Bird-watcher Jack Nowak of Grayslake looked through a spotting scope as two adult great blue herons fed their young in a nest high on a platform at the Almond Marsh Rookery near Grayslake.
Nowak is a member of the Lake County Audubon Society and a volunteer coordinator with the Lake County Forest Preserve District who helped design and build those platforms to extend and save the life of this rookery.
As a child, he lived next to a forest preserve in Cook County and gained an interest in birds through his father, who built a purple martin three-story birdhouse in the backyard.
After a stint in the Navy, Nowak got a job as a surveyor for the Lake County Forest Preserve District and mapped the various preserves. That led to an interest in monitoring bluebird boxes and watching the nesting grounds of herons.
"When I was working at Almond Marsh, I noticed that at the rookery, the branches were breaking off," Nowak said. "We knew something had to happen to keep this rookery there. By putting up some man-made structures, we hoped to keep that rookery lasting for years to come."
In the fall of 2009, the Lake County Forest Preserve District and Audubon Society worked together, with Nowak leading the way, to find a way to extend the life of the nesting grounds at Almond Marsh.
Research led to the idea to use a man-made structure to attract nesting herons. It was based on a tripod platform design by the Ascutney Mountain Audubon Society in Vermont.
In 2010, Nowak organized 35 volunteers to erect 11 platforms during two days working on a frozen lake surrounded by the leftover remains of towering cottonwoods. The platforms were 40-foot metal tripod structures that were topped with wooden branches from the site to form the nest.
"It was a great effort to get these volunteers to go out there because it was very cold and windy that day," Nowak recalled. "Everybody enjoyed it and it was great working together."
Today, Almond Marsh Forest Preserve is a vibrant refuge and home to hundreds of birds, including great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, geese, and more.
"I enjoy going out to the marsh and checking on the herons and watching the young grow," Nowak said. "It's a great educational site. I think it is an important part of the environment where they can be viewed."
On Feb. 22, Nowak and his committee received a leadership award from the Audubon Chicago Region Leadership Awards for the innovative restoration work done at Almond Marsh.
"It was an honor. I didn't expect to receive any recognition for that," Nowak said. "Any little bit to save the environment is worth it. It was nice."
Every Saturday from April through the end of June, Almond Marsh Forest Preserve is open from 8 a.m. to noon when volunteers are available with spotting scopes and binoculars to help visitors view the nesting area.