Habitat variety makes Willowbrook a bird magnet
(published 4-15-04)

If you ever have the chance to go birding in high winds and snow squalls please take my advice: don’t. I encountered both bird-deterring elements during an early March visit to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. My quick loop around the preserve’s nature trail yielded only one notable species, a brown creeper.

Trust me, in better weather, Willowbrook is a great place for birdwatching. It’s really a special piece of property. The Center’s short nature trail feature four distinct habitats—wetlands, prairie, savannah and woodland. This attracts a wide variety of birds.

Carl Strang, a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, says 146 species have been documented at Willowbrook, not counting injured or sick birds that have been brought in for treatment. (The Center is, after all, the area’s foremost wildlife care facility.) One of Strang’s most memorable sightings was a male Lawrence’s warbler—a bird so rare it took me three field guides before I could even find a picture of it. Other nice finds over the years include sedge wren, prothonotary warbler and Louisiana waterthrush. The latter two species were spotted alongside the little stream for which Willowbrook is named.

There’s more. On two different occasions Strang witnessed a flyover osprey, and each bird was carrying a fish! Another time he watched an American bittern lift off from a tiny patch of wild rice and cattails in Willowbrook’s marsh. He likes that story a lot because it shows how even small landscape features can attract new birds. Habitat restoration work now in progress will give the preserve even more natural diversity.

The preserve’s centerpiece is a restored four-acre prairie, where eastern bluebirds have nested for the past three years. Look for the bluebird boxes when you walk the trail.

Besides the habitat variety, one of the things I like best about Willowbrook is its compactness. The entire property is 50 acres and the nature trail is less than a mile around. So it’s a great birding option if you just have an hour, and a good bird walk for young children with short attention spans.

Willowbrook’s live animal exhibits are worth a look, too. A series of outdoor cages contain some impressive raptors, including bald and golden eagles, turkey vultures and four kinds of owls. These are birds that were treated for injuries and are now permanently disabled. Now they play an educational role.

A surprisingly wide variety of smaller birds are on display inside the main building. This is your chance for close-up views of a Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak and American kestrel, plus hard-to-find species such as black-throated blue warbler, sora, purple martin and eastern screech owl. All the birds were brought to Willowbrook for treatment of injuries or disease. Fully recovered birds are released back into nature.

But save the indoor exhibits for a rainy day. With spring migration now in full swing, it’s time to get outside and see some new birds. The friendly and knowledgeable staff at Willowbrook can help you with that. Guided tours of the nature trail will be offered at 9:00 a.m. on April 13 and 18, and May 18 and 22. Also on May 22, a program called “Birding by Ear” will begin at 7:30 a.m.

For more information, call (630) 942-6200 or visit www.willowbrookwildlife.org. The Center is located on Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn, about a mile south of Roosevelt Road.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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