Have You Discovered Ryerson Woods?

Wandering the trails at Ryerson Woods you may feel as if you’re exploring forests far from the Chicago suburbs. This oak woodland is home to some remnants of our region’s ecological past and it’s a great place to spend the day outside.

Located on the banks of the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area is 565-acre preserve managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves. Ryerson Woods supports some of Illinois’ most pristine woodlands and several state threatened and endangered species. Two rare ecosystems — flatwoods and a floodplain forest — can be found here. Much of Ryerson Woods has been protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Ryerson Woods makes a great day-trip for outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are well maintained and the area is pretty flat, so it won’t be your most strenuous hike, but there’s plenty to enjoy. And part of the beauty of Ryerson comes from its year-round accessibility: the trails are open to cross-country skiing in the winter (when there’s at least 4″ of snow) and it’s treasure to see in late October as the leaves turn. If you’re looking for somewhere new to explore or even if you’ve been before, make sure it’s on your list of places to get outside in our region.

Celebrate Earth Day Around Chicagoland

Earth Day is celebrated on April 22, but there are celebrations taking place all weekend long. We want to share some ways you can enjoy and protect the planet! Below is a list of just a few places where you can get involved, spend some time outside, and enjoy the nature around you throughout the Chicago area.

If you just want to get outside and celebrate Earth Day in your own way, take a look at our suggestions to discover the outdoors of the Chicago region.


Saturday, April 14

As a follow-up to last year’s March for Science, head to the Field Museum to Speak Up For Science. This is the follow-up action to last year’s March for Science. Come meet scientists, learn about concrete ways you can fight for the planet, share your voice with legislators through a postcard-writing campaign, explore the Field Museum, and more! Learn more.

Openlands is looking for volunteers to help restore the Liberty Prairie Reserve in Grayslake, Illinois. Volunteers will help each workday by removing brush, plant trees, or spread native plant seeds. Learn more.


Saturday, April 21

Join Openlands for community tree plantings across Chicago. On Earth Day we are looking for TreeKeepers to help plant in Humboldt Park and our Forestry Crew is assisting a community tree planting at Morrill Elementary School in the Chicago Lawn Neighborhood. Be sure to register as a volunteer if you’re interested.

Friends of the Parks is organizing their 29th Annual Earth Day Parks and Preserves Clean-Up. All morning long, volunteers will be out caring for the parks and green spaces of Chicago. Learn more.

DuPage Forest Preserves are hosting several history hikes, site tours, and restoration workdays at Churchill Woods, West Chicago Prairie, and Mayslake. See the full list.

Lake County Forest Preserve District is also hosting a number of restoration workdays at sites across the county. Learn more.


Sunday, April 22

Forest Preserves of Cook County will host a series of Earth Day events including special celebrations, bird hikes at LaBagh Woods and Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, wildflower hikes, canoe trips, volunteer restoration projects, and more. Check out their full list.

At the Morton Arboretum, unleash your inner champion as you run a 10k through a springtime morning surrounded by trees from around the world. The challenging course follows the Arboretum’s east side main route through rolling terrain. Learn more.


Get Outside!

Get outside in the Chicago region, enjoy spring in bloom, and celebrate the planet. Consider a hike at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, paddling on the Nippersink Creek, or a bird walk in your local park. A few more of our favorite places to get outside include the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, North Park Village Nature Center, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Be sure to share your Earth Day with us! If you’re on Instagram, tag your photos from Earth Day with #DiscoverYourPlace to share your day with the Openlands community.

Have You Discovered North Park Village Nature Center?

Situated in the heart of Chicago’s north side is a peaceful retreat from the bustle of city life. North Park Village Nature Center is a 46-acre natural area and education resource, offering multiple recreation opportunities and a variety of programming from the Chicago Park District.

The nature center is a great snapshot of Illinois’ native landscapes. Here you can wander through wetlands and tallgrass, forests, prairies, and even an oak savanna. The change in ecosystems is plainly apparent as you follow the trail, and the interpretive signage throughout makes North Park Village Nature Center a superb educational resource. Check it out for hiking and walking, birding, or a short field trip with your family!

North Park Village Nature Center is open seven days a week from 10am-4pm.

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.

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.


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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.

Openlands Director of Neighborhood Programs Leads Urban Conservation Plan

On April 18, Openlands Neighborhood Programs Director, Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa, was recognized for her successful completion of the Chicago Conservation Corps Leadership Certificate Program. The Chicago Conservation Corps (C3) recruits, trains, and supports a network of volunteers who work together to improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods and schools through environmental service projects. The training includes 20+ hours of sustainability-focused study and execution of a final project. Elvia chose to present two Spanish-language workshops on vermicomposting for families in Pilsen and Little Village. Participants were assisted in creating a home for the worms which they took home at the end of the workshops.

Elvia was one of three members of Environmentalists of Color (EOC) that were recognized that evening. EOC is an interdisciplinary network of leaders of color who are passionate about an array of critical environmental issues, ranging from habitat conservation to environmental justice.

“My goal in participating in these networks is to increase opportunities for Openlands to serve as a resource and to partner with groups across the Chicago area,” explains Elvia. “I especially like introducing people to Openlands and the variety of work that we do.”


El Paseo Community Garden Credit Pilsen Alianza Verde
El Paseo Community Garden, Photo: Pilsen Alianza Verde

Elvia leads Openlands’ longstanding focus on pollinator conservation in community gardens, which encourages gardeners to plant pollinator-friendly plants like common milkweed to support monarch butterflies. For instance, the Hoxie Prairie Garden on the southeast side is an excellent example of a pollinator-friendly habitat garden while El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen combines both food growing and pollinator support.

One recent garden project Elvia has supported and which ties together her work with C3 is the Phoenix Garden in South Lawndale. Funded through a grant by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and building on substantial community engagement facilitated by the US Forest Service, the Phoenix Garden will combine art, restoration, community gardens, and even high school class lessons.

The new garden, located at Little Village Lawndale High School, will facilitate unique student art projects, help the environmental science program develop outdoor lessons in restoration, and create habitat for monarchs. Elvia will support both Enlace, a community organization based in Little Village, and the North Lawndale Greening Committee as they take charge of summer stewardship at the garden. This partnership will engage neighbors in both the North and South Lawndale communities in a neighborhood-wide pollinator conservation. The US Forest Service has done tremendous work with El Valor, another community agency, to raise awareness of best practices to support monarchs, and the new garden will offer a place for residents to release any monarchs they raise in their household gardens into a healthy habitat at the school.


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Morrill Elementary Community Garden

The communities around Little Village Lawndale High School have a history of championing community-sourced solutions for the challenges they face, and this garden is designed around leveraging community knowledge to achieve great conservation potential. “When Openlands facilitates dialogue between neighbors then sits down and listens to community needs, we achieve our most successful partnerships,” says Elvia.

Developing this natural area around the school into the Phoenix Garden started as an idea from residents and students. “I’m excited we can support connecting people to nature while helping Monarchs on the school grounds,” explains Elvia. “Whether with community gardens, Space to Grow, or Building School Gardens, when we engage people normally not included in these kinds of discussions, we find some of the best solutions for urban conservation.”

Building School Gardens Workshops Prepare CPS for Spring

Maintaining a school garden year after year is a challenge, and Openlands is proud that over 90% of our Building School Gardens schools are still using their school gardens, some of which are over ten years old! Through Building School Gardens, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to the hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.

Openlands continues to support 58 Chicago Public Schools each year through garden team consultations, stewardship days, and additional education programming like Birds in my Neighborhood® and Eco-Explorations. One of the most impactful ways we help our school gardeners is through Building School Gardens workshops.

Held throughout the year at Building School Gardens schools, these workshops give teachers and garden team members tools that help them to maintain the garden, and to use the schoolyard as a part of class lessons, and it provides garden teams with a networking opportunity. Openlands uses an annual survey to drive the content of workshops, but a typical year-long schedule includes training on building and maintaining a garden team, stewarding a school garden, curriculum connections, and garden tours.


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In the fall of 2016, Building School Gardens met at Webster Elementary’ s new garden to share STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) lessons. In the winter, Franklin Fine Arts hosted a workshop on Art in the Garden, where participants learned how to make stepping stones. This spring, Tonti Elementary hosted a workshop on Vegetable Gardening Basics, and shared a lesson on Poetry in the Garden. The Tonti workshop was a smashing success, and teachers requested that we offer it in Spanish, which will happen on May 8 at Tonti. In addition to the Vegetable Gardening workshop in Spanish, Building School Gardens will coordinate a plant divide at Mark Sheridan Academy on May 20, and a training on Stewarding the School Garden at Palmer Elementary, at a date yet to be determined.

In the 2016-17 school year, over 20 Building School Gardens schools have been represented at these workshops. Several of these schools have had a very high level of participation among their garden team, and will therefore receive small stipends from Building School Gardens as an award for their efforts.


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Openlands also visited the entire staff at McPherson and Webster Elementary to provide a separate training on How and Why to Teach Outdoors. For some teachers this comes naturally, but we have found that for the others that don’t generally think about using the garden – or that don’t even know about the garden – but a special workshop on the topic can help increase the use of the outdoor space for learning.

Building School Gardens staff are beginning to create the schedule for next year’s workshops. Content will ultimately depend on survey responses from teachers, but we expect to touch on education activities related to trees and birds.


For more information on future Building School Gardens workshops, please contact schools@openlands.org.

Volunteers Step up for Schools and Birds

Spring is right around the corner, which means Birds in my Neighborhood® is already looking for volunteers! Birds in my Neighborhood, a partnership between Openlands and Audubon-Great Lakes, is a volunteer-driven program for grades 2 through 5 with the goal of acquainting students with nature in their community through the observation of birds.

Do you love birds? Would you consider sharing that interest with Chicago Public School children on a field trip? We need volunteers to help run the program! The commitment is minimal and certainly rewarding. New volunteers attend three trainings which each correspond to one of the three sessions with students. After attending the trainings, volunteers are assigned in pairs of two to a classroom and connected to the teacher to schedule dates for the three sessions.

Over the next several months, each volunteer will visit a group of students in their classroom, with a smile and a few simple questions:

“What do you know about birds?” or “What birds have you seen?”


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Students will each research a bird that lives in their community, like a cardinal or a house sparrow. The combination of visiting with volunteers and conducting their own investigation on a particular bird is what really opens students’ eyes to the natural world around them.

The teachers in Birds in my Neighborhood classes always comment about how the students are so enthused about birds after meeting with the volunteers the first time, and often times we hear stories of students noticing birds on their way to and from school, or at their home. To hear one of these stories yourself, listen to Ms. Caponigro, from Peck Elementary in West Elsdon.

“One visit from Birds in my Neighborhood and these kids are seeing birds everywhere!”

– Ms. Caponigro, Peck Elementary


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When the volunteers return for a second visit they will check the students’ research and take them on a bird walk in their schoolyard. In May, as a culmination of the program, volunteers will lead students on a bird walk at a park or forest preserve near their school, such as Jackson Park, Humboldt Park, or Whistler Woods.

If you are interested in getting involved in Birds in my Neighborhood, there is still time. We are always looking for willing adults to help with field trips and to assist this great program that is reaching 1500 students across Chicago.

For more information, please contact schools@openlands.org or call 312.863.6276. If you are simply looking to spy birds on your own, we highly recommend you plan a visit to Montrose Point.

Openlands Director of Regional Forestry Accepted into Civic Leadership Academy

Daniella Pereira, Openlands’ Director of Regional Forestry, has been accepted into the 2017 class of the Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago. Pereira’s acceptance into the program serves as recognition of her expertise in forestry and her substantial work to connect residents of Chicago to their urban forest. Through education and engagement, Pereira hopes to raise greater awareness of the conservation issues that face our region.

“My personal goal is to connect more urban people to appreciating and stewarding green spaces in their communities,” says Pereira. “Unless a child is introduced to nature when they are young, it is difficult to appreciate nature, let alone advocate for it.”

Having joined Openlands in 2013, Daniella oversees the sustainable expansion of our Forestry programs, creates and strengthens strategic partnerships, collaborates on urban forestry policy both locally and with the State’s Urban Forestry Committee, and leads Openlands’ role in the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.


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The Civic Leadership Academy is an interdisciplinary leadership development program for emerging and high-potential leaders in nonprofit organizations and local government agencies within the City of Chicago and Cook County. The highly selective program, which accepted only 30 of 150 applicants in 2017, is designed to develop a pipeline of talented leaders to help nonprofits and government agencies thrive. Pereira’s involvement with the program will examine the best ways to engage local leaders with residents and how to best leverage the city’s resources in care of the urban forest.

“If people find value in being outside, they will be open to stewarding green space as part of their civic duty,” adds Pereira. “The conduit that I would like to make is giving missed outdoor opportunities to adults by creating positive environmental policy that stimulates good-paying, green jobs and training. Investing in people can connect them to valuing nature.”

Learn more about Openlands urban forestry work.

Have You Discovered Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary?

Sitting quietly on the shores of Lake Michigan, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary – the Magic Hedge – is home to a vast array of bird species. As of January 2017 over 320 species of birds have been identified at Montrose Point. Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts recently voted the sanctuary as the best place for birding in Illinois, and one could argue that this is one of the top birding locations in the entire Great Lakes region.

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 provide stopover points for these birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents. There are many of these stop-over points within Chicago’s city limits – Jackson Park, Humboldt Park, Lake Calumet and Labagh Woods are especially active during spring and fall migration – but Montrose Point is one that stands above the rest.

A bird sanctuary that jets out into Lake Michigan serves is a funnel for birds as they travel over Lake Michigan, looking for green space that is somewhat sparse in our area. Bird lovers were the ones who gave Montrose Point the Magic Hedge nickname and for good reason. This sanctuary truly is a gem and worth discovering for yourself.