| STORY BY MEGHAN MCMAHON |
The first parcel of land acquired by the Forest Preserve District was 144 acres of what today is Messenger Woods, bought for a price of $125 per acre. Since that initial purchase, the preserve has expanded to 441 acres in all. In the 1990s, the majority of the preserve — 406 acres — was declared an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Nature preserves are high-quality natural areas, and many protect rare and endangered plant and animal species as well as uncommon habitat types. These specially designated areas include some of the last remnants of Illinois' natural heritage and are almost all that is left of what Illinois looked like in the early 1800s, according to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Preserving these lands is important because less than one-tenth of 1% of the state's landscape remains as it did when first seen by the area's early settlers.
Because portions of Messenger Woods were acquired so long ago, much of the land has been untouched by development in contrast to much of the land in Will County.
“It’s our oldest preserve and has never been farmed, grazed or developed, so there are massive trees,” said Suzy Lyttle, a program coordinator for the Forest Preserve District. “I just look up at them and think of the things they must have witnessed over time. They are really beautiful to check on during all the seasons. Full of warblers in the spring, leafy and shady in the summer, beautiful painted colors in the fall and so mighty in the winter with huge outreaching branches.”
One of the big draws at Messenger Woods is the birds, including favorites like pileated woodpeckers and owls.
“I usually always hear and am sometimes lucky enough to see a pileated woodpecker. This is the largest of the woodpeckers and can sound like an ancient dinosaur calling from the treetops,” Lyttle said. “Last year, we found a pileated nest! It was just a small hole in a tree, but it was soon full of activity with hungry babies sticking their heads out for their next fast-food drop off.”
In the spring, Messenger Woods can be a hotspot for warblers and other migratory birds. “Standing on the bridge that crosses Spring Creek, I am amazed how many warblers I can hear and see in one location,” Lyttle said.
One of Lyttle’s favorite moments at Messenger Woods came as she was preparing for a program one October evening. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” she explained. “There was a barred owl just going nuts, literally hooting and hollering. It went on and on moving to different areas but still loud as it could be — until the public arrived of course.”
Later, the program participants did get a glimpse of a great horned owl sitting in a tree long enough for all to see before it silently flew away.
“Owls will always give us goosebumps and are even more exciting when we finally get to show them off to the public,” Lyttle said.