A hike through Orland Grassland, at the southern edge of Orland Park, provides expansive views of gently rolling prairie and wetland. The 960-acre site has more than 750 acres of open prairie in which rare grassland birds find needed habitat. The area was once farmland but is now being restored as a grassland complex with prairie, wetlands, open ponds, oak savannas, shrublands and woodlands. Since habitat restoration efforts began in 2002, native grasses and wildflowers have also begun to flourish. Of the millions of acres of prairie that existed in Illinois prior to the arrival of the settlers, only .001 remains. Orland Grassland is bringing back that native prairie heritage.
Currently, the only interior trails at Orland Grassland are deer paths, which occasionally double as footpaths for volunteers and visitors. Visitors can walk respectfully through the open grassy areas and by the low wetlands that dot the preserve. (Stay to the preserve’s perimeter May though early August, as grassland birds use the interior for nesting during this time.) The Forest Preserves is developing a paved trail that will run just inside the perimeter of the preserve. Hike past bouquets of wildflowers to the top of the many rolling hills for sweeping vistas of the site. Enjoy the sights and songs of birds seen almost nowhere else, butterflies and dragonflies and multitudes of grasshoppers hopping around your feet. Watch coyotes trot alone along the horizon as the shadows of clouds drift across the prairie. Be sure to bring binoculars or a camera.
In coordination with the Forest Preserves, the Orland Grassland Volunteers organize workdays where people can volunteer to clear invasive brush, replacing it with a great variety of native species. The group also hosts events to raise awareness about native biodiversity, encourage volunteer participation and just show off the place.
Nature at Orland
Orland Grassland is one of the largest grassland habitat restoration projects in Cook County. Because this preserve is still in the early stages of habitat restoration after decades of farming, the site still sees some dramatic changes with ongoing fieldwork, conducted by Forest Preserve staff, volunteers, partner agencies and contractors.
Glacial advances and retreats created a rolling topography, where prairie uplands and low wetlands once shared the landscape. Disabling miles of drain tiles from earlier farming days enabled the site’s natural water scheme (or “hydrology”) to return, once again providing flowing streams, open ponds and swaths of wetlands.
Many grassland birds of concern, such as the Henslow’s sparrow, bobolink, dickcissel, field sparrow, eastern meadowlark and others are found at Orland. More than 100 bird species are counted each year at the volunteer bird count, including warblers, dunlins, phalaropes, sora rails, orchard orioles and eastern kingbirds. Harriers and Cooper’s hawks circle in the sky, and migrating sandhill cranes have stopped over in good numbers. These special birds find habitat among some equally special plants, such as the scurfy pea, lead plant, hoary puccoon and prairie gentian. Purple prairie clover and grass-leaved goldenrod add color, while the towering compass plant and prairie dock add dimension to the greens and browns of the iconic prairie grasses. Grass species here include little bluestem, prairie dropseed, big bluestem, Indian grass and Scribner’s and Leiberg’s panic grasses.