EXPLORE WITH LENORE
Warbler Ridge offers much to explore
Originally published in The Pantagraph, July 24, 2023
Terry Smith, champion volunteer at Warbler Ridge Conservation Area near Charleston, explores the area along the Aspen Loop trail at the site that is owned and managed by the not-for-profit Grand Prairie Friends last week.
CHARLESTON — With a name like Warbler Ridge, it’s no surprise that the conservation area owned and managed by the Grand Prairie Friends near Fox Ridge State Park, attracts birders, especially during spring and fall migration. But it is so much more.
Its 1,059 acres, less than a two-hour drive from Bloomington, contain a variety of habitats from river bottomland and prairies to forested ridges and wetlands.
Warbler Ridge is part of a continuous conservation corridor being developed along the Embarras River. It is home to eight different kinds of orchids and more than 300 kinds of fungi. What was once pasture and cropland is now land undergoing restoration to prairie and other habitat to benefit pollinators and bats.
At least eight of the 13 species of bats in Illinois can be found at the Warbler Ridge Conservation Area, including Northern Long-eared Bat, Little Brown Bat and the endangered Indiana Bat.
As part of a planned 30-year bat habitat restoration project begun in 2018, the Grand Prairie Friends, a not-for-profit conservation organization and land trust, has planted 40 acres of pollinator prairie plants where bats can feed on insects, planted 50,000 oak and hickory trees for long-range natural roosting sites and erected poles with bat “houses” for more immediate habitat.
Terry Smith, a champion volunteer and bat monitor at Warbler Ridge, pointed to one of the bat shelters and said, “We have counted as many as 200 bats coming out of one of those.”
Six poles with bat shelters brought out a total of 700 bats within about 20 to 30 minutes after sunset, he said.
Unfortunately, you can’t witness that spectacle because the conservation area is only open to the public from sunrise to sunset. But you can witness many other wonders.
The area has many steep ravines, reflecting its location around the farthest reach of glaciers in Illinois.
There are about 10 miles of hiking trails. Pick up a map at the Warbler Crossing parking lot, 17487 Bypass Road, Charleston, to help you find the trails and parking areas or find more information at their website, grandprairiefriends.org, under the “explore our preserves” tab. No bikes or unleashed pets are allowed.
The longest continuous trail is the Warbler Trail, which is 3 miles one way. If you have more than one car along, you can stage one at each end.
A “guided” hike with 12 stops along the Warbler Trail is included in the “Prairie State Hikes” app available for purchase through Google Play or the Apple App Store. The app provides information on plants, animals and history along the way. Hikes at other natural areas, including Starved Rock State Park and Allerton Park, are also part of the app.
The Cemetery Ridge Trail takes you along narrow ridges and some challenging terrain to an old cemetery with gravestones dating back to the mid-1850s.
For a more leisurely stroll, start at the South Trailhead, 17161 Daileyville Road. This is the southern terminus of the Warbler Trail but it also provides access to the relatively flat, half-mile Aspen Loop.
A beautiful display of wildflowers can also be found there in a pollinator demonstration plot. It was attracting numerous bees and butterflies during our visit. Most of the plants have identifying tags “so it’s kind of a show-and-tell site,” Smith said.
“There’s different reasons people go to places like this,” said Smith. “Some are basically out to hike for exercise, other people to look at the natural area and the magnificence of the diversity and plant life and so on.”
Whether you are at Warbler Ridge or at another natural area, Smith said, it's important to keep an open mind — and open eyes.
“Any time a person is exploring, it’s important that you show up curious to make new discoveries," Smith said, "to find answers to things you didn’t know before maybe take pictures of unique things and research after your visit there.”
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