The historic – but now rare – Illinois landscape of backwater lakes, wetlands, prairies, fens, and seeps now flourishes on former corn and soybean fields along the Illinois River at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin and Hopper Lakes.
Now open to the public, the restoration project is one of the first large-scale floodplain restoration projects along the Illinois River. The project was created by and now is managed by the Wetlands Initiative, a nonprofit organization.
For most of the 20th century, the 2,600 acres of river floodplain were drained by farmers seeking to grow corn and soybeans. In 2001, the Wetlands Initiative reversed this destruction by turning off the pumps and beginning ecological restoration. Within months more than 1,000 acres of lakes reappeared, filled only by groundwater and precipitation. Since then restoration efforts have continued and native flora and fauna have exploded at the site.
Virginia, King, and Sora Rails have all been sighted as have migrating Trumpeter Swans, Franklins gulls, and Bald Eagles. With a good spotting scope, the 30-foot viewing tower is the perfect perch for surveying most of this expansive wetlands; look for American White Pelicans and Black Terns, along with the widest array of ducks. The boat ramp offers the option of birding by canoe or kayak, and the hiking trails allow you to skirt the wetlands and traverse the levee along the river.