Winnebago County’s Forest Preserves offer superb opportunities for bird-watching. You can hike, drive and canoe through some of the most diverse habitats to be found in one county in Illinois. More than 300 species of bird have been recorded in Winnebago County’s woods, rivers, lakes and prairies, many of them easily seen from a car or during an easy stroll. Here are just a few of the highlights of this marvelous nature system in the Rock River Valley.
Springtime is a Great Time for Birding in Winnebago County!
Birdwatching Observation Sites
Colored Sands Forest Preserve
Watch the utility wires for Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows as you drive past 80 acres of restored little bluestem prairie to Colored Sands Forest Preserve at the northern extreme of the county, one of the premier bird-watching spots in northern Illinois. Home of Sand Bluff Bird Observatory since 1967, the preserve’s many different habitats have been enhanced by intensive prairie restoration efforts by the Forest Preserve District and the property’s previous owner, creating a tract of land that looks very much as wild and natural as it was before the settlers came.
Nearly every migrating or nesting warbler, wren, vireo, sparrow, thrush, blackbird and hawk recorded in the county has been found in the fields and woods of the extensive property. Savanna, Lark and Vesper Sparrows nest in the fields east of the banding building; White-eyed Vireos sometimes nest near the path south to the sand bluff. Follow the marked trail past the banding building through little blue stem grassland and scrub into high sandy meadows and on into a large oak savanna covering the steep sand bluff that defines the path of the Sugar River. Or take a short walk through low marshy areas to the banks of the Sugar River on a path off the west end of the parking lot. Be sure to check in at the banding station on weekends from March to the end of May, from late August to the end of November, to make sure you don’t disturb banding and hawk trapping programs.
Sugar River Forest Preserve
Sugar River Forest Preserve, one mile south of Colored Sands, also has a variety of habitats. As you enter the preserve, turn right to the shelter house where huge sycamores around the parking lot provide the only nesting spot in the county for nesting Yellow-throated Warblers. Take the loop road to the canoe launch and picnic area and watch the flooded areas for Louisiana Waterthrushes, or walk north along the river from the picnic grounds to prairie areas for Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Warblers.
Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve
Enter Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve from the parking lot on Perryville Road, just north of Blackhawk Road. In the spring, walk the (paved) path into the preserve, stopping on the bridge to scan the brush on either side for warblers. In April, scan the meadows and brushy edges for White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, while keeping an eye to the sky for Red-tailed and Coopers’ Hawks. Continue on the (unpaved) side path through the woods to the springs for which the preserve is named and watch for thrushes, orioles and tanagers. The tangled, wet areas around the springs themselves provide cover, food and watering places for all the woodland warblers, vireos and wrens.
Severson Dells Forest Preserve
Severson Dells Forest Preserve, southwest of Rockford has upland and lowland woods as well as marshy meadows. Follow the entrance road left and park in a parking lot bounded by grassy fields. Walk right from the parking lot to a paved path that leads to the pond where the famous Dr. Pond Scum holds his classes for visiting grade school students. Approach the pond quietly early in the morning for a possible glimpse of a Green Heron. Continue around the pond and across the meadow towards the entry to the woods. In the fields on each side watch for Eastern Kingbirds, Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds courting as they compete for nesting space in the prairie, while keeping a wary eye out for Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks. Take a close look at the large single oak tree in the nearby pasture—sometimes the nesting spot of a Red-tailed Hawk and often the perch for a Great Horned Owl at dusk and dawn, perhaps with young in the springtime. Phoebes and Wood Pewees call from inside the woodsy edges, while Least Flycatchers take advantage of low branches in their search for flying insects. Occasionally, in the spring, a high dead branch will become a perch for the more rare Olive-sided Flycatcher. The path quietly winds into the woods through high shagbark and oak woods, and this is the place to listen for Veeries and to watch the leafy path ahead for most of the other thrushes, plus Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles overhead. The Nature Center, a right turn after entering the preserve, maintains numerous bird feeders. The Center store sells bird books and other nature items and keeps a log of birds seen on the property.
Klehm Forest Preserve
Klehm Forest Preserve at the southern edge of Rockford is a perfect place to take a quick bird watching journey to the country without leaving town. Positioned at the base of the stone bluff that keeps the Rock River running south before it can turn west toward the Mississippi River, Klehm’s deep woods and tangled edges provide the safe haven woodland migrants require in their journeys to and from the north, and just about every woodland migrant that comes to the county stops there. Two paved paths and innumerable twisty, chip-covered trails through fruit trees, blooming hedges and dense oaks bring colorful migrating warblers down to a reasonable viewing level. Expect to see Indigo Buntings, Gray Catbirds, Wood Thrushes, Cedar Waxwings by the score (year round) and Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets and Gray-cheeked Thrushes (April). Among rare species that have been seen in the preserve are Northern Goshawk, Merlin and a Townsend’s Solitaire.