A Tale of Two Turtles: Building New Habitat and a Sand Play Area at The Preserve

June 22, 2022

There is much to enjoy and explore in the Park District of Highland Park’s newest open space: The Preserve of Highland Park.  One of its most notable features is located off-the-beaten paths. The Turtle Meadow was created as a landward retreat for some important semi-aquatic creatures who live on the property. Jokes Rebecca Grill, the Park District’s natural areas manager, “If we build it, will turtles come?”

Three species of turtles have so far been identified on the property. Painted turtles have been seen sitting atop logs in the north pond with box turtles on the nearby shoreline. Large snapping turtles have been spotted making their stately way along the river side path.

These sightings inspired community members and staff during the planning process for The Preserve that began in 2019. “We wanted to honor the environment by creating specialized habitat for this new park and its creatures,” Grill said. Turning former sand bunkers into turtle nesting habitat was one creative way to accomplish this.

When we talk about Illinois, we don’t generally talk about turtles, but there are 17 species of these ancient creatures living in the state. Grill says that six are on the endangered species list due to habitat loss. “We’re just trying to do our part in the effort to protect the turtles. We knew these creatures existed here; how could we help them?”

Research into creating an ideal nesting habitat for the turtles found that turtles need sandy soil in an unshaded, wide-open area. “Fortuitously, we have 48 sand bunkers on the property from its previous incarnation as a golf course,” notes Grill. “We re-purposed some of them to create the habitat.”

The Turtle Meadow was placed at the Preserve’s north end, designated as a more quiet and protected area. A turtle-themed Sand Play Area was installed closer to The Preserve’s entrance off Park Avenue to engage children with two turtle shell-shaped climbing mounds and a sand area where children can dig for turtle fossils.

Instrumental in bringing Turtle Meadow to fruition, Grill says, was Shayna Zavell, a junior at Highland Park High School, whose family has been avid supporters of the Park District. “My family has been volunteering for the Park District for as long as I can remember,” Zavell says. “Both my brothers were Eagle Scouts, so they did projects with Rebecca. I reached out to her to ask if there were any projects I could contribute to because I am interested in conservation. So, she told me about the turtle project.”

Zavell undertook research into what the turtles would need in their newly created habitat. She also helped with the informational signage at Turtle Meadow and the Sand Play Area and measures—encircling the areas where the turtles lay eggs with mesh—to help protect turtle eggs from predators, including raccoons and coyotes. “The goal is to increase turtle populations,” she says.

Zavell hopes The Turtle Meadow and the Sand Play Area will raise community awareness. “I don’t think most people know there are even turtles in Highland Park,” she said. “It’s important we help these fascinating species.”

For more information or to volunteer to help monitor the turtles, email Rebecca Grill at [email protected] or call the Park District at (847) 831-3810.

The Preserve of Highland Park is located at 1207 Park Ave West.  Conversion of the site from its historical use as a golf course began in November 2020 and officially opened to the public in June 2022.   Today, The Preserve of Highland Park celebrates nature and our place in it. The unique 100+ acre property was designed to take advantage of the interesting golf-related topography and includes green lawns, nature-based play areas, specialized native gardens, restored woodlands, and walking and biking trails that connect neighborhoods and downtown Highland Park, and regional biking trails. Visitors can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, and experiences of nature and outdoor play.