Where to Bird in McHenry County?
McHenry County has many good birding locations due to the variety of habitats. When the pioneers arrived in the 1830s they found woodlands, prairies, oak savannas and wetlands. Today you can still find remnants of these in rural parts of the county and, in a few cases, right in the center of urban development.
Many of our best birding “hotspots” are on public lands, making them easy to access. These sites have varied habitats so they have a good variety of birds throughout the year.
Our favorites include:
- McHenry County Conservation District’s Glacial Park south of Richmond
- Enter on Harts Road from Route 31. Stop at the first parking lot by the Prairie Path and either hike the path or use your spotting scope from the picnic pavilion. You will see Double-Crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and maybe a Common Gallinule.
- Turn right at the first gravel road towards the Powers Walker House and view the pond from the other side. Look for American Kestrels in the big tree by the house.
- Stop at Lost Valley Visitor’s Center and see the panoramic view from the deck, then take the trail on the east side of the building for woodpeckers, Eastern Towhees, Indigo Buntings, and warblers, including nesting Chestnut Sided and Blue-Winged.
- Returning to Harts Road, turn right and park in the Kettle Lot. The trail includes woods and grasslands so can produce Bobolinks, Orchard & Baltimore Orioles, Eastern Meadowlarks, Field Sparrows, warblers, Henslow Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and Bluebirds. As you complete the loop, listen for Willow Flycatchers and Dickcissels then stop at the observation platform for nesting Sandhill Cranes and Black Terns.
- Visit the park at dusk in the winter and ask the staff where the Short-Eared Owls are being seen.
- Moraine Hills/McHenry Dam State Park south of McHenry
- Moraine Hills is located on the east side of River Road. The best birding can be found from the farthest parking lot, either by going towards the water or on the trails in the woods.
- McHenry Dam is on the east side of River Road and is the premier warbler spot in the spring.
- The pines near the parking lot host nesting Pine and Yellow-throated Warblers and a few resident Brown Creepers.
- Take the trail to the right and as you reach the curve take in the nesting Prothonatory Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers as well as many migratory species.
- Look for Mute Swans, Green Herons, Pied-Billed Grebes and Wood Ducks in the two ponds. Listen for Virginia Rails on the entrance road.
- Visit the park in the winter as the dam itself provides open water for ducks.
- Pleasant Valley Conservation Area south of Woodstock
- Located 2 miles west of Route 47 on Pleasant Valley Road, the park has nearly 2,000 acres of newly restored prairie, oak savannas, and pristine wetlands that are intersected by Laughing Creek.
- Look for Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks on entrance road in the summer.
- From the first parking lot take the trail through the pines to the oaks, looking for owls.
- The hiking trails that start from the main parking lot begin at either of the two picnic pavilions. Look for warblers, Brown Thrashers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Eastern Phoebes and Wood-Pewees in the woods and Common Yellowthroats, and finches near the parking lot.
- Take the grass trail near the bathrooms for excellent warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Wood-Pewees and Phoebes, Northern Flickers, and other woodpeckers.
- The Horse Trail near the pond takes you past huge oaks, then grasslands and then wetlands. Look and listen for Sora, Least & American Bitterns and Yellow-headed blackbirds in the wetlands.
- Extend your hike to the wide open grasslands on the south and listen for Ring-necked Pheasants and Sedge Wrens.
- Look up and hunt for Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels.
- Marengo Ridge Conservation Area north of Marengo
- From the entrance road on Route 23, skip the first parking lot and continue to the second lot on your left. Look & listen for the usual Indigo Buntings in the treetops and the nesting Eastern Phoebes under the bathroom roof.
- This parking lot is the best birding spot for anyone with limited mobility in the county, especially for warblers in the spring.
- Walk the blacktop road toward the group campground looking for Philadelphia Vireos, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and House Wrens. Explore the edges of the group campground (Junco heaven in winter) then backtrack to the Long Hiking Loop Trail. Go west, looking for woodpeckers and Eastern Towhees , to the beginning of the Kelly Hertel Nature Trail (marked by a bench) where Blue-Winged Warblers nest.
- Continue on to the Kelly-Hertel trail where Pileated Woodpeckers have been reported and then finish the Long Hiking Loop. Pileateds have also been reported near campsites.
- When the trail reaches the road, cross over to the beautifully restored grasslands where you will find Field & Song Sparrows and a magnificent view from the glacial ridge.
Other locations produce great birds depending on the season.
Ducks and Shorebirds:
- In early spring, look for migrating ducks and loons on McCollum Lake or Crystal Lake.
- Historically, H & E Sod Farm on Dunham Road south of Harvard has been an excellent place for shorebirds [this is private property; stay on the road]
- Recently Lippold Park in Crystal Lake has become an excellent site for migrating water and shore birds.
As summer arrives, North Branch Conservation Area on Keystone Road near Richmond attracts excellent grassland birds as does Glacial Park & Pleasant Valley.
Birding McHenry County Guide
McHenry County Audubon published a booklet Birding McHenry County which can be obtained from the
- McHenry County Visitors and Convention Bureau
- In person at Volo Bog State Park or Moraine Hills State Park
- The Environmental Defenders of McHenry County or Read Between the Lynes Bookstore on the Woodstock Square,
- At any McHenry County Audubon program or meeting.
The booklet includes three driving tours of the best places to bird in McHenry County, a bike tour for the Prairie & Hebron Trails, and a canoe tour on Nippersink Creek with driving directions and specific locations for target birds.
A preview of the booklet can be seen here: example page of birding booklet
The Official McHenry County Audubon Checklist for birding includes a list of over 260 species, details abundance in spring, summer, fall or winter, and where you will have the best chance to see occasional or rare species. Birds that have been known to nest here are also identified.
Additional information about any of the McHenry County Conservation District sites can be found at http://www.mccdistrict.org