Illinois Young Birders discover the Dixon Refuge

On April 22, seven members of the Illinois Young Birders and their families joined field trip leaders, Bob Fisher and Vicky Sroczynski, to explore the wetlands and wooded edges of the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes in Putnam County.

Two members of Illinois Young Birders enjoying their visit to Hennepin and Hopper Lakes. Photo by Matthew Cvetas.

The Illinois Young Birders (ILYB), a statewide birding club for young people ages 9 to 18, take monthly field trips throughout the year to birding hotspots around Illinois. For many in the group, this was their first trip to Hennepin & Hopper Lakes.

The members met a steward of the property in the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. He explained the history of the area and how it came to be the rich wetlands it is today. After the brief presentation, the young birders climbed the Nolan Observation Tower to look for birds with the thermometer having barely topped 40 degrees and a cold wind out of the north. Somehow, it just didn't seem like spring.

Great birding was available from the Nolan Observation Tower at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. Photo by Matthew Cvetas.

Regardless of the cold weather, it was immediately evident from the tower that although numbers of birds would not be spectacular on this day, species diversity was pretty good. Yellow-headed Blackbirds sat atop marsh grasses. Bald Eagles and Turkey Vultures constantly soared overhead. Forster's Terns coursed over the marsh, while Pectoral Sandpipers foraged in the shallow water. American White Pelicans gradually increased over the hours the group spent there.

From the tower, Bob and Vicky led the group to the boat launch where Purple Martins and Barn Swallows glided over the water, catching bugs. Three Pectoral Sandpipers flew in and landed right in front of the group, giving everyone an opportunity to see these shorebirds up close.

After birding around the boat launch, the group shifted its focus toward exploring the levees. Slowly, the sun began to warm things up, but the wind picked up, too, making it more difficult to locate passerines like sparrows hunkered down in the grasses. In one spot at the entrance to the levee road, the young birders picked out a few Vesper Sparrows and a single Clay-colored Sparrow—two less common sparrow species.

Pectoral sandpipers were among the birds spotted. Photo by Matthew Cvetas.

From the levee road, the group ventured back into the marsh to look for rails. An American Bittern made a brief flight past the group before disappearing into the marsh grasses. A Virginia Rail called loudly close the road, but never ventured out into the open. Four Soras, however, foraged right out on the road, allowing all our members to see this secretive marsh bird well.

Shortly after noon, ILYB wrapped up its trip, having tallied 80 species for the day!

The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes is a 2,700-acre restoration project of the Wetlands Initiative in north-central Illinois. A decade ago, this land was drained and covered with corn and soybeans. Today, it is a designated Wetland of International Importance. Learn more here.

For more info on the Illinois Young Birders, click here.