Dixon Waterfowl Refuge’s 2018 Bio Blitz documents nature’s return to restored area
HENNEPIN — While the restoration is still progressing, the rare and varied ecosystems of Hennepin’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge are thriving. Their success was documented during The Wetlands Initiative’s (TWI) recent 2018 Bio Blitz.
Experts and citizen volunteers joined forces Friday and Saturday to conduct multiple surveys to document the bird, animal, insect, reptile, plant, fungi and aquatic populations of the 3,000-acre site.
During TWI’s first Bio Blitz in 2015, more than 675 total species were identified. According to TWI’s Vera Leopold at press time, the very early number from this year’s diversity count was 444 species identified from a total of 779 observations.
“We’re still receiving a lot of information, and the 444 doesn’t include all the insects or some other large groups,” she said, adding that officials from the Field Museum were helping with the identifications.
Leopold reported 111 plant species were found along the new Oak Ridge Trail and an additional 174 plant species were identified at Sandy Hollow, including some rarities that haven’t been seen there before.
“Fifty bird species were recorded at Sandy Hollow alone, including the state-endangered upland sandpiper, family groups of red-headed woodpeckers, several sedge wrens, multiple singing and calling yellow-billed cuckoos, and at least two Henslow’s sparrows, which hadn’t yet been seen at the site,” Leopold said.
Volunteers also identified a new butterfly species for the refuge, Horace’s duskywing. During the nocturnal surveys, at least two of the striking luna moths were seen.
She also said some scientists and volunteers chose to stay another night to conduct a second nighttime insect count at the new 300-acre Sandy Hollow tract. The first nighttime insect count was conducted near the water, and the Sandy Hollow survey was expected to reveal additional species that don’t live near water.
The number of volunteers was also much higher than in 2015.
“Last time, we had 100 people total with 50 being citizen scientists. This year we have a total of 150 people with 90 being citizen scientists. We’re very happy people are learning about this amazing site and want to experience it,” Leopold said.
A surprise highlight of the event included the sighting of the endangered and federally protected rusty patched bumblebee. Some rare varieties of fungi were also found by surveyors.
“To find that an endangered species has returned to this area to make its home is fantastic, very encouraging to everyone involved with the restoration,” Leopold said.
Depending on their area of expertise or interest, groups gathered in the early morning at the refuge before setting off to explore the varied features of site. The system of interconnected trails allowed researchers to slowly traverse the refuge as they searched for each inhabitant, big or small.
“There’s nowhere like this around Chicago, so it’s great to be able to get away and explore a site like this,” Daniel Suarez of Chicago said.
Suarez helped to lead a team into Sandy Hollow to document native plants in the area.
“It’s not very often you can speak with people who have such focused areas of interest and you can learn so much from them,” Cassi Saari, another volunteer from Chicago, said.
However, you didn’t have to be a scientist, researcher or scholar to make valuable contributions to the count.
“When they said we needed to identify all the different types of prairie grasses, I realized how much I didn’t know, but I did find a small tree frog out in the prairie. We marked its position on a GPS because it was far from the area where you’d expect it to be,” Citizen scientist and frequent TWI volunteer Eileen Jordan of Princeton said.
The afternoon events included additional surveys, as well as many family friendly displays and activities.
Founded in 1994, The Wetlands Initiative is a non-profit dedicated to restoring the wetlands of the Midwest to improve water quality, increase habitats and biodiversity, as well as reducing flood damage.
According to TWI, more than 90 percent of the wetlands present in Illinois 200 years ago have since been destroyed by human development.
Today it’s understood that wetlands remove pollutants and control sediment to provide cleaner water. They also offer food and safety to an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, as well as storing flood waters, which reduces damage from flooding. They also help fight climate change by capturing carbon and are beneficial to the local economy.
“So many wetlands have already been lost in the Midwest that the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge has become incredibly important, and we couldn’t be happier with the ongoing success of our restoration work,” Leopold said.