Lake Cook Audubon Chapter
of the Illinois Audubon Society
Bird Watching at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve Grayslake, Illinois
Birding Gems of the Grassland
Bobolinks float over the savanna with a bubbling song. The quiet “tsi-lick” of the Henslow’s Sparrow announces its secretive presence. The “rusty hinge” song of the Yellow-headed Blackbird rings unmusically from the marsh. The eerie yodel of Sandhill Cranes echoes from the center of the preserve. These are just a few sounds and sights of Rollins Savanna.
With 1,216 uninterrupted acres, Rollins Savanna is one of Lake County’s largest forest preserves. The habitat within the park is a testament to what prairie and wetland restoration can look like. Native grasslands roll across the preserve with scattered marshes and ponds throughout. Rollins is one of the best places in Lake County to find breeding grassland species that need quality habitat and in fact was recognized by the National Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area in 2005 for this reason.We have good news and bad news about Rollins Savanna, one of the newest forest preserves in Lake County. The good news is that Short-Eared Owls and Northern Harriers have been spotted there since the winter of 2004. The bad news is that snowmobilers may drive these magnificent birds away.
Birds To Find
Though most people show up to Rollins Savanna for the breeding season specialties, every season can be productive. In the spring and fall, shorebird and waterfowl migration bring in many species to the wetlands including Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Green-Winged Teal, Northern Pintail and many others.
In winter, an observant eye can spot Northern Harriers cruising over the preserve and Snow Buntings scattered throughout. Also, Rollins Savanna has been a reliable place to find wintering Short-Eared Owls. Their moth-like flight at dusk and dawn are an entertaining spectacle.
During spring migration, the large oak savannah at the north end can hold many sought-after warbler species such as Black-throated Green, Cape May and Blackburnian.
The breeding birds are quite impressive in diversity and numbers. Birds to look for during the breeding season include Dickcissel, Bobolink, Willow Flycatcher, Henslow’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwalll, Least Bittern, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
Where to Bird
The only main trail at Rollins is a three-mile loop that takes you through large sections of grassland and prime wetland habitat. An easy hike, this loop deserves time. There is another one-mile loop at the northeast corner that takes you to a smaller lake and some other oak knolls, but the main loop trail is the best to go on first. There are two parking lots that access the loop: the main entrance at Washington Street and another entrance at Drury Lane.
Starting at the Washington parking lot, you can head straight towards the trail in either direction and get an instant welcome to the grasslands. Start your day by heading west on the loop. In the summer, this is a great area to see Bobolinks singing and flying. Also, keep a sharp ear for the hiccup song of the Henslow’s Sparrow that breed in this area. In some years Dickcissels can be found in the fields as well. In the winter, keep a lookout here for Northern Harriers and Short-Eared Owls.
Continuing west, there is a side trail heading south that leads to a boardwalk. The boardwalk goes between two small ponds and a small grove of trees. The reeds around the first boardwalk have produced both Sora and Virginia Rail in recent years and many duck species can be seen here, including breeding Blue-Winged Teal and Gadwall.
Back onto the main loop, the trail winds through more grassland habitat and a few scattered trees. In the summer, these areas can produce Willow Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, Henslow’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow and other sought-after grassland species. Farther up the trail, the marshland and oak savanna come into view.
This marsh and those further up the trail are the best places to look for Yellow-headed Blackbirds. A common bird in the West, the Yellow-headed Blackbird is a rare find in the Chicago area. Look for them in large areas of cattails. The main marsh is the best spot to look for migrating ducks in October and November. Other interesting birds to be seen in the wetlands include many species of swallow, both bitterns and Marsh Wren
The oak grove north of the main marsh can yield birds that are not usually seen in open grassland, including migrating passerines, Field Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and Orchard Oriole.
The remainder of the loop back to the Washington Street parking lot has more marsh and grassland habitat. The marshland just south of the oak grove is another good place to look for Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens. The rest of the trail has grassland habitat that can produce any of the previously mentioned grassland species. Another small stand of cattails just northeast of the visitor center has produced breeding Swamp Sparrow.