Have You Discovered Goose Lake Prairie?

Take a trip to Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area and enjoy a day outside exploring sweeping grasslands home to a wide variety of wildlife. Located in Grundy County, Goose Lake Prairie is managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and is the largest remnant of prairie left in Illinois.

Goose Lake Prairie offers a great trail system that lets visitors enjoy the site in their own way. There are multiple looping trails, each of different lengths, that make for a pleasant short walk outside or a longer day hiking through the prairie. The trails are mowed grass and wander through different habitats, so you’ll get plenty of opportunities to see some of the wildlife.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources have developed an education center, which offers year-round programs such as guided hikes and lectures, and there’s a small library in the center. You can also enjoy a picnic at some of the site’s picnic areas or learn a little about the region’s history by visiting some of the site’s interpretative elements.

At Goose Lake, over 1,700 acres of prairie and marsh communities, containing a large and diverse array of plant and animal life, are present. Many birds, including Henslow’s sparrows, Virginia rails, least bitterns, northern harriers, and upland sandpipers, are known to nest or inhabit the marshes and prairies. It’s one of the best sites in the state for viewing grassland birds, so it’s an accessible place for beginner-birders and a pleasure for seasoned experts.

Goose Lake Prairie is a bit of drive from the Chicago area, but it’s a trip worth making, particularly for birders, nature buffs, and wildlife photographers. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure!

Have You Discovered Orland Grassland?

Pack a lunch and take a trip back in time, exploring the landscapes, habitats, and views found in our region long ago! Located in the south suburbs and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Grassland is an exceptional display of the expansive prairies that used to stretch across the region. More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers left behind this rolling landscape and made Orland Grassland one of the higher elevation points in Cook County. On a clear day you can even spot the Chicago Skyline!

Orland Grassland is one of the largest grassland habitats in all of Cook County. Starting in 2002, this 960-acre preserve has been transformed from farmland back into a grassland complex with prairies, wetlands, open ponds, oak savannas, and woodlands. Openlands helped restore the landscape at Orland Grassland and today, much of the preserve is enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve system and it is a designated important bird area by Audubon Society.

A five-mile paved trail rings Orland Grassland with several unpaved trails winding through the restoration areas. The south unit of Orland Grassland also featured a 1.6-mile paved trail if you’re looking for a shorter trail (or a longer extension of the main trail). The unpaved trails are marked with handmade signs created by Cub Scout Troop #372 of Orland Park. Be sure to check out the interactive trail map from Forest Preserves of Cook County before your visit.

Following Restoration, South Cook Forest Preserves Have Become Birding Hotspots

Two forest preserves in southern Cook County, Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands, have proven themselves to be phenomenal destinations for birding in the Chicago region — and that is entirely due to years of successful restoration at the two sites.

Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. The two forest preserves are across the street from one another, and Openlands has managed the restoration of these sites since 2008 and continue to as part of the Forest Preserve’s Next Century Conservation Plan. By identifying and restoring conservation areas in proximity to one another, we create the habitat on the scale needed for wildlife to thrive.

The landscapes of the Chicago region are particularly important for migrating wildlife and bird species. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water provide stopover points for birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents and hemispheres. The Great Lakes provide an important bridge between two migratory routes, the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways, which help bird species as they move from their breeding areas to their winter homes. The resulting migrations of bird species in spring and autumn color our skies and neighborhoods with a stunning diversity of birds, but they rely on local green spaces and nature preserves like these for rest, food, and shelter.


 

Since 2008, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together to enhance over 1,400 acres of continuous grassland habitat at these two preserves. Restoration has involved removing invasive vegetation, planting native prairie plants, and engaging volunteers and the surrounding community. We worked to restore the sites’ natural hydrology (the process of how water moves through an area), and in some instances, reconstructed the natural topography by shaping depressions in the land to mimic wetlands. Recreating these landscapes has led to spectacular results.

Since the restoration occurred, both preserves have attracted many grassland birds — particularly Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Dickcissels, as well as winter raptors such as the Northern Harrier and the Short-eared Owl — in much greater numbers and over more acres. In 2017, 11 new bird species were observed at the preserves: Greater White-fronted Goose, Alder Flycatcher, Broad-winged Hawk, Golden-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Mourning Warbler, American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler! These species add to the 160+ bird species that have been observed at the preserves as of February 2018.


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And while the abundance of bird species is reason to celebrate, the quality of restored habitat is worth protecting as strongly as we can. Following restoration, both of these preserves were awarded Illinois Land and Water Reserve status by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, granting additional protection for these special places. Over 900 acres of Tinley Creek Wetlands were protected in 2017 as Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve, and Bartel Grassland Land and Water Reserve is 585 acres of protected natural areas.

Additionally, both preserves earned recognition from the Audubon Society in 2016 as an Important Bird Area. Important Bird Areas are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitats for birds. These habitats play a vital role in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter. Of the 93 birds on Bird Conservation Network’s species of concern in the Chicago region, 50 have been observed in both preserves, including six endangered and one threatened species.

Through many efforts and the work of several partners, the restoration of Tinley Creek Wetlands and Bartel Grassland has been one of the most successful bird conservation projects in the Chicago region. After ten years of restoration, the promise of these grasslands has been fulfilled, and these preserves hold potential to serve as a regional resource for years to come.


Visit the Preserves

Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands are located at the intersection of Central Ave. and Flossmoor Rd. near Tinley Park. Ready to try out birding for yourself? We have some tips.

Learn more about Openlands’ land preservation efforts.


Audubon Great Lakes, Bartel Grassland Volunteers, Chicago Department of AviationChicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Living Habitats, and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission all assisted with these projects.

Special thanks to local nature photographer Erin Soto for sharing all the above images of Bartel Grassland.

Invenergy Helps Restore Land and Water in the Chicago Region

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Openlands is pleased to announce our newest corporate member, Invenergy! Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy, and Openlands is tremendously pleased to share news of their support for protecting lands and waters and for building a conservation community in the region.

Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives. One major way Invenergy is assisting Openlands achieve our mission is by providing support for restoration of natural areas. Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. Decades of urbanization and development coupled with ordinary human interaction with the land have reduced the health of many natural areas, but we can correct that through restoration.

Invenergy is providing vital support to Openlands as we gear up for 2018: with their help, Openlands will continue to build an 11,500-acre wildlife refuge along the Illinois-Wisconsin border; we can better restore ecologically-significant natural areas; and we will make sure these special places are accessible to all people.


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Building Habitats across a Regional Landscape

Along the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Openlands is working to build Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012. Hackmatack aims to restore and connect a landscape carved by glaciers over the centuries. It includes large blocks of grasslands, wet prairies, and natural stream watercourses. As land is protected for Hackmatack, the refuge will offer growing opportunities for wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education, and more.

The diverse habitat found in the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge area is home to over 100 species of concern that were identified during the 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecological assessment within the greater Hackmatack area, including bald eagles, bobolinks, lake sturgeon, and the eastern prairie fringed orchid! The landscapes of the region are living remnants of the last Ice Age, and the streams that wind through the refuge are some of the purest waters in Illinois.

Over time, Hackmatack will become a mosaic of protected lands that provide habitats large enough for wildlife to thrive, recreation and education opportunities for people, and economic support for local communities.


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Data-Driven Conservation

In addition to protecting landscapes on a large scale, Openlands leads strategic restorations of natural areas that have substantial potential to provide havens for migrating wildlife and to improve natural resources. Openlands will often assess projects based on how restoration will impact the site’s hydrology — the way water interacts with land at a natural area. Wetland areas in particular are often highly prioritized for restoration.

Focusing on water in restoration projects makes sense: not only does it help manage our most precious natural resources, but it can also substantially reduce local flooding and reduce pollution in our water. Wetlands both provide excellent habitat for birds and animals, and their unique soils and plants can also store massive amounts of stormwater, which means far less local flooding. The more stormwater we can retain on-site, the less of it runs off into streets and into basements. When streets and homes do flood, the stormwater becomes very polluted before receding into rivers and lakes. When that stormwater is held in wetlands, however, it is filtered as it returns to rivers, and cleaner rivers mean more migrating wildlife and cleaner water for communities downstream.

Data and monitoring of sites before restoration can help determine which projects can achieve the highest impact. For example, we are working to improve the hydrology of sites like Bartel Grassland and Bobolink Meadow, Deer Grove East Forest Preserve, and Messenger Woods. Each of these sites were chosen for their potential to hold stormwater and improve water quality in the Upper Des Plaines River Watershed (water which eventually reaches the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico).


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Connecting with the Land

Not to be left out of the equation is the connection between people and the land. Even in urban areas, nature is all around us, and Openlands works on a variety of levels to make nature can thrive — even in residential areas — and that people have opportunities to appreciate these amazing places.

Our Birds in my Neighborhood program introduces Chicago Public Schools students to the common birds of the region through a research project and field trips as a way to foster greater appreciation of both birds and the natural world. A single class lesson can inspire a group of students to become expert birders. In May 2017 for example, the students from Chicago’s Ruiz Elementary spotted 44 different species in one afternoon while on a field trip to a local park!

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Invenergy’s commitment provides critical support to protecting ecologically sensitive areas and habitats, and Invenergy assists Openlands as we further our mission to connect people to nature where they live.


Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy. We are committed to being a responsible community partner with Openlands who shares our desire to protect the Greater Chicago & Great Lakes region’s natural habitats.

For more information on Openlands Corporate Membership, please contact development@openlands.org.

Have You Discovered Starved Rock State Park?

Starved Rock State Park is a trek from downtown Chicago, but one that’s worth making. Recently voted as the top tourist attraction in Illinois, Starved Rock is a pleasure to visit year-round, with scenic waterfalls in the warmer months and stunning icefalls in the winter. The park boasts an extensive 13-mile trail system, it’s home to hundreds of old oak trees, and it is one of the best places in the Midwest to see the bald eagle population which overwinters along the Illinois River.

Starved Rock takes its name from a Native American legend: in the 1760s, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa Tribe was killed by an Illiniwek while attending an inter-tribal council in southern Illinois. In a series of battles following the event, a band of Illiniwek sought refuge from a band of Potawatomi warriors (themselves allies of the Ottawa) atop a 125-foot sandstone butte overlooking the Illinois River. The Ottawa and Potawatomi laid seige to the rock, starving the Illiniwek above.

Stories like these are reminders that the lands protected today in our country are lands taken from the indigenous nations that lived here before us. We recognize that indigenous peoples across North America have looked to correct centuries of historical injustices by permanently protecting land through conservation – and that work extends to our home in the Midwest. Today we work to restore the land to health, to respect the land and the water, and to share these places with all people.

Enjoy your trip to Starved Rock, take some time to learn about the history of these lands, and respect that land wherever you go.

Have You Discovered the Salt Creek Greenway Trail?

Have you tried enjoying the outdoors along a long-distance trail yet? Our region’s recreation trails are among the easiest ways to enjoy the area’s natural landscapes. Find peace and solitude or share an experience with family and friends while you run, walk, bike, or hike in natural serenity!

One of the region’s best known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.

Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail, the latter of which is featured in our Paddle Illinois Water Trails guide. Both trails connect through the Forest Preserves of Cook County as well as the DuPage Forest Preserves.

Whether by land or on the water, you will pass under shaded canopies, through open prairies and savanna, and through protected Illinois nature preserves along the Salt Creek Greenway Trail.

Have You Discovered Illinois Beach State Park?

Just an hour’s drive from the heart of Chicago, Illinois Beach State Park is home to six and a half miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. This 4,160-acre, two-unit natural area offers abundant and scenic recreational opportunities, with hiking and biking trails replete with wildlife, access to Illinois’ largest marina, swimming beaches, picnic shelters, and campsites. With expansive dunes and swales, marshes, prairie, and black oak forests, Illinois Beach State Park’s diverse ecosystems contain over 650 plant species, shoreline birds, and rich aquatic wildlife.

The park’s northern unit is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, and offers lengthy biking and hiking trails, fishing at Sand Pond, and public access to Lake Michigan via North Point Marina. The southern unit contains extensive camping and picnic areas, nature trails along mixed wetlands and dunes, and a scenic overlook along the Dead River, a perfect spot for birding.

The Lake Michigan dunes area was originally part of the “Three Fires” of the Algonquin Nation. In 1836, the area was incorporated into Lake County as the result of a treaty with local indigenous peoples. Preservation efforts have been in place since 1888, with southern unit established in 1964 as the first Illinois Nature Preserve. Nature Preserves like Illinois Beach represent the highest quality habitat in Illinois. The northern unit was acquired between 1971 and 1982. For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for and helped to protect the shoreline ecosystems of Lake Michigan.

Located across Winthrop Harbor, Zion, and Benton Township, Illinois Beach State Park is owned and operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Openlands Launches New Online Paddling Guide

Start paddling northeastern Illinois’ waterways!

Openlands’ new paddling website, Paddle Illinois Water Trails, is a comprehensive guide for canoeing and kayaking in the Chicago region. Covering over 500 miles of Water Trails across 10 of northeastern Illinois’ waterways, this new guide provides rich information about paddling, including step-by-step trips along each trail. The site contains trips and resources for everyone, from first-time paddlers to seasoned boaters.

The guide provides in-depth information on each waterway, including important notes about water safety, interactive maps, and multiple, in-depth trip descriptions. Each trip description includes information on skill levels, trail length, directions, and equipment rental locations if available. Interactive maps display launch sites, dams, and the paddling difficulty level along the trail. Paddlers can also leave comments and share their paddling tips on individual trail pages.

Visit the guide now!

How To: Self-Guided Bird Walk

The following entry was written by Openlands Education Programs Coordinator, John Cawood. In his position, John helps to manage our Birds in my Neighborhood® program.

Want to go on a self-guided bird walk? Here are some tips!

Recently I had the joy of leading a bird walk with fourth grade students in Ms. Coleman’s class at Lavizzo Elementary, as a part of Openlands Birds in my Neighborhood Program. Lavizzo is in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on the south side, just west of Lake Calumet, and there is a high level of bird activity year-round. How do I know? The kids told me! They told me of the sparrows, blue jays, robins, cardinals, hawks, ducks, and geese that they had seen in their neighborhood. They told me that sometimes the birds are building nests, looking for food, singing in the trees, or soaring high in the sky. Then each student researched a bird and told me all about what they had learned.


Before we went out on a bird walk around the schoolyard, they also told me what you need to do in order to see birds. Here are their suggestions:

  1. Be quiet, so that you don’t scare the birds away. Also, if you are quiet then you might even be able to hear them sing.
  2. Try not to shout when you see a bird; just point so that other people can see the bird too.
  3. Be sneaky. Move slowly and quietly so you don’t scare the birds away.
  4. Be observant. Birds could be on the ground, behind a bush, in a tree, or in the sky, so look everywhere!
  5. If you are using binoculars, be very careful with them. Make sure they are focused so that you can see through them clearly.
  6. If the others in your group don’t seem to be doing the things you need to do to see birds, quietly remind them. That if they are observant, quiet, and slow moving, everyone has a better chance of seeing more birds.

This is a great list! Ms. Coleman has a lot of smart kids in her class. If you decide to go on a bird walk in your neighborhood, using their list will definitely help you to see more birds.


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If you are looking for suggestions for binoculars (you don’t need binoculars to see birds, but they do help with Rule #4 on the Lavizzo List), Birds in my Neighborhood uses the Leupold BX-1 Yosemite 8×30 model. They cost around $100, and are very sturdy and easy to hold on to. You can also hit Rule #4 by going birding with multiple people. Having a larger group presumably means that there are more eyes looking around for birds, but don’t forget Rule #6!

If you need a guide to help you along the way, Forest Preserves of Cook County offer a printable bird ID checklist. Our friends at the Field Museum offer some excellent guides to ID common Chicagoland birds including common sparrows, common winter birds, and common summer birds.

Lastly, don’t let these lists intimidate you – one of the best parts of birding is that anyone can do it!


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Where to Go

During migratory season in the spring (April-June) and in the fall (September-October), there is no better birding spot in the Chicago area, and arguably the entire Great Lakes region, than Chicago’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. If you travel further north, Illinois Beach State Park provides great birding opportunities along Lake Michigan, as well as in its expansive wetlands. Situated along the border of the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway, the Great Lakes region is immensely important for migratory birds.

Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water like at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, or Deer Grove East are great locations to find birds. But you can even witness an impressive array of birds in a local park or in your neighborhood. Be sure to post the list of everything you see on www.ebird.org, and check out their hotspot map, which shows what everyone else is seeing in your area.

Bird life in the Chicago region is breathtaking at this time of year, so have a wonderful time on your trip – be it in your own neighborhood, at your local park or forest preserve, or at a larger natural area.

Finally, if you’re a photographer or avid Instagramer, bring your camera or phone and show the world the birds you spot! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on Openlands’ stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.


Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

For more information, please contact schools@openlands.org.

Birds in my Neighborhood Explores Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

On Saturday, May 13, the students and families of Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class at Peck Elementary headed to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a Birds in my Neighborhood® field trip. Around 50 members of the Peck community spent the day spotting birds, searching for bison, and exploring the bunkerfields of Midewin.

Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.

Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class learned about Chicago’s birds in the classroom, and had already completed two bird walks on school grounds and in Marquette Park. Saturday was an extra field trip, and one of the first Saturday field trips that Openlands has helped facilitate, and the result was spectacular.


Birds, Bison, and Bunkers

The field trip to Midewin started early at the Visitors Center where our friends from the Forest Service offered a brief overview of the area’s ecological and cultural history. Ms. Caponigro (Ms. Cap to her students) helped everyone in the group get acquainted with Midewin by translating the overview into Spanish.

“The Saturday field trip to Midewin was an amazing experience for our students and their families. To see such an expanse of nature and to learn about the history of the space along with identifying birds was something many of us will never forget,” explained Ms. Cap.

Openlands volunteers then led the students on a bird walk along the Explosives Road trail, and the families divided into two groups – one walk facilitated in Spanish and the other in English. Both students and families successfully spotted and identified many of the species using a bilingual guide provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.

The third graders correctly identified a tremendous array of bird species including great blue herons, turkey vultures, eastern kingbirds, killdeer, blue jays, common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissel, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, a scarlet tanager (pictured above), American goldfinches, red-tailed hawks, and more!

In the afternoon, the families had time to explore the retired US army ammunition bunkers that dot the Midewin landscape and after a lunch break, we headed up to Iron Bridge Trailhead in search of the bison herd. By the end of the day, most of the students were proclaiming it the best field trip ever.

Midewin is truly a breath-taking place to visit. At 19,000 acres, it is the largest open space in the Chicago region, it contains 22 miles of mixed use trails, and the biological diversity present is simply stunning. One student, speaking somewhat overwhelmed, expressed their disbelief not just at the number of bird species they saw, but that so many bird species even existed!


An Important Grassland Habitat

Massive open spaces like Midewin are vital for numerous reasons: they are home to some of Illinois’ last fragments of native prairie and they offer shelter to hundreds of species in need of conservation support. But research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an indicator of future environmental stewards, and this data drives our education work.

For Openlands, schools are the intersection of people and nature. Our Space to Grow partnership transforms CPS schoolyards into green campuses and gardens after seeking community input to address its needs, and schools are where we often gather communities for gardening workshops and to plant trees. Those trees and gardens become home to wildlife for students to learn about through Birds in my Neighborhood, and together, these communities foster new voices and new generations in the conservation movement.

When we forge new partnerships with schools, we listen to the needs of communities. For example, when Openlands began these Saturday field trips, we reached out to schools that we knew have an established interest in the nature of our region. Peck Elementary, located in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood has been one of those inspiring schools. Peck was one of the first schools to sign up for Building School Gardens, and they were among the first schools to embrace a Birds in my Neighborhood curriculum. Ms. Cap has dozens of stories of her former students returning to her classroom to discuss birds, and her students have always appreciated the Birds in my Neighborhood class lessons.

“The bus ride back was buzzing with nature disscussions. Not to mention all the jealous comments on Monday from kids who didn’t attend,” said Ms. Cap.

Sharing these experiences with students demonstrates the value of conserved public lands, and furthers our mission to connect the residents of the Chicago region to the nature around them.


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Peck’s field trip to Midewin was a tremendous success. Many thanks go out to our Birds in my Neighborhood volunteers, the Forest Service staff who helped with site orientation, and to the staff at the Midewin Visitors Center, who offered us their shaded outdoor lunchroom for our break.

Saturday field trips to Midewin are made possible by the generous support of BNSF Railway and US Forest Service – International Programs. And of course, we couldn’t make these field trips happen without the passionate support of teachers like Ms. Cap and our generous Openlands members.


Ready to discover Midewin for yourself? We have a few suggestions on where to start.

If you are interested in becoming a Birds in my Neighborhood volunteer, please contact schools@openlands.org. If you wish to support the program, please contact development@openlands.org or call 312.863.6261.