Lake Cook Audubon Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society

Bird Watching Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve

Bird Watching at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve

Highwood, Illinois

Unique Lake Michigan Bluff and Prairie

The Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve, part of the Lake County Forest Preserve District, includes over 200 acres on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan as well as the sand beach below the bluff.  The Forest Preserve District is developing a focused land management approach (updated as of March, 2013) that has not yet been shared for public comment.

In 2009 and 2010, the District completed the grading and restoration of over 55 acres of upland areas. This included restoring drainage through an open rock-lined swale and planting a fast growing prairie seed mix. Unsurprisingly, given the re-generated habitat and new food sources, the area quickly became a haven for wildlife. In Spring 2012 a controlled burn was conducted to help manage invasive plant species. The Preserve was part of a 6-county Red-headed Woodpecker study in 2012.

Lake Cook Audubon conducts an annual Beginners Birdwalk here in late April. Mid-summer bird walks have also been held.

Presently, the area contains three distinct habitats:

1. Oak Savanna
Fort Sheridan Oak Savanna
Oak savanna on the north and, south property boundaries. Each of these savanna habitats extend along deep tree-lined ravines.

2. Grassland Prairie

In the center of this, extending to the western property boundary is a great expanse of grassland prairie.Fort Sheridan Prairie

3. Grassland Bluff
On the east lakefront edge is the grassland bluff habitat.
Fort Sheridan Bluff

Where to Bird

An asphalt loop that begins on the south side of the parking lot offers reliable views of Red-headed Woodpecker. Also seen along this east-west trail have been species including Eastern Bluebird, Red bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Wood Peewee, Baltimore and Orchard Oriole, Brown Thrasher, American Goldfinch, Eastern Kingbird, Brown Creeper, Great Crested Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo and Indigo Bunting.

When you reach the far west side of this loop at the access road that leads into the parking lot, stop at the bridge. A Louisiana Waterthrush has been observed in the ravine there during spring migration, the feeders at the house across the way have yielded surprises like Purple Finch, and a Northern Mockingbird was once seen in this area as well. Returning to the parking lot, you might even spot a LeConte's Sparrow.

Either in the middle of the loop or at the end, walk down to the lake along the road and scan the edges for many of the same species. Then check the lake for waterfowl, particularly in the winter and early spring. One November four male Long-tailed Ducks landed close to shore.

Orchard Oriole at Fort SheridanLooking north from the parking lot into the prairie, one can observe Savannah and Song Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlark, Bobolink, Barn, Rough winged and Tree Swallow, Chimney Swift. Overhead look for fly-bys including American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, Cormorant, Ring-bill Gulls, and Caspian Terns.

An interim grass trail through the prairie is accessible from the parking lot. This trail leads east to the lake bluff, north along the bluff and then west through largely unmanaged native savanna. Toward the north end of the bluff and slightly inland is a pond fed by the drainage of the prairie from the recently managed swale. Great Blue Heron have been observed here in summer. Spring migration finds Green and Blue Teal. In the winter, lake birds such as Scaup and Common Goldeneye have been observed in the pond when not frozen.

Many of the species found above may be found along this wilderness-like trail. If one area is not productive, the other may be and both should be checked. Mid-summer (July) bird walks have yielded a remarkable diversity of grassland and woodland birds along this north boundary trail with the greatest activity near the lake.

Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve's Recent History & Future

The Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve land dispute took shape in late 2008. An unanticipated high cost of golf course development coupled with the downturn in the popularity of golf put a damper on plans to restore the army’s run-down golf course which the Forest Preserve District had inherited and operated. Strong public sentiment about the potential taxpayer burden for the course together with environmentalists and conservationists concerns for the best use of this Lake Michigan bluff land ultimately convinced the governing Forest Board to abandon plans to develop a golf course on this site. The habitat is rebounding and as of 2013 plans are under development for the management of this property.

Additional Information Related to the Land Dispute