Touring the Chicago River Watershed

April 1st I began a new career as Policy Specialist with Friends of the Chicago River, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the health of the Chicago River for people and wildlife.

Policy research doesn’t require much work in the field, so I jumped at the opportunity to tag along with our Conservation Programs Specialist Maggie during her site visits of areas where volunteers monitor wildlife for our organization.

We both live on the north side of Chicago so we had an hour drive to the forest preserves we were visiting on the south side. Our goal: to visit eight sites and drop off bat acoustic monitoring gear with a volunteer, so our time at each was brief.

Sag Quarries Forest Preserve

We began our morning at the Sag Quarries Forest Preserve where we skirted the perimeter of a pond to scope out restored turtle habitat.

On our way to Rubio Woods, we stopped on the side of the road to check out Mill Creek, where a project one and half years in the making was recently completed. The project removed a man-made barrier to fish, granting them access to excellent habitat.

At Rubio Woods we had a short walk from the parking lot to a bat house where we noticed hornets, not bats, making themselves at homes under the eaves of the roof. Their nests do not block the bats from accessing the house (meant to serve as a maternity ward), so I believe they will be left alone.

Maternity bat ward at Joe Orr Woods

Next stop was Joe Orr Woods where we checked out a bat house visible from the parking lot. All appeared well there, and Maggie even spotted an egg sack of a praying mantis.

Funky plants at Wampum Lake Woods

We spent much more time walking through Wampum Lake Woods. Maggie said the lake was manmade, the result of highway construction. She pointed out many plants, most of which, unfortunately, I cannot remember the names of as we walked along the edge of a stream. Back at the car we took a few moments to eat our lunches (PB&Js).

The left had been through a controlled burn recently, at Kickapoo Woods

Next up: Kickapoo Woods (don’t you just love that name?). Here we walked down to a boat launch on the Little Calumet River (if I remember correctly) before walking to another bat house. After visiting with the bat house, we continued on to a prairie restoration project where we saw green taking over after a recent controlled burn. We also trudged through the grasses, listening to frogs (and trains) and noticing large ant mounds. Along the way I collected a few ticks which I swatted away when I noticed them back at the car.

Part of the mural on the Major Taylor Trail at Whistler Woods

We then made our way through Whistler Woods. From the path and through the trees I could see the brightly colored mural for Major Taylor recently painted on a bridge over the Little Calumet, so I suggested we check it out since it is something I had read about. Walking the length of the mural, we enjoyed the vibrant colors, timeline of Major Taylor’s accomplishments and the view over the water. We next visited the final bat house which was also in close proximity to an osprey pole. The osprey pole is to offer a safe place to make a nest. The pole is high up, which the birds like, and has something wrapped around a few feet of the base so that predators cannot access the eggs.

View from standing next to the osprey pole, at Beaubien Woods

Our final stop (before dropping off equipment for the volunteer) was at Beaubien Woods. Visible from the boat launch onto the Little Calumet was another osprey pole. Maggie had been informed that someone noticed the activity of red-tailed hawks near the pole. As we drove up, she saw a hawk sitting in a tree a quarter mile away from the pole and we could see there was there was what resembled sticks up on the pole. Figuring, if it was a female who was laying eggs, she would become agitated when we got near the pole. However the hawk watched us from its perch and we freely moved about the pole, looking through Maggie’s binoculars to get a better look at the makings of a nest (Maggie later found out that it may have been a male, who started to put a nest together in the hopes of attracting a female). While it would be nice for the red-tailed hawk to make its nest up there, ultimately we’d like to see the endangered bird, the osprey, using the pole.

I am so grateful I was able to make these site visits with Maggie because it brings my work to life. I developed some pictures from the trip and have put them around my desk to remind myself what it is I am working for. Every Chicagoan will know the main stem of the Chicago River and its famous Riverwalk, but not every Chicagoan realizes they are within close proximity to other parts of the River or a natural area within the watershed throughout much of Chicago. It’s a truly amazing asset and I am proud to be part of a team that sees its value and is working to bring that to light for everyone else.

My two cents as a Californian? At each and every site we visited, and I know at times we did not go far from the parking lot, I could see and/or hear cars or trains or other industrial noises. These sites were smaller than I was hoping, close to freeways or main roads. I am spoiled, accustomed to natural areas that you can get lost in. That being said, we are in a city and I think it is astounding that so much of it has been preserved, no matter the size.

Quick plug: Our annual River Day is May 11th. Check out our website to learn where you can volunteer! Registration ends May 5th.

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