“The geese are having a blowout of an argument” was my first thought as I began hiking along the main trail that travels along a beautiful lake at Lake Renwick Preserve in Plainfield, Illinois. I heard a symphony of honking (although the geese lacked a conductor) that I estimated was coming from half a mile away. The non-harmonious honks grew louder as I hiked closer, but their song began to sound more like a friendly conversation amongst old friends meeting up at the end of another day. They seemed happy, and that worked just fine for me on what was a beautiful day to take a hike and birdwatch.
Fall and winter are the time to view (and hear) thousands of geese and ducks—as well as the occasional bald eagles, American white pelicans, and other waterfowl—that either hunt, roost, or rest amidst migration. Of course, you can see these birds in all seasons, but they are most common at 200-acre Lake Renwick (and Turtle Lake, Budde Lake, and Darter Pond—the preserves’ other bodies of water) during fall and winter.
But Lake Renwick is best known for its large heron rookery, where not only black-crowned night-herons and great blue herons—but also great egrets and double-crested cormorants, amongst other birds—live and raise their young from early spring to late summer. The birds roost on artificial nesting platforms that are located on islands in the middle of the lake, which was created when a quarry was closed. Click here for a video of nesting season at Lake Renwick.
The 839-acre Lake Renwick Preserve was acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Will County between 1989 and 2010, and a 320-acre portion of the site (where the rookery is located) was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1992.
I visited Lake Renwick Preserve and Heron Rookery Nature Preserve (which the Illinois Audubon Society has called a “site of outstanding statewide significance” and an “important bird area”) in late January on a 35-degree day that felt more like the mid-20s due to the wind. I arrived only a little more than an hour before sundown (the preserve’s closing time), so I walked quickly along the snow-covered path eager to find the source of the loud honks and hike as far as possible before having to head home.
As I walked, I encountered people of all ages who were as bundled up against the cold as I was. I passed a family, and the little boy unexpectedly called out “Hi!!,” and I said hi back. I think he was disappointed that his parents kept walking and he couldn’t stop to talk. The sun cast a long golden path across the lake as it gradually sunk to the horizon, and I was grateful for the chance to be outdoors and walk for the most part in solitude. Hiking always clears my head. It either makes me think of nothing, except nature (wind, sun, earth, trees, plants, and animal sights and sounds), or it helps me sort out the problems and challenges of everyday life. (It was a “think of nothing, except nature” hike for me that day.) I wish more people would choose to disengage from technology and get outdoors in order to recharge and refresh their perspective in these challenging times.
I followed the sounds of the geese until I reached the end of the trail before it turned right to go beneath a railroad underpass. If you stay on this path, it joins the preserve’s bike trail and you will see Budde and Turtle Lakes.
There they were! Thousands of geese, ducks, and other birds resting on the ice across Lake Renwick. It was a beautiful sight, and I was glad I’d saw them in such large numbers before I had to head home. In a world where our environment is under relentless attack and some species of birds (such as the Brazilian spix’s macaw, giant ibis, and New Caledonian owlet-nightjar) can be counted in the hundreds (in the entire world!), it was refreshing to see thousands of birds in one spot.
Alas, I realized that I’d need to halt my hike in order to arrive at the car just before sunset. I reluctantly returned the way I came. Groups of 5 to 10 geese honked overhead as they flew toward their thousands of friends on the lake. Several robins hopped amongst the branches of an evergreen tree. I passed a deer, who looked just as surprised as I was to see him. I occasionally stopped to observe the birds on Lake Renwick and enjoyed watching the shimmering sunlight on the water.
Soon, I reached a hilly area that was crowned with trees that blocked my view of the lake. I occasionally glanced at the orange setting sun through breaks in the trees, and it reminded me of a bonfire in the woods. The air grew colder, and the sky turned a light pink. I reached my car a few minutes before sunset. My car was the last one in the parking lot, and that made me feel good for some reason. In my younger days, I closed down bars. In my middle-age days, I close down nature preserves. Night was coming on quickly, so I got in my car and began the 55-mile drive back home.
Things to Do
I had a great visit at Lake Renwick and plan to return when I have more time. Here are 5 things you should do if you decide to visit.
Approximately 200 species have been documented at Lake Renwick Heron Rookery. In addition to the aforementioned herons, egrets, cormorants, and eagles, you might spot Eastern bluebirds, purple martins, and Baltimore orioles. Spotting scopes are located in several areas. Consider bringing binoculars, or a camera with a high-quality zoom lens if you’re interested in photography.
Take a Hike or Go for a Run
There are 1.45 miles of crushed limestone trail. Most of the terrain is flat, so the hiking is relatively easy. Be sure to wear boots in wet or snowy weather because the trails do get slippery.
Go for a bike ride on the Lake Renwick Bikeway
There is a 2.9-mile asphalt loop trail that is suitable for all non-motorized, non-equestrian use. You can use the Bikeway year round. It can be accessed at the Renwick Road entrance to the preserve.
You can shoreline fish at Turtle Lake (park at the Turtle Lake Access point) for bass, catfish, bluegill, sunfish, and other fish. Catch and release is encouraged. You can also access the Bikeway at this access point.
Go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing
The flat terrain is perfect for both winter activities. If you’ve never snowshoed, check out my article, First-Time Snowshoer Tells All: 10 Tips for Success and My Son’s Thank You, for more information.
Things to Know Before You Go
IMPORTANT: Lake Renwick Preserve and Heron Rookery Nature Preserve are open to visitors from 8 a.m. to sunset from mid-August through February. During the breeding season from March 1 through mid-August, Heron Rookery Nature Preserve is only open for public programs and guided bird viewing to protect the nesting activities of migratory birds. Check the Events Calendar for information on how to sign up for tours from March 1 through mid-August. Keep in mind that Lake Renwick Preserve (more than 500 acres) remains open year-round, so the preserves are worth a visit regardless of the season.
I parked at the Heron Rookery Nature Preserve (Renwick Road, east of Route 30/Lincoln Highway in Plainfield). At this parking lot, you will find a small visitor center (which is the meeting point for bird tours and other activities) and a long hiking path that connects with other sections of the preserve. There are two other access points to the preserve: Copley Nature Park and Turtle Lake Access, both in Plainfield.
Dogs are not allowed in the nature preserve.
You can check out photos of the preserve on Facebook.
While you’re in the area, check out:
- Lower Rock Run Preserve (about 10 miles south of the preserve): Forest, prairie, savanna, and wetland areas
- McKinley Woods (about 15 miles southwest): A beautiful, hilly preserve along the Des Plaines River and I&M Canal. Nearly 100 bird species—including cedar waxwings, purple martins, and bald eagles—have been sighted at the preserve. At McKinley Woods, you can also access the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ 61.5-mile, crushed limestone I&M Canal State Trail.
- Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (about 21 miles southeast): Excellent hiking and bison and birdwatching; click here for my story about Midewin and 8 other places to see bison in the Midwest
- Rock Run Rookery Preserve (about 12 miles south): An excellent spot for birdwatching (bald eagles, great blue herons, great egrets, cormorants, and other birds), short hikes, fishing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor activities. This 224-acre preserve features 84-acre and 13-acre lakes (which were originally created and used for quarrying), as well breeding areas (including islands) for birds and wetland and forest ecosystems. Click here for my story about Rock Run Rookery.
Copyright (text, except quoted material) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos, except those that are otherwise credited) Andrew Morkes
Looking for some 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.
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 Spotlightnewsletter; 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 Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They 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 titles. They 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 including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.