Nelson Lake Marsh: Kane County birding at its best
(published 9-14-06)

There are times when Kane County might as well be Iowa for me. I just don’t get out there very often. But this much I know: For birding, Kane County is always worth the drive.

If you could go to only one place in Kane, make it Dick Young Forest Preserve near Batavia. Best known as Nelson Lake Marsh, it is the largest (1,000 acres) and most naturally diverse preserve in the county.

Jon Duerr, a St. Charles resident, has been watching birds at Nelson Lake since the late 1950s. It was private property then, used for peat mining because the land was too soft and wet for farming. Through the years, Duerr has seen an impressive 237 bird species on the grounds, including some rare one-timers like Wilson’s phalarope, prairie warbler and spotted towhee. His life list for all of Kane County holds 275 species.

“On a good day you’ll find birds on the lake, in the marsh, flying into trees and shrubs or popping out of the drying grasses,” he says.

Habitat diversity is indeed a Nelson Lake hallmark. The open land west of the lake and marsh—corn fields just eight years ago, according to Duerr—is now restored prairie, attracting a variety of grassland birds. Dickcissels, Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks and sedge wrens reside there in season.

Wetland birds are the main attraction, however. Marsh specialties include American bittern, least bittern and common moorhen. “These are tough to get anywhere else in the county, but pretty regular at Nelson,” says Scott Cohrs, another St. Charles birder.

Nelson Lake spans 40 acres, making it a prime destination for migrating ducks and geese in the spring and fall. Rarities like loons and scoters also use the lake occasionally. For the past four years, during the first week of April, a flock of American white pelicans has visited. Mark your calendars for 2007!

Put Nelson Lake on your fall schedule, too. October and November are ideal for spotting waterfowl from the observation deck near the parking lot. It’s best to get there early so the sun is at your back. Keep an eye on the trees near the deck for migrating songbirds, and don’t forget to look up—flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes are quite likely, especially in November. You might even see tundra swans.

My own birding experiences at Nelson Lake are few, but I well remember a beautiful fall morning in 2004 when I went looking for a reported red-necked grebe. I didn’t find the grebe, but I saw a lot of great birds including nine species of ducks. Snow geese were on the water and in the air, wheeling against a perfectly blue sky.

You could spend a whole morning on Nelson Lake’s viewing platform and see plenty of birds (and birders). I also recommend the easy three-mile trail that loops around the lake and marsh. What you’ll see depends on the season, but Nelson Lake is truly an excellent birding venue year-round.

The preserve is located about three miles west of Batavia. From the village, take Main Street west to Nelson Lake Road and turn south. The entrance will be on your right. For more information, call the Kane County Forest Preserve District at (630) 232-5980.

Copyright 2006 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.