How a tiny bird signals big improvement for a Palatine forest preserve
Although the Henslow's sparrow is small in size, conservationists say its return to Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine after a 15-year absence is a big sign that longtime restoration work is paying off.
Palatine birder Heidi Tarasiuk spotted and photographed the roughly 5-inch sparrow during its nesting season early this month at Deer Grove, the state's first dedicated forest preserve. Linda Masters, a restoration specialist for the Openlands conservation organization, said the Bird Conservation Network confirmed Tarasiuk captured an image of the Henslow's sparrow.
"When I saw the Henslow here, I thought, 'Wow, this is a big deal,'" Tarasiuk said during a recent walk through Deer Grove East, where the sparrow's "hiccup" sound could be heard not far from an egret and sandhill cranes.
Officials at Chicago-based Openlands say the Henslow's sparrow is an indicator species for the health of natural areas, so its first appearance at Deer Grove since 2003 represents a milestone for the organization's work managing the preserve's continuing restoration. Openlands began the task in partnership with Forest Preserves of Cook County in 2008.
As part of the $4.5 million Deer Grove East project covering about 180 acres, heavy equipment was used to remove invasive plants and trees, including European buckthorn, box elder, honeysuckle and green ash. Expansive vistas destroyed years ago have been restored.
Masters said the Henslow's sparrow is a grassland bird that would not have returned to Deer Grove if the preserve lacked the wide vistas the bird requires to breed. Native prairie plants attractive to the sparrow and other birds have replaced brushy and weedy varieties.
"Having a grassland bird actually take up residence is great," Masters said. "It's sort of one of those 'if you build it, they will come' kind of things. So, it's pretty exciting for us to have this little sparrow out there."
In addition to the professional work led by Openlands, volunteers have assisted on the Deer Grove East restoration for at least eight years.
Among those in the Deer Grove Natural Areas Volunteers group is Sue Gorr of Deer Park, who out of habit removed some teasel and other undesirable plants while accompanying Tarasiuk in the preserve recently. She was pleased to hear about the return of the Henslow's sparrow.
"It makes it worth it, yeah," Gorr said.
To fund the Deer Grove work, Openlands dedicated a portion of $25 million made available through the O'Hare Modernization Program, which seeks to offset the effects of airport expansion.
Deer Grove East and West span nearly 2,000 acres between Dundee and Lake-Cook roads.
A 2016 study by Openlands and Stantec Consulting Services Inc. estimates the preserve draws 290,000 visitors annually from Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.