Top Five Must-See Migrations in Illinois

This spring, after a long winter in Illinois, migratory species are busy moving to their summer destinations. The Nature Conservancy in Illinois works to preserve critical habitat for migrating creatures, and is celebrating this seasonal activity with a list of the state's "Top Five Must-See Migrations."

"Whether they travel over a road or fly halfway across the world, many migrating species depend on Illinois habitats to make their journey," says Dr. Jeff Walk, director of science. "We are proud to help these incredible animals along their migration through Illinois so that they will be around for us to witness for generations to come."

1. Sandhill Cranes

Illinois' open fields and marshes provide the perfect migration pit stop for the beautiful sandhill crane. This incredible bird travels from wintering in the southern United States and Northern Mexico to its summer breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada. Throughout March and into April, sandhill cranes hook around the southwest corner of Lake Michigan, when they can be seen flying over Illinois and pausing to rest in places including the Conservancy's Indian Boundary Prairies and the Jasper-Pulaski Marsh close to Chicago.

"One of the most spectacular sights to see is to look up in downtown Chicago and see hundreds of sandhill cranes flying overhead," says Walk.

In November you have an opportunity to spot the sandhill cranes again when they migrate back through Illinois on their way south, stopping close to the Conservancy's Kankakee Sands Preserve.

2. Snake Migration

Some migrations take place on a smaller, yet no less impressive scale. When the ground starts to thaw in March, snakes emerge and make their way to their summer homes. At the LaRue-Pine Hills of the Shawnee National Forest, the National Forest Service closes down LaRue Road from mid-March to mid-May each spring to make way for the annual snake migration. Many species, such as the cottonmouth and the mudsnake, make their way across the LaRue Road at the base of the bluffs adjacent to LaRue Swamp near the Mississippi River, where they spend the summer feeding, mating, and laying eggs. In the spring months, visitors can see incredible mass migrations of snakes crossing LaRue road on their way to the swamp. LaRue Road closes once again in the fall, when the snakes and other reptiles and amphibians cross back into the bluffs to hibernate for the winter.

Snake migration also occurs at the Conservancy's nearby Cache River Joint Wetlands Grassy Slough Preserve, where snakes migrate between the bluffs and the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. The northern water snake can be found at the Cache River migration and the LaRue-Pine Hills migration, as well as most ponds in Illinois.

3. American Golden-Plover

During late April, nearly all of the American golden-plovers on the planet congregate in Illinois' open fields. There are only about 150,000 of these rare birds on Earth today due to market hunting in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Each spring, they migrate from South America up through North America to their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. Along the way, they stop in Illinois to feed in fields and prairies, such as the Conservancy's Kankakee Sands. "It's pretty incredible that Illinois plays such an integral role in maintaining the migration route of this species. Not many states get to enjoy seeing this special bird," says Walk. In fact, the American golden-plover makes one of the longest migratory journeys of any shorebird.

Enjoy seeing the American golden-plover in Illinois during the spring, because on its way back in the fall, this bird flies off the east shore of North America to South America for the winter.

4. American White Pelican

Along the Mississippi and Illinois River valleys in spring, it is no longer uncommon to see American white pelicans testing the waters on their annual spring migration. Throughout March and into April, it is now easy to spot American white pelicans in the Mississippi and Illinois River valleys at Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms. Ten years ago an American white pelican was a rare sight to see in Illinois. According to Walk, the birds have begun to increasingly move up along the Mississippi River on their migration north from the Gulf of Mexico. Some have even begun to nest along the northern Mississippi River in the summer months. Conservancy scientists are exploring this phenomenon and working to protect the migration route of the American white pelican.

5. Monarch Butterfly

The state insect of Illinois, the monarch butterfly is an iconic migratory species for Illinois. Monarchs can be found in Illinois and most of North America in the spring and summer months. These butterflies embark on a generational migration. One generation winters in Mexico and flies up to North America in the spring, where they produce the next generation which travels back down to Mexico in the fall. Starting in May, look for the trademark green cocoons that darken as the butterfly matures on milkweed plants in open fields, flood plains, and along road sides. Once the cocoons open, enjoy seeing this beautiful butterfly feeding on nectar in open grassy areas.

The numbers of monarch butterflies at the Cache River Wetlands Grassy Slough Preserve peaks in mid-September, and monarchs can be found throughout Illinois' Conservancy wetland and prairie preserves throughout the summer.