Protecting the DuPage prairie for our feathered friends

  • Amy Ahern, 15, of Naperville collects seeds from little bluestem and switchgrass plants. Joe Suchecki, left, coordinated the event, which will expand future prairie grasses at the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville.

      Amy Ahern, 15, of Naperville collects seeds from little bluestem and switchgrass plants. Joe Suchecki, left, coordinated the event, which will expand future prairie grasses at the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Amy Ahern, 15, of Naperville, left, listens to Joe Suchecki, right, who talks about gathering seeds by stripping them off the tops of little bluestem and switchgrass plants. The prairie grasses are native to the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville.

      Amy Ahern, 15, of Naperville, left, listens to Joe Suchecki, right, who talks about gathering seeds by stripping them off the tops of little bluestem and switchgrass plants. The prairie grasses are native to the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Amy Ahern, 15, of Naperville collects seeds from the tops of little bluestem and switchgrass plants. The seeds will expand prairie grasses at the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville.

      Amy Ahern, 15, of Naperville collects seeds from the tops of little bluestem and switchgrass plants. The seeds will expand prairie grasses at the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/1/2014 7:42 PM

Joe Suchecki is an avid birder -- the type of guy who always keeps his binoculars at the ready and doesn't hesitate to spend a few hours traipsing through a forest preserve or two with his eyes turned toward the sky.

One of the places that fascinates him most is Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville, a vast 1,829-acre site with grasslands and wetlands that lure a huge variety of birds -- some quite rare in Illinois -- that need just such an environment to nest.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And so, for the past couple decades, he's made regular visits to the preserve, first just to get a close-up look at the array of wildlife and then to start monitoring the bird population and to keep track of the diversity of feathered creatures that make Springbrook home.

Gradually, though, he came to the realization that if he wanted to keep seeing meadowlarks and bobolinks and northern harriers and short-eared owls in DuPage County, it was crucial to protect such grasslands. And it was then, beginning 20 years ago, he began volunteering with the DuPage Forest Preserve District to help protect that habitat.

Suchecki was out there again Saturday, leading a small band of volunteers in collecting seeds from native prairie plants and placing them in plastic bags for safe keeping.

"One of my main interests is birds, and some of the prairie birds that are declining and getting threatened and endangered because there's simply not this type of habitat left," Suchecki said.

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Some of those seeds, he said, will be replanted at Springbrook to help expand its restored prairies. Others may find their way to other DuPage forest preserves and vice versa.

Amy Ahern, 15, of Naperville was one of several volunteers Saturday.

"I thought it would be nice to volunteer getting seeds so I could keep the path that my family runs and bikes on every day beautiful, keeping the plants growing and lively," she said.

Suchecki leads similar three-hour volunteer expeditions twice a month throughout the year. This time, he said, the group was concentrating mostly on collecting seeds from little bluestem grasses and maybe some plants from wetland areas.

The volunteers generally gather around 9 a.m. on project days at Springbrook and then follow Suchecki to the work site where they spend about three hours (yes, you can leave early if you want). Participants are asked to wear sturdy shoes, dress for the weather and bring work gloves, which come in particularly handy if you happen to be picking prickly seeds from plants such as coneflowers or rattlesnake master.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The work isn't overly demanding, Suchecki said, but if you're patient, the payoff can be huge.

His favorite part, he said, "is eventually seeing the results -- that we're improving the habitat and seeing that the birds are coming back."

Cindy Hedges knows that feeling, too. The forest district's natural resources volunteer liaison said she's spent more hours than she can count collecting seeds and removing nonnative plants from preserves -- and she's seen Suchecki at work plenty of times, too.

"The best reward," she said, "is seeing a positive change in the landscape because of what you're doing."

If you're interested in volunteering at Springbrook or any of the district's other preserves, call Volunteer Services at (630) 933-7681 or write to volunteer@dupageforest.org.

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