Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve: A Birdwatching Hotspot

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

A prairie and a nature preserve in the middle of an urban neighborhood? I wasn’t expecting much as I drove through blocks and blocks of homes. I passed kids playing in front yards, people unpacking groceries from their cars, and others cutting their grass. But as I turned right from Manistee Avenue and traveled a block or so, I glimpsed 6 or 7 herons poised over the shimmering waters of a marsh waiting to strike at unsuspecting fish. Egrets and ducks swam in the distance, and I could hear the chirp and croaks of frogs and the strong wind rustling the leaves of the trees. I was in nature nirvana!

Copyright Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland
Copyright Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland

I quickly parked the car and walked to the water’s edge, camera in hand. I was fascinated by the herons, which were only 30 feet or so away. In no time, one of the herons dove its bill into the water and came out with a small fish. Others did the same in the distance. I found this even more fascinating because as I watched the herons fish, I could glimpse people’s backyards, decks, and an alley that ran behind the houses. I hope the residents of Manistee Avenue never get tired of the parade of birds and other wildlife that visit their “backyard” during the year.

Copyright Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland

There is much natural beauty at Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve (E 139th Street & S Manistee Avenue, Burnham, IL 60633), but also some urban mess. As I walked the shore, I occasionally glimpsed discarded plastic bottles and an old tire. When I hiked the savannah, I encountered remnant slag from steel mills, but that comes with the territory when visiting many nature areas in Chicago’s Southland. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Chicago’s bigwigs made the Southland (including delicate and unique ecosystems along or near Lake Michigan) the repository for steel mills, oil refineries, other types of manufacturing plants, and other types of heavy industry because they didn’t want them in their own backyards on the North Side and in other areas.

Yet, many of the ecosystems managed to survive these industrial years and are now being restored. Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve is one of these gems. According to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (which manages and protects the preserve), restoration efforts at BPNP “focus on protecting the mix of marsh, wet sand prairie, and savanna. The Forest Preserves worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build an earthen berm to prevent polluted stormwater from entering the wetlands. And ongoing invasive species control, including prescribed burns, protect the native plants that help these marsh birds thrive.” Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve has been designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. These preserves protect the highest quality natural lands in the state. “These lands are the last remnants of the Illinois wilderness,” according to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve is a birding hotspot, including many migratory visitors in the spring and fall. It contains some of the highest quality wet prairie habitat in Illinois. I’m not a birding expert, but visitors report having seen the following birds at the preserve: Bald Eagle, Barred Owl, Bell’s Vireo, Black-billed Cuckoo, Blue-winged Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Bobolink, Broad-winged Hawk, Cackling Goose, Carolina Wren, Cerulean Warbler, Common Redpoll, Dickcissel, Forster’s Tern Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Hooded Warbler, Iceland Gull, Kentucky Warbler, Least Bittern, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Louisiana Waterthrush, Nelson’s Sparrow, Northern Harrier, Northern Parula, Orchard Oriole, Pied-billed Grebe, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red Crossbill, Savannah Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Short-eared Owl, Snowy Egret, Sora Summer Tanager, Thayer’s Gull, Virginia Rail, White-eyed Vireo, Willow Flycatcher, Wood Duck, Wood Thrush,  Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Yellow-breasted Chat. I obtained this list from an article about the preserve at Illinois Birding by County, which is from 2013 (and dated regarding road construction issues, but very helpful regarding advice on trails and when and where to see different types of birds).  

Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve is a great place to see dozens of species of birds, view the positive effects of environmental restoration efforts, and simply enjoy nature. It’s a small area that you will probably spend an hour or two at—unless you’re a dedicated birder. But there are several other destinations nearby that you could add to your itinerary to make a day of it, including:

  • Powderhorn Lake, Marsh, and Prairie (about 1.1 miles east ): A pretty lake and a dune and swale landscape that is home to about 250 plant species, 2,500 insect species, and 40 to 100 bird species. Portions of this area have been declared an Illinois Nature Preserve.
  • Hegewisch Marsh (about 2.5 miles northwest): I have not yet visited the marsh, but why not check it out since it’s so close to Burnham Prairie?
  • Sand Ridge Nature Center (about 4.7 miles south): One of my favorite nature centers in Chicagoland (although the indoor areas—except the washrooms—are closed due to COVID-19). Great trails, excellent birdwatching, knowledgeable and friendly staff, and a cool 1880s pioneer homestead. 

Copyright (text/all photos) Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland

2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT

Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. 

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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES

I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. 

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies. I’ve written and edited many books for Infobase including the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series.

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