Des Plaines River Trail—Wadsworth Road to Kilbourne Road

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We continued our hiking journey along the Des Plaines River Trail this month, starting where we left off last time: Sedge Meadow Forest Preserve in Wadsworth, Illinois. We were lucky to have a sunny, clear day for this “heart of the summer” hike. Surprisingly, we weren’t burdened with heavy humidity, which is typical this time of the year. This section of the trail was busy with cyclists, more so than the far northern section. Everyone we passed held up a hand for a friendly greeting.

Summer’s barrage of full blooms greeted us in open prairie areas the first half-mile or so, beginning with a common evening primrose (above)—a favorite pollination stop for sphinx moths and charismatic ruby-throated hummingbirds that flit through the fields. A camera-shy marsh wren called incessantly, playing hide-and-seek with us in the cattails.

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Pollinated by various bees and butterflies, yellow and purple coneflowers punctuate the trail edges. The sweet, woodsy perfume of milkweed plants drew us in for a closer look, much like this monarch caterpillar (below) was drawn in for lunch. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed, a plant that is toxic to other animals if eaten. The toxins don’t seem to harm the larvae, but are stored in their bodies, which then makes them toxic to other animals if eaten. The larva’s snazzy black, white and yellow striped pattern acts as a warning to these would-be predators: “Stop! I am dangerous to eat!”

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It’s not long before we spy an adult monarch butterfly, whose seemingly mythical long-distance migration to Mexico is known by most school children. The Des Plaines River Trail is merely a pit stop for this butterfly to fuel up on nectar. The adults also rely upon flashy warning coloration for survival. However, scientists are finding that these milkweed toxins break down over time in adult monarch butterflies, leaving the aging adults more susceptible to predation.

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The fields are teeming with insects, and we find another orange and black butterfly that looks suspiciously similar to the monarch. This viceroy butterfly is a monarch mimic, hoping to cash in on the learned avoidance of orange and black butterflies by birds and other predators. One way to tell the monarch and viceroy apart is by watching them fly. Monarchs tend to float haphazardly, while viceroys fly a more a direct route, flapping and gliding intermittently. Hover over the picture below to find out another way to distinguish a viceroy from a monarch.

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We wind on along the trail, through the shade of mature cherry and oak trees, listening to the soundtrack of yellow warblers and cedar waxwings that nest here in Lake County, Illinois. We cross the river, where it is wide and flat, and watch as a team of tree swallows chases a lone rock dove (a.k.a. pigeon) away from the wooden bridge.

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After “Mile 6,” the trail leaves the winding ways of the river and follows along the straight-and-narrow of some train tracks. The wet woods on the west side of the trail are muted as a freight train rumbles past on the east.

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As the trail leaves the tracks behind, the woods sparkle again with sounds of buzzing cicadas, and squawking blue jays, whose fondness for acorns makes this oak woodland a perfect home. As we listened to their conspicuous calls over our heads, we spotted some blue jay feathers along the trail. Surprisingly, the pigments in jay feathers are actually brown. The blue color is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather barbs.

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As we approached the Kilbourne Road crossing, we encountered many snags in the wet woods that would make ideal homes for cavity-nesting woodpeckers, such as the downy that left this polka dotted feather behind.

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We crossed Kilbourne Road and entered the parking area to end our hike for the day. There, we found some friendly bikers with questions about the Des Plaines River Trail. Do you have questions about the Lake County Forest Preserve trails? If so, visit our booth this weekend at the Lake County Fair in Grayslake. We will be highlighting all of our trails with interactive activities and fun prizes.

Be sure to stay tuned for the next installment of our thru-hike of the Des Plaines River Trail.IMG_4852

Notes from our hike:

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Des Plaines River Trail—Mile by Mile

IMG_4343Over the next few months, Allison and I will be highlighting one of the jewels of the Lake County Forest Preserves: the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway. We invite you to come along with us on this 31-mile journey, as we trek over miles and through seasons, exploring the natural niches and history around every bend in the river. We plan to hike the entire length of the trail in anticipation of its long-awaited completion. Preservation of this greenway has been a key priority since our agency’s founding in 1958. After 54 years in the making, construction has begun on the final section of this regional trail and is expected to conclude this fall. The Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway spans nearly the entire length of Lake County, Illinois for 31 miles as it winds through 12 forest preserves. It is a great trail for hiking, bicycling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and snowmobiling (within a designated section). Continue reading

April Fools’ bird

Post by Jen Berlinghof

It was a windy, but bright, April 1 this year. I was on a trail at Ryerson Woods with a group of volunteers. Most of our heads were focused downward, inspecting the minutiae of a bloodroot bloom. Then, someone shouted, “EAGLES!” I truly thought the next thing shouted would be “APRIL FOOLS’!” but when we snapped our heads skyward, we saw two ivory-headed eagles swooping back and forth above the trees. No joke!

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Slippery spring saga

Post by Jen Berlinghof

It was late March, fourteen years ago, when I took my first hike at Ryerson Woods. The air felt heavy with thawing snow. The sun warmed my back for the first time in many months. Standing at the edge of a small, glistening pool of water in this oak flatwood forest, I saw my first blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). About the length of a crayon, this inky black amphibian is adorned with tiny, blue confetti-like spots on a dewy body. Blue-spotted salamanders hide in abandoned mammal burrows or under logs most of their life. Each spring, warming temperatures and increased precipitation lure these creatures out of their covert caverns for a slow and steady march to their breeding ponds.

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Stories in the snow

Post by Jen Berlinghof

As the thermometer dipped to -8 degrees Fahrenheit this week, one thing was clear: the snow and cold are entrenched for a while longer. So are the stories of the animals, as told by the tracks etched in the frozen landscapes that sweep across the Lake County Forest Preserves. We may not see the animals themselves. However, each track, pile of scat, bit of hair clinging to a branch, hole in the snow and chewed acorn is an element of the tale from their winter excursions.

How do we decipher these stories? When trying to identify which animal made a particular track, it is important to look not only at the individual track but the overall pattern. Also, scan the surrounding habitat for clues.

Let’s see if you can figure out what happened in each of these nature vignettes:

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Saving a globally threatened ecosystem

Post by Allison Frederick
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The Chicago Wilderness alliance recently honored the Lake County Forest Preserves in Illinois for achieving the Excellence in Ecological Restoration accreditation.

From vast woodlands to rolling prairies, the Chicago Wilderness Excellence in Ecological Restoration program showcases conservation leadership and site-based restoration by recognizing high-quality natural areas and the organizations that manage them.

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Natural areas are assessed by a set of rigorous, science-based standards that recognize best practices in natural resource management. Conservation experts from across the region review the assessments to determine if a site meets one of the accreditation levels: Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze.

The Lake County Forest Preserves recently received a Platinum accreditation, the highest level possible, for Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve. This accreditation recognizes the expertise, creativity and drive of our natural resource staff in forming and leading a coalition of federal, state and regional partners to restore this site.

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2014 in review

It’s been a great year. Thanks to all for reading! The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared our 2014 annual report. See link below for details.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Favorite photos from 2014

Post by Allison Frederick

The end of another year is drawing near. To celebrate the biological diversity protected within the Lake County Forest Preserves in northeastern Illinois, I’ve put together a collection of some favorite images from 2014. We have such an amazing support system of photographers who donate their time and images to communicate our cause. Their passion for wildlife and the outdoor spaces our organization preserves is evident in each image they share. I hope you enjoy them half as much as I enjoyed choosing this set! Each photograph was taken right here in Lake County, Illinois.

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The slideshow will run on its own, but you can speed it up by clicking on the arrows. To see more amazing images from the forest preserves, or to share photos of your own adventures, join our group Flickr pool.

Thanks for following our blog. Knowing there are others who enjoy the beauty and complexity of our native landscapes is very satisfying. Have a great holiday season!

The real Thanksgiving turkey

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There is a lot of turkey talk in my house lately—from handprint turkey crafts to gobbling impersonations and heated discussions of who gets the wishbone this year. Come November, most of us think of turkeys as the centerpiece of a delicious feast. You might be surprised to learn that this symbol of our American heritage is not only found on platters but also resides in Lake County, Illinois woodlands; and their gobbling is growing!

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Poison ivy primer

Post by Jen Berlinghof

With Halloween fast approaching, much attention is given to animals that are considered “scary.” Foreboding ravens, ominous bats, super-sized spiders and snakes are everywhere. Thankfully, many people know the benefits of these critters. However, it seems there is one thing found in nature, surprisingly flora not fauna, that remains misunderstood and maligned: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The chemical urushiol in the sap of poison ivy can cause an allergic reaction in many people that results in an itchy rash. However, wildlife is not sensitive to the plant in the same way. In fact, poison ivy is an important native plant in Illinois with a host of benefits for our natural areas—from food and shelter for birds, mammals, and insects to erosion control on shorelines.

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