Want to see America’s national bird? What about the fastest animal on Earth? Or the biggest owl in North America? Whether you’re interested in the furry kind, the feathered kind, or the scaly kind - you can find them all in southwest Illinois.
Byway Birding & More
Part of the Lower Mississippi River Bottomlands and Middle Mississippi Border biomes, the lands that make up the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, are muddy, rocky, and wide with sweeping river landscapes and vibrant wetlands. The area contains 43 percent of all animal species in Illinois and stretches from the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower in the Village of Hartford to Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton.
The 33-mile Byway provides opportunities to see eagles and other raptors, blue herons, snowy egrets, least terns, herring gulls, endangered osprey, and many more travelling and endemic birds along the Mississippi Flyway, a major route for migratory waterfowl crossing the country.
Take a trip to the Audubon Center at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary and the Edward ‘Ted’ and Pat Jones Confluence Point in the winter months to see American bald eagles and elegant trumpeter swans. Look for the amazing American White Pelicans every Spring and Fall.
Explore the Melvin Price Locks & Dam and the adjacent National Great Rivers Museum for views from the middle of the river and to learn about the rivers and their ecological and economical importance to the region.
Hikers can take to the trails at Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton or The Nature Institute or La Vista Park in Godfrey to see more land-based byway wildlife including Illinois’ state mammal- the white-tailed deer- American wild turkey, raccoons, bobcat, coyotes, songbirds, and more.
The byway is also one of only two places in the state to see peregrine falcons year-round. Able to dive at speeds of over 200 mph, peregrines are considered the fastest animal on the planet and a breeding population lives near the Missouri and Mississippi Confluence. The animal with the highest bite force on Earth, the alligator snapping turtle, can also be found in the muddy waters of the Mississippi- though they don’t surface often and can be easily mistaken for a moss-covered boulder.
Other animals to watch out for along the waters of the byway include mallard ducks, Canadian geese, channel catfish, giant blue catfish, red-eared slider turtles, and a wide variety of other reptiles and amphibians.
In the winter, from late December through the end of February, hundreds of American Bald Eagles reclaim their nests along the Mississippi River bluffs and feed in its waters.
River Road Meets Bluff Country
Further north along the Great River Road, another Illinois biome begins with the Upper Mississippi River Border and the Illinois River. The Mississippi and Illinois Rivers join near Grafton and hugged between them is Calhoun County, a land of rolling hills, orchards, oxbow lakes, and low flood plains. In Brussels you’ll find the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, home to over three-hundred bird species, federally threatened plant species, and animals like beaver, muskrat, the North American river otter, and more on over 9,200 acres of conserved wetland, prairie, and woodland.
North of the refuge, near Hardin, you can visit the Diamond-Hurricane Island Fish & Wildlife Management Area- a great place to fish and watch for waterfowl and raptors hunting on the river. Adventurers can also go to the McCully Heritage Project near Kampsville for hiking, fishing, and horseback riding- the project is comprised of 940 acres of hills and hollows in Calhoun County and offers a campground and scenic vistas overlooking the Illinois River.
Continuing north from McCully Heritage Project towards Batchtown, visitors can also visit the RipRap Landing Fish & Waterfowl Management Area. A great place for fishing, boating, birdwatching, and a common place to see American bald eagles and white-tailed deer, RipRap is a great place to see wild Calhoun from the Mississippi side of the county.
Hoo’s there? It may be a great horned owl! The largest owl in North America at 24 inches tall, great horned owls are aggressive and powerful hunting raptors that have even been known to hunt small deer! Watch for them and other Illinois owls like the eastern screech owl, short-eared owl, northern saw-whet owl, barred owl, and barn owl throughout the region.
Wildlife Along the Prairies of Route 66
Winding through the heart of America is Illinois' portion of Route 66 which is a great place to see the beauty of the Midwest. Surrounded by farmland, meadows, and prairie forests, the southern till plain surrounding the Mother Road is home to a multitude of species including North America’s smallest falcon, the American kestrels, coyotes, white-tailed deer, bobcats, Eastern cotton-tailed rabbits, Eastern wild turkey, red and gray foxes, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, groundhogs, and more.
The Route 66 flatlands are dotted with many lakes. Beaver Dam State Park, near Carlinville, is known for its low-lying, forested lake and campground with hiking trails and is an ideal place to see waterfowl, songbirds, and animals like raccoons, opossums, and wild turkey. The Coffeen Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area is well known for its rich fishing and conservation trails surrounded by oak and hickory forest. The Lake Lou Yaeger Recreation Area, near Litchfield, Otter Lake, near Girard and Nilwood, and both Gillespie Lakes are all recreationally friendly areas with hiking trails, equestrian trails, camping, and boating where you can see lakeside animals like beaver, blue herons, snowy egrets, red-eared slider turtles and forest songbirds, like cardinals, blue jays, and brown wrens. Adventurers can also take the Route 66 Hike & Bike Trail near Lake Lou Yaeger to explore the lake’s diverse biome under a canopy of trees with trails ranging from easy to moderate.
Adjacent to Lake Lou Yaeger is the Shoal Creek Conservation Area which is home to more than 700 plant species, 70 butterfly species, and 74 known bird species including migrating bald eagles, white-tailed deer, songbirds, bats, and more that can be seen on 266 acres of till-plain oak and hickory woodland interconnected with trails with some of Litchfield’s best views.
The H & B Bremer Wildlife Sanctuary provides hikes and plant and animal related excursions throughout the year near Hillsboro. The sanctuary is home to both prairie and woodland animals and has walking trails through several biomes where wild turkey, songbirds, coyotes, and white-tailed deer are plentiful.
Another place to visit, especially for entomology enthusiasts, is the Route 66 Prairie and Monarch Butterfly Habitat located on the Mother Road near Litchfield and part of the Monarch Trail. Visitors can see a wide variety of pollinating insects from enchanting Monarch, Eastern tiger swallowtail, and red-spotted purple butterflies to honeybees, bumblebees, dragonflies, and tiny birds like Anna’s and Ruby-throated hummingbirds. The wide-open area is also home to swallows, killdeer, and prairie warblers who are attracted to the rich insect life around the habitat. Prairie-seekers can also visit the Heartland Prairie Project at Gordon Moore Park in Alton to meet Illinois pollinators and see plants being restored in their native setting.
Lightning bug or firefly? Whatever you call them, southwest Illinois has them! See these glowing insects throughout the spring and summer months near waterways and grasslands throughout the region. Bring the kids and watch the nostalgic bugs as they light up the night in a bioluminescent dance!
Nature Near the National Road
Following the National Road, America’s first federal interstate highway, leads to both history and wildlife. You can visit places like the Bohm Woods Nature Preserve or the Gardens at SIUE campus in Edwardsville to see a thriving white-tailed deer population, songbirds, and manicured gardens all linked by walking/biking paths on the expansive MCT Trails system.
National Road travelers can also stop by the Watershed Nature Center in Edwardsville to see wood ducks, blue herons, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, Eastern cotton-tailed rabbits, raccoons, white-tailed deer, red-eared slider turtles, snapping turtles, and multiple varieties of frogs including spring peepers and cricket tree frogs. The Watershed also connects to the MCT Trails system.
Sitting between Granite City and Collinsville, is Horseshoe Lake State Park, a 2,960 acre park offering boating, camping, and fishing for species like bluegill, channel catfish, crappie, bass, and carp. Four miles of hiking trails allow visitors the chance to see waterfowl, snowy egrets, and river gulls. Kayak or paddleboard the lake and connect to nature with one of the best sunset views in the region!
Want to see all the wildlife southwest Illinois has to offer on a bike? Madison County Transit Trails (MCT) has over 130 miles of interlinking trails connecting communities across the county, allowing riders and walkers to see everything from the Byway to Route 66, the National Road, Great River Road, and beyond!
Rescue, Research & Release
Want to see wild animals that are being rehabilitated? Several places in the southwest Illinois area help injured and abandoned animals heal and return to the wild and you can see them up close or meet ambassadors of their species to learn about their conservation.
The TreeHouse Wildlife Center of Dow permanently and temporarily houses animals like opossums, white-tailed deer, owls and other raptors, waterfowl, foxes, raccoons, bobcat, coyotes, and more on their road to recovery. Visit and learn about the animals, their recovery and conservation efforts, and meet an animal ambassador at one of the TreeHouse’s many animal meet & greets throughout the region.
Love horses? The Legendary Mustang Sanctuary near Alhambra rehabs animals of the hooved variety including once wild mustang horses and burros. The sanctuary allows the animals to roam their large property and works with the Bureau of Land Management to heal and restore the animal’s wild spirit. Guided tours of the sanctuary can be scheduled as well.
Other conservation efforts in the region include research and release efforts through the National Great Rivers Research & Education Center, the Audubon Center at Riverlands, Watershed Nature Center, The Nature Institute, and Environmental Science and Restoration Ecology programs at Lewis and Clark Community College and Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville.
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