I turn off Hwy 31 in Dundee onto Country School Road and immediately all the stress and chaos of suburbia falls away. I am heading to the Spring Bird Cottage, a retreat on fourteen acres of oak, hickory and maple woodlands with a network of trails and a meandering creek. Anna, the creative behind the vision here, greets me. She tells me how this place had always felt like home in her heart and she feels blessed to be able to live here now. She knows her local wildlife and their routines just as I know mine. From a bedroom window in the house, she and her daughter watch the nightly parade of a raccoon family leaving their home in an old oak. They appear out the top, like a clown car, and always use the wispy neighboring pine tree as a step ladder to the ground. What an awesome way to end the day! The deer here know that the “bird” feeder at the cottage gets filled in anticipation of guests. A car parked in the right spot predicts food and out they come. Ten minutes into my visit, three deer casually appeared out of the woods, checked out the empty feeder and moseyed on their way. The deer family is comfortable here, as their familiarity with this routine illustrates, and they leave their newborn fawns near the safety of the house. What a treat to be granted such trust! After we share some more stories, Anna leaves me to explore on my own.
I collect my camera, change into my hiking boots and head out. The three deer that passed by the cottage are still right here at the edge of the tree line. I stop to watch them watch me. They are so curious, moving their heads up and down, side to side to check me out around the branches and limbs that separate us. They can’t be twenty feet away. They aren’t tame, but I think they’re as tame as wild deer get. They resume browsing and I move along.
There are old relics here from the middle of the last century when the house was first built and before that when it was part of a large dairy farm.
As I round the first bend, carpets of mayapple, budding but not in bloom, greet me. Bluebells and spring beauty also dot the understory where invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle and vinca are taking hold. And then I hear the creek. The sound of the gently flowing water tumbling over rocks and through turns washes over me, bringing a soothing calm like a deep, full breath or a luxurious massage can.
Lingering here to relish in the moment, I hear a rustling overhead. A gray squirrel is moving through the treetops, jumping from one thin branch to another like an expert acrobat.
At the stream, raccoon prints decorate the sandy banks. Their little handprints are all that remains of last night’s party here. Oh, how I’d love to set my trail camera up here! If I rented the cottage overnight, I would definitely bring the trail cam!
This trail I am following, I should note, has far more deer prints on it than anything else. In addition to counting cars at the cottage, I think the local deer can read the trail signs.
Across the creek, birdsong fills the air form white-crowned sparrows, bluejays, cardinals, a catbird. It’s a testament to the attraction of moving water. It calls in migrating birds like a siren song. A Northern Waterthrush (a first for me!) hops along a natural bridge during its stopover on its way northward. The flighty white-crowned sparrows never stop long enough for me to catch a picture and the catbird is deep within the leaves.
A brilliant pink redbud peeks above the canopy at the edge of a small meadow. Two beautiful dryad’s saddle mushrooms are accented by lush moss in the dappled sunlight at a turn in the trail.
There are quiet spaces tucked away around the property to sit, listen, observe and let the wildlife come to you. If I were a cottage guest, that’s how I’d spend a day.
In the heart of the woodland, the native spring ephemerals are thriving. First, a clearing of thick bluebells accompanied by bright green unfurling ferns.
A few steps further and the wild ginger is taking back the land overrun by vinca.
Any almost everywhere – jack-in-the-pulpits. I have never seen so many! They are thriving here.
Approaching the next creek crossing are the tallest, widest mayapples I’ve ever seen. Moreover, it’s a large colony at that. Also, interspersed with bluebells and, of course, more jack-in-the-pulpits.
As I move uphill away from the creek to check out a tree house, the forest quiets. Ninja, a resident cat, comes trotting out to greet me. She solicits some petting and then politely goes about her busy day. The tree house is well-built, screened in and has three chairs inside. Another good spot to sit a spell.
Back at the creek, there is a cluster of skunk cabbage, another Illinois native, growing in the flood plain. Here, there is a flurry of bird activity. A pair of cardinals is foraging in the muddy banks. Also, this appears to be the warbler’s favorite spot. I spent a fair amount of time watching them hopping through the bushes and flying about, plucking insects mid-air. A confident, curious pair of American Redstarts (another first for me!) would come and perch about 6 feet away from me, cocking their heads to one side, then the other in quizzical regard. Another warbler is busy feeding here, a white-capped sparrow flits about the brambles/bushes/detritus and a thrush is exploring the leaf litter. If I were a cottage guest, I would spend another day sitting here.
I rounded out my tour visiting the gardens (impressively fortressed against the deer), the ducks and the old barn. I feel so refreshed for the wonder that this spring woodland held for me today.
You can plan a visit, too, for the day or overnight and find your own wonders here.