New Refuge tract becomes 'Sandy Hollow,' will open this summer

A parcel of land recently added to the Wetlands Initiative’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge now has a new name and, by this summer, will have many new amenities for the public. Sandy Hollow will feature a robust trail system leading through its varied habitats, informational signage, and a special open-sided pavilion with a sweeping prairie vista. Come and explore this unique new area of the Refuge any time after June 15, 2018, when it officially opens to the public!

TWI staff nicknamed the new 283-acre tract Hickory Hollow after the organization acquired it in late 2014 because of the wooded, intermittent stream that winds through the area. We recently decided to officially name it Sandy Hollow for the globally rare sand prairie and sand savanna TWI is restoring on its well-drained soils. Work to transform Sandy Hollow’s degraded woodland and soybean fields back to native prairie and savanna habitats began in September 2015, and intensive restoration will be completed by the end of 2018. (Watch for an opportunity to support this final year of restoration coming soon!)

The new upland tract is located at the southeastern end of the Refuge adjacent to the Dore Seep Nature Preserve. Visitors can access the Sandy Hollow parking lot and orientation kiosk off Route 26 approximately 1.5 miles south of the main Refuge entrance. Watch for the large road sign on the west side of the road. Hikers can also access Sandy Hollow from the main Refuge via a trail connection near the end of the popular one-mile Seep Trail. View a Refuge trail map here.

A view in April 2017 of the savanna at Sandy Hollow where the pavilion will be constructed, overlooking the prairie-in-restoration. Photo by Gary Sullivan/TWI.

A view in April 2017 of the savanna at Sandy Hollow where the pavilion will be constructed, overlooking the prairie-in-restoration. Photo by Gary Sullivan/TWI.

Leased for farming by its previous owner, Sandy Hollow was mostly covered by soybean fields when TWI learned of the opportunity to purchase it. Generous support from the Grand Victoria Foundation, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, and the Oberweiler Foundation made the acquisition possible, as well as project financing from The Conservation Fund. Acquiring Sandy Hollow expanded the Dixon Refuge to more than 3,000 acres in size and provided an upland buffer to protect the Refuge’s sensitive and rare seep wetland habitat.

Over the past two and a half years, TWI’s Refuge site managers and field restoration crew have planted dozens of species of native plants, trees, and shrubs at Sandy Hollow. They’ve also controlled invasive plant species, conducted prescribed burns, and thinned weedy trees in the savanna zones to reestablish appropriate habitat conditions. Volunteers helped the restoration progress by planting seedlings in spring and collecting native seed from other parts of the Refuge in fall to be planted at Sandy Hollow over the winter. In 2017, TWI also began planting “monarch hotspots” at Sandy Hollow to cultivate several species of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food; this effort is part of a broader project funded by a Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

All of these efforts are bringing back healthy native habitats, including globally imperiled sand savanna and sand prairie. Very few examples of these unique sand habitats remain anywhere in Illinois.

“Sandy Hollow is well on its way to becoming a diverse and complex mosaic of savanna, prairie, and forested habitat,” said Gary Sullivan, TWI’s senior ecologist. “The sand and upland savanna communities are already coming back and beginning to develop classic savanna characteristics, while the prairies are still in the early stages of restoration. All of these areas will continue developing for many years, so that each will look and feel a little different each time you come. Although it will take decades for the young trees we’ve planted to mature, you can already start to see how the prairie and savanna looked and felt over 200 years ago as you walk the trails.”

A detailed map of the new Sandy Hollow trail system, which opens to the public on June 15, 2018.

A detailed map of the new Sandy Hollow trail system, which opens to the public on June 15, 2018.

The trail system, named the Steven and Ann Meeker Ryan Trail in recognition of major supporters of the Dixon Refuge, consists of two main loops that form a figure-8 with smaller side trails. In all, visitors can hike 2.7 miles through eight distinct native habitats at Sandy Hollow.

  • Eight-Oak Loop (the northern loop) is named for the eight species of oaks found along the trail system at Sandy Hollow. Oaks are a critical species in the ecosystem, forming the architecture of healthy savanna and supporting a huge diversity of insects, birds, and wildlife.

  • Cuckoo Creek Loop (the southern loop) leads visitors through a beautiful bottomland forest with huge sycamore trees and along the intermittent stream that TWI calls Cuckoo Creek because secretive Yellow-billed Cuckoos can be heard and seen there. This loop also connects with the popular one-mile Seep Trail, providing access to the Refuge's Dore Seep and seep boardwalk.

  • A Woodland Overlook side trail off Eight-Oak Loop will offer great views of spring wildflowers and potential sighting of colorful songbirds like Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak in summer.

Those who took part in TWI’s Dixon Refuge Dash in September 2017, a 5K run/walk along the Sandy Hollow trails, got a sneak peek of the varied habitats visitors will view. Interpretive signs along the trails will provide information about the distinct habitat types at Sandy Hollow and feature the plants, birds, and wildlife that hikers may encounter during their visit.

"The Dixon Refuge Dash last fall was a great way to get to know the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge's new Sandy Hollow area. I was surprised at how large the new area is and how diverse the habitats, from prairie to forest," said Yona Lunken, a Lake Thunderbird resident. "My family and I love walking at the Refuge, and there is MORE to enjoy!"

Participants in TWI's Dixon Refuge Dash in September 2017 got a sneak peek of the habitats and new trails at Sandy Hollow. Photo by Gary Sullivan/TWI.

Participants in TWI's Dixon Refuge Dash in September 2017 got a sneak peek of the habitats and new trails at Sandy Hollow. Photo by Gary Sullivan/TWI.

An open-sided, naturalistic pavilion currently under construction will be situated atop a small hill at the edge of restored savanna and look out over a large area of sand prairie and mesic prairie that is being restored. The overlook will be known as the Pyott Pavilion in honor of TWI co-founder Al Pyott and his conservation legacy.

While the wooded areas of Sandy Hollow provided lots of wildlife habitat prior to TWI’s acquisition, our prairie and savanna restoration efforts on the rest of the tract have attracted new residents just in the past two years. In 2015, TWI was awarded a federal Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act grant for the project because of the restoration’s expected benefit for birds.

“Sandy Hollow already has a large population of Red-headed Woodpeckers, a declining species that depends on savanna, and we’ve recorded many other birds of conservation concern there,” said Vera Leopold, TWI’s grants manager who has been conducting summer bird surveys at Sandy Hollow since 2015. “You can find Lark Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Orchard and Baltimore orioles, Northern Harrier, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Vireo, and more. The area around the pavilion will definitely be one of the highlights for birding.”

Birds won’t be the only attraction at Sandy Hollow: Butterflies, snakes, lizards, tiger beetles, and small mammals are all finding a home there. During TWI’s second-ever BioBlitz, set for August 4, 2018, Sandy Hollow will be one of the Refuge areas that volunteer teams will search to catalog the living things that occupy it.

The Sandy Hollow area of the Refuge officially opens to the public on June 15, 2018. Plan to make a visit this summer to explore its distinct upland habitats and experience some of the Illinois River Valley’s natural heritage!