ALTAMONT – Ernie Ballard’s dream has reached fruition.

Ballard, an Altamont businessman, wanted to create an environment in which children would be exposed to all facets of nature. He dedicated about 200 acres of his own land to creating that natural wonderland.

The transformation of the property began in 1997, about three years later the Ballard Nature Center was born.

“He was very, very adamant that he wanted young people to be able to get outside,” said Vanessa Doedtman, an educator at the center. “He was very concerned young kids wouldn’t have outside space. He was really excited to see all the young kids come out.

“He was into forestry. He loved to get out into the woods. We have a beautiful woodland area. He did a lot of the upgrades on it.”

The 217-acre tract contains 6.25 miles of trails. The wide, well-maintained gravel or wood chip paths take visitors through wetland areas, dense woods and savannah restorations.

It is a wildlife paradise. Visitors last week were treated to the sight of a massive snapping turtle sharing a log with a hooded merganser drake. Walkers on the Wetland Prairie Trail were accosted by tree swallows protecting their nests and serenaded by common yellowthroats singing in the prairie grass.

The Woodland Trail yielded close-up views of summer tanagers, peewees and hermit thrush. And bluebirds, various woodpeckers and indigo buntings seemed to be everywhere.

“We’ve got a beautiful big tall prairie with several vernal pools along our trails,” Doedtman said. “They’re only a foot or two deep. They only show up in the spring, but it’s a nice place for a lot of frogs to hatch out.”

But, that is just scratching the surface of the Ballard Nature Center’s offerings.

The Visitor Center offers mounted waterfowl of nearly every description, a collection of owls and a hands-on display of pelts for children of all age to feel.

Then, there is the birding window.

The window opens to an enclosed garden that has every type of feature imaginable. There were sparrows of various stripes, Baltimore orioles, mourning doves, rose-breasted grosbeak, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatch, cardinals and more.

Earlier this spring The Ballard Nature Center became the focus of the Midwestern birding world when a Lewis woodpecker and a western tanager visited. The Lewis woodpecker is native to the northwestern United States.

“The Lewis woodpecker was definitely the rarest we’ve ever seen,” Doedtman said. “This time of year we’re getting a lot of migratory birds through. The Lewis woodpecker was really neat. He stayed about five days. He came right up to our feeders.”

The center also contains picnic areas and a fishing pond. Signs posted near the pond clearly state the intended purpose, “Adults Must Be Accompanied By Children.”

The Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1-4 p.m. on Sunday. There is no admission fee. The grounds are open from dawn to dusk.

“It’s free for people to walk the trails and check out the museum,” Doedtman said. “We do charge for the summer camps we are having.”

The center provides educators for programs for adults, as well as children. Pavilions on site can be reserved for picnics or group activities.

The Ballard Nature Center is a 501 (C) 3 organization. It operates solely on grants, gifts and donations. It is located just outside Altamont on Route 40.

For more information, call (618) 483-6856.

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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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