West Side Birding Story

As a new staff member at Openlands, I’d love to share with you the game changing environmental outreach happening in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods. This was my first year as a volunteer with Birds in My Neighborhood® (BIMN), an Openlands’ program that engages elementary school students at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through our Building School Gardens initiative. Birding volunteers like myself are trained as classroom ‘birding’ teachers and paired with wonderful schools, often in underserved areas. In three visits, we aim to open the eyes of students and teachers to the abundance of nature that exists all around them.  During the first visit, we conduct a classroom lesson with the children and provide them with their very own BIMN journals to research a bird of their choosing. During the second visit, we take our first bird walk around the school premises. The last gathering culminates with a field trip to a local nature area where we find new and interesting birds. What an amazing experience!


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Openlands board member Dean Fischer and I were paired with Ms. Gorzen’s 4th and 5th grade class at Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School in East Garfield Park (a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side.) For our first visit, we asked the class what they already knew about birds and what they would like to learn during our time together. You would be amazed at how much these kids knew! “What’s another thing you know about birds?” I asked. “The male Bird of Paradise does an elaborate courtship dance for the female Bird of Paradise” one child answered, followed by a host of similar responses. At the end of our time, our students were pumped about ornithology, and excited to research their bird of choice in their new BIMN journals!

When Dean and I returned for the second visit, the kids were thrilled to see us again and eager to share their research and drawings. Ms. Gorzen happily exclaimed, “It has been a task trying to pull them away from their journals all month!” Check out this stunning piece of artwork in a students journal:

We then packed our birding check lists and quietly ventured to the school gardens to see what we could find. It was the end of April and spring migration was in full swing. A group of girls huddled around me to observe my actions. I was able to teach them how to identify birds looking at their shape, size, field marks, colors, and habitat. They caught on quickly!

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“Up there,” one girl whispered. “I see a small one in the tree with black and white stripes on its head, a little yellow, and a white chin.” “That’s a special one that’s not on our check list,” I replied. “A white throated sparrow.” As a parting line, Dean announced to the class, “Each of you are now ‘Citizen Scientists’. Now that you know how to identify birds,” he said, “you can collect data to help protect our environment. You are smart and have an awesome responsibility ahead of you.” “Cool” the class responded, feeling a part of something special.

On May 28, we embarked on our final field trip to Humboldt Park.  A vibrant green space nestled within the city, Humboldt Park boasts a diverse habitat of trees, lagoons, and fields – all prime birding real estate. Our species list included Common Terns, a Black Crowned Night Heron, Barn Swallows, Chimney Swifts, Gulls, European Starlings, Red Winged Blackbirds, and more. The class stood in awe as we watched a Garter snake slide in front of us and up a fence.

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At the end of the trip, we settled in the grass for lunch, basking in the glory of our perfect spring day. A beautiful moment arose when a student, who we were told had barely spoken a few words at a time all year, burst into joyful song, amazing his teachers and peers. A volunteer from Audubon Chicago Region, our BIMN partner, took some time to flip through a Sibley’s Field Guide with a child who had been diligently researching the Peregrine Falcon.

I want you to know that you make this possible. Often with underserved communities in the city, you see children hunger for nature since it is generally not within their grasp. Because of your support of Openlands’ programs, we are able to feed that hunger, ignite a passion for the abundant world of nature around them, and nurture the environmental stewards of tomorrow.

“Now that I know about this park with all these trees and ponds,” a young girl said at the end of our trip, “I’m going to tell my mom to bring me here. She’ll tell all her friends, and they’ll put it all over Facebook, and soon everyone will know about this place.”

-By Tasha Lawson

Young People Explore Nature in the Calumet Region

Connecting young people to nature where they live is vital to creating our planet’s future stewards. This year, Openlands offered three very different opportunities for kids and young adults to get outside in the Calumet region, a unique, bi-state ecosystem in the Lake Michigan basin composed of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna.


calbiodiverRich habitat for all kinds of species characterized the Calumet before the region was settled and industrialized. Openlands worked with Valparaiso University students from 2013-2015 to see what kinds of aquatic life and stream habitat are present in the headwaters of several Calumet region streams that drain into Lake Michigan. We found some surprises, including rare native lamprey and tiny young-of-the-year coho salmon. The stream habitats were beautiful and unusually high-quality because we focused the work in natural areas managed by conservation oriented organizations. In addition to interesting fish and reptiles we also found some very distinctive aquatic insect larva. These including caddisfly larva that use pieces of stick to make cases in which they live,  making them look like tiny sticks that walk. The health of headwater areas, or the area where streams begin, is very important to the health of the entire stream system and the water bodies into which the streams drain.  In addition to seeing what life the headwaters support, we noted any conditions that could be addressed to make the headwaters healthier, for example, areas where road salt might be degrading water quality or areas where habitat for aquatic species is partially cut off from the rest of the stream by barriers like culverts that fish may have difficultly swimming through.

Since 2014, Openlands has also been connecting Calumet residents to nature in their communities through birding trips. In 2014, Ms. Mack’s 4th grade class from Lavizzo Elementary participated in Birds In My Neighborhood®, and was among a select group to visit Lake Calumet for a birding adventure highlighted by the appearance of two bald eagles.

BIMN1In 2015, in addition to a return to Lake Calumet, her class took a field trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the northeast edge of the Calumet region – only a 40 minute drive from the school. Birds In My Neighborhoodvolunteers escorted students and their families on a day trip to West Beach and the Douglas Environmental Education Center at Indiana Dunes. For all but one father, this was the first time any of the students or family members had visited the Dunes. The students were excited throughout the day as they played games and practiced using binoculars to find birds. By visiting a new place to practice birding with parents, grandparents, and cousins, the students had a positive and memorable experience in nature. In 2016, Openlands hopes to create similar opportunities for weekend bird walks for Birds in My Neighborhood families. We hope to make what one young lady referred to as “the best field trip ever” a recurring event.


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Openlands has also been partnering to offer explorations of calumet waterways via canoe and kayak since 2014.  On June 13, we partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County to offer paddling at Fishin’ Buddies’ Beaubien Woods Celebration.  About 250 mostly local Calumet residents paddled, many for the first time, and explored Beaubien Woods’ Flatfoot Lake from canoes, looking for evidence of beaver presence on the lake, including searching for lodges and gnawed trees and learning a little bit about the history of the landscape.  It was a beautiful day and Flatfoot lake was literally sparking.  One of the participants said that the paddling was the “jewel of the festival.”

These recent Openlands efforts are part of our robust history of connecting the people of the Calumet Region to nature by increasing public access to open space, empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources, and promoting a regional culture of conservation by developing an interconnected network of protected and productive green ways, water trails and open spaces.

Protecting Chicago’s Second Shoreline

A wildlife biologist peers down at the Chicago River from the Washington Street Bridge. River otters are fastidiously building cones out of the remains of their breakfast on a ledge behind the Civic Opera House. Once completely gone from Illinois, the otters – along with over 70 kinds of fish, black crowned night herons, bald eagles, and scores of other wildlife – have returned to Chicago’s rivers. They share the waters at dawn with high school crew teams who clip along the surface.

Chicagoans have come a long way over the last forty years in how we see and value our second shoreline. Once considered open sewers, the Chicago and Calumet rivers have become vibrant natural attractions that are economic drivers and community assets. Offices and homes are now facing the river again, and the number of docks and boat launches is rising.


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Managing stormwater to help our rivers

One solution is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) “Deep Tunnel” and reservoir project, which captures billions of gallons of rain. When storms overwhelm MWRD’s treatment plants, it has to flush the overflow of rainwater and sewage into our rivers and Lake Michigan. The 30-foot tunnels and giant reservoirs hold massive amounts of polluted stormwater until MWRD can treat it all. The quality of our rivers has also improved as MWRD has upgraded the technology at its treatment plants.

MWRD is also partnering with Openlands and other organizations to help communities capture rain where it falls. Through the Space to Grow program, Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign are working with MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to transform underutilized schoolyards into lush gardens and safe playgrounds for students, families, and community members. Because of these new amenities, we have fewer basement backups, less stormwater flowing into our sewers, reduced flooding, and ultimately less pollution discharged into our waters. The program is gaining national recognition as a model for other cities to leverage public and private partnerships for a multitude of community benefits.


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Strengthening regulations

The State and Federal EPA are recognizing our progress in reclaiming the Chicago and Calumet rivers and are requiring stronger protections for people and wildlife that are on and in the water. Since so many people are enjoying our waterways, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) has adopted regulations that require the MWRD to disinfect over 600 million gallons of sewage that it discharges each day from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Earlier this month, the Board took another giant step towards passing comparable regulations to protect the resurgence of fish and other wildlife by requiring power plants and other industrial users to remove more heat and pollution from its cooling water before returning it to our rivers. Openlands and our colleagues continue to advocate for the Board and the United States EPA to hold strong on these improvements so that our rivers can reach their potential.


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The work continues

This growing consciousness has sparked new plans for the future. The Calumet Stormwater Initiative is leveraging the vision and resources of Chicago’s south side communities to attract millions of dollars in public and private funding for a host of stormwater projects. As a result of ongoing collaboration between government agencies and non-profit organizations, the region is a strong candidate for up to $500 million in federal assistance to help communities become more resilient to the effects of flooding and climate change.

We still face challenges ahead. Openlands and our partners are already challenging requests by industry for permission to sidestep the new water quality standards. We are preparing for upcoming Board proceedings that will determine how much industry can continue to pollute our rivers with road salt, ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic to rebounding wildlife. In addition, Openlands has intervened in a proceeding where the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to continue to allow the MWRD to use Lake Michigan Water to flush out our rivers.

Overall, we are seeing progress. At Openlands, we will continue to press for revitalizing our waterways and better connect the people of our region with these natural treasures.

Conservation Easements Create a Network of Protected Lands

Openlands envisions a Chicago region where all people can connect to a web of green. The conservation easement is a primary tool Openlands uses to partner with private landowners to create that network of protected land. An easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits uses and ensures that the land retains its conservation value, while keeping the land in private ownership. Easements can be used to protect any type of important natural resource from wetlands to forests and farms. Openlands has been using easements in its work since 1980 and in 2013 was accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, a program of the Land Trust Alliance.

“Working with private landowners to help build an interconnected system of natural lands is critically important in a place like Illinois, where more than 95% of the land is in private ownership,”  says Emy Brawley, Openlands’ Director of Land Preservation.  “There will never be enough public dollars to buy the land needed to create a resilient, interconnected landscape at the scale necessary for our region to thrive.”

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The purpose and terms of each easement are tailored to landowners’ desires for the specific property. For instance, an easement for agricultural land could allow for farming activity and the construction of barns and stables, but not energy development or building multiple houses. The flexibility of the easement agreement allows landowners to retain some value through productive use of the land, while the land trust ensures that it is protected for future generations. Easements are most often donated by the landowner, who then is eligible for a variety of tax benefits from the transaction.  The easement also lowers the real property and estate tax burden, which may allow owners to keep land within a family.

“In our area, conservation easements are an under-appreciated and economically-sensible land protection tool. In contrast to public ownership, they keep property on the tax roll, and the expense of managing the land stays with the private landowner, rather than being transferred to a government,” says Brawley.  “So, conservation easements provide many of the same benefits that come from publicly-owned land – habitat for animals, clean water and air, even recreational opportunities – at a fraction of the cost.”

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One area for which conservation easements are proving to be a key tool is our work supporting our regional food system. Food is one of the most tangible connections we have with land and Openlands’ goal to connect people to nature is being accomplished through this important work.

In 2014, Openlands worked with the Conservation Fund to accept a 198-acre conservation easement at Prairie Crossing, an acclaimed conservation community in Grayslake, Illinois. The property includes passive recreation areas with trails, open space areas, a Montessori school, and agricultural operations. The agricultural zone of the easement is used for small-scale farming, the operations of which the Liberty Prairie Foundation helps to support and manage.

Working in partnership with the Liberty Prairie Foundation, Openlands is also developing initiatives that connect new and beginning farmers with land. Thanks to funding from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Openlands and its partners are conducting research that aims to strengthen the resiliency of our region’s foodshed by ensuring that important farmland is protected and that the next generations of farmers and stewards will sustainably manage it for productive use. A robust, sustainably managed regional food system generates economic, environmental, and public health benefits that flow to all residents.

Exelon Employees Volunteer at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve

On April 5, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve got a helping hand from a group of Exelon and ComEd employees, and their families. Ten dedicated volunteers spent the morning cleaning up 100 pounds of trash from the beach. “The weather was perfect, the team did such a great job, and everyone enjoyed themselves,” said Preserve Site Manager Aimee Collins.

The volunteer opportunity was one of many organized by Exelon as part of National Volunteer Week.


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The volunteer workday, which also took place last year, was just the most recent partnership between Openlands and Exelon. The Exelon Foundation funds Eco-Explorations, wherein elementary and high school students learn naturalist skills both in the classroom and at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Additionally, both Van Horne Ravine Overlook at the Preserve and the ongoing art education partnership between Openlands and Marwen are funded by the Exelon Foundation.

For more information on beach cleanups or to register your organization for a corporate workday, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.

GATX Employees Give Back to the Community During a Tree Planting and Volunteer Workday

On May 22, employees from GATX Corporation joined Openlands for a volunteer workday. With the help from Openlands TreeKeepers and staff from the North Park Village Nature Center, GATX employees planted a total of 25 native trees, including eight blue beech, eight swamp white oaks, and nine hills oaks in the nature preserve behind the North Park Village Nature Center.

Openlands TreeKeepers instructed GATX employees in groups of four on the proper ways to plant, mulch, and water the trees. Since the launch of TreeKeepers 25 years ago, more than 1,800 volunteers have completed the program’s training course. TreeKeepers volunteers provide “eyes and ears on the ground” year-round in neighborhoods all over the city to spot improper planting, vandalism, insect infestation, and other problems. TreeKeepers are passionate ambassadors who help educate their neighbors as well as their local public officials about the importance of trees for the greater good.


2013-tree-planting-photo-7North Park Village Nature Center features a 46-acre nature preserve and educational facility situated within the 155-acre North Park Village campus that was once the site of a tuberculosis sanitarium owned by the City of Chicago. Openlands was a key partner in a coalition led by the North River Commission that successfully advocated for the preservation of the land as public property after the sanitarium closed and  plans were made to redevelop the site as a shopping center.  In 1989, Openlands was granted a conservation easement by the City of Chicago on the 155-acre site to preserve all of the existing green space, including the Nature Center, for 75 years.

The nature preserve’s trails now meander through woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and savannas, offering visitors a chance to learn first-hand the distinctive qualities of each ecosystem. The Nature Center boasts a discovery room with hands-on, interactive displays of natural objects. North Park Village Nature Center is open seven days a week (excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays) from 10am-4pm.

Openlands provides volunteer opportunities for corporations at tree plantings, community gardens, 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.