Watching and observing wildlife is an exciting activity, providing a sense of discovery for all ages. Whether you look at, photograph or sketch wildlife, or listen to the sounds of unseen creatures, wildlife viewing has become an increasingly popular hobby. And here in the counties of Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside, dozens of opportunities exist for quality wildlife viewing that can be matched to your budget, time and travel needs.
From a state perspective, Illinois remains rich in native wildlife and plants, with nearly 3,000 species of plants and 600 species of vertebrates. In addition, dozens of species of birds pass through Illinois during yearly rituals of spring and fall migration, while others spend only winter months within the state. Many of Illinois’ parks and conservation areas harbor more types of plants and animals per square mile than national parks such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Best of all, Illinois’ natural heritage is located close to its people. This intersection of people and nature creates some of the best wildlife and nature viewing in the United States. And the Blackhawk Waterways region may, indeed, possess the most magnificent wildlife viewing opportunities within our state.
Where To Go, What You’ll See
The Blackhawk Waterways region offers abundant opportunities for quality wildlife observation. Visit any of our numerous state parks, conservation areas, state natural areas or state-owned Fish & Wildlife areas and you’ll be presented with great chances for great wildlife viewing. And don’t forget about special wildlife viewing opportunities along or near our rivers, lakes and streams . . . especially near the Mississippi River. For example, the Ingersoll Wetlands Learning Center, just south of Savanna in Carroll County, is an ideal place to observe waterfowl, migratory birds and other wetland wildlife. Further, the Center offers educational programs and wildlife displays. Also, all along the Mississippi River, especially in the winter months, terrific eagle watching opportunities exist.
Animal life within our region is varied and abundant. What will you see? That depends on where you are, and the season, but here is just a short list of the animals and creatures that are here, that you may see and encounter: waterfowl and shorebirds (dozens of species), striking pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, eagles, hawks, buzzards/turkey vultures, deer, coyotes, gray and red fox, weasels, woodchucks, badgers, beavers, muskrats, amphibians and reptiles (lizards, snakes, salamanders, frogs, toads and turtles) and many species of fish.
But don’t limit your trek to just watching wildlife: take time to enjoy the region’s splendid plants and wildflowers, too! Spring and summer deliver an awesome wildflower display, with wooded valleys and slopes dappled with the blooms of trillium, bluebell, lobelia, shooting star and yellow ladies’ slipper, while prairie preserves sprout coneflowers, milkwort, blazingstar, and, yes, even prickly pear cactus!
Wildlife Viewing Tips
Plan Ahead. Research the site you plan to visit for wildlife and wildflower checklists, brochures, maps or trail guides and habitat information. Contact the site before your visit to learn which hunting seasons may be open and take appropriate precautions such as wearing blaze orange clothing during the hunting season.
Get Permission First. While the Blackhawk Waterways region boasts many great public-land wildlife viewing opportunities, many wildlife and wildflower havens are privately owned. Respect the rights of these landowners. Ask for their permission before entering their property to view wildlife or wildflowers.
Know Your Seasons. You can view wildlife year round, but often spring and early fall offer the best opportunities for spotting a wider variety of birds and animals.
When to Watch. Head out early in the morning to view birds actively feeding and nocturnal mammals going to their day-time retreats. Late evening brings bats, flying squirrels, owls, coyotes, foxes, whip-poor-wills and nighthawks. Afternoon tends to be a quiet period but look for turtles, lizards and butterflies.
How to Watch. Sit quietly in one place for extended periods. Observe an animal from a distance. Always keep the wind in your face so the animal can’t smell you. Hide from view in an observation blind, viewing tower or simply stand behind a tree or bush. Leave pets behind as they will frighten away wildlife. If you must talk, whisper. When on an outing with children, allow for periods of absolute silence.
Dress Properly. Wear soft, earth-toned cotton or wool. Avoid brightly colored or noisy clothes like nylon windbreakers. Wear long sleeves and tuck socks into long pants to avoid poison ivy, ticks and chiggers.
Utilize Viewing Aids. Binoculars and spotting scopes are a valuable viewing aid and come in various sizes. If you don’t own any of these great viewing tools, perhaps you can borrow some from friends, neighbors, co-workers or other family members as their use will greatly enhance your experience.
Respect Wildlife. Never chase, flush or harass wildlife. This may cause them to use up valuable energy needed to breed or for survival. Avoid nesting sites and active dens and respect resting periods of wildlife. Always leave a nature area in better condition than you found it in.
No Free Hand-Outs, Please! White bread, popcorn, crackers and cheese puffs do not supply a nutritious diet for wildlife. Feeding wild animals can be harmful to them as they develop a dependence on hand-outs, lose their fear of people or become aggressive to people and have to be removed by site managers.
Leave Wild Things Wild. Wild baby animals may look cute but they don’t make good pets. While baby animals may appear to be abandoned, their parents are usually watching quietly and cautiously from nearby cover. When you leave, the parents often return. Avoid disturbing a mother with her young. Don’t approach an animal who appears sick. Instead, report it to the site manager.
Interact with Others. Respect the rights of other outdoor users. Avoid spoiling their outdoor experience by keeping your voice low, not approaching featured wildlife too closely and not slamming your car door or making loud noises or sudden movements when you arrive on site.
Participate in guided hikes and educational programs offered at many sites. Talk with other visitors or staff naturalists about what you are looking for and share your discoveries with other.
Keep a Journal. Note the date, time, weather conditions and specific habitat in which you found an animal or plant. Include observations about an animal’s behavior and physical characteristics or about the blossoming state of a wildflower. Review your journal at a later date to plan outings for the coming year.
Be Persistent. Don’t be disappointed if you can’t find the plant or animal you were hoping to see. Appreciate the many other natural events, plants and animals you did see. Learn to recognize the signs which many wild animals leave behind such as a twig nipped cleanly off at an angle, a small sapling with bark rubbed off, an empty nut shell with tiny tooth marks, a shed antler and many others which can give you clues to the types of wildlife that were here before you arrived.