Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge: A tour of the start

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Marianne Hahn, president of the Friends of the Kankakee, points out some of the plants at the parcel donated to begin the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.
Credit: Dale Bowman

BEAVERVILLE, Ill.–My first words would’ve been “about damm time.’’

Marianne Hahn is politer when it comes to Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area being established formally Wednesday in Illinois by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The NWR acquires land from willing sellers.

“I felt eventually it would be,’’ Hahn said on a tour Thursday of the 66-acre parcel in northeast Iroquois County, donated by Friends of the Kankakee, which startsthe Kankakee NWR. “I had to think that. We just kept working.”

Hahn pointed behind at the pin oaks in a damp area, “Pin oaks don’t mind wet feet.’’ Later we saw a pin oak in the open, where you get the full sense of their beauty, not all scrunched together.

As we waited out a thunderstorm, Hahn got me so excited that I opened my window in the rain to look at steeplebush and last year’s Indian grass.

When the storm abated, we ambled off. Hahn would stop and point out things, say tall nut rush or arrow-leaved violet.

“This is why we have regal fritillary butterflies: They feed on violets,’’ Hahn said.

There were two native dandelions: false dandelion and dwarf. She proudly noted the site has Henslow sparrows nesting. The rare lark sparrow is there.

She saw sheep sorrel, leftover from the site’s time in grazing. She chewed on it to make sure it was bitter. What the hell? I chewed on a piece too. It was.

There was blue-eyed grass, which “flowers when the sun comes out.” Whip-poor-wills nest there. Black-billed cuckoos might.

As to why the NWR designation matters, Hahn said, “No. 1: Land acquisitions; No. 2: Land management; No. 3: Expertise to lean upon. We can draw on people all over the country with firsthand knowledge. And from other areas of expertise, such as how you draw in the public.’’

Hahn, a retired microbiologist from Homewood, is president of Friends of the Kankakee. The group started informally in the late 1990s, then formally organized and began acquiring land in 2005. Meanwhile, the Grand Kankakee Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, authorized in 1999, stalled.

About four years ago, at a Grand Victoria Foundation Vital Lands Illinois gathering, John Rogner, based mostly in Chicago for USFWS, sat at a table discussion with Hahn.

“He said to invite the chief,’’ she said.

Nine people from Illinois and Indiana signed the letter inviting the chief. He sent his top people, who also invited the Illinois and Indiana DNR.

Hahn said she was ready to sign the deeds over right away. But it still took a few years.

A toad, Fowler’s, we think, at the first parcel of the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

A toad, Fowler’s, we think, at the first parcel of the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit: Dale Bowman

She knows the value of this place both for its endangered species, and intrinsic value.

“I came out a couple weeks ago and saw something I’ve never seen before,’’ she said. “When I got out, there were hundreds of spiderwebs all over [in the fog]. They were not like orbs, more like baskets.”

An Indigo bunting called from a tree top. Hahn said bluebirds nest there, naturally, not in boxes. There was prairie willow, more common there than pussy willow. We found toads, Fowler’s we think.

A kingbird called. She said pileated woodpeckers are noted, but they don’t know if they nest there.A song sparrow, noted for its long tail, sat in a tree. There was the diminutive winged sumac. A tufted titmouse called.

The beauty of puccoon, noted for its dye potential, were one of the most striking sites at the first parcel in the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

The beauty of puccoon, noted for its dye potential, were one of the most striking sites at the first parcel in the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit: Dale Bowman

On the far edge, piles of rubbish remain to be cleaned. At one pile, a blackberry plant and puccoon (oh, the yellow) bloomed through.

A few steps more, then Hahn exclaimed, “Damm! Damm! I’m fairly certain that is butterweed.’’

I yanked out the invasives and laid them out on a log with the roots knocked clean to dry.

I asked about round-headed bush clover, a native legume

Aspen is the biggest invasive at the site, something site steward Lynn Riley of Watseka works hard on.

“Every once in a while there is an Oh-My-God moment,” Hahn said.

One of those came when Turning Leaf Conservation found orange-fringed orchid on the site.

The parcel will be open to the public soon for deer and turkey hunting, wildlife observation, and photography.

Click here for the basics of the KNWR.


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