I often write about hidden gems – those wonderful things that have been right under our noses all along. That’s because when we make the time to stop and look, there is wonder all around us.
A friend recently suggested a village park that has all of the typical spring woodland wildflowers of northern Illinois. “Wait to go until the bluebells are blooming,” she added. Last Tuesday afternoon, under the threat of storms building out west, I drove to the park. This public park is a bit of a secret located at the end of a dead-end, private road that sharply deters visitors. It’s two miles from my house. Two miles. I’d never been here before, although I drove past it once just to have a look about a decade ago.
An Auspicious Arrival
I parked off the side of the road at the Wildlife Sanctuary sign, where I noticed a footpath into the weedy, vine-laden forest. At that moment, a Cooper’s Hawk flew in front of me, hefting prey in its talons and alit on a branch ahead. I quickly switched from my wildflower lens to my wildlife lens and snuck up behind the trunk of a nearby tree. The hawk must’ve known I was there but gave no indication – not a pause, not a glance, not a flick of the tail. What a fantastic opportunity to watch this adept predator pick apart his meal, a songbird—one bird giving life to another.
Standing on the carcass, pulling with his beak, flipping pieces around with his small rigid tongue to position them for swallowing, he methodically consumed every last bit. The hawk must’ve plucked the feathers elsewhere, got disturbed, and flew off to this lucky location. Once he was done, he scratched vigorously at his neck, ruffling the feathers, shook his head, and flew up to a nest high behind me!
This hawk probably hatched last year. While the rusty breast is characteristic of adult Cooper’s Hawks (the juveniles have brown and white streaked breast feathers), the yellow eyes are a sign of youth. Once fully mature, these hawks have striking red eyes. However, this bird is not too young to be breeding this season at this nest. I will keep an eye on it as the season progresses.
Into the Woods
Now, back to the flowers. I started along the worn path lined with invasive honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and buckthorn. There were a few small clusters of bluebells and some beautiful violets ranging from dark purple to lavender and white along the side of the trail. I was not optimistic about what I’d find.
The trail sign tells me to turn north. My directions were to “follow the path south, then west and then north again. Don’t stop until you get to the bridge behind Mary’s house.” I don’t know Mary. Or where she lives. I assumed the directions would make sense once I got my feet on the ground.
So I turned onto the broad mowed path, passing several more foot trails that veered off diagonally to the northwest. Here there are more bluebells, some in abundant stands carpeting the forest floor in green and blue. And more unique violets. I hadn’t gone far before finding myself looking at an open prairie.
On the far side are a classic park information board, some wooden benches, and the road I had parked along. To my left, I can see a white house and manicured lawn through the trees. I bet this prairie is something to see come July. Mental note made. I backtracked to the first side trail and headed west again, moving through a maze of singletrack trails.
A Wonderland Revealed
The forest began to thin, and the ground started to rise. At the top of a small hill, the forest opened up to an oak woodland carpeted in wildflowers as far as I could see. My mouth fell open at the spectacle. It was as if a curtain pulled back in this weedy forest and revealed a bluebell wonderland.
My progress slowed to a crawl as I stopped to inspect and photograph bluebells in every hue from bubblegum pink to subtle lavender to purple to pale blue, baby blue, cerulean, and more.
Mayapples with their umbrellas fully deployed stood a foot high, their tiny green buds still clenched tightly underneath their leaves. Fallen trees in weathered grays and rusty browns accent the rolling landscape and serve as roadways for squirrels and chipmunks.
I crossed a small stone bridge over a dry, seasonal creek behind the white house I saw from the prairie before.
This must be Mary’s house. I am still amid a wildflower wonderland, so even though I came to the bridge, I continued.
Wildlife trails are in abundance. Subtle lines parting the sea of blooms reveal the usual routes. I’m sure there are raccoons hidden nearby sleeping the day away. And owls must nest up in these tall, stately oaks and standing snags. There is evidence of a pileated woodpecker at the base of a tree. These woodpeckers have made a resurgence in the area over the last 1-2 years. I have yet to see one up here, though.
All This and A River, Too
The path curves around the base of a steep slope leading up to Mary’s property on the right.
On the left is a small river with a floodplain twice its breadth. The river bottom is full of skunk cabbage’s broad, sculptural leaves dotted with tiny yellow buttercup blooms and an occasional clump of marsh marigold. Again, I’m stunned.
Ahead there is a substantial wooden bridge crossing the waterway. That must be the bridge referenced in my directions. Upstream of the bridge is a wide, relatively still pool in the river. I approached slowly and quietly, anticipating ducks on the water.
The grassy-edged pool was devoid of life. Gray clouds are beginning to pass overhead. I checked the weather radar on my phone (the gifts of technology!). The rain is still a ways off. The path continues on the other side of the bridge. I want to keep following it.
The woods thicken. The vines and honeysuckle return. The wildflowers are still here, but more sparsely now. I think I could follow this path a long way. It looks like it might join a horse trail into the next town. Another day I will come back and find out.
Back across the bridge, I stepped down toward the floodplain to get closer to the marsh marigolds and buttercup among the skunk cabbage. The ground is saturated, and the water table is high. The clean, clear groundwater seeps over my toes as my sandal sinks under my weight in the soft earth. It is way too wet for me to get closer. As I turn to retreat, I catch a whiff of a musky smell that I associate with foxes. Pausing to let it linger on my nose, I think, “No, that’s a skunk.” I look around and then laugh at myself. It’s the skunk cabbage! The odor is how it gets its name.
I followed a different trail on my meander back to the car. Woodland poppies are blooming amidst the mayapple leaves. I’d never seen wild celandine before. The wide, lobed, veined, palmate mayapple leaves make a compelling backdrop for these blooms. I wade into the bouquet, carefully placing each foot to avoid crushing plants.
Bright yellow poppies, the pinks and blues of bluebells, and an early blooming wood phlox accent the greens of the fern fiddleheads and mayapple umbrellas.
The temperature is dropping, and the wind is picking up. I try to increase my pace. There is so much pristine beauty around me; I can’t help but stop and stare. This property used to be owned and managed by the Audubon Society before the village bought it. It’s clear that it is still lovingly cared for.
I find the first prairie trilliums of the season blooming in this part of the park.
An occasional nodding white trillium stands among them, not yet in bud. Wild ginger also appears in small masses in this part of the woodland.
The sweeping vistas of mayapples and bluebells set off by the fallen and leaning trees make for great photography in every direction.
With a few steps, I’ve left the wonderland and am back into the cloak of the forest overrun by invasives again.
Find Your Bliss
There are hidden gems near you no matter where you are, and no matter what looks like beauty to you. Get out and find one. Be amazed.
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