Of all the things Illinois has going for it, nature and wildlife are rarely given attention. Sure, Brookfield Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium are given their proper due. But when people think of seeing wildlife they think of needing to travel hours, if not days, to see more than squirrels or chance encounters with hawks or deer.
A day trip to Will County, centered around the intersection of I-80 and I-55 provides amazing opportunities to see bison, eagles, heron and pelicans. Yes, pelicans – by the dozen! All of this for free and out in the wild. Due to the good odds of seeing large birds in this area, Bird Alley is a fitting, if unofficial, name for the area.
Will County Forest Preserves
The county, encompassing a large swath south of Chicago and home to Joliet, Bolingbrook, and Plainfield, includes a system of a few dozen preserves, many of which we have thoroughly enjoyed. We have had great luck seeing plentiful wildlife at the following three areas.
Rock Run Rookery
Rock Run Rookery, located just off of Rt. 6, a few miles east of I-55 in southern Joliet, is a birder’s paradise. Nestled in an industrial area near the banks of the Des Plaines River, Rock Run has a short walking path along the edge of a lake, which ends as a planked platform surrounded by wetlands. However, the lake and nearby tree canopies are what you will see visitors staring at. From mid-winter through the last weeks of March, eagles make frequent appearances. Some may be visible well into spring. Having visited 6-7 times between February and March, we always saw at least one, if not several, on each trek, and they are frequently close enough to see their airborne performances without the aid of binoculars.
Great blue heron roost here as well. With sleek bodies and enormous wingspans, the heron regularly glide close to the shoreline. Just stop and wait for a short while and it’s likely they’ll glide close by. If you choose to bring binoculars or a zoom lens, a small island on the other edge of the lake is home to a tree where we have seen over a dozen heron nesting at one time.
Throughout our visits we’ve seen swans, seagulls, and an enormous variety of ducks. Rock Run may not look amazing upon your arrival, but with just a touch of patience and a little luck, visitors are in store for aerial performances from a variety of birds.
McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove
Just a 10 minute ride west from Rock Run, along Rt. 6 across I-55 in Channahon, is McKinley Woods (MW) – Kerry Sheridan Grove. Though there is another, more forested section of the preserve a little further down (Frederick’s Grove), Kerry Sheridan is where you are likely to come close to abundant wildlife.
Featuring the 4 Rivers Educational/ Visitor Center and a few trails, MW is probably the prettiest of the areas discussed in this post. Like Rock Run, this park sits along the Des Plaines River, but throughout the park boundaries, 4 rivers converge, making it a hot spot for migrating birds.
This area was first brought to our attention because we heard of pelicans making their annual arrival. On our first visit last summer, taking the main loop trail, we saw quite a large group of pelicans along with swans, geese and ducks, all close enough to observe with the naked eye. Additional visits to this area led to consistent sightings of different birds, including eagles, hawks and heron.
Just a short walk from the main loop trail is access to the I & M crushed gravel trail. The stretch of the 80-mile trail residing in the MW preserve is a chance to get pretty close to most of the aforementioned wildlife. We spent an afternoon in late March watching dozens of pelicans flying, swimming and dive-bombing into the waters, many just 30 or so feet away. Along the same trail we’ve found ourselves very close to heron, often camouflaged by the surrounding greenery. Additionally, muskrats and other small mammals will make appearances.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Just 10 or so minutes south of Rock Run or east of MW is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (MNTP,) sitting along Rt. 53 in the town of Elwood.
Prairies were once the dominant landscape in Illinois, but these days they make up less than 2% of the state. MNTP is in the process of rehabilitating this large area, providing an opportunity to see a landscape reborn, along with the rare chance to see bison on an Illinois prairie.
Though much larger in total acreage than the other two parks listed, we’ve only walked the first of mile or two of the gravel and dirt trail. Much of the park is located behind a fence, protecting the wildlife from the surrounding area – but don’t think of this as a zoo – the prairie is extensively expansive.
In our multiple visits here we have seen bison about half the times – sometimes reasonably close, sometimes observing from a considerable distance. We’ve also seen a handful of coyote near dusk, along with a wide array of birds.
The landscape itself is worth noting. The subtle prairie tallgrass, dotted with wildflowers, is worth taking the time to appreciate. Though not having the grandeur of other landscapes, a sunset walk at the prairie is pretty impressive.
We’ve found the best season to visit these parks (and see their gems) is late winter through spring. Though you will likely see many of the animals discussed throughout all seasons, the parks on water open themselves up to boating, which can be both a distraction and a disruption to the peace of the preserves.
Birds – the birds you will see are really a sight, and they will frequently put on a performance if you have a little patience. That said, it’s illegal to feed them (or tempt them to come closer). It is also illegal to disturb their nests. Most of the photos you see in this post were taken with a zoom lens.
A day trip from anywhere in Chicagoland is plenty of time to visit all 3 of these parks in one day.