Like most birders, I am a collector. My prized collection is a list of bird species I've seen during my 55 years on earth. But I also collect places, and it was a pleasure recently to add another national wildlife refuge to my inventory of good birding memories.
You've probably heard something about Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, the newly established preserve that straddles the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The name is an Algonquin Indian word that means "tamarack tree." For birders, Hackmatack means a wonderful opportunity to explore the first and only national wildlife refuge within 100 miles of Chicago.
On Father's Day I went to see it for myself, joining a bird walk arranged by the Chicago Ornithological Society. The 50-mile drive from Glen Ellyn was interesting. (Now I finally know where Wauconda is! I also passed through the pleasant little town of Lakemoor and noticed signs for Volo.)
This was all new territory for me, including our designated meeting place, Glacial Park Conservation Area in McHenry County. The 3,200-acre Glacial Park is one of the key pieces of open land that comprise Hackmatack, itself a collection of federal, state, county and private parcels. The refuge, officially born in 2012, eventually will consist of 11,000 acres under federal jurisdiction through easements, partnerships and purchases from willing sellers. It's a "corridor style" refuge designed to grow over time.
Our band of 11 birders was fortunate to have an expert guide, Randy Schietzelt from McHenry County Audubon. A resident of Crystal Lake, Schietzelt started birding 40 years ago and served as president of McHenry County Audubon for 14 years. He also was part of the long and successful grass-roots conservation effort that made Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge a reality.
Before the walk began, I found Schietzelt aiming his spotting scope toward Lost Valley Marsh from the parking area next to the historic Powers-Walker House. A rule of thumb in birding is to show up on time because the best birds of the day are often seen from the meeting place parking lot. Certainly two of them were before us now, black tern and yellow-headed blackbird. Only one tern was zipping around the wetland, but multiple yellow-heads played hide-and-seek in the tall rushes.
Eastern meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds provided background vocals as Schietzelt gave a short overview on Hackmatack. A pair of bobolinks flew by during his remarks as well. Yes, this would be a fine morning of birding.
How could it not be? The diversity of habitat at Glacial Park is excellent, and that means a wide variety of birds. Our walk took us through or alongside sedge meadows, savannas, tallgrass prairies, glacial kames (hills) and wetlands. There was even a bog, on the edge of which we observed an active orchard oriole nest, a first for me.
It was also at the bog where some in our group spotted a probable American Bittern before it settled down in the weeds. We waited a good while and played the bird's distinctive song but it never reappeared.
Gusty winds hampered our search for grassland specialties like Henslow's and grasshopper sparrows. They were likely present but hunkered down during our walk. The bobolinks were more cooperative.
Another highlight for me was a singing male Eastern towhee. This one wasn't a bit shy, affording us nice long views as he performed his trademark "drink your tea" ditty. I've always loved towhees and don't see them nearly enough. They like to hide in the underbrush.
Our species total after a full morning was just north of 50. Had the walk taken place a month earlier, during spring migration, we might have seen 100. But this day was not about running up a list. It was about getting a first look at a special place that's sure to gain a reputation as one of our region's birding hot spots. Many birders, especially those in McHenry County, already know it as such.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar referred to Hackmatack as "a crown jewel for this part of Illinois and Wisconsin."
The refuge is reportedly home to 49 birds that are rare or declining "species of concern," so this is first and foremost about wildlife and land conservation. Hackmatack is a big win for birds and nature, and of course that's good news for birders as well.
If you go, I recommend starting at the Lost Valley Visitor Center inside Glacial Park. The sparkling 4-year-old facility offers interpretive exhibits and free literature, plus a great view (and good birding) from the elevated outdoor deck. An excellent hiking trail is adjacent to the building. For information, visit mccdistrict.org.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach via his blog, Words on Birds.