The dark-eyed juncos are back in the Fox River Valley, passing through as the birds migrate south for the winter.
The juncos, a type of sparrow, can be viewed through the wide windows on the Prairieview Education Center’s second floor, which now serves as a large viewing area so the public can spot and identify different birds and others species that make their way through the surrounding prairie, said Becky Lambert, the center’s education services manager.
“They’re sort of a sign that winter is coming,” Lambert said, “so not everybody likes them. But when you see a red-tailed hawk or a turkey vulture right in the air currents, that’s always really cool.”
The bird-viewing area is part of a renovation and reimagining of the McHenry County Conservation District’s Prairieview Education Center in Crystal Lake, which was closed during the pandemic. The center reopened to the public last month, and staff hope it becomes a place where both kids and adults in the community can build a connection with nature.
“Humans and the natural world have been disconnected for a long time,” administrative assistant Brianna Roeser said. “It’s really important that people can reconnect with wildlife and nature and that nature is there when you need it or if people can help preserve it in some way like with volunteering or donating.”
While Roeser said the conservation district spent less than $100 on revamping, the staff thinks the changes will go a long way towards sparking public interest.
Before the pandemic, visitors entered on the ground floor, which has no prairie views, Roeser said. The staff now has visitors enter on the second floor, which looks out onto the prairie and the Fox River beyond.
The conservation district added both indoor and outdoor seating, Roeser said. Other additions came from donations or things that were just lying around, like posters from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, plush bird toys from the Audubon Society, or animals that are now placed on the rafters in the main lobby.
In addition to the birding windows, the sun room was reorganized and turned from essentially a storage area into a series of interactive exhibits for kids and families, including rock and species identification stations, a camping canopy where kids can read and a puppet show featuring animals native to Illinois.
The puppets are often found later in the day “all over the place,” Roeser said. The sun room revamp was Roeser’s project, and she came to the center in March after spending three years as a habitat technician with the conservation district.
At the moment, all of the center’s staff came on board during or after the pandemic period, Lambert said, which gave them an opportunity to reconfigure the facility during its closure.
The timing of the public reopening was intended to coincide with the school year so as older children visited as part of their classes, parents could bring younger kids there as well, Lambert said.
“We wanted more space for the kids to explore,” Roeser said. “There wasn’t much on the walls here, so we wanted to add something that you can see that’s cool. Now there’s colors, there’s always an opportunity to look at something and be intrigued by it, things like a little canopy that enhance the imagination.”
In addition to members of the public, the Prairieview Education Center hosts numerous school groups and classes from around the county, Roeser said. The field trips often include orienteering and scavenger hunts out on the prairie.
Chauncey H. Duker Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Jenny Nellessen said her students’ experience at a day-long field trip last week doing orienteering and geocaching was overwhelmingly positive.
“We love the people and the programs that the conservation district offers,” the McHenry School District 15 teacher said. “I am always eager to take advantage of their expertise and willingness to work with schools and accommodate our needs.”
A parent chaperone on the trip, Michael Alva, said he was really impressed with what Prairieview offered for kids and said when he was growing up in Crystal Lake, the closest outdoor hiking area school groups went to was Glacier Park Conservation Area, another 15 miles to the north in Ringwood.
“This is amazing here,” Alva said. “There’s a lot more learning tools. The kids had fun and they learned a lot. I had fun today too.”
Getting kids excited about the wild spaces in their county is crucial, Lambert said, because enthusiasm comes before conservation.
“If we can’t teach them enjoyment and appreciation of wild spaces, we can’t teach them the next step, which is to protect the space,” Lambert said. “Our goal is to build stewards of the future.”
While Lambert said that McHenry County had a healthy appreciation of protecting wild habitats, with a surfeit of volunteers, that isn’t true in every county in northern Illinois, and there is a constant need to highlight the educational and recreational opportunities of sites like Prairieview.
So far the reactions from the public have been very positive, Lambert said, adding that they hope to make more additions going forward, including a phenology board for what is blooming seasonally or what animals can be spotted.