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A prairie mosiac

TWI currently restoring a rare set of ecosystems at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge

The majority of the vast Midwestern prairie is gone, replaced by miles and miles of corn and soybean fields or urban development. Many habitat restoration projects, such as the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, work to help restore this vital habitat to plant and animal species suffering from this massive loss.

The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), founded in 1994, is a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the wetlands of the Midwest to improve water quality; increase wildlife habitat and biodiversity; and reduce flood damage.

According to the its website, more than 90 percent of the wetlands present 200 years ago in Illinois are now drained, tiled, dammed or levied. With so many wetlands already lost, TWI focuses on restoring rather than simply preserving their remnants.

A recent planting on June 3 was completed by TWI ecologists and a group of approximately 35 volunteers, their largest group yet. It provided an early glimpse of the 283 acres of rare sand prairie which, while not currently open to the public, will eventually feature an outlook and a series of trails connecting to the rest of the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin and Hopper Lakes.

According to TWI's development and communications assistant Julie Erdmann, this was the second planting event held on the Hickory Hollow tract recently added to the refuge. Last year's planting covered about 40 acres. This year's planting focused on approximately 80 acres and included more than 30 native prairie species.

TWI hopes to have this beautiful addition open to the public by the fall, and if the signage and trail work isn't completed by then, they plan on having it opened next spring.

When the land was first acquired, it was corn and soybean fields. This year the early signs of a returning natural habitat are becoming more visible after TWI’s efforts.

"To see the native seedlings we planted last year in bloom is very exciting. These include the Prairie Violets, Heart-leaf Golden Alexander and Shooting Star," she said.

Those blooming wildflowers are an early sign of habitat restoration. Once the right plants are available to provide nectar and seeds, the other links in nature's chain will begin to appear.

"We're seeing monarchs attracted to the area from the milkweed planting we've done, and the developing habitat has also attracted many bird species, such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Meadowlark and Baltimore Oriole," Erdmann said.

While located in a wetlands preserve, the new area is different, featuring rolling hills of tall grass, vibrant wildflowers and hard, sandy soil.

"This area is an extremely rare mosaic of habitats which include sand prairie, savanna prairie, riparian forest, mesic prairie, oak-hickory woodland and wetlands. Half of the bird species east of the Rockies have been seen here, which is just incredible," said Vera Leopold, grants manager for TWI.

Erdmann said the seedlings are grown at a variety of locations since TWI uses multiple vendors, but added the majority of them are grown in Illinois, with many coming from Country Road Greenhouses located in Rochelle.

TWI has also thinned out the trees in some areas of the prairie to ensure it retains the proper characteristics of a savanna prairie ecosystem, as it blends into the mesic prairie and the heavier riparian woodlands closer to the wetlands.

The planting was held on a perfect, early summer day, but work was slowed by the hard earth and a worn auger. This left the group with one good auger and a quality hand tool provided by a volunteer. While slowing the planting, it allowed half of the volunteers to instead be taken on a hike guided by a TWI ecologist.

"I saw the notice for this in the paper and thought it'd be a great thing to do. It's very beautiful here, and I enjoy helping because I have a variety of gardens at home," said Linda Volker, a volunteer from Ottawa.

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