MAKANDA — Carbondale resident Amber Hewette was recently named a recipient of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ 2017 Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award for her service in Giant City State Park.
In 2006, Hewette assisted in the development of the Bluebird Trail program at Giant City, an initiative spearheaded by then-site interpreter Jenny Skufca. The program was intended to bolster the park’s declining populations of eastern bluebirds.
“That was the main focus, to give them someplace to nest, because previously they would be nesting in orchards, but as you probably well know, habitat is being overtaken by development in many places. What was previously an orchard now has maybe 100 homes on it,” Hewette said.
For the past 11 years, Hewette has helped manage the five trails and 60 bluebird boxes. She and several other volunteers visit their assigned nest boxes every seven to 10 days to clean the boxes and take down data on eggs or fledglings in the nests.
“I heard the phrase ‘citizen scientist’ a few years ago. That’s exactly what all of the volunteers are that are monitoring the nest boxes,” Hewette said.
Since the program began, Giant City has fledged 2,718 bluebirds.
The bluebird nesting season, which begins in March, is just about wrapping up; almost all the nest boxes are now empty.
Predators pose a constant threat, Hewette said. Early on, the park installed predator guards to keep raccoons and snakes out of the boxes, but they’re not always effective.
“We’ve had some of the monitors actually open the nest box door, and there’s a snake coiled up in the nest that has just devoured all the eggs,” Hewette said.
Other cavity-nesting birds — chickadees, wrens and tree swallows — tend to use the boxes. Bats, too, frequently take up residence in them. Volunteers don’t disturb those species, but the bluebird’s biggest adversary is perhaps the house sparrow, a non-native species introduced to the area in the mid-19th century. House sparrows will harass and kill adult bluebirds and destroy their eggs. Because they aren’t protected under state or federal law, volunteers can remove their nests from the boxes.
Hewette also serves on the board of the Friends of Giant City. The organization sells merchandise at the Giant City Visitors’ Center; proceeds go to the park’s educational programs.
“I like really everything about the park, but I have to say, one of the biggest things is the people. … Without them, that park would not be what it is,” Hewette said.
Other recipients of the award include nine individuals and two groups: Beverly Mansfield of Lisbon; Gloria and John Robinson of Marshall; David “Bruce” Smith of Broadwell; Marlene and Jim Street of Vandalia; William L. Weedman of Springfield; Wendy and Ken Wilbur of Normal; Izaak Walton League of Geneseo; and Friends of Johnson-Sauk Trail of Kewanee.