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A Land Protection Success for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

Spend an afternoon exploring the countryside of McHenry County, about 70 miles northwest of Chicago, and soon you will find yourself crossing one of the features that make this part of our region special: a lazy Midwestern stream. Dozens of these little waterways wind through the farm fields and sleepy villages that characterize the county’s quiet rural areas. These streams feed larger creeks such as the Nippersink and Piscasaw, which then flow into our region’s big rivers such as the Fox and Kishwaukee. Eventually, the tiny McHenry County stream you cross will reach the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

In January of 2016, Openlands closed on the purchase of a 27-acre property in rural Woodstock that contains one of these important waterways. Known as the Perricone property, the site features part of a major branch of the high-quality Nippersink Creek along with remnant sedge meadow communities. Nearly a mile of the creek meanders through the property, offering critical habitat for native fish and mussels. In addition, nearby upland areas present excellent opportunities to restore native prairie habitat, support grassland and migratory birds, and create a buffer area along the creek to improve soil health and water quality.

The Perricone property is an important land protection project for several reasons. Chief among these is the property’s location within the boundaries of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. When Hackmatack was established by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012, the refuge’s footprint was carefully outlined by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to include streams and creeks within the Nippersink Creek watershed. In addition to protecting part of this high-quality hydrological complex – home to several state endangered and threatened species – the Perricone property lays within a designated “core area” of Hackmatack. This is truly a strategic land protection accomplishment for the refuge.


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With generous funding from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, a critical match grant from the Full Circle Foundation, and help from our partner, the Nippersink Creek Watershed Association, Openlands purchased the Perricone property and will begin restoration work on the site later this year. In the near future, Openlands plans to transfer the property into the permanent ownership of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, where it will officially become part of the federal landholdings that comprise Hackmatack.

A few miles downstream from the Perricone property, this particular branch of the Nippersink Creek flows through another important Hackmatack project located in the same “core area” of Hackmatack: the Twin Creeks project. With the help of conservation partners including the McHenry County Conservation District and Ducks Unlimited, Openlands purchased about 100 acres of this platted, yet undeveloped subdivision – transforming the land into a beautiful complex of oak woodland, common areas featuring native wildflowers, protected creek corridor, and individual home sites. Federal grant funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act is being leveraged to complete restoration work along the creek.

The Perricone property and the Twin Creeks project are great examples of powerful partnerships coming together to create a large-scale project like Hackmatack. Openlands is one of ten organizations that have signed on to a partnership agreement guiding the selection and implementation of land protection projects for Hackmatack. As of January 2018, the partners have protected nearly 1,000 acres in the refuge boundaries. These successes have been accomplished by using innovative approaches that leverage limited partner resources, working with willing sellers, and helping conservation-minded landowners protect their properties with conservation easements.


Want to start exploring Hackmatack for yourself? The best ways to experience the refuge are through a visit to Glacial Park and by paddling the Nippersink Creek. You can also learn more about the landscapes protected at Hackmatack and read the story of how a small group of volunteers earned federal recognition of these special landscapes.

For more information on Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, please contact land@openlands.org.

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.