Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s Nature Preserves have plenty of space to keep your distance

There are places where you can enjoy nature and still maintain a safe distance from those also enjoying the outdoors. The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy has acres of nature to share.

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Kalamazoo City Parks: closed.

Kalamazoo County Parks: closed. (Except for the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.)

Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy nature preserves: open.

As long as you maintain a 6-foot distance from people outside your household so far you are encouraged to get outside to go walking, hiking, cycling or just to stay active. (Note that Kalamazoo City Parks were closed because groups of people were gathering and not maintaining the 6-foot space between one another.)

While some local and community parks may be a little too small or crowded for folks to be able to safely practice social distancing, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC) offers many nature preserves throughout southwest Michigan whose wide-open spaces provide the perfect place for visitors to get outside, exercise, and enjoy nature while staying safe and healthy.
Bow in the Clouds Preserve in Kalamazoo one of its many features is an upland area that includes a barrier-free loop trail so that people of all ages and abilities can get out to experience this urban natural area.
“Throughout time, humans have turned to nature for comfort and solace in times of hardship. And today is no different,” says Miko Dargitz, SWMLC Development Associate. “Let the hope of warmer and brighter days, fluffy spring babies, and the colors of spring wash over you and remind you that someday soon, if we all do our part, things will return to normal. As humans always have, let nature help you through this challenging time.”

Meanwhile, here are places you can get back to nature.

The Chipman Preserve in Comstock/Galesburg, for instance, boasts 230 acres of rolling prairie, oak savanna, and oak woodland, and approximately 6 miles of trails for your walking, hiking or trail running pleasure. This preserve is home to such creatures as red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, coyotes, eastern box turtles, red foxes, indigo buntings, brown thrashers and eastern bluebirds. If you like the feeling of being alone in nature, this is the place to go.

At Bow in the Clouds Preserve in the City of Kalamazoo, next to the old Nazareth campus and donated to SWMLC by the Sisters of St. Joseph, visitors can walk through the preserve’s extensive spring-fed wetlands, sedge meadow and cattail marsh on a 1,000 foot boardwalk system. The upland area includes a barrier-free loop trail so that people of all ages and abilities can get out to experience this urban natural area. And SWMLC is currently working on plans to extend the barrier-free walkway down into the wetland.

Wolf Tree Nature Trails in Oshtemo is made up of 69 acres of wooded uplands, oak savanna and prairie, crowded with warblers during spring migration, and is home to several rare and native plants, as well. The property’s topography is ancient and was carved by the movement of the glaciers during the ice age. Wolf Tree offers two three-quarter-mile loop trails that wind through forests and meadows with scenic views – the perfect length for an after-dinner walk or a stroll with the kiddos.

Portman Nature Preserve in Paw Paw near Mattawan is one of SWMLC’s newer nature preserves and offers 189 acres of rolling hills, upland oak forest, fen and marshland, three spring-fed lakes, and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. Portman is home to many rare, threatened, and endangered plant and animal species, making it a regional conservation priority. Visitors can enjoy almost 2 miles of trails, including a 500-foot boardwalk along Lime Lake.

Spirit Springs Sanctuary near Marcellus a broad diversity of habitat types including swamp forest, wooded uplands, sedge meadow, cattail marsh, and a large pond.

In South Haven, the Black River Preserve, true to its name, is a 120-acre nature preserve on the Black River, with an extensive and well-marked trail system with trails that range from easy to more difficult. This preserve features beech-maple and old-growth floodplain forest, as well as tributary ravines that provide important foraging, nesting and breeding habitat for a variety of resident and migrating birds such as hooded and prothonotary warblers, wood ducks, American woodcock, and green herons. On this walk in the woods, you will probably get to hear a few new bird songs.

And Spirit Springs Sanctuary near Marcellus offers Cass and St. Joseph County residents a nearby place to go to explore a broad diversity of habitat types including swamp forest, wooded uplands, sedge meadow, cattail marsh, and a large pond that’s popular with waterfowl, turtles and salamanders. Spirit Springs offers over 2 miles of moderate trails and lots of scenic vistas.

This is just a small sampling of the many Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy nature preserves that, as always, are free and open to the public from dawn-to-dusk, 365 days a year. To find an SWMLC nature preserve near you, please visit their website where you will find directions, downloadable trail maps, and other information. 

And while visiting SWMLC preserves, please remember:

• Parking—If the lot is full, please come back another time. Please do not park along the road, as roadside parking is illegal in some areas and presents a potential safety hazard.

• Social distancing—Stay at least 6 feet away from other visitors outside your household. If you encounter another individual or family on the trail, please step aside and wait for them to safely pass. Likewise, in the parking lot, please keep a safe distance while getting into and out of your car.

• If you are sick or showing any symptoms of illness, please stay home.

• If you are in a high-risk category, please stay home.

• Group gatherings and events are prohibited.

• Leave no trace—Please help keep the preserves clean by packing out your trash (including dog waste) and leaving no trace (Official Leave No Trace website, https://bit.ly/33SVDxv ). SWMLC is a local non-profit with a small staff and a large, nine-county service area, and are not able to maintain garbage cans at each one of our public preserves.

• Dogs—Please observe the Michigan 6-foot leash law. Dogs that are actively restrained on a 6-foot leash are welcome as long as you pick up and pack out any waste.

• Protect vegetation - Please stay on the trail (except to allow others to pass) to avoid trampling the upcoming spring wildflowers and to keep erosion to a minimum.

SWMLC officials say they’re excited that people can still get out to enjoy the preserves, and they have been very encouraged by the respectful and responsible behavior they have seen so far from visitors to the preserves.

While all SWMLC events and workdays are canceled through April 30, SWMLC is working diligently to find virtual ways to connect you to nature and your community. For example, SWMLC hopes to have all SWMLC public preserve trail maps available on the Avenza (mobile app) Map Store shortly. In the meantime, they can be downloaded from each preserve page on SWMLC’s website. Please check-in at swmlc.org and to SWMLC’s Facebook page for new announcements about virtual activities and events.

To learn more about the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy or to contact them directly, please visit SWMLC’s website at www.swmlc.org/.

The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy serves the nine counties of southwest Michigan and has worked with regional landowners to protect over 17,000 acres since its inception as an all-volunteer organization in 1991. The Conservancy currently has nine staff and 150 active volunteers and is supported by over 1,250 household memberships.

SWMLC maintains over 50 nature preserves, enforces over 100 conservation easements, and convenes regional partners to create conservation plans and engage people in the natural world. 

Another Outdoors Idea

For the birds: Avian adventures at Asylum Lake Preserve

Oblivious to the COVID-19 pandemic, a white sandhill crane that sailed overhead, while a male mallard meandered downstream. Within Western Michigan University’s 274-acre Asylum Lake Preserve in Kalamazoo on a recent weekday morning, several bird species were observed building nests, flying, paddling, eating and calling to one another and even battling, in some cases.

Birdwatching at the preserve, which offers a publicly-accessible visual and symphonic feast, remains an easy, free, soothing and educational option amidst social distancing mandates and closures that have altered life as we knew it.

To learn more about birdwatching at Asylum Lake see this YouTube video.

No birding experience? No problem. This inspiring hobby only requires a sense of adventure, a fondness for fresh air and the ability to quietly observe.

“I think most people take birds for granted,” says Dr. Sharon Gill, associate professor of biological sciences, whose extensive research in behavioral ecology, ornithology and sound ecology have taken her around the world for bird studies. “They’re all around us, but people pay them no attention.”

Gill and Joanna Sblendorio, a doctoral student studying bird behavior, recently provided basic birding lessons at the preserve, bordered by Drake Road and Parkview Avenue. Here’s what they shared.

Why go birding at Asylum?

Giving more consideration to bird activity reveals an expanded world that offers vital reconnection with nature, which may be more important than ever as the pandemic continues to wreak physical and emotional havoc on humans throughout the world.

“The value of coming out in nature is to get away from all of the typical things that you’re worrying about in your day. What a beautiful experience to be able to hear the water babbling behind us and the birds calling,” says Gill, who is originally from Canada. “It can give you an amazing sense of peace and also connectedness to something bigger than ourselves.”

Asylum Lake and the adjoining property lie in the west fork of the Portage Creek Watershed. The land was ensured when WMU constructed its nearby College of Engineering Parkview Campus. An online “story map” at https://wmich.edu/asylumlake offers a self-guided introduction to the preserve and its history.

The preserve serves as a research area for academic disciplines such as geology, hydrogeology and environmental studies, but it is a particularly wonderful place for birdwatching, Gill says.

Asylum “does offer a really nice set of features and different natural areas. So, we can go to Big Asylum Lake and Little Asylum Lake,” says Gill. “We can walk through the forest and engage with the organisms here. And then there’s also the prairie. We have three important types of ecosystems in the area, making it a really nice place to walk and experience nature.”

Advice for novices

About 450 bird species call Michigan home, according to the Michigan Bird Records Committee’s January 2020 list. Right now, many species that departed for the winter are migrating back to the area, which offers birders plenty of interesting activity.

Experienced birdwatchers enjoy grabbing their binoculars, identifying as many species as they can and perhaps conducting counts, “but if you don’t have that bird knowledge, you can still experience the joy of birds just by walking here and listening,” says Gill. “If you’re listening here, there are blackbirds calling, there’s robins singing, there’s woodpeckers, the red-wing blackbird. All of those things you can listen to. You don’t have to name them to get the joy out of experiencing them. You could become somebody who’s really active and knows their birds, but if you’re not one of those people right now, certainly don’t let that stop you from enjoying birds because you have all you need to enjoy them: your ears and your eyes.”

The best times to birdwatch, according to Sblendorio, are at dawn and dusk.

“The dawn chorus is just spectacular, right when the sun comes up,” Sblendorio says.

Wearing colors that blend with the scenery are advisable, but not nearly as important as quiet observation—no sudden movements and full concentration.

“Birdwatching is an activity in mindfulness,” says Sblendorio, a New Jersey native who became captivated with birds while helping a master’s student study them on a military base. “You’ll see flashes of color, the rustle of leaves. It’s an opportunity to appreciate the world.”

Some birds, such as chickadees, are loud. Cranes are graceful. Fox sparrows “have a really cute whistle,” Sblendorio claims. She calls warblers “little forest gems” that range in hues from yellow to blue to rusty red.

Certain species are just passing through the area right now, while others will plan to stay for the duration of summer.

During their recent lake preserve visit, Gill and Sblendorio were entertained by a bluebird couple creating a nest in a box built by people for that purpose. Their task wasn’t easy. While the female deposited beakfuls of grass into the box, her mate was busy fending off swallows, which were also diving to gulp the first flying insects of the season.


Another good reason to take up birdwatching: Species throughout the world are in rapid decline, Gill points out. According to a September 2019 article in Science Magazine, the Western Hemisphere has lost more than one in four birds during the past 50 years. Cornell University researchers calculated North America is home to nearly 3 billion fewer birds today compared to 1970. Even traditionally common species such as Baltimore orioles and barn swallows are seeing drastic population decreases.

The causes are many. Some of them include climate change, reduction in habitat due to human activity, skyscrapers, pesticide use and outdoor cats.

Gill and Sblendorio’s research and field studies partly focus on the effects of human-generated noise, which can negatively affect bird migration and breeding.

Ducks and waterfowl are seeing less of a decline because of concerted conservation efforts, even those meant to support hunting, Gill says.

“When we invest in conservation, we make a difference,” says Gill. “There’s an inherent value in nature, and other organisms have a right to be here just like we do.”


For those interested in buying their first set of binoculars for bird watching, Sblendorio suggests a seven or eight magnification.

Bird identification books are also there for the buying, but there are also several websites and mobile applications to use. Sblendorio and Gill suggest visiting “All About Birds” by Cornell University, and the Merlin Bird ID app that’s affiliated with Cornell.

The National Audubon Society is the country’s bird authority. Its site includes compelling stories, news and conservation tips.

Practical bird conservation activities are detailed at 3BillionBirds.org. The site lists ways anyone can help reduce the rate of bird decline, such as modifying windows to be less reflective, growing native plants, keeping cats indoors, drinking coffee that’s cultivation-friendly to birds and reducing plastic use.

Source: Joy Brown, Western Michigan University

Read more articles by Kathy Jennings.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.