PLAINFIELD – Lloyd Finley and his wife, Pansy, ventured last week to the Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve in search of a peaceful afternoon of bird watching.
“We used to come out here all the time, but this is the first time in several years,” Lloyd Finley said, making his way up a crushed limestone path to the heron rookery viewing area – a short hike from the visitors’ center. He and his wife, of Lockport, enjoy the isolation and quiet atmosphere.
So do the birds that raise their young on the islands of Lake Renwick.
There, the 150-acre lake and associated wetland preserves protect black-crowned night herons, great egrets, great blue herons and double-crested cormorants from human disturbances. During nesting season, which runs from May until August, bird watchers are limited to guided tours held twice a week with the help of bird-savvy volunteers.
The nesting posts, resembling small, white pirate ships from a distance, provide protection for the migratory birds that are seldom seen in the Midwest during the winter months, said Roger Flees, volunteer with the Forest Preserve District of Will County.
The birds typically migrate south for the winter and return to the area in March and immediately start building their nests, Flees said. Around this time, the birds can be seen flying near the lake’s edge or in nearby fields in search of vegetation to use, he said.
“For the most part, they nest in layers,” Flees said. “The great blue heron, the largest of the birds, tend to like the top of the posts more. The cormorants are just so aggressive that they tend to rest in the middle and force the great egrets and the black-crowned night heron further down. It’s quite fascinating. It wasn’t that way before the cormorants settled here.”
The Heron Rookery Nature Preserve’s last two guided bird tours this season are scheduled for Saturday and Wednesday. Guided tours are limited to these days from May 1 until Aug. 15 each year to limit human disturbances while birds are nesting.
However, beginning Aug. 16, the nature preserve – including a 1.44-mile crushed limestone trail – is open to the public until Feb. 28.
Flees, who has volunteered at this particular preserve for the past three years, said avid bird watchers return on a regular basis during the nesting season.
“It’s always an inquisitive visit, trying to see if there’s something new going on,” Flees said. “When you’re a bird watcher, you never get tired of seeing birds over and over again. You might see something new.”
By April, the birds have laid their eggs. And by July or August, the young are nearly full-grown, but still need their parents, Flees said.
“They’re still somewhat relying on their parents to feed them, to show them what to do,” he said. “Within a month or so, the babies are going to be completely self-sufficient. The babies tend to migrate where the parents go, at least the first year.”
About 1,400 birds nest at the site each year. That number has grown since the forest preserve district bought the land in the early 1990s. A major restoration in 2002 enhanced breeding and feeding areas. Artificial nesting platforms were installed, providing 500 new nesting spots for the birds.
About 65 acres within the preserve were converted from farmland to a grassland and wetland habitat, further protecting the birds’ habitat.
Last week marked a second visit to the heron rookery this summer for Vivien Boyd, 35, and her husband, Andy Kurylo, 29, of Plainfield. For the couple, bird watching is a way to bond and relax.
“Life gets so chaotic and crazy, and bird watching is something that reminds you that you’re not the only creatures out here. They’re so free,” Boyd said.