Watch now: Migratory birds flock to the Chautauqua refuge along the Illinois River | Lifestyles

HAVANA – The Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge may not be on your travel itinerary, but it’s definitely on the migratory bird map, and it should be on your list of places to explore.

The Chautauqua Refuge is part of the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Complex, which spans 200 km of the Illinois River.

Operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the sanctuary provides resources for migrating and resident birds and other wildlife, while offering a variety of activities for outdoor adventurers.

Two red-winged blackbirds sing as they try to establish their territories ahead of the nesting season at the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge on March 21.


These activities include bird watching, hiking, fishing, boating and foraging for wild foods.

The best place to start your visit is at the headquarters of the shelter, 19031 East County Road 2110 North, Havana, about 10 km north of Havana. Open weekdays, except federal holidays, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., this is a good place to get maps and information. Although the building is not open, there is a useful information kiosk outside with a map directing you to the area and its trailheads and parking lots.

You can also get information on the website,


A non-native mute swan swims on a windy day at Chautauqua Lake on March 21. During peak migration, up to 70,000 waterfowl a day use the refuge as a resting and refueling site.


The headquarters area also has the half-mile Chautauqua Nature Trail. It packs a lot for a short distance, with three viewing platforms overlooking the Chautauqua Lake South Pool and several benches along the way. A combination of raised gravel and boardwalks, it is ADA accessible, making it a good destination for wheelchair users, strollers, young children, and people with long-distance walking difficulties.

This is an enjoyable hike for everyone. Starting from the trailhead, I saw a whitetail deer almost immediately and was serenaded by the sounds of birds and frogs, accompanied by a woodpecker drumming section.

There’s even an information board with a replica of a bald eagle’s nest along the trail. It contains fun facts about this national symbol, once on the endangered species list, which nests at the refuge.


Stephanie Bishir, a wildlife biologist at the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, listens to the sounds of northern leopard frogs on a viewing platform overlooking the South Pool at the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge near Havana on March 21. The nature trail at the headquarters of the refuge has several platforms and observation benches.


“The main mission we have here is waterfowl,” explained wildlife biologist Stephanie Bishir. “We try to provide a good migration stopover for the thousands of ducks and other waterfowl that visit the refuge.”

The spring waterfowl migration is starting to slow down. Nonetheless, I saw American White Pelicans, Buffleheads, Shovelers, Scaups and Ruddy Ducks on a visit earlier this month. A good pair of binoculars helps; a telescope is even better.


An information sign and nest replica along the Chautauqua Nature Trail provide information about bald eagles. The larger birds, once on the endangered species list, nest at the Chautauqua Wildlife Refuge.


“In the fall, we’ll have maybe 70,000 waterfowl using this area in a single day,” Bishir said. Part of his job is to count them.

“Shorebirds also come to the area in large numbers. We will have 10,000 shorebirds in a single day during fall migration,” she said.

July and August are peak times for shorebirds and wading birds. American white pelicans are usually present from May to early September. Soon, the spring warbler migration will be in full swing.


Wildlife biologist Stephanie Bishir walks along the Chautauqua Nature Trail near the headquarters of the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge near Havana on March 21.


“Waterfowl get a lot of attention, a lot of glitter, and they should. … But we, as part of the Mississippi Flyway, have over 200 other species of birds that will visit the refuge,” Bishir said.

Another easy hike is the Roundtree Trail, which offers good opportunities for mushroom and berry picking, according to the refuge’s website.

The North Pool Trail runs 2.75 miles from the Eagle Bluff to Goofy Ridge access area. The primitive trail is an out and back route, not a loop, along the east cliff. The refuge rates it as moderate to difficult.


A viewing platform along the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters Nature Trail provides a good place to view Chautauqua Lake or listen for birds and frogs.


We found an old puffball mushroom and many empty snail shells along the middle section which we explored from a trail near the Roundtree trail. Soon the wild flowers of the woods will bloom.

“Some of my favorite spots are probably on the most primitive trail we have along the east cliff. There are offshoots where you can go down to shore,” Bishir said. “They are really nice to sit on some driftwood and read a book or whatever you want.”

There are boat ramps in the Eagle Bluff access area. The water is closed to boats from October 16 to January 31. Motorboats can only be operated at speeds without revs. Water may also be drawn at certain times of the year to promote plant growth for waterfowl. The “lake” is really a wetland.

Combined with the Emiquon Refuge across the river, the area is designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, one of 41 sites in the United States with that designation, Bishir said.

It is also recognized as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society and is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve system.

Floyd N. Morlan