Thursday, December 20, 2012

Good things happening at Homer Lake; you can help

Good things happening at Homer Lake; you can help

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How do you make a well-loved forest preserve even better?

One way is to develop it. Toward that end, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District recently completed installation of what’s called a “natural playscape” at Homer Lake. The playscape differs from a typical playground in that it uses natural materials—plants, boulders, logs, and earth mounds—rather than plastic and metal. It also includes an already popular, stream-like water feature.

The playscape is located near the Walnut Hill Shelter, and it’s open all year long, although the water feature is shut off for the winter to prevent damage to the plumbing. Forest Preserve staff are quick to point out that pathways to and around the playscape are ADA accessible, which is a great benefit to children, parents, or grandparents with physical disabilities.

[Photo of children enjoying water feature of playscape by Pam Leiter, CCFPD.]

Aside from adding features to a forest preserve, another way to make it better is to make it bigger, and there’s also a project in the works for that at Homer Lake. The Forest Preserve District is currently pursuing an opportunity to expand the preserve by purchasing a nearby tract of land known as Sylvester Woods.

At just over five acres, Sylvester Woods may strike people as a small addition, since the Homer Lake Preserve already encompasses more than 800 acres.

But in this case quality really counts.

According to Dan Olson, who was recently named executive director of the Forest Preserve District, Sylvester Woods stands apart from other local natural areas because of its ecological integrity.

The Sylvester family has held the property since the original apportionment of the area by the federal government, and they used it only for low impact recreation. They fished in the Salt Fork River, which runs through it, and had family get-togethers there, but not much else.

Sylvester Woods was never clear-cut or row cropped or even, as far as anyone knows, grazed. A cabin is thought to have once been built on the site, but little evidence of that remains. As a result, the forest there is characterized by some majestic trees, with chinkapin oaks dominating on one side of the river, and black walnuts on the other. In addition, says Olson, the forest understory of Sylvester Woods is incredibly diverse. A survey of plants conducted there identified no fewer than 86 species, including some wildflowers not found at any of the District’s other preserves.

One important use Olson sees for the property is to serve as a nursery where uncommon native plants can be propagated for ecological restoration work at other sites. He also sees Sylvester Woods as providing a unique experience for people who recreate there. The property is separated by private land from the rest of the Homer Lake preserve, and it’s not really big enough for developments like shelters or restrooms. Visitors who drive there will need to park on the side of the road, and explore without the benefit of trails. Those who take the trouble to do so will be rewarded with a glimpse of Illinois forest as few have known it for more than a hundred years.

In order for this vision to become a reality, however, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District still has some money to raise. If you can help out with a donation, please give them a call at (217) 586-3360, or visit them on the Web at

Thursday, December 06, 2012

One from the December 2010 archive: Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

One from the December 2010 archive: Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

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Winter arrived with such force this month it feels as though we’ve spun forward right into January. Such a transition brings on a lot of changes in the natural world, so I headed out to the Homer Lake Forest Preserve one day last week to investigate, and see if I could get some photographs.

As I left the U of I campus I spied a red-tailed hawk atop a power pole on Windsor Road, and was reminded what an excellent time of year it is for raptor watching. Winter brings us an influx of hunting birds from the north, and the lines of sight are wide open so you can see birds of prey from a long way off, even in urban and forested areas.

Driving east through farm country, I slowed now and then to look at flocks of smaller birds along the roadside where the snowplow had exposed patches of gravel and soil. I saw only common birds, juncos and horned larks, but at this time of year arctic-breeding birds such as snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are not uncommon in the fields of east central Illinois.

Stopping at the north end of Homer Lake to check ice conditions, I was reminded that birds aren’t the only things that become especially visible in winter. In plain view there hung a Baltimore oriole nest that would have been entirely obscured by leaves in summer when it was occupied. In a nearby tree, a bulky gray hornet's nest is equally plain to see.

At the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s Environmental Education Center, I stopped to ask for tips from the friendly, knowledgeable staff. They suggested that people take advantage of the snow to investigate tracks and other evidence of animal activity, or to get kids out on the sledding hill. “And remind people,“ they added with emphasis, “dress for the weather!”

I set out on the Flicker Woods Trail, happy to hear ahead of me the calling of a pair of pileated woodpeckers. They’re crow-sized, black birds with sturdy, chisel-shaped bills and brilliant red crests, wonderful targets for a guy out with his camera. Each time I closed in on them, however, they moved away another fifty yards into the woods.

In a mature stand of oaks and hickories, I changed tactics, and hid myself in the shadow of a large tree to see if they’d come back. Soon they did, announced by an emphatic knocking as they whacked away at dead wood in search of beetles and ants. If only they would have come around a little farther, I wouldn’t have had to photograph them against the bright sky.

Tracks along a bluff overlooking the Salt Fork River showed a coyote had traveled the path ahead of me. I paused where he had stopped to dig under the trunk of a fallen tree. Leaf litter and soil were strewn atop the snow, but whether or not he had caught a meal I couldn’t tell. Following his track took me down through a dry ravine and into the river bottom, where I lost him among the maze of deer trails.

Too soon, it was time to head back, but as I made for the wide path that would take me to the car, I was arrested by a frantic scrambling in the brush ahead. It was the coyote, driven from his sheltered spot under a log by my approach. I was ready with my camera, and took advantage of his curiosity to get a shot—he just couldn’t’ run off without a look back to see who had disturbed his rest.