I’ve heard it called Warblerville, and the Elsen’s Hill unit of West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve deserves the nickname. A friend once spotted 32 warbler species here in one day. In the spring, the 150-acre preserve, about 40 miles west of Chicago, can be mesmerizing.
It’s worth a visit during other seasons, too. Winter birds find an ample food supply here, especially berries, and lowland forest along the DuPage River provides shelter from bitter winds. Even a snowy day might produce Brown Creeper, Carolina Wren, Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Be alert for Barred Owl as well.
All-time sightings exceed 250 species. One of them, a vagrant Black-throated Gray Warbler in October 2010, still has me shaking my head. The bird stayed for weeks, and I swear that every birder in Chicagoland managed to see it except me! Good memories far outweigh the disappointments, though. Elsen’s delivered my lifer Philadelphia Vireo and my first Connecticut Warbler in the county.
The Elsen’s parking lot is itself is a worthy destination, always capable of producing the bird of the day. A look there and a loop around the nearby front pond is a satisfying birding fix if you are short on time. But good luck trying to peel yourself away. Like all great birding sites, Elsen’s has a knack for turning up special birds and pleasant surprises.
Mature woods, scrubland, savanna, restored fen, river wetland, and ponds.
Gravel and grass trails. Downhill to the river, otherwise mostly flat.
Best known for migrant warblers, including Cerulean, Connecticut, Hooded, Kentucky, Worm-eating, and occasionally Prairie. Spring/summer: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Towhee, Wood Thrush, flycatchers, and vireos. Year-round: Wild Turkey, Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks, Wood Duck, Great Horned and Barred Owls, woodpeckers (including Red-headed and sometimes Pileated), American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Cardinal, Cedar Waxwing, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch. Rarities: Northern Goshawk, Black-throated Gray and Kirtland’s Warblers, Varied Thrush.
When to go
Year-round. April, May, September, and October best for migrants. On warm spring days, arrive early.
DuPage Birding Club and other groups lead walks. Bulletin board with map at trailhead, plus a portable toilet that accommodates wheelchairs. Picnic table by front pond.
County forest preserve. Free entry. Open daily one hour after sunrise until one hour after sunset. The main entrance is on Route 59, 0.5 mile north of Roosevelt Rd. (Route 38). The Elsen’s entrance is on Gary’s Mill Rd. east of Roosevelt Rd. and west of Winfield Rd.
Gate is usually open before sunrise. Grass trails can be quite muddy. For safety, avoid birding alone.
Jeff Reiter handles communications at Cantigny Park and writes “Words on Birds,” a newspaper column and blog. He is a past president of the DuPage Birding Club and received the Excellence in Environmental Reporting Award from Chicago Audubon Society in 2015.
Jeff Reiter on social media
Stay in touch with BirdWatching
Keep up to date on all the latest birding news and info.