HENNEPIN — As farmers worked this past weekend to bring in their harvest and gardeners prepared their flower beds for next spring, there was another harvest occurring at the The Wetland Initiative’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge.
Native seeds have been harvested at the 3,000-acre refuge since the restoration began in 2001 and the public was first invited to help in 2009. Each year since, the refuge has hosted a Fall Seed Harvest event.
“Both for staff and volunteers, the Fall Seed Harvest is one of the most popular and fun events of the year because it’s an easy and satisfying activity. It’s also beautiful to be walking through the prairie in autumn,” Vera Leopold of The Wetlands Initiative (TWI) said.
Before 2001, the land had been farmed and TWI began the area’s return to a natural habitat by disabling the drainage tiles. Within a few months the area filled with water supplied by rain, springs and natural seepage. As the landscape changed, native species began to return.
As the restoration progressed, they focused on nurturing the site’s native plants and stocking the lakes with fish. As the area recovered, some of the land was designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Another sign of success occurred in 2004 when the Audubon Society designated the refuge as one of Illinois’ most important locations for birds. It also helped the Pied-billed Grebe population expand and it played an instrumental part in the species being removed from a threatened status.
Leopold said TWI targets approximately 15 species of native plants during the harvest, including prairie blazing star, compass plant, white wild indigo, pale purple coneflower, and oxeye daisy.
Some of the seeds are common plants which typically have ripe seeds at this time of year, but others are from rare species like the state-endangered royal catchfly, which has brilliant red flowers.
“The amount of seed collected from each species will vary depending on how well the plants did this year and how much of their seed has ripened. Timing is a really important factor in the harvest,” Leopold said.
Dozens of volunteers arrived at the site in the early morning of Oct. 7 and they had traveled from throughout the Illinois Valley to both appreciate the beauty of the refuge and to help restore a vital native habitat.
“I just love being out here at the wetlands and seeing all of the different species of ducks,” William Cattani of Ladd said. Cattani is currently studying wildlife habitat management at Southern Illinois University.
During the seed harvesting, a plant would be identified for the volunteers and then they moved through the area gathering the seeds into a bucket. TWI senior ecologist Gary Sullivan didn’t know how many seeds would be collected, but said it could be hundreds of pounds and that some of the seeds couldn’t be easily obtained anywhere else.
“We expect the seed collected by volunteers during the fall seed harvest will be able to cover roughly 200 acres. After the volunteer day, our site managers will clean the seed and sort it into mixes appropriate for each habitat,” Leopold said.
The seeds are planted where improvement is needed to strengthen the diversity or density of the plant community.
Since 2015, most of the seed collected has been spread at Hickory Hollow, the refuge’s newest parcel TWI is restoring to native prairie and savanna. The seeds have been a vital part of restoring the rare habitat which ranges from sand prairie and sand savanna to wet-mesic prairie.
“Having the volunteers’ help is valuable because buying native seed is expensive. During a typical harvest, a group of volunteers can collect up to $20,000 worth of seed. It allows us to collect a lot of seed from the natural ‘stock’ we have right here at the Dixon Refuge to improve habitats elsewhere on the site,” Leopold said.
In 2018, the Hickory Hollow area will open to the public and will feature trails through the entire range of restored habitats and will follow the same route as the Dixon Dash 5K which was held on Sept. 23. Hennepin & Hopper Lakes will also be open again for a summer public fishing season by permit in 2018.
Each species of native prairie plant which takes root at the refuge helps attract the insects relying on it.
“Every additional species we introduce provides more food for insects, which in turn provide food for other wildlife. A prairie that has a healthy diversity of plant species will also provide a home to a huge variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, bees, butterflies, and more,” Leopold said.
She added that most of the refuge is now covered in a high-quality habitat which has been of crucial help in attracting the 675 species of plants and animals tallied during TWI’s first 24-hour BioBlitz held in June 2015.
“We’ll be holding another BioBlitz in the summer of 2018 and people can join us to help survey all the wildlife found at the refuge,” said Leopold.
For more information on the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge and TWI, visit www.wetlands-initiative.org.