Into The Wild: Colored Sands Forest Preserve: Birds, wildflowers and geology!

As with “No Child Left Inside,” welcome to a new series of articles in partnership with Four Rivers Environmental Coalition (FREC) and The Rock River Times. In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the FREC presents this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit

By Lynda Johnson

You'll see about 5 acres of lupine at Colored Sands Forest Preserve. This bequtiful blue flower will "knock your socks off!" Photo provided

Sand Bluff Bird Observatory Volunteer and retired educator, Burpee Museum of Natural History and Natural Land Institute

Colored Sands Forest Preserve is tucked away in the northwest corner of Winnebago County. It is known for its birds—and the bird banding at Sand Bluff Bird Observatory, but you will be amazed to discover its unique geology, and the wonderful wildflowers that are abundant at certain times of the year.

Put away your GPS—find the town of Shirland on a map and go north on Boswell Road to Yale Bridge Road. Turn left on Yale Bridge, go about 2 miles; turn right on Hauley Road and go about 1/2 mile; turn left on Haas Road and go to the end. You’ll see Colored Sands Forest Preserve on the left side of the road.

The forest preserve is named “Colored Sands” because many years ago, in the early 1900s, people from Rockford would travel to this part of the county for picnics and end up near the bridge over the Sugar River on Yale Bridge Road. There was a hill with layers of colored sands full of minerals that made the sands different colors…green, orange and yellow. People collected the sands and put them in layers in tall glass containers for decoration. Milt Mahlburg, the first director of Burpee Museum, had a couple of these large jars on display. Don’t try to find the colored sands now. The road and bridge were moved long ago, and the hill is covered with vegetation, including very prickly thorny ones, and poison ivy, and you can’t find it anymore.

I love the geology of this region! You will wonder why the soil is pure sand at Colored Sands Forest Preserve. About 10,000 years ago, when the last glacier in this area started to melt and retreat, it dammed up the Rock River near Rockton, and formed a large lake that stretched from Rockton to beyond Freeport. Just north of the state line, in Wisconsin, is Saint Peters Sandstone, which was ground up by the glacier, and transported by the Sugar River to this area. This sand became the bottom of the lake. Periodically, the lake dried up, and the sand blew over the area. Our house is directly south of Colored Sands Forest Preserve, and it sits on an ancient sand dune, and the soil in our yard is sand, just like the soil at Colored Sands F.P.!

When you walk on the trails at Colored Sands F.P., you will notice the rocks sticking out of the soil are limestone. This is Platteville Limestone, which is on top of Galena Dolomite. (Most of Rockford rock is dolomite.) The limestone in this area is full of fossils that tell us that millions of years ago, during the Ordovician Period, about 485 million years ago, a warm, shallow ocean covered most of mid-North America. We know this by the fossils…all kinds of sea creatures like gastropods, crinoids, brachiopods and trilobites. You should know that it is illegal to collect anything at a forest preserve…flowers, fossils, etc. You can find these kinds of fossils at any road cut in northern parts of the county, or better yet, go on a “family fossil field trip” through Burpee Museum!

If you come to Colored Sands F.P. near mid-May, from the parking lot, if you look east, you will be looking at a sand prairie, which is what was here at the time of settlement in the mid-1800s. You’ll see about 5 acres of lupine. This beautiful blue flower will “knock your socks off!” It’s worth the drive all the way to Colored Sands F.P. just to see these flowers! You’ll probably also see birdfoot violets, hairy, hoary and fringed pucoon, and several other spring wildflowers native to the sand prairie, and in the nearby woods.

The best time to see the sand prairie, however, is mid-summer. My husband, Lee, and I will be leading a Wildflower Walkabout at 6 p.m., July 1. In the summer, the wildflowers are magnificent, and you will gain a new appreciation for the tallgrass prairie that was here when the pioneers first came. Bring a field guide to wildflowers. We still like the Courtney-Zimmerman book: Wildflowers and Weeds.

I’ve saved the best for last—what goes on at the bird banding station: Sand Bluff Bird Observatory (SBBO). SBBO was started in 1967 by my husband, Lee Johnson. He had been birdwatching in the Sugar River area and noticed how many birds were in this area! In the spring and fall, you can come any weekend and observe the SBBO volunteers removing birds from the mist nets, and taking them back to the building to record the data, putting a band on each bird, and releasing them. We are a scientific operation, monitoring bird populations. But we also feel very strongly that educating the public about birds, and nature in general, helps people understand the importance of saving natural habitats for all living creatures, including people.

We’re open all day Saturdays, from dawn to dark, and Sunday mornings, late March through May, and late August through November. The public is invited to visit. On Mother’s Day weekend, May 8 and 9, we have our annual Birdfest. This festival is a fund-raiser to raise money to purchase nets. If our nets were stretched in one line, they would total 4,250 feet of nets…they only last one-and-a-half to three years, and the only way we get money to purchase new nets is through generous donations from visitors. In between two poles is $150 worth of nets; we have about 100 sets of nets! Birdfest is the only weekend we charge admission: $2.50 for adults, 50 cents for children age 4-12. Many bird-related activities are held that weekend, including nature walks, rehabilitators with hawks and owls, children’s activities, talks about nature photography, food vendors, a wonderful silent auction, and, of course, the actual bird banding.

In today’s culture, we have become so plugged in to electronic devices, and so addicted to looking at the computer, I urge you to make a conscious effort to spend a day a week without all of that. Can you even do it? The rewards of spending time in nature are numerous. Many studies have shown that people who regularly spend time in nature are more physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. Children are less “hyper” (adults, too!), more creative, and able to think more clearly. Our world has become so busy, and so noisy, it is truly enjoyable to just let all that go, and spend some time in the out-of-doors. Looking at birds, butterflies, wildflowers and rocks truly is a great way to spend some time. I urge you to come on out to Colored Sands Forest Preserve and enjoy the natural world. You might as well leave your cell phone in your car—there are very few “bars” for cell phones way out here. You will see—you don’t need it anyway. Come. Enjoy!

From the May 5-11, 2010 issue

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