Stories in Illinois

Illinois Nature Through the Seasons

From bustling prairies and serene rivers to lively wetlands and ancient forests, Illinois has a bounty of beautiful places to explore year-round.

Closeup of yellow prairie flowers blowing in a breeze.
Spring in Illinois Yellow Cone Flower, Ratibida pinnata, is one of the many native plants growing in Paintbrush Prairie, Indian Boundary Prairies. © T.S. Long

In Illinois, each season brings something new. Enjoy an autumnal stroll through vivid forests or become a wildlife detective investigating tracks in the glimmering winter snow. Explore the beautiful nature of the prairie state year-round using the tabs below!


As the ice thaws, nature begins to blossom across Illinois. From the weird and wondrous creatures that emerge in the Midwest’s iconic wetlands to hundreds of thousands of birds gliding through the skies during migration season, there’s lots to see and do at The Nature Conservancy's Illinois preserves in the spring!

Spring Migration

March is peak migration season, and there’s no shortage of preserves to watch hundreds of thousands of birds like snow geese and white pelicans sail through the air! Smaller feathered friends like warblers, sparrows, kinglets and more can also be spotted taking a flying break across the state.

Snow geese.
A Nashville warbler hanging upside down on a branch.
Sandhill cranes.
Pelicans flying through the sky.
Three snow geese flying in the sky.

At Emiquon, it’s not uncommon to see flocks of snow geese up to 100,000 strong. If you don’t have a chance to grab those binoculars and head out to birdwatch, be sure to tune into our live Emiquon migration camera! American bald eagles also spiral and chase each other in mid-air as they begin courtship rituals at this time. At Indian Boundary Prairies and Midewin, sandhill cranes also stop to refuel from their migration journey in March.

Wet areas aren’t the only spots to catch spring migration live. In April, ruby-crowned kinglets, blue-winged teals, loggerhead shrikes and upland sandpipers all return to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Early migratory birds like sandhill cranes, turkey vultures and eastern bluebirds also come back to call out their territory at Nachusa Grasslands.

A white pelican floats on a body of water.
White Pelican White pelicans are one of hundreds of thousands of migratory and resident birds found at Emiquon. © Laura Stoecker

Help Protect Illinois Wetlands

Illinois has lost nearly 90% of its wetlands. As we face a changing climate and increasing extreme weather events, we can’t afford to lose any more.

Tell your legislators to vote “Yes” and co-sponsor SB771, which will protect our wetlands for generations to come.

Wicked Cool Wetlands

Spring is the perfect time to get your feet wet and dip into the world of wetlands! Wetlands like Emiquon, Spunky Bottoms and the Cache River Wetlands are rich with a wide variety of wildlife to admire. From novel birds like black-crowned night herons and wood ducks to a unique amphibians like chorus frogs and spotted salamanders, there’s no shortage of species to spot on a visit to a Midwest wetland

Colorful male and female wood ducks on heavy tree limb.
Colorful male and female wood ducks on heavy tree limb.
Can you guess this bird? These birds are year-round inhabitants of the Midwest. Males are ornately patterned, boasting gorgeous deep green heads and orange-ringed eyes. Females have more muted feathers with hues of grey and brown. These birds rely on healthy wetland habitats, preferring to nest near dense vegetation like trees and shrubs.
Small light brown spring peeper frog perched on leaf.
Small light brown spring peeper frog perched on leaf.
Can you guess this amphibian? This species of frog is prevalent throughout the eastern and midwestern United States. The small amphibian lives near ephemeral and permanent wetland habitats in woodlands. Their namesake “peeping” sound is a welcome sign of spring.

In March, waterfowl such as mallards, common merganser and ring-necked duck begin utilizing the wetlands along the Cache River again. As warmer nights arrive in April, the song of spring peeper frogs can be heard in Spunky Bottoms while snakes and other frogs emerge from their hibernation to the floodplain wetlands. Meanwhile, wildlife abounds along the Mackinaw River with great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, soft-shelled and snapping turtles, river otters, raccoons, red foxes, coyotes and groundhogs walking the grounds.

Not to mention that wetlands serve several essential functions in our ecosystems like holding soil carbon, providing water storage to reduce flooding, filter pollutants from water, provide critical habitat for a diversity of life and more. Plan a trip to thank a wetland this spring!


From vast, blooming prairies to bubbling wetlands teeming with life, the hot summer heat offers some of the liveliest nature sights in Illinois.

Nachusa Wildflowers
Nachusa Wildflowers Comprised of 4,000 acres of restored and remnant prairie, Nachusa Grasslands is home to more than 700 native plant species & a herd of bison. © TNC
Wildflower Path
Wildflower Path Button Blazing Star, Liatris aspera, is just one of many wildflowers growing in Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Indian Boundary Prairies, Illinois. © Timothy S. Long

The prairie state's vibrant wildflowers and sweeping golden fields thrive from late May through August. Native plants like purple coneflower, wild lupine and bergamot boast vivid colors in prairies at Nachusa Grasslands, Indian Boundary Prairies and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Lavender hues of bird's foot violets, bright orange blooms of butterfly weed, delicate white petals of New Jersey tea, blue-violet flowers of wild lupine and soft pink blooms of beardtongue decorate the Kankakee Sands Preserve in June. These sweeping prairies also make for the perfect backdrop for admiring majestic bison at Nachusa Grasslands.

Pollinator Paradises

All around us, pollinators are bustling in Midwest meadows. Thanks to the prescribed fires completed in the spring, prairies at Nachusa Grasslands and Indian Boundary Prairies are lush and green, providing a paradise for pollinators amidst native plants like pale purple coneflowers and butterfly milkweed. 

Bees and hummingbirds are darting from blossom to blossom while butterflies like Aphrodite and the up-and-coming Regal Fritillary are beginning to be found in abundance, perching on flowers as they sip nectar. Lesser-known pollinators like spiders, flies and beetles are also working tirelessly to help essential ecosystems thrive. 


Breathtaking fall hues accompany the dropping temperatures in Illinois as the last blooms of summer fade. It's the perfect time to get outside for camping, hiking and especially birding as migrating birds begin their long journeys south.

Vivid Foliage

Cooler air and shorter days bring a vivid palette to natural areas across the state. In late September, gentians, asters and ferns bloom in prairies like Indian Boundary Prairies and Kankakee Sands. Prairie grasses begin to adopt bright shades of red, orange and yellow in October, creating a sea of fall colors on a windy day at preserves like Midewin and Nachusa Grasslands

In November, bald cypress tree needles turn crimson red in the Cache River Wetlands and autumnal colors abound at Kankakee Sands when bottle gentian bloom, sassafras trees turn orange and red, oaks turn brown and yellow, and little blue stem grass turns orange.

Birds on Vacation

With fall migration upon us, there’s no shortage of bird watching spots to explore. Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms offer some of the best migration views (both in-person and virtually)! Large concentrations of great egrets, little blue herons, great blue herons, black-crowned herons and the occasional snowy egret can be seen around lake margins and shallows at preserves along the Illinois River in September. 

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle While they’re good hunters, bald eagles often steal other creatures' fish, snatching prey from osprey (even in midair), fishing mammals and even people. © Marci Lanois/TNC Photo Contest 2022
Wood Duck in Autumn
Wood Duck in Autumn A wood duck surrounded by sunrise-reflected colors of fall leaves. © Jeff Goudy/TNC Photo Contest 2018
Bald Eagle While they’re good hunters, bald eagles often steal other creatures' fish, snatching prey from osprey (even in midair), fishing mammals and even people. © Marci Lanois/TNC Photo Contest 2022
Wood Duck in Autumn A wood duck surrounded by sunrise-reflected colors of fall leaves. © Jeff Goudy/TNC Photo Contest 2018

October brings kettles of migrating raptors such as red-tailed, rough-legged and occasional red-shouldered hawks can be seen gliding wind currents up and over Emiquon's river bluffs. Later in the month, coots and waterfowl such as mallards, gadwell, pintail, and widgeon begin arriving in larger numbers. 

Once the leaves begin to fall in November, American bald eagles begin to arrive in large numbers in the Illinois River Valley while winter raptors such as short-eared owls, northern harriers and additional red-tailed hawks appear at the Midewin. Cormorant migration peaks and wood ducks head south while snow buntings begin to arrive at the Cache River Wetlands.


Midwest winters are magical, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! It’s one of the best times of year to observe nature in its most tranquil state. Bare trees offer fantastic bird watching views and scenic vistas are the most open of the year. Plus, who doesn’t want to play in the snow?

Red bird with black face markings perched on a small limb.
Northern Cardinal Fun fact: The cardinal is the state bird of seven states, including Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. © Matt Williams

Birdwatching Wonderland

Leafless trees make for a great birding backdrop. In the Cache River Wetlands, bird nests and bright green Christmas ferns are easily spotted while great blue herons arrive from the north and barred owls start courting one another. Waterfowl enthusiasts will especially enjoy visiting spots along the Illinois River like Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms. In December, be sure to admire the last of fall migratory waterfowl in these areas like cold weather ducks such as the common merganser, goldeneye and bufflehead before bald eagles reach their peak in January.

Meanwhile, large swaths of grasslands like Midewin welcome winter raptors such as long and short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, northern shrikes and northern harriers. Many raptors such as sharp-shinned hawks and prairie falcons also fly over Nachusa Grasslands where barred owls call "who cooks for you" from dusk to dawn. Other birds such as redheaded woodpeckers, harriers, redtail hawks, chickadees, juncos, cardinals and mourning doves can be seen at Kankakee Sands.

Northern Cardinal

Song calls of the northern cardinal.

Download Audio

A northern cardinal is recorded making its well-known song. 

Winter Wildlife

Grab a magnifying glass and become a wildlife detective on a snowy day! From the common hoofprints of white-tailed deer and red fox paw prints to the slide marks left by playful otters, you never know whose tracks you’ll spot in the carpet of glistening snow throughout TNC's preserves. You might even spot a pair of antlers as rutting season comes to end for bucks!

In winter, breeding season for bobcats and beavers begins while red foxes begin courting in the forest at the Cache River Wetlands. Meanwhile, solitary gray foxes are hunting for food in the evenings at Indian Boundary Prairies and muskrats are busy building their huge lodges amidst Spunky Bottoms’ ice-covered wetlands. In February, wildlife becomes more active in Illinois wetlands as skunks begin to mate, chorus frogs start to sing, barn owls begin to nest and the first bluebirds arrive.

Wildlife Detective

Winter’s snows provide the perfect chance to flex and grow your wildlife tracking skills. From the common hoofprints of white-tailed deer to the distinct paw prints of coyotes, you never know whose tracks you’ll spot in the snow throughout TNC's preserves.

A single pawprint of a coyote in the snow.
An adult coyote in the snow.
Two deer in the snow.
A red fox leaving tracks in the snow.
Raccoon tracks in the snow.