AMBOY – More than 200 people caught a glimpse of what Illinois looked like about 300 years ago, before farming took over the landscape.
Now, the public is welcome to do the same.
The Amboy Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, a rare and fragile ecosystem, which includes endangered turtles and unique plant life, was showcased during an open house Saturday, and trails on the grounds were introduced to the public.
The Illinois Audubon Society, with the help of a handful of organizations, acquired 272 acres of wetlands this past winter near the intersection of U.S. Route 52 and Mormon Road about 3 miles south of Amboy.
Illinois has the second most disturbed soil in the United States, because of its strong agriculture, said Tom Clay, executive director of the Illinois Audobon Society, but this piece of land has managed to go mostly undisturbed.
The complex, interspersed with black oak savannas, sedge meadows and sand prairie, has unique natural features that are home to one of the largest populations of nesting Blanding’s turtles in the state – an Illinois endangered species.
“This area was miles of marsh when the settlers first came here, or when Native Americans lived here,” Clay said. “This is the closest to what I imagine the settlers would’ve come across when they first came 300 years ago.”
The state Audubon Society received more than $1 million in grants from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the Grand Victoria Foundation to buy the marsh and do restoration work. The organization kicked in an additional $200,000 toward the project.
No tax money was used to buy the land, and the nonprofit group is paying real estate taxes on the property, Clay said.
Visitors learned quickly Saturday of the species unique to the marsh, and how volunteers continue to discover new ones by the day.
A recent study of moths near some blueberry plants rare to Northern Illinois discovered six Eastern newts, which have not been seen in this region since the 1980s, said John McKee, a member of the board of directors.
Scores of volunteers have worked tirelessly to rid the area of invasive plants and set up trails. Efforts are ongoing to restore the ecosystem to its natural state.
Sandhill cranes headline a bird list of about 93 species that have been found on the premises.
Also, about 380 plant species have been found, such as pinweeds, puccoons, asters and white indigo.
“There’s a lot here that hasn’t been discovered yet,” said Jan Williams, an Amboy resident and volunteer, who painted a mural of the Blanding’s turtle on The Nest, a shelter at the marsh’s entrance. “You have to refer to unusual books just to see what a lot of things are, because they are not considered common to the area. I’m looking forward to all that’s being discovered.”
Efforts to preserve the marsh have been ongoing for nearly three decades.
“I’ve been interested in this land since I first set foot here 26 years ago,” said Deb Carey, chairwoman of the Natural Area Guardian Committee of the Lee County Soil and Water Conservation District. “What makes it unique is that it’s just not wetlands, just woods, just prairie or acidic sands; it’s all habitats. It caught my eye as something special that needed to be preserved.”
The Audubon Society assigns a local board of directors to oversee the property.
Three agricultural fields within the grounds are owned by the Illinois Audubon Society and help fund the projects at the marsh. The group is looking into buying some more neighboring property.
“The neighbors have been great, and they stopped by to show their interest,” Carey said. “Their cooperation has been an important part of what we’ve been able to do here.”
The marsh is open to the public 7 days a week. No dogs are allowed, however, because of the sensitive plant life and wildlife there.
The marsh is open to people for walking and bird-watching. It also has become a scientific research and environmental education resource for the region, as the marsh is the northernmost sanctuary under the protection of the Audubon Society.
For more information
Visit the Illinois Audubon Society online at www.illinoisaudubon.org or call them at 217-544-2473.