Middlefork Savanna

Hidden Wilderness Behind Suburban Mansions

Most of the auto traffic moving purposefully up and down Waukegan Road in Lake Forest, Illinois, is blissfully unaware of Middlefork Savanna. The stoplight at Middlefork Drive/Westmoreland Road looks like it leads to another subdivision of mansions in this upscale community. But travel a few hundred yards west on the street and you are transported into an alternative time and space. You’ve arrived at Middlefork Savanna, a Lake County Forest Preserve.

Middlefork SavannaIn front of you are 600 precious acres of tallgrass savanna, a rare ecosystem. The preserve also includes wetlands, woodlands, prairie and open field ecosystems offering a variety of habitats that attract a diverse bird population. The Middlefork moniker is derived from the waterway that transects the property known as the Middle Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Middlefork Savanna is described as the best surviving “black soil” savanna in Illinois. In fact, over 25 acres of the preserve are considered the highest quality soil savanna in the nation and a globally threatened ecosystem. As you enter the preserve, you can loop north where white oaks are most common in the drier northwestern portion. Or travel south where burr and scarlet oaks predominate in moister areas of wet prairie and sedge meadow. A study in the 70’s revealed several uncommon animal species as well as plants listed in Illinois as threatened or endangered.

Adjacent to the parking lot is the 16-acre Elawa Farm, an historic farm now owned by the City of Lake Forest with the intention of restoring the property as a neighborhood park and education center.

Birds To Find

Bird watching at Middlefork SavannaIn 2007 a Wilson’s Phalarope hung around the small pond at the Elawa Farm end of Middlefork Savanna. In April 2008, three Great Blue Heron navigating Duckweed at Middlefork Savanna migrating Whooping Cranes enjoyed a weekend retreat at the north end of the preserve. In 2009, a King Rail was discovered amid the reeds. These rare Lake County sightings underscore how the mix of tallgrass savanna, woodland, prairies, meadows and marshes at Middlefork draw migratory birds.

More commonly, birders might seasonally encounter species from Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal and Wood Ducks to Sandhill Cranes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bobolink, DIckcissel, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Solitary Sandpiper and a great selection of warblers and sparrows. The wetlands reliably produce Great Egrets, Great Blue and Green Herons. And don’t forget to look overhead: a Snow Goose was once spotted flying “wing man” in a formation of migratory Canada Geese, and raptors often soar in the open spaces.

Middlefork also supports a healthy breeding bird population that has included Orchard Oriole, Eastern Meadowlark, Great Horned Owl, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Henslow’s Sparrow and House Wren, to name a few.

If you have a spotting scope, it can be pretty useful. We recommend you bring it along.

Where to Bird

A number of wooded ponds with waterfowl dot the Middlefork Savanna landscapeOne could easily spend the entire day birding Middlefork. But you need not. Walking west from the parking lot, the gravel path quickly presents three choices. Get your bearings by walking to the viewing platform and surveying the central and northern sections of the preserve as well as simply enjoying the vista. Then make some choices based on your time, the season and your targeted birding interest. You can either:

Turn right and follow the northerly route. The open savanna is on your left (west) and a woods on your right (east). Following the trail north will take you over several bridges over the Middle Fork that can contain water birds. Midway, you have the option to turn west to connect with option 2.

Travel straight west and across the bridge to the broad prairie, which also holds some ponds near the railroad tracks.You can hook up to option 1 as you walk north.

Head south. Your path will take you through the savanna along the Middlefork channel, eventually reaching a bridge with a stand of trees, a productive pond and further south a series of larger wetlands. The birding can be very rewarding and varied. But it is a bit of a hike, and not a loop so you will return along the path you travel.

You will share your route with bikers, joggers and dog walkers. As a rule, there is no conflict among these recreational users. Have a good time.