Volunteers holding garlic mustard bouquets after first impromptu workday on May 19. Photo by Libby Hill

Right now, it doesn’t look much like a sanctuary for rare wildlife species.

Where Sheridan Road makes a sharp curve to the west at Northwestern’s southern border with Evanston at Clark Street Beach, a gleaming new four-story building commands the view. The Segal Visitor Center occupies the first floor; the top three levels are a parking garage. To the south is a wide fire lane. Then comes a patch of very straggly trees, the site of the future Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary.

When Northwestern built its lakefill in the 1960s, two acres were left unattended on the land between the bike path and Northwestern’s former boathouse. Weedy vegetation filled the void. A mixture of tall sand-loving cottonwoods, hackberries, box elder and green ash formed a canopy, attracting nesting Orioles and Warbling Vireos. Willows and other medium height shrubby plants, grasses and wildflowers made an open transitional habitat on the dunes. Birds and birders used the area unhindered by structures, fences or fees.

This diverse vegetation on the lake was especially important for migrating birds. Most songbirds migrate at night, many along the lakefront, making a long journey between their nesting grounds in the north and their wintering grounds in the southern states, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. They arrive at daybreak hungry and exhausted, needing food and shelter during the most stressful and dangerous time in their lives. Eighty-nine species of birds were documented as using this wild area. Among them were warblers, migratory sparrows, thrushes, and flycatchers, many of them listed by Partners in Flight as birds of special conservation concern in our region. Species use habitat in different ways. Some birds stay close to the ground and forage in leaf litter. Others prefer the top canopy. Some can typically be found at mid-level and in thickets. Quality bird landscape requires structure of several levels and types of vegetation as well as water.

In 2012, Northwestern announced plans to construct a Visitor Center on this “wilderness” site. Because the front of the building would be very close to the property line between Northwestern and Evanston, Northwestern requested permission to use Evanston land for construction access, materials and equipment. The city’s bike path would need re-routing, and the wild area would be chopped to a half acre. Northwestern removed 275 trees on public property. Because of the Evanston’s Tree Preservation Ordinance, the University was required to pay $173,850 in tree replacement fees. Northwestern removed many more trees on its own portion of the wild land.

The devastation plus the money generated the idea to incorporate the remnant wild area plus a small part of Clark Street Beach into a bird sanctuary. Three years after Northwestern’s announcement, landscape architects Kettlekamp and Kettlekamp, an Evanston firm, were hired to design the two-acre sanctuary. The team includes Christopher Burke Engineering and Judy Pollock Consulting. The new sanctuary will stretch from the Clark Street Beach House north to the fire lane. The consultants will establish a basic footprint and recommend plantings to create a varied woody and herbaceous habitat. A water feature will be added near the Clark Street Beach House. Fencing will control public access, and protective fencing around plant groupings will protect against rabbits. The existing beach volleyball courts will be moved to the south and away from the expanding planting area. Planting will take place this fall.

The essential work of maintaining the sanctuary will fall to volunteers. Four conservation organizations are partnering with the City and the Ecology Center to plan citizen stewardship of the sanctuary. Evanston TreeKeepers, Citizens’ Greener Evanston, LakeDance, and the Evanston North Shore Bird Club (ENSBC) will be responsible for scheduling maintenance, monitoring, signage, education, fundraising, programs, and recruiting and training volunteers.

Evanston residents are invited to engage in volunteer conservation opportunities that may directly benefit rare and declining wildlife species in their own town. Activities will include monitoring for birds, plants or insects; leading a bird or plant walk; joining in workdays such as garlic mustard pulls; scouting for invasive species; removing invasive species; pruning and planting. Education will include school field trips and children’s performances through LakeDance in partnership with Andrew Biliter, artistic director of Mudlark Theater. ENSBC has adopted the sanctuary under the City’s Adopt-a-Park program and will act as the primary point of contact for the public

Donations will be needed for signage, replacement and expanded plantings, more attractive fencing, and promotional materials. The City is establishing a fund for tax-deductible contributions through the Evanston Parks Foundation.

Plans for the design and plantings are online at cityofevanston.org/parks-recreation/lakefront-beaches/clark-street-beach-bird-sancturary/index.php.

For current information and to learn how to participate and contribute to this unique nature sanctuary on Evanston’s lakefront, contact the Evanston North Shore Bird Club at info@ensbc.org.