Preserving Farmland and Cherished Family Memories in Support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

When Elena Spiegelhoff inherited the family farm in McHenry County, she wanted to protect the farmland and natural features she had known since childhood. The farm had been in her family since 1950, first in the care of her parents, and then her brother, Eugene. But Elena knew she couldn’t care for the farm forever.

Elena speaks with fond memories of this family home in Richmond: growing up, the family horse would plunge her into the Nippersink Creek on hot summer days, her grandmother would spend their summers working in her garden and using the farm house table for baking; Elena would climb to her hillside “secret garden” hidden among the oak trees that would produce the “best tasting melons in all of [McHenry] County,”; and she would walk the land as a kid in the company of her two dogs. How do you part with a place you hold so dear?

Elena wanted to ensure her family’s farm was preserved and that it can be a place for future generations to appreciate. Her deep love and respect of the land led Elena to a partnership with The Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC) and Openlands. Today, we are pleased to announce that we have permanently protected the land that Elena loves.


This was a prime opportunity for Openlands to support Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hoffmann Farm, which honors the family name, is 153 acres sitting within the greater refuge area. In May 2018 we completed the process to protect the farm: first, together with TLC, we helped Elena place a conservation easement on her property before purchasing the protected land. We are now working with a sustainable farmer to keep the land healthy and productive in its new role as a native plant nursery.

Hoffmann Farm also presented an opportunity to preserve some local history as well as high quality natural resources. Elena’s brother Eugene was an avid fan of model trains and formerly operated a small model train on the farm for local residents to enjoy. While that service is no longer running regular trips, Elena wanted to make sure her brother’s legacy wasn’t paved over as a mall or subdivision, and portions of the old model train tracks now remain on the land.

The oak-hickory woodland that served as a backdrop to so many childhood adventures has been protected and we will help that ecosystem thrive. Finally, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service structured Hackmatack around the many small waterways that comprise the Nippersink Creek watershed, and Hoffmann Farm straddles half a mile of some of the most pristine waters in the creek’s North Branch, providing substantial support to habitat and wildlife in the region.


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Hoffmann Farm is one of five sites Openlands is currently working to protect in support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Like the farm, these projects are the result of partnerships with willing sellers or private landowners who place conservation easements on their land. As Openlands continues to protect new areas within the greater refuge area, we are interested in exploring multiple land-use strategies to protect natural resources, promote a culture of conservation, help the region thrive, and ensure working agricultural lands remain healthy and productive. Red Buffalo Nursery will now operate on Hoffmann Farm, providing native plants both for purchase and to assist with landscape restorations throughout the region.

Agricultural conservation easements, like the easement at Hoffmann Farm, can ensure that farmland remains protected. These practices lead to healthier soil, cleaner waters, and a better home for wildlife. Openlands is excited to work with small and new farmers for the benefit of local communities and our region’s sustainable agriculture.


While it took some time to protect her home, Elena Spiegelhoff stood by this vision, and we cannot thank her enough for sharing her love of the land with us. We are honored to assist landowners like Elena who share our passion for land conservation. Many thanks to our partners at the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, to Grand Victoria Foundation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for their vital support, and to the early leadership in this project provided by Liberty Prairie Foundation and Food:Land:Opportunity, an initiative of the Kinship Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, funded by the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.

For more information on Openlands’ regional land conservation work or on Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, please contact land@openlands.org.

Open Land Art & Fact Team on Exhibit at the Hyde Park Arts Center

The Open Land Art and Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T) was created in partnership with artist Doug Fogelson to highlight and expose the tensions between the natural world and human impact. Established during Fogelson’s 2015-2016 residency with Openlands, O.L.A.F.T. took photographs and collected man-made as well as organic samples at several of our restoration sites.

The aim for this collaboration was to discern human impact and imprint on the land through small changes and remnants. Neither Fogelson nor Openlands wanted to simply photograph pristine landscapes, nor was the intention to show mass human destruction.

The result was a pseudo-science effort documenting human interaction with the landscapes of northeast Illinois, and those findings of O.L.A.F.T. are now on display at the Hyde Park Art Center until December 10, 2017. A panel discussion with Fogelson will accompany the exhibit on November 30 (more information below).


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About O.L.A.F.T.

O.L.A.F.T. was designed around the concept of the Anthropocene, the era of geological history in which human activity is the dominant influence on the earth and climate. During this time, it is even more vital to experience open spaces and continue to build a connection with the land, promoting further protection of natural spaces.

This effort spanned from 2015 to 2016, and team members visited eight of Openlands’ restoration sites in the greater Chicago region including the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Deer Grove East, Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Hadley Valley Preserve, Messenger Woods, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland, and Eggers Grove at Wolf Lake.

Samples and artifacts were collected from each of the sites and sorted into two categories: man-made and organic. This categorization highlights the dichotomies in the human mind regarding open spaces. Land is often seen either as untouched by society or belonging exclusively to man. The vision of this initiative is to show how human presence impacts nature, but also how the natural world around us impacts our urban environments.

O.L.A.F.T. hopes that this work inspires conversation about conservation, asking visitors to see themselves within nature and to envision the possibility of reinventing, or shifting the discourse on human relationships with the land.


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Exhibition and Panel Discussion

A large desk has been installed with a map depicting sites that were visited. The public can interact with the installation through photographs, research, and found objects sealed in plastic bags.

On Thursday, November 30, you can join Fogelson and several members of Openlands staff for a panel discussion of the exhibit. Finding Ourselves in Nature will discuss the work of O.L.A.F.T. in more detail. The free event is open to the public and runs from 6-8pm at the Hyde Park Arts Center (5020 S. Cornell Ave, Chicago).


Doug Fogelson studied art and photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago. His photographic manipulations are included in notable public and private collections such as The J. Paul Getty Center, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Cleveland Clinic and exhibited with esteemed galleries. He has been recognized by publications including Art NewsPhoto District NewsArt Forum, and AfterImage. Doug Fogelson founded Front Forty Press, an award-winning independent fine art publishing company, and has taught in the Photography Department of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is an advocate for the fine arts and ecological sustainability.

O.L.A.F.T team members included Doug Fogelson, Jennifer Bronson, Connie Tan, Mary McCloskey, Jarred Gastreich, Courtney Kehrmann, and Anthony Lachus.


Openlands believes art in our open spaces gives voice to landscapes and offers a unique perspective to appreciate nature. You can explore this interaction further by visiting the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Have You Discovered Glacial Park?

Just under an hour and a half from the Chicago Loop lies Glacial Park, encompassing 3,400 acres of restored open space including prairie, wetlands, oak savanna, and delta kames. Over 400 of these acres are dedicated nature preserve and home to 40 state-endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Additionally, Glacial Park is ranked as one of the top five locations in the region to view migratory birds.

The Nippersink Creek also runs through Glacial Park, providing excellent opportunities for both fishing and paddling. As McHenry County Conservation District’s most popular land holding, Glacial Park attracts over 64,000 annual visitors. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities from horseback riding to outdoor concerts near the visitor center.

Currently, Glacial Park is the best way to experience Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hackmatack was designated as a refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 and will span over 11,200 acres once complete. Hackmatack will be built around existing conservation lands such as Glacial Park. This park is a prime example of the habitat and wildlife Hackmatack aims to protect.

A Refuge in the Wild

It will come as no surprise that residents of the Chicago region all too often experience nature in fragments – at their local park, in a community garden, with a migrating sandhill crane passing overhead. But when we have space to run wild, and when nature has room to demonstrate a mighty vastness, it only takes a few moments before it speaks to us in a primeval and wordless language.

On the doorstep of Chicago, we have such a place in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The 11,500 acres of Hackmatack will soon offer the chance to explore and appreciate nature’s majesty on a whole new level. Here, we’ll be able to share our favorite activities with our families, kids will learn about and understand the value of nature, and this will be a place we can all fill with memories which will endure for lifetimes. All of this will be possible because this land is public, it belongs to all of us.

Updated: Congress has passed a budget that significantly increases support for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Learn more…


“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Wide Open Spaces

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, today encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres of public land. The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources, recreation opportunities, and support for local economies.

Hackmatack, formally established in 2012, is the first such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to the 12 million people who live within an hour’s drive of the refuge. As an urban wildlife refuge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aims to offer access and resources to America’s increasingly diverse population.

Outdoor recreation is estimated to contribute $646 billion to the U.S. economy every year, and the refuge is at the heart of that opportunity. In Hackmatack and its adjoining areas, runners and hikers will be able to explore miles of trails winding through sun-dappled burr oak savannas and prairies teeming with wildflowers. Cyclists can pause beneath its massive skies as they travel along the Grand Illinois Trail. Birders will be able to comb native grasslands for Dickcissels or restored wetlands for migrating Whooping Cranes. Fishermen and sportsmen can wade through some of the highest-quality headwater streams in the region. Kayakers and paddle boarders can slip slowly down the Nippersink Creek as it meanders through open fields, lush woodlands, and verdant flowerbeds. And photographers will be able to capture a unique landscape of glacier-carved ridges adorned with valleys of wildflowers and pierced with pristine streams, all lingering from the last Ice Age.

Public access to open space is the guiding vision for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, but the designation in 2012 was just the start of a long journey to build the refuge. We are currently restoring the first acres of Hackmatack, but public-private partnerships and local enthusiasm driving the vision forward.


Forging Partnerships

In March 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its environmental assessment for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The assessment recommended a version of the refuge that would link existing state, county, and federal conservation lands with newly acquired land and conservation corridors.

After gaining support from the public, the congressional delegations of both Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as from their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the refuge in August 2012.

Today, Openlands and our partners are in the process of developing four core areas in Illinois and Wisconsin that link existing conservation sites and create the necessary scale needed for wildlife to thrive, which translates to thousands of acres of protected wetlands and havens for recovering wildlife populations. While restoration work is concentrated in these cores, we are also working with private partners to link the cores via migratory corridors.

While Openlands is able to acquire new parcels from willing sellers andhelp restore them to be a part of Hackmatack, federal support for the refuge is critical. Federal land protection ensures that important resources are forever available to America’s future generations. It secures drinking water supplies, provides wildlife habitat, creates recreation opportunities, and maintains ecosystems that support agriculture, tourism, and other economic activity. These areas will be protected from pollution and continue supplying clean water to agriculture. These considerations drove the locals’ decision to seek federal protection as a national wildlife refuge.

This is a new approach to conservation and a new way to protect open space on the scale we need for wildlife to thrive. We have to tackle the challenge with our partners acre-by-acre, parcel-by-parcel to protect these places so everyone can share places like Hackmatack.


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The open spaces of the American landscape have always been part of our national identity. Hackmatack is a dream built from the bottom up, drawing together the skills and talents of conservation non-profits, local business owners, sportsmen, and private citizens.

Foresight and planning for the Chicago Wilderness Region established many different and superb ways for people to be connected with and inspired by nature. Whether at the local park or forest preserve, or at vast open spaces like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, connections to nature are vital to all people. Chicago is the third largest metropolitan region in the country, but we lack equal access to America’s public lands. Cutting support of the National Wildlife Refuges will rob us of our right to enjoy America’s public lands.

Volunteers Sow the Seeds of Hackmatack

This winter, Openlands has organized a series of volunteer workdays at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. With the help of these great volunteers, we have begun the process of restoring two sites within the boundaries of the refuge.

Hackmatack was established as a permanent National Wildlife Refuge in 2012, but from the beginning, it has been a partnership of local communities and local governments working to bring the vision to life. Friends and neighbors came together to earn the federal designation, but now the real work of building the refuge acre-by-acre has begun.


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Braving the Cold…

On the chilly morning of January 28, the Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge hosted a seed planting workday on the Perricone Tract with the help of Openlands and the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD). Volunteers spread 100 lbs of native prairie seed mix, kindly donated by FermiLab, along the site’s eastern edge, which will grow in to help restore this tract.

In 2016, Openlands purchased the Perricone Tract in Woodstock, IL as part of our ongoing work in Hackmatack. This 27-acre parcel contains remnant sedge meadow and a lovely meandering stretch of the Nippersink Creek. Openlands partnered with the Nippersink Watershed Association to protect the Perricone Tract and received a generous grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to support the site’s acquisition and restoration.

The seeding planting workday laid the foundation for more prairie restoration work in the coming spring, which will be led by our partners at MCCD and funded by our Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant.


…And Enjoying the Unseasonably Warm

Following the seed planting, a second group of volunteers, again in partnership with Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, helped begin restoration efforts at the Blackmon Tract in Richmond, an open space site in the refuge boundaries that is owned by Openlands.

Back in the fall of 2016, Openlands acquired this 11-acre site in the Tamarack Core Area of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. It contains oak woodlands, a high-quality wetland area, and wonderful opportunities for restoring native natural communities and creating public access for Hackmatack. The acquisition of the Blackmon property was made possible through the leadership and support of the Grand Victoria Foundation, which awarded a generous grant to Openlands for the land purchase.

On February 19, a hard-working group of nearly 30 people joined us on an unseasonably warm day to pick up trash and clear invasive brush from the Blackmon Tract. We were happy to count members from several groups among our volunteers, including Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Boy Scout Troop 340 from Spring Grove, and EPIC Volunteering from Palos. Spotting a bald eagle circling slowly overhead topped off a great day filled with laughter, a little bit of sweat, and a lot of sunshine.


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When restored, the landscapes protected at Hackmatack will once again offer a home to the mosaics of native plants and wildflowers, the mazes of pristine streams, and the rich variety of wildlife. Essential to Openlands’ vision is not just protecting these rare habitats, but also ensuring everyone can share in the nature at Hackmatack. Whether through participating in restoration days or by introducing best practices to support wildlife near their homes, the local residents are making great strides to restore this area for the benefit of all.


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Local partnerships make Hackmatack a unique model for conservation and our volunteers helped sow the seeds for future partnerships uniting around a shared vision for Hackmatack. We will be hosting more workdays at these sites soon. For more information, please contact Openlands Conservation Manager, Aimee Collins, at acollins@openlands.org or call 312.863.6257.

Openlands send many thanks to our volunteers for their support and to our sponsors who provide critical support for restoration!

Students Engage in Conservation Work at Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

On Saturday, October 1, students and faculty from Pritzker College Prep, located in the Hermosa neighborhood, journeyed to Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge for a workday.

Twenty students joined Openlands, McHenry County Conservation District, and Sierra Club Illinois in conducting conservation work at two sites owned by Openlands in the Wildlife Refuge, the Twin Creeks and Perricone properties.  The work included planting bur oak seedlings and collecting seeds from yellow coneflower, purple coneflower, and wild bergamot.

The workday was a part of Sierra Club Illinois’ “Chicago Inspiring Connections Outdoors” program, which works to provide wilderness experiences for people who otherwise might not have them.

The students planted eight bur oak seedlings, a fire-tolerant tree that does best in open prairies, at the Twin Creeks site. Glacier Oaks Nursery, a local tree nursery located in Harvard, IL, provided the tree seedlings through a generous donation.

The students also did their seed collecting at the Twin Creeks site. Once they finished collecting seeds, they brought them to the Perricone site to spread.  Openlands is working with the McHenry County Conservation District to restore the Perricone site, and this native seed planting supports that work.

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The workday was a part of a longer weekend for the Pritzker students, who went to several sites within the refuge to camp and engage in stewardship work.

The students enjoyed their work with Openlands so much that they took it upon themselves to name the trees they planted.  They also expressed a desire to come back and see the trees and prairie plants that will grow because of them.

Openlands is excited to work with partners like the Sierra Club to host more Hackmatack workdays in the future.

A Land Protection Success for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

Spend an afternoon exploring the countryside of McHenry County, about 70 miles northwest of Chicago, and soon you will find yourself crossing one of the features that make this part of our region special: a lazy Midwestern stream. Dozens of these little waterways wind through the farm fields and sleepy villages that characterize the county’s quiet rural areas. These streams feed larger creeks such as the Nippersink and Piscasaw, which then flow into our region’s big rivers such as the Fox and Kishwaukee. Eventually, the tiny McHenry County stream you cross will reach the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

In January of 2016, Openlands closed on the purchase of a 27-acre property in rural Woodstock that contains one of these important waterways. Known as the Perricone property, the site features part of a major branch of the high-quality Nippersink Creek along with remnant sedge meadow communities. Nearly a mile of the creek meanders through the property, offering critical habitat for native fish and mussels. In addition, nearby upland areas present excellent opportunities to restore native prairie habitat, support grassland and migratory birds, and create a buffer area along the creek to improve soil health and water quality.

The Perricone property is an important land protection project for several reasons. Chief among these is the property’s location within the boundaries of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. When Hackmatack was established by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012, the refuge’s footprint was carefully outlined by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to include streams and creeks within the Nippersink Creek watershed. In addition to protecting part of this high-quality hydrological complex – home to several state endangered and threatened species – the Perricone property lays within a designated “core area” of Hackmatack. This is truly a strategic land protection accomplishment for the refuge.


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With generous funding from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, a critical match grant from the Full Circle Foundation, and help from our partner, the Nippersink Creek Watershed Association, Openlands purchased the Perricone property and will begin restoration work on the site later this year. In the near future, Openlands plans to transfer the property into the permanent ownership of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, where it will officially become part of the federal landholdings that comprise Hackmatack.

A few miles downstream from the Perricone property, this particular branch of the Nippersink Creek flows through another important Hackmatack project located in the same “core area” of Hackmatack: the Twin Creeks project. With the help of conservation partners including the McHenry County Conservation District and Ducks Unlimited, Openlands purchased about 100 acres of this platted, yet undeveloped subdivision – transforming the land into a beautiful complex of oak woodland, common areas featuring native wildflowers, protected creek corridor, and individual home sites. Federal grant funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act is being leveraged to complete restoration work along the creek.

The Perricone property and the Twin Creeks project are great examples of powerful partnerships coming together to create a large-scale project like Hackmatack. Openlands is one of ten organizations that have signed on to a partnership agreement guiding the selection and implementation of land protection projects for Hackmatack. As of January 2018, the partners have protected nearly 1,000 acres in the refuge boundaries. These successes have been accomplished by using innovative approaches that leverage limited partner resources, working with willing sellers, and helping conservation-minded landowners protect their properties with conservation easements.


Want to start exploring Hackmatack for yourself? The best ways to experience the refuge are through a visit to Glacial Park and by paddling the Nippersink Creek. You can also learn more about the landscapes protected at Hackmatack and read the story of how a small group of volunteers earned federal recognition of these special landscapes.

For more information on Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, please contact land@openlands.org.

#DiscoverYourPlace Photo Map

We at Openlands love that so many of you are getting outside to #DiscoverYourPlace. The social media campaign puts a spotlight on special outdoor and natural areas in northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana.

Many of you have gotten out to explore natural areas you didn’t know existed, while others are highlighting species and habitat that make our region special! These include many of the places Openlands helps to protect, restore, and create for people to connect to. So far, there have been over 300 photos of unique landscapes, vast open space, and special green areas in the Chicago region!

As the weather warms, we’d love to know, “Where are you enjoying the outdoors and discovering new and restored natural areas nearby?” Get involved by tagging your photos of parks, gardens, trails, preserves, native species, restored landscapes and more with #DiscoverYourPlace! Share your photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Check out this interactive map of some of our favorite #DiscoverYourPlace photos on Instagram so far! Do you see a place you haven’t heard of? How many of these places have you been to? Or maybe you’d like to highlight one of your favorite natural areas not represented below! Join us!

Click here for the interacative #DiscoverYourPlace map!

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Openlands Protects Important Bird Areas Near Chicago

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States and Canada. In 1916, this landmark agreement made it illegal to hunt, capture, kill, sell, or even pursue migratory birds. (See the original 1916 treaty here: Convention between the United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds.)

To celebrate this treaty, Openlands wants to make Chicagoans aware of Important Bird Areas nearby. Important Bird Areas or IBA’s are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitat for birds. These habitats play a vital part in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter.

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White-faced Ibis at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland

Through environmental policy and advocacy, habitat protection, and land acquisition and restoration programs, Openlands has positively impacted IBA’s around Chicago. Just south of the city, we’ve helped to establish natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and save places like Goose Lake Prairie State Park. We’ve restored vital wetlands and other habitats at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland and Illinois Beach State Park, and have used our policy wing to advocate for several additional sites. We fought for the Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance that keeps our lakefront protected for migrating birds along the Mississippi Flyway.

Here is a list of Important Bird Areas Openlands has helped to protect:

Notably, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together since 2001 to expand over 900 acres of continuous grassland habitat at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland in southern Cook County. Bartel Grassland was an existing IBA on its own, but in September 2015, Audubon Chicago Region approved adding the Tinley Creek Wetlands restoration areas to Bartel. This more than doubled the overall acreage for this Important Bird Area.

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Through our Birds in My Neighborhood Program, we are able to engage Chicago Public School students with nearby nature areas. The program has taken educational visits to Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland, introducing these children to a rare and unique world of nature and experiences they will never forget.

We hope you venture out and find an Important Bird Area near you!