CHARLESTON — Young trees stand in vast fields surrounded by newly planted native grasses, the early stages of bringing back a forest environment.
It’s a return to what the land used to be, but also part of an effort to study and help the small night flyers, those of threatened populations and otherwise, that seem to be thriving there.
In the meantime, bats are already inhabiting artificial roosts, making them their homes sooner than expected.
Research and other work on the bat population at Warbler Ridge Conservation Area southeast of Charleston has been going on for two years now.
Hand in hand is the forest project, eventual habitat for bats and part of overall work to restore the conservation area to its natural state.
A sign of the progressive is the discovery that one bat species is living in the roosts, which have been in place since October 2018. It was thought that might not happen until about five years after the roosts were installed.
“We’re doing it right,” said Sarah Livesay, executive director of the Grand Prairie Friends, the private, non-profit conservation organization that owns Warbler Ridge.
A bat conservation team with the Illinois Natural History Survey is conducting the bat research project. They’re focusing on two species, the Northern Log-Eared and the Indiana bats, because they're protected and "losing massive numbers," Livesay said.
Livesay said project biologist Tara Hohoff returned to the conservation area last week after learning about the number of bats seen there.
Hohoff used acoustic equipment to record the calls of the Evening bat, which was found living in the bat roosts, and the Little Brown bat.
A couple of weeks before that, volunteers doing ongoing observations saw about 180 bats fly out of one of the roosts.
Terry Smith of Charleston, a Grand Prairie Friends volunteer, is taking part in the bat observations and also helped plant the 50,000 trees that have been added to the conservation area since last summer.
Smith noted that the types of trees planted — oaks, hickories and other native to the area — will help with a return to the natural forest and, eventually, be a place for bats to roost as well.
"They are the trees that best provide habitat," he said.
The roosts were installed for bats to use in the time it takes the new trees to grow. The young trees are surrounded by the native grasses to help hide them from hungry deer, Livesay said.
She also said the last shipment of trees, about 20,000 in all, arrived in the spring around the time of the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
Restrictions with the virus forced workers to stay at the site to plant the trees, vital work as it would have been a "catastrophic loss" if they weren't planted in time, Livesay said.
A Bloomington, Indiana, organization called Eco Logic oversaw the project and worked with volunteers to plant the trees.
New property acquisition
Meanwhile, other developments for Warbler Ridge include the acquisition of three acres of land at the site's entry area on Daileyville Road, off Illinois Route 130 southeast of Charleston.
Livesay said three families donated the funds for the purchase of the land, which is near a parking area but in a somewhat isolated location.
Restoration work is planned but there will also be a new sign added to help let people know they can visit the site, she said.
"It's the front door to the entire conservation area," Livesay said. "We want people to feel welcome."
Deer hunting lottery
Livesay also said the lottery for deer hunters to hunt at Warbler Ridge is now open and runs until Aug. 24.
Deer hunting, archery only, is allowed during the month of October, she said. There's no fee but permits are required and there are a limited number available.
Hunters can apply at the Illinois Recreational Access Program website, www2.illinois.gov/dnr/conservation/IRAP/Pages/Archery-Deer-Hunting.aspx.