The Middle Fork River Forest Preserve contains 1600 acres in a variety of different habitats, accommodating a wide range of bird species, including Waterfowl Management Areas with more than 130 acres of prime wetland nesting habitat for migratory waterfowl.
The forest preserve website, including a map of the park: http://ccfpd.org/Preserves/MiddleFork.html
This series will take you through some of the different habitat areas at the preserve and introduce you to just a few of their winged residents. You will also become intimately familiar with Osage orange trees, which are numerous in the area -- not because they are native to Illinois, but because they were commonly planted in dense rows to form hedges and field borders. They have a lumpy green fruit (inedible) and frequently have a twisted appearance, often branching out into many trunks from one tree.
From the preserve's entrance, follow the signs leading to the campground. Start your hike at the parking lot for the campground's shower house, on the south bank of Willow Pond (the pond with a swimming area) and the volleyball court. South of the parking lot, there is a trail head with trails leading two directions. Follow the sign for "South Loop Trail", to the left.
Box #1: Red-Winged Blackbird
Continue down the trail through an area of savannah -- a mix of trees and tall grasses -- until the path forks, and take the path to the right, following the sign for "South Loop Trail".
Immediately after the fork, you will descend a small slope, and at the bottom of the slope you will see a deer path leading off to the right, toward the prairie. Follow it. You'll pass by a 5- or 6-from-one Osage orange tree on the edge of the prairie on your left.
Continue down the deer path; you'll notice some old fence posts along the prairie edge. The path will take you to a second many-from-one Osage orange tree on your left. Looking out across the prairie, you may spot some red-winged blackbirds sitting on taller prairie plants, and you will certainly spot one down in the hollow center cavity of this tree.
Red-winged blackbirds are present in the area year-round, but in the prairie they can most often be seen in spring and summer, the males perching on taller plants overlooking the prairie, singing and displaying to attract mates or defend territory. They typically build nests above or near water, especially in marshy areas. They eat mainly insects in the summer and seeds, including corn and wheat foraged from agricultural fields, in the winter.
Box #2: Great Blue Heron
Walk back up the deer path and return to the trail, turning right to continue down the South Loop. Walk until you first spot the Sugar Creek on your left, with a small path leading over to it. Walk down the path to take a look down at the water. You may spot a great blue heron catching fish in the creek. Turn around to walk back to the trail, and look across to the opposite side of the trail from the path. You will see a large, rusty old coil of fence wire left over from when the preserve was agricultural land. Carefully reach into the roll of wire from the back, and you will find the Blue Heron. Please be sure this one is well-covered when you are done with it.
Great blue herons may be seen in Champaign County year-round, around nearly any kind of water, and occasionally in open fields. They feed primarily on small fish, but also amphibians and any other small animals they can catch. Their preferred technique is wading through shallow water to spear fish with their strong, sharp bills. They usually nest in colonies, generally in wetlands, called heronries.
Box #3: Downy Woodpecker
Return to the trail and continue the way you've been going, to the South. As you walk, keep an eye out for birds flitting around in the trees above you. You may spot a downy woodpecker looking for insects under the bark of trees or inside dead branches.
Walk until you see on your right a very large, gnarled and twisted many-from-one Osage orange tree, with poison ivy vines growing on it. Thank me for not putting the box in this one, and continue about another 15 steps until you see another many-from-one Osage orange. This one will be on your left and somewhat smaller. Behind this tree is a pile of old branches and debris with a small cavity beneath it. Prod this area with a stick, in case it's inhabited, before reaching in and finding the Downy Woodpecker.
Downy Woodpeckers can be found year-round in Champaign County, and most of them do not migrate. They prefer open deciduous woodlands and eat primarily insects, as well as seeds and berries. They are common in back yards, particularly in winter, and will eat suet from feeders. A breeding pair of downy woodpeckers will typically excavate a cavity in a dead tree or limb in order to nest.
Box #4: Cedar Waxwing
Another bird you might spot on your hike is the cedar waxwing. You'll probably see them in flocks in the treetops. Continue down the trail past two very knotted trees on the left. On the right of the trail, find a large Osage orange that has split in half and fallen in two directions. Reach into the hollow cavity in the right-hand trunk, about 8 inches off the ground, to find the Cedar Waxwing.
Cedar waxwings are nearly always in flocks, and are found in all types of wooded areas. They are particularly attracted to flowing water and trees that produce berries. They eat primarily berries, especially dogwood, serviceberry, cedar, juniper, hawthorn, and winterberry. Occasionally they also fly low over water to catch insects, particularly in summer. They can be seen in Champaign County all year, especially spring and fall.
Box #5: Wood Duck
Continue down the trail, which will take you out along the edge of the restored prairie. Look for a metal wood duck nesting box on your left. If you are here in the spring, it may be inhabited. Please do not disturb the box. Continue down the path until it forks, and follow the sign for "Midland Trail" to the right. A short distance away you'll see yet another large, twisted many-from-one Osage orange tree. The Wood Duck is in a hollow cavity in the center of the trunk, hidden under some sticks and bark.
Look for wood ducks any time of year, but especially in spring and summer. Their nesting boxes can be seen scattered throughout the forest preserve, but they are particularly attracted to wooded wetlands. Unlike most other ducks, wood ducks' feet are adapted for perching in trees. They eat water plants, seeds, berries, and insects.
Go back out the way you came, or if you're up for a nice hike (about another mile), continue to follow the Midland Trail out across the prairie. Eventually it will take you to the west end of the campground, and you can walk back along the road to the parking lot. Be sure to come back and check out what the other trails at Middle Fork River Forest Preserve have to offer! I would highly recommend the Oak Burl Trail, unless it is spring or early summer, when it may be flooded. Also, this is my first series, so feedback is appreciated! Thanks!