Laona Heights Sugar River Colored Sands Sugar River Two Rivers Ferguson Hartley Memorial Trask Bridge Four Lakes Pecatonica River Pecatonica Wetlands Crooked River Grove Creek Seward Bluffs Klehm Forest Preserve Severson Dells Fuller Memorial Cedar Cliff Indian Hill Hinchliff Memorial Kilbuck Bluffs Trailside Kishwaukee Gorge South Kishwaukee Gorge North Rockford Rotary Kishwaukee River Oak Ridge Blackhawk Springs Deer Run Espenscheid Memorial McKiski County Line Kieselburg Roland Olson Stone Bridge Clayton Andrews Ledges Hononegah J. Norman Jensen Millrace Isle Macktown Atwood Homestead Forest Preserve Headquarters

Recent Restoration & Conservation Projects

Seed Collection Benefits Vitality of Prairies and Saves Money

Little blue stem prairie grass seed will be processed and used to plant new prairie restorations in spring.

In 2019, FPWC staff and volunteers have collected hundreds of pounds of seed from 115 varied species valued at $120,000.

Historically, tall grass prairie covered nearly 75% of Winnebago County’s landscape with such species as big bluestem, butterfly milkweed, prairie cord grass, and pale purple coneflower. By 1990, 99.89% of the county’s original prairie had disappeared. Prairie restoration is a major focus of FPWC’s  ecological restoration program, which converts degraded agricultural land into vibrant grassland habitat that supports diverse native species. Natural Resource Manager, Mike Groves, knows that one way to acquire native plants very cheaply is to collect your own seed. Collecting seed from our own mature prairies ensures that we are getting seed that is suited to the conditions in this area and saves the District hundreds of thousands of dollars. A few seed species that are not abundantly available or are very difficult to harvest are purchased annually.

Most FPWC restorations involve planting a diverse mixture of species that are native to this area and are collected close to the planting site. Summer and fall are harvest season, when Natural Resource staff and volunteers gather the silky smooth seeds of Indian grass, the tough bristly seed heads of compass plant, and dozens of other species. We study existing prairie remnants to familiarize ourselves with the native flora and fauna. Many of our native plants also depend on native insects for pollination and native animals for seed dispersal. “We pay particular attention to the local ecotype,” explains Resource Technician, Eric Bednar. “We note the variations in soils and choose a seed mix that will hopefully flourish in the chosen location.” An additional benefit to collecting from our own sites is that the seed obtained from a supplier may not be genetically suitable or appropriate for the restoration site. Prairie restoration efforts are generally more successful when seed is collected from sites that are similar to the restoration in terms of soil type and topography.

Variations in Illinois soils and hydrology have given rise to six major categories of prairie types: black soil prairie, sand prairie, gravel prairie, dolomite prairie, hill prairie, and shrub prairie. Thanks to restoration and protection, all but shrub prairie are represented in Winnebago County today.

When collecting, we gather only one-fourth to one-half of the seeds. Mike Groves notes that staff is careful to leave some seeds to grow new plants on site. This is important to maintain the diversity of plants in that area.

Volunteers help gather prairie seeds.

Most seeds mature in the fall and are intended to germinate the following spring. Eric Bednar says that it is often necessary to persuade a dormant seed that it has been through a winter. “The exact requirement for each species varies, but the commonest is cold damp stratification. This means moistening the seed and placing it in a cold environment for one or more months before planting.”

After collection, Groves explains, “we clean and process the seed in the propagation facility at Severson Dells Farm.” This is also the site of the FPWC greenhouse where prairie and wetland plant seedlings are raised for transplant in the preserves. The majority of the cleaned prairie seed is mixed, stored and broadcast the following summer on newly cleared ground and at immature restoration sites. As the prairie plants emerge and become established over the subsequent five to ten years, controlled burns help eliminate invasive plants that would compete with the native grasses and flowers. Another benefit of FPWC’s collection and propagation program, Groves emphasizes, is the ability to reintroduce and cultivate threatened and endangered plants such as Hill’s thistle and prairie bush clover, which boosts their survival rates.

FPWC’s “do-it-yourself” approach to creating native prairie improves viability, saves money and is a highly effective way to provide badly needed habitat that will benefit rare species such as Henslow’s sparrows, Eastern Meadow larks, badgers and monarch butterflies by providing more habitat for them to colonize.

Please consider assisting with this valuable seed collection program by attending REAP volunteer work days. Learn more about how you can help nurture nature by volunteering!

 

Protecting Endangered Blanding’s Turtles

by Mike Groves, FPWC Natural Resource Manager and
May 2019

Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) are semi-aquatic turtles that depend on marsh, pond, and stream habitat for survival. Once common in northern Illinois, habitat loss and predation have decimated populations throughout its range and Blanding’s is now a state endangered (and globally imperiled) species. We are fortunate to have a small, but elusive, population in Winnebago County.

Railroad bridge construction in Deer Run Forest Preserve has created a unique opportunity for FPWC to further conservation efforts for Blanding’s turtles. As Canadian National Railroad undertakes replacement of an old trestle on a section of line running through the forest preserve, it is required to fulfill environmental assessment and permitting in order to minimize impact on the surrounding habitat. FPWC’s Natural Resource staff, in conjunction with the Illinois Natural History Survey, has identified Blanding’s turtles at this preserve site in recent years. Because of the documentation of this rare turtle at this site, FPWC was selected to be the lead agency on locating, tracking, and documenting any additional specimens in an effort to protect them throughout the project. As part of an inter-agency agreement, funding was provided to purchase radio telemetry turtle tracking equipment and to install Blanding’s education signage when the bridge project is complete.

Currently staff is tracking two Blanding’s turtles (one female, one male) to determine where they hibernate, where they spend summers, and where they lay their eggs. Determining what habitat they prefer will help FPWC staff to manage and protect these areas. As a result of this monitoring, staff can also determine what time of year is best to conduct habitat restoration activities to avoid disturbing or harming the turtles.

In the future, FPWC hopes to participate in a head-start type of program, in which young can be raised in a protected, captive environment and eventually released to reestablish wild populations. FPWC staff is working to secure the permits from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Natural History Survey, which will grant permission to do this reintroduction work. FPWC’s Blanding’s reintroduction program will be designed to align with the IDNR’s Blanding Turtle Recovery Program. The goal is to have a head-start program in place by next year.

Habitat protection is critical to sustaining a viable Blanding’s population in our preserves. Adequate quantity of suitable Blanding’s habitat is thought to limit the turtles’ long range movements and enable them to find suitable mates which, in turn, reduces predation and encourages successful reproduction. Turtle nests are heavily preyed upon, so protecting nest sites, and having a head-start program for young turtles for at least a year can significantly increase their chances of survival, especially since most turtles don’t make it past the first year of life.

The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County has already gained valuable information about these rare turtles in a short time by tracking their movements, and the hope is to find more in other preserves so that we can help protect the last few remaining individuals.

 

Deer Run Forest Preserve: Transformed From Vacant to Vibrant

Deer Run Forest Preserve is considered one of FPWC’s most successful restoration projects. Acquired in four phases from 1994 through 2011, it serves as a prime illustration of the rich plant and animal diversity that can be achieved through the utilization of various restoration techniques and best practices. Deer Run’s 594 acres on the south branch of the Kishwaukee River contain hundreds of acres of restored prairie, floodplain wetlands, ponds, oak savanna and woods.

Before it was acquired as a forest preserve, Deer Run was farm land. Located near the confluence of the north and south branches, it is flood plain land; wet silty soil and prone to flooding.  Not ideal for farming, but ideal for valuable floodplain habitat to support wildlife and protect the quality of the river.

The restoration of Deer Run began immediately after acquisition with tilling of the soil to turn in old corn and soybean crop material, and then planting by broadcasting a local mix of prairie seed. For the first seven years, intense seeding, and over seeding, along with prescribed burns every 2- 4 years created a lush and diverse mix of prairie grasses and forbs. Big blue stem, little blue stem, Indian grass, black-eyed Susans, butterfly milkweed, purple prairie clover, false white indigo, compass plant, prairie dock, pale purple coneflower, wild lupine, and pale Indian plantain are just a few of the species that are now thriving and reproducing. Today, over 150 native prairie plant species create a healthy prairie ecosystem at Deer Run.

In addition to prairie restoration wetland and woodlands have been enhanced to produce high quality and more sustainable habitat. In 2000, the creek running through the preserve was diverted from emptying into the Kishwaukee River. When the land was farmed, the creek functioned as a drainage ditch and helped transport water off the fields. Natural Resource Manager, Mike Groves, explains that the creek was realigned so that that its flow emptied into the preserve thus helping to restore the natural hydrology. Retaining water on the property has created more consistent wetland and pond water levels. The enhanced wetland habitat now supports numerous waterfowl and wading birds, amphibians such as frogs and turtles, as well as mammals such as beaver and river otters. Otters have recently been documented denning and breeding in these protected ponds.

Invasive species have been an on-going challenge at Deer Run, as they are in most restored natural areas. To keep aggressive and non-native species from competing with desirable native species,  District staff employs burning, cutting and herbicide of buckthorn, reed canary grass, bush honey suckle, Siberian elm, teasel and Canada thistle. Reed canary grass has proven the most difficult to eradicate due to frequent flooding that carries new seeds into the preserve.

In 2012, a major project was extensive clearing of non-native and invasive woody vegetation from the oak savanna in the newest section of Deer Run. By removing the encroaching vegetation, this remnant of threatened savanna ecosystem has its understory restored to health, which will aid greatly in its sustainability and biodiversity.

2013 brought the removal of old fencerow vegetation to eliminate fragmentation of the prairie and enhance the large contiguous grassland habitat that many imperiled grassland birds require.

The diverse plant communities now flourishing at Deer Run have attracted dozens of migrating and resident bird species. Sedge Wren, Dickcissel, Orchard Oriole, Bluebird, Eastern Meadowlark, Tree Swallow, Red-winged Blackbirds, Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, Red-tailed Hawk,  Sandhill Crane, Sedge Wren, Barred Owl, Eastern Bluebird, Fox Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow are just a few that have been documented here.

Mike Groves describes the Deer Run restoration as an example of his “build it and they will come” philosophy. Groves says that after just a couple of years of prairie seeding and burning, numerous native birds began showing up during migration and for nesting. The continuous planting, invasive species control and removal of habitat barriers has produced high quality habitat with escalating plant and animal diversity. Healthy, floodplain natural areas such as Deer Run are critical to preserving the health of the Kishwaukee River corridor and the many creatures that depend upon it for survival.

Wood Duck Nesting Program

Wood Ducks are cavity nesters that require mature older growth trees with hollow cavities. Artificial nest boxes provide additional nesting sites for Wood Ducks while providing much needed security from predators. Nest predation is much higher in tree cavities where predators can easily access the nests. Nest boxes are placed on poles usually over water where most predators are unable to reach them. Suitable habitat includes water, food and cover. Nest boxes work best where there are few natural cavities. Nest boxes are a good way to increase local populations of Wood Ducks. The placement of Wood Duck boxes in areas with suitable habitat can be inexpensive, easy and effective way to increase wood duck numbers and involve the public as volunteers who build and install the houses.

The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County has seen great success in the hatch rates of Wood Ducks utilizing the district’s carefully placed nest boxes in various preserves.

LOCATIONSWOOD DUCK HOUSESNEST BOX USEEGGS THAT HATCHEDPERCENT USE BY SITE
Totals5241/52
(79% use)
468/620
(75% hatch)
Espenschied Memorial11/18/8100%
Deer Run54/524/2780%
Four Lakes20/2- - - - - - - - -0%
Headquarters33/347/57100%
Pecatonica River44/428/62100%
Pecatonica Wetland1616/16173/248100%
Severson Dells33/359/69100%
Sugar River54/559/7280%
County Line & Ipsen Rd41/49/1025%
Oak Ridge33/331/34100%
Seward Bluff10/1- - - - - - - - - 0%
Crooked River52/530/3340%