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Give it Back to the Birds

Near the far southeastern edge of Cook County nestled among a variety of habitats—marshes and ponds, prairies, oak savannas and woodlands on ancient beaches and sand dunes—you’ll find Sand Ridge Nature Center. If you walk around to the side of the building on any given Thursday, and look into the bird garden, there is a good chance you’ll see volunteer Jerry Hossli hard at work, often times by himself, sometimes with help from a volunteer or two.

 

Jerry is an extraordinary volunteer. He’s a Master Naturalist, Master Gardener, and Master Composter—certifications he received through the University of Illinois Extension (UIE). It’s through these UIE programs that he came to know Sand Ridge Nature Center. “We had a Master Naturalist class here one time and that’s how I found out about Sand Ridge. I had never been here before. I liked the place, so I just started coming back and helping.” When Jerry started volunteering at Sand Ridge in 2013, he was handling the compost bins. Then, Master Naturalists were assigned to help maintain the gardens. Jerry and other volunteers came in and started cleaning up and replanting. The Master Naturalists saw great potential in the bird garden, which will serve as a demo garden for Conservation at Home. People will be able to see how to construct a rain garden at their own homes, identify beneficial plants, and help to increase the corridor for migratory birds while making good use of rain runoff.

 

On a particularly steamy Thursday morning just a few weeks ago, Jerry and another volunteer, Marilynn Thompson, were taking a break in the shade. It was hot, muggy, and the mosquitoes were relentless, but they were happy to show their progress.

 

“We dug the pond and the streambed last fall, and we had a group of high school kids to help us. Then we didn’t get the high school kids anymore and then it got cold out, and the winter set in and we couldn’t get it done”, Jerry explains. Since resuming the project in the spring, a great amount of time has been spent pulling all the rocks out of the stream, and sifting them to clean the seeds out…a ton of seeds. Just a few weeks ago they moved a bird feeder farther away from the stream in the hopes of keeping most of the seed hulls out. It’s a tedious process, but it has to be done before anything can be planted. Jerry says, “That’s why we’re looking for more volunteers to get some work done”. Marilynn chimes in, “Oh, desperately! We’re old!” “We were supposed to get summer school interns but that got canned too now so we’re not getting summer school interns”, Jerry says with a chuckle. You can tell that he is used to help not showing up and has been making do. But that doesn’t stop him from seeing the big picture.

 

He points at a downspout coming off the building. The downspout feeds into the streambed, which feeds into the pond that will be replenished each time it rains. “You’ll have like a waterfall with the rocks built around it so it will look like a waterfall when it rains. It’ll be pretty when it’s done. And then all the plants growing along the streambed will be even better because you’ll have sedges and grasses and some flowering stuff at different times of the year. And that will just come back every year and we won’t have to redo it”, Jerry explains. He says that once the stream is finished and the plants are in place, the next big project will be to build a viewing platform off the path where visitors can sit in the shade to get a closer look at all the birds in the garden.

 

The goal is to complete the project by this fall. Jerry put his hands on his hips and looks around the garden. “They’re all watchin’ us”, he says. It’s time to give it back to the birds”.

 

If you’d like to get involved with the bird garden, sign up for one of these upcoming Thursdays. Jerry is even willing to let helpers use his personal gardening kneeler.

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Visit two of the treasures of the Forest Preserves of Cook County