By Alan Branhagen, Executive Director, Natural Land Institute
I remember visiting (with permission) what is now Nygren Wetland Preserve thirty years ago when it was a farm: it was during a Christmas Bird Count and we saw over 6,000 European Starlings raiding the cattle feedlot. Today that is a storage area for the Natural Land Institute’s signature property: Nygren Wetland Preserve (3190 W. Rockton Rd., Rockton, IL 61072).
Years of restoration and management have converted the poor and flood prone farmland to a wildlife oasis of protected and restored natural habitat. The wetlands, especially the main oxbow lake viewable by Rockton Township’s wildlife overlook (3714 W. Rockton Rd.), has become a major water bird magnet. The meandering Raccoon Creek and its floodplain woodland, oak groves on the ridges, and shorelines of the Pecatonica and Rock Rivers comprise the oxbow’s surrounding managed natural lands.
Nygren recently (Aug. 2023) recorded its fourth county record bird: a species of sandpiper from Eurasia; a Ruff. The extensive mudflats along the main oxbow was the attractor – one of the best such habitats around. It’s a necessary habitat for migrating shorebirds to refuel for the next leg of their journey between the tundra and warmer climes to our South or as far away as the opposite Hemisphere. Nygren has become the go to place for birders to see shorebirds in the area and we plan to keep maintaining it as important stopover habitat into the future. Rare Buff-breasted Sandpipers and uncommon Stilt and Western Sandpipers, and Red-necked Phalarope have also recently been seen along with the more common shorebirds from Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers that nest here to Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; Solitary, Pectoral and Least Sandpipers.
Two weeks prior, one then two Limpkins were a new county bird record. These snail and mollusk feeding specialists found the shallow, high quality Raccoon Creek a place to feed on its viable population of mussels. Limpkins have recently become regular finds in the Midwest in summer while not that long ago they were Florida specialist birds not known to migrate or wander.
Other birds seen at Nygren for their first time in Winnebago County include Tricolored Heron and Neotropical Cormorant, both vagrants from the South. The first free-flying Whooping Cranes (part of the International Crane Foundations reintroduction to the Upper Midwest) also chose Nygren as a stopover place. Cranes like to roost in shallow water for the night and feed in adjacent or surrounding wetlands and fields during the day. The fall Sandhill Crane migration is quite a sight (and sound!) at Nygren. American White Pelicans also used to be quite rare in the county but now regular visitors with Nygren as their favored location – so much so that neighboring Rockton has added Rockton Pelican Fest (third Saturday in May) as an event to celebrate these magnificent birds.
So what will the next rarity be to show up at Nygren? Your guess is as good as mine, but Nygren Wetland has become a magnet for birds and a resounding testimony to the work NLI has done in protecting and restoring this important place at the junction of the Rock and Pecatonica Rivers.