Students Celebrate Earth Day Birding at Lake Calumet

May 6, 2014

On Earth Day, Chicago Public School students from Openlands' Birds in My Neighborhood™ program were the first in decades to visit Lake Calumet. The 22 second graders and six chaperones from Lavizzo Elementary School were among 70 people who took advantage of a rare opportunity for the public to visit the site.

Lake Calumet, which is adjacent to Chicago's historic Pullman neighborhood, is a remnant lake created by the receding of Lake Michigan after the last ice age. Before settlement in the 19th century, it was part of a vast region of wetlands south of the Great Lake. Today the land surrounding Lake Calumet is controlled by the Illinois International Port District, which does not allow public access to the property and uses only the southern portion of the lake for industrial purposes. In the 1980s the lake and its surrounding areas were listed on the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory because of the presence of exceptional bird habitat.

The northern two-thirds of the shores remain open space and adjoin the Port District's 36-hole golf course. It was this section of Lake Calumet that the Earth Day birders visited. Three years ago, the Lake Calumet Vision Committee obtained permission from the Port District to lead an Earth Day bird walk. Openlands arranged for students to join the walk for the first time

Openlands' Birds in My Neighborhood program, now in its second year, is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools. The students and teachers become acquainted with the common birds in their school garden, neighborhood, and city through visits with the volunteers in the classroom, school yard, and a local natural area.

"Many of these students will always live in the Roseland community and would have never had this opportunity otherwise," said Lavizzo Elementary School Principal Tracey Stelly. "We appreciate the partnership with Openlands to bring this opportunity to our children. It means a lot to bring them exposure to science vocabulary and to the bird species in their community."

While the students were at Lake Calumet, a pair of bald eagles flew over and landed in their nest on the lake's northernmost wooded peninsula. The eagles, which many Chicago residents travel hours to see at places like Starved Rock State Park, are a testament to the vibrancy of the habitats surrounding the lake on the city's South Side.

"Openlands has been focused on the Calumet region for more than 20 years," said Openlands Greenways Director Ders Anderson. "A key organizing principle of our work in the Calumet has been the original Illinois Natural Areas Inventory study from the 1980s that identified 19 high-quality habitats in the Calumet area. The vast majority of areas in the inventory have either been acquired or partnerships have been worked out with private landowners to conserve them. In several instances, Openlands was involved in acquiring these sites. Lake Calumet is considered a keystone site among the 19 is among the last remaining sites on the inventory without a secured future."

The Lake Calumet Vision Committee formed almost 15 years ago and was locally led by Marian Byrnes and Vic Crivello, longtime southeast side environmental advocates. Openlands was an active participant from the beginning. The Vision Committee advocates restoring the site for public recreation, including hiking, biking, bird watching, canoeing, kayaking, and nature appreciation and education. Opening up the northern section of the lake would complement other efforts underway to improve the image, marketability, and economic viability of the Calumet region. Most notably, it would add significant tourism value to the proposal for a National Historical Park at Pullman.

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