Habitat restoration efforts boosting area turtles, woods and wildlife
collaboration between a nonprofit group and forest preserve scientists aims to boost the area turtle population, while also benefiting bats, osprey and riverbank habitats throughout the Chicago region.
While projects to help native species have been ongoing for decades, an effort led by Friends of the Chicago River has led to immediate improvements in turtle nesting areas in Cook County’s wetlands and woods.
« I’m thrilled out of my mind, » said Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist with the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
By clearing forest lands of invasive plants such as buckthorn — which choke out native sedges, rushes and reeds and also block sunlight from reaching the ground — the group and the forest preserve have improved soil conditions in wetlands along the Chicago and Calumet rivers, essential land for turtles to lay their eggs.
Turtles, including the snapping, painted, stinkpot and soft-shell varieties, need soft soil in protected, sunlit areas for successful nests, Anchor said. When the riverbank areas are under siege from invasive plants, the turtles are forced to find other open spaces, often along busy roads and trails. Those locations make the nests easy targets for predators such as raccoons and opossums, who lurk to eat the eggs, Anchor said.
Using an anonymous $750,000 gift, the Friends of Chicago River partnered with the forest preserve on a three-year effort to restore acres of land to native conditions. Since 2014, staff and volunteers have cleared about 78 acres of brush at area forest preserves.
Group members earlier this week worked on 8 acres at the Skokie Lagoons, near the East Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. The Friends also have worked clearing areas of Chipilly Woods south of Dundee Road in northern Cook County, Watersmeet Woods near Northfield, Wampum Lake Woods near Thornton and in the Sag Quarries area near Lemont.
The habitat restoration efforts improve the conditions of woods, prairie lands and wetlands, in addition to helping bats and osprey. As part of the project, the Friends and forest preserve have been constructing bat houses and platforms for osprey, which are hawk-like birds who often nest atop trees near rivers, creeks and lakes.
« We enable them to reproduce more successfully, that’s the foundation of the whole thing, » said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. « What they’re lacking is actual maternity habitats. These are species that with relatively little intervention, we can help them. »
The restoration project also has the trickle-down effect of helping attract butterflies and bees, while aiding storm runoff, Frisbie said.
The forest preserve has worked hand in hand with Friends and has aided the efforts with prescribed burns and additional brush clearings throughout the county. While Friends took part in a prairie seeding effort this week at Skokie Lagoons, Anchor said manual seeding after clearing is usually unnecessary. Many native wetland plants have hard-capsule seeds that can rest in the ground for 40 to 80 years, waiting for the appropriate time to grow.
« That’s the beautiful thing about the wetlands, » Anchor said.
Anchor, who has worked with the forest preserve since 1981, said this was a rare example of an organization following through on its idea, bringing muscle to the project in the form of dollars and manpower.
« This, » he said, « is how it should work. »
Anchor said the restoration efforts at Chipilly Woods reaped nearly immediate dividends. Using a pair of turtle-tracking devices, Anchor discovered two female snapping turtles that had been laying eggs along Dundee Road quickly found the newly cleared native habitat in the woods and safely made nests.
« The response was immediate, » Anchor said. « It was fantastic. »