efforts to address climate change, land, and ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss through nature-based climate solutions and produce an annual report to update COP28 and future meetings on its progress. The initiative aims to enhance the protection from and resilience to climate impacts of at least 1 billion vulnerable people, including at least 500 million women and girls, secure up to 2.4 billion hectares of healthy natural and sustainable agricultural ecosystems, and significantly increase global mitigation efforts through protecting, conserving, and restoring carbon-rich terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.

Nature-based climate solutions involve conserving, restoring, and better managing ecosystems to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Nature-based solutions are a central part of conservation work and the mission of Openlands, and involve processes including wetland restoration, tree planting, and forest protection, restoring and protecting grasslands and local ecosystems, planting native species, and instituting regenerative agricultural practices.

Nature-based solutions to climate change use the built-in processes of nature to trap carbon dioxide and prevent greenhouse gas emissions. Planting trees and native species removes carbon dioxide from the air, stores carbon in the soil, and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Wetlands capture CO2 from the atmosphere and store more carbon than any other ecosystem on Earth. They are also hubs of biodiversity that help prevent erosion and improve water quality. Using regenerative agricultural practices can increase the carbon stored in soil or vegetation. Using cover crops can also lead to less runoff of sediments and nutrients into waterways, reduced flooding in watersheds, and greater soil carbon sequestration.

As the second-largest carbon emitter in the world, the United States has a major leadership role to play in rapidly reducing emissions and taking action to protect ecosystems. Earlier this year, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history and puts the United States on track to achieve President Biden’s ambitious goal of cutting U.S. emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels in 2030. In addition, President Biden set forth the nation’s first-ever conservation goal – to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

Nature-based climate solutions are an essential part of remediating the climate crisis and should be a part of all major mitigation plans. Commitments to stop deforestation, restore land and water, and protect it from degradation are all commitments that have a direct impact on the Midwest and the Chicagoland region in addition to cutting methane and fossil fuel emissions. On a local level, Openlands is committed to the work of protecting 30% of all lands by 2030. Advocacy successes such as the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife referendum and programmatic wins such as the completion of Space to Grow’s 34th schoolyard and the creation of the Arborist Registered Apprenticeship are examples of Openlands’ commitment to furthering nature-based solutions to climate change. You can learn more about Openlands’ work to protect our local ecosystems and take action here

Celebrating the Successful Passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife Referendum

The results are in! It’s a historic day as we celebrate the overwhelming passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Wildlife referendum, which will restore and expand protected lands, support and create new jobs, and invest in improvements like new trails, accessibility, and engagement in nature for all ages.

This referendum is one of the most important environmental funding measures in Cook County history and it will support our forest preserves for generations to come. 

“The support of Cook County voters shows just how vital nature is to all residents and how the sound management of the Forest Preserves has had a huge impact on residents’ relationship with nature close to home,” said Jerry Adelmann, President and CEO of Openlands. “Our gratitude and congratulations go to President Preckwinkle, Superintendent Randall, and the entire Forest Preserves of Cook County staff who work tirelessly to ensure residents have healthy, equitable, and enjoyable places to get outside. We are indebted to the over 170 organizations and hundreds of volunteers who joined us in making this campaign a success and join them in celebrating this long-awaited victory for people and nature.”

Now get outside and enjoy our local forest preserves!