TNC staff jump for joy at the Kankakee Sands groundbreaking!
Kankakee Sands Improvements TNC staff jump for joy at the Kankakee Sands groundbreaking! © Dave Venable

Stories in Indiana

Indiana Nature Notes for June

Alyssa Nyberg.
Alyssa Nyberg Restoration Ecologist


Growing Better Every Year and Every Season

Our Kankakee Sands prairies are always growing and changing. As I write this article, the prairie flowers are beginning to bloom, and the yellows of sand coreopsis are astounding. With June comes the changing of colors from the yellow of coreopsis to the purple of spiderwort, the white of foxglove, and the pink of phlox. All throughout the year, the colors will change, the height of the plants will change, and the insects and birds visiting the plants will change, too.

What's Blooming Now?

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Each of the prairie plantings at Kankakee Sands changes significantly from year to year as well. There is a general trajectory that most prairie plantings take—it begins with the sowing of the prairie seed on freshly harvested agricultural ground. The following few years are ones of annual plants and a weedy scraggly appearance. And then at long last, after four or five years, the prairie finally become beautiful and lush, with a multitude of native plants and insects and wildlife, growing better each and every year.

And for our Kankakee Sands project, there are even more changes afoot this 2024 year! Kankakee Sands is still the 8,400-acre prairie that is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy—free and open to the public ever day of the year. We just entered the construction phase of a project valued at more than two million dollars, which includes the cost of planning, design, signage and construction of visitor improvements and access to the site. The project is funded by generous grants and donors and the goal is to for Kankakee Sands to a welcoming, safe, educational and fun experience for all ages and abilities.

The visitor improvements happening this year will take place at three locations and will include the following:

  • Kankakee Sands office – A new fully-accessible welcome area with a large pavilion, educational signage, bathrooms, viewing platform, improved parking and concrete pathways.
  • Kankakee Sands Bison Viewing Area – A new pavilion, viewing platforms, spotting scopes, bathroom, and improved parking area with accessible pathways.
  • Kankakee Sands Nursery – An accessible gathering place for outreach and programming with a new pavilion, signage, trails and an improved parking area.

As construction is underway, access to the Kankakee Sands Main Office, Bison Viewing Area and Nursery will need to be restricted until late fall. But rest assured other areas at Kankakee Sands such as the two-mile Grace Teninga Trail and the 1.6-mile Conrad Station Trail, remain open for hiking and nature observation.

Thank you all for your patience as the construction is underway. And thank you to the many sponsors and supporters of the visitor improvements!

To stay abreast of construction updates, visit our The Nature Conservancy's Indiana Facebook page.

To follow our construction progress, check out the live webcam stationed currently at the Kankakee Sands office location.

Later this year, when we have the reopening of the Kankakee Sands welcome area, Bison Viewing Area and the Nursery, we will be so excited to welcome you back to enjoy the improvements. Please be thinking about friends or family members who you might want to invite out in the fall. We’d love to have you, your friends and your family visit Kankakee Sands and experience the improvements firsthand!

Virginia rail walks through a wetland.
Virginia Rail Like so many species in Indiana, Virginia rails depend on healthy wetlands to survive. © Shari McCollough

Nature Notes for May 2024

Spotlight on Wetlands and the Virginia Rail

Spring has sprung and that means our Kankakee Sands wetlands are teeming with activity. The Kankakee Sands Bird Viewing Area on the west side of US 41 is a particular fan favorite right now due to the wide-open wetland filled with glistening water and critters galore. One needn’t walk through a wetland to enjoy it; a leisurely rest at the water’s edge will allow you to hear the many sounds of the spring wetlands: splashing, chirping, croaking and maybe even the squeaking of the Virginia rail.

Check out the Wetland Birds!

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The Virginia rail (Rallus limicola) is a state endangered bird that thrives in the wetlands of Kankakee Sands. This nearly 10-inch tall, thin-as-a-rail waterbird looks chunky when viewed from the side, is actually quite slim when viewed from the front. The bird’s slenderness allows it easily slip between the stems and stalks of such wetland plants as reeds, rushes, grasses and sedges as it probes the shallow water and mud in search of a meal of insects, snails, spiders and even small fish and frogs!

The best time to try to catch a glimpse of the gorgeous Virginia rails is at dawn or dusk, when it is moving in and out of the vegetation in search of food.

Spring is an exceptionally good time of year to try and see Virginia rails. Had you come last month, they likely would still have been in their wintering habitat in Mexico and the southern coast of the United States. But now they have returned to their spring/summer range, which includes Kankakee Sands, and many other wetland and freshwater marsh areas across much of the northern United States and Southern Canada. Because the springtime vegetation is still low in stature, the views over the wetland are more expansive than in summer when the taller vegetation makes detecting wildlife more difficult.  

Many of our Indiana birds have a rather simplified color pattern: the red male cardinals, the blue and grey bluejays, the black and white nuthatches, and the yellow and black chickadees. When you see the Virginia rail you might ask yourself if the color pattern is real because it seems so varied and complicated. Their beaks are reddish, their faces are grey, much of their body is rust colored, their back has mottled brown and grey feathers and the underside of their rump is mottled black and white. Why so many colors and patterns?! For the Virginia rail, all these shades and colors help them hide in the light-flickering shadows of the shimmering water and wetland vegetation.

Because rails are so well camouflaged and hard to see when they don’t want to be seen, you might want to familiarize yourself with their songs and calls to make detecting them easier.

In general bird songs and calls differ in purpose and sound. Typically, bird songs are sung to attract a mate and show territorial ownership. I find bird songs to usually be more melodic in nature and be sung by a fairly relaxed individual. Bird calls on the other hand are often made to communicate an urgent message: the presence of a predator such as a hawk overhead, the feeling of hunger by a young bird or the finding of food that others may want to come eat.

Both the song and the call of the Virginia rail are quite different from many other birds you might be familiar with. To my ear, the song of the Virginia sounds to me like the rapid tapping of two metallic balls against one another. Its alarm call is described in many birding books as sounding like quick, high-pitched pig grunts and squeals. That’s pretty unique!

To me, the Virginia rail alarm call sounds more like my mother’s dog when it plays with its squeaky toy: Squeeeaaaak…. Squeeeaaaak……squeak-squeak-squeak…. squeaky-squeak…. SQUEEEAAAAK! If you’d like to hear them for yourself, nice examples of both the Virginia rails’ song and its call can be found on the All About Birds website.

Wetlands are special places, and that is especially true at Kankakee Sands. In addition to the Virginia rail, six other state endangered birds have been spotted in our Kankakee Sands wetlands, including the sedge wren, marsh wren, and even the elusive black rail.

Indiana DNR maintains a listing of the endangered, threatened and rare species of Indiana. The listing is housed in the Heritage Data Center managed by the DNR’s Division of Nature Preserves. You can find the endangered, threatened and rare birds of your county, and you can also find the plants, insects, birds, mammals, mussels, fish, amphibians and reptiles.

This spring, as you sit on the edge of a Kankakee Sands wetland and wait for the sighting or sound of the Virginia rail, you might also glimpse the first flush of dragonflies emerging from the water, as well as see the splashes of chorus frogs and painted turtles that were sunning themselves before they were startled. If you sit still enough, the frogs may even begin to peep and croak as you ponder the many species of fish and insect larva that are floating just beneath the surface of the water.

Such a tremendous variety of plants, insects, amphibians, birds, fish and mammals inhabit a healthy wetland, and they are all here at Kankakee Sands! Come visit!

Alyssa Nyberg.

Alyssa Nyberg is restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands project in Newton County, Indiana.