There is a place in central Illinois that resembles a French impressionist painting. It's called Spring Lake and it's located in Tazewell County. WGLT's Judy Valente takes you there in the lastest installment of the occasional GLT news series, "Unknown Illinois."
Have you ever stood in wonder at a museum in front of a Monet painting of water lilies? Well, you don't have to travel to France to see what Monet saw. I'm standing in front of a sea of water lilies, yellow and white blossoms, right here in central Illinois, in Tazewell County, in a place called Spring Lake. This is just stunning to look out as far as the eye can see ... these beautiful lily pads and yellow lilies springing out of the lake here, Spring Lake. Why do these lilies thrive here as opposed to other lakes?
"They're actually called American lotus. It's a common plant that's tolerant of many different environmental conditions, so when they can grow, they tend to grow very prolifically."
Tom Lerczak is a preservation specialist with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
"I think that it's the colors, the yellow cream color of the flowers against the perfect color of green that sort of matches with the greenish color of the water and when there's a blue sky in the background, it all kind of fits together."
Spring Lake is about an hour and half drive from Bloomington/Normal, along Route 136 West. It is situated in one of the most geologically interesting sections of the state. It is a place surrounded by towering bluffs, formed by wind-blown sand deposits whipped up and carried on the wind when Illinois's last great glacier melted. To gaze on these sand bluffs is to see a 14,000 year-old part of the earth's body. The floating lily pads on Spring Lake tend to dry up by late autumn. But throughout the year, the lake is abuzz with the sound of many different species of birds.
Beautiful Blue Herons
"Looking out over Spring Lake now, we see two great blue herons flying past and there are actually some heronries along the Illinois River Valley, a couple of really big ones too," says Lerczak. "Hundreds of birds, herons, build nests in the tops of the trees and the birds are making all kinds of noises. It sounds like the Jurassic period."
"So you don't have to go see the movie Jurassic Park, you can just come out here to Spring Lake and have your dinosaur or pre-historic experience? "Right, because birds evolved from dinosaurs, they're dinosaur- like."
Swans on the Lake
At the shoreline we stumble upon another site unique to Spring Lake. A flock of swans, gracefully skimming the water's surface.
Lerczak say, "they're beautiful but they're not native to the western hemisphere. They're from Europe. They're considered an invasive species in Illinois. Basically undesirable. But beautiful." And they can cause damage to the vegetation in the lakes. They tend to forage on the bottom and pull up the vegetation and compete with the native birds. So a few of them might be okay, but if they became very abundant, they could be a problem.
The swans are sort of nuzzling their feathers. Are they washing themselves? What are they doing?
"Preening," Lerczak says. "They have oil glands on their bodies and they'll use their beaks to spread the oil around on their feathers. They have to constantly maintain their feathers. Otherwise they would start to become degraded and unhealthy. Eventually, if they let it go that far, they couldn't fly."
Father and Son Fishing
Not far from where the swans are sunbathing, 5 year-old Ryan Tucker stands next to his father, hoping to snare a blue gill on his fishing line.
VALENTE: I just want to know what you like about coming out here, and what you think of the swans and flowers. RYAN: I like to catch fish. JV: You come out here to catch fish, do you? What do you think of the swans? RYAN: They're okay.
Spring Lake also contains a large area of shrub land: short trees and shrubs that will many years from now be a full-fledged forest. The shrubs act as a magnet for all sorts of birds, like the bell's vireo, a bird that is relatively rare in the state. Lerczak makes an odd noise.
"Pssh, pssh, pssh. That's something the birders do. The birds hear that and they think, what's going on? It sounds like a bird in distress so they'll fly up to the top of trees to look around to see what's making the noise. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Pssh, pssh, pssh. Oh, there's the bell's vireo. Let's walk over here."
At one time, the Illinois River was so polluted, scientists compared it to the bottom of a privy. Much has been accomplished in the last century to restore and conserve these natural lands and waters. Which is why Lerczak laments that more people don't take advantage of the area has to offer. On this day, Ryan Tucker and his father are among the four or five visitors we encounter. I ask Lerczak why most people don't know about the natural beauty here.
Lerczak says, "Most of the population of Illinois is in urban areas right now, so people are familiar with what's around the Chicago area or Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington/Normal, but you go a little bit further away from those big cities and there's a big question mark, I think. What I like to do in a place like this is come out and just sit around and think and write in a journal and read and just kind of blend into the environment and forget about me as a person. I feel that I'm just a part of the whole ecology then."
As someone who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, Lerczak suggests there is a lot more to Illinois than what can be seen cruising down Interstate 55. All you have to do, he says is venture occasionally down a few country roads to discover a little-known place of beauty, like Spring Lake.
Spring Lake is but one of a series of lakes, state parks and refuges that extend all along the Illinois River Valley, a 273- mile stretch between Chicago and just north of St. Louis
See photos of Spring Lake at wglt.org.
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