Des Plaines River Trail—Kilbourne Road to Independence Grove


Our adventure to traverse the entire length of the Des Plaines River Trail continued with our trek from Kilbourne Road to Independence Grove Forest Preserve under the shining sun and heavy air of late summer. The air was heavy not only with humidity, but with the calls of cicadas, tree crickets, and katydids melding into a three-part harmony that signaled the end of summer. The air was also pregnant with the perfume of flowering plants. It was clear that this hike belonged to the bugs and blooms.


Only a few steps into our hike, we spied the architectural mastery of the bald-faced hornet high in a tree. These nests are constructed with paper-like material made from chewed wood fibers mixed with the hornets’ saliva. Bald-faced hornets build the inner nest with layers of paper cells that look like a honeybee’s comb. Those layers are then encased with a thick, layered outer shell. An opening at the bottom of the nest allows hornets to come and go easily. While a nest like this can house about 500 hornets during the spring and summer, it is abandoned come fall and is often destroyed by birds searching for food.


Shortly down the trail we came across a relative of the bald-faced hornet: a bumblebee, diving head first into a jewelweed bloom. We joked that it looked like she was likely to get stuck in there all day. Both hornet and bee are important pollinators. They have to keep moving, though, so that they don’t become someone else’s lunch while gorging at the wildflower buffet.


We almost overlooked this ambush bug, hiding on a flowering wild cucumber vine. It was poised to pounce on the unsuspecting pollinators and squeeze them with his “Popeye” biceps. After a successful capture, ambush bugs jab their prey with a sucking mouthpart and inject an enzyme that digests the body contents of the prey.


As it turns out, it’s not just bees that dip into the nectar reserves of lavender-hued wild bergamont  (a.k.a bee balm). This eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly’s long proboscis is a perfect fit for the slim, tubular flowers of this plant. While insects love it, mammals tend to avoid this plant due to its strong oregano-mint aroma.IMG_786211895246_10153550791992173_2329148809482208802_omilkweed bug larvae on milkweed

Mammalian herbivores also avoid common milkweed, which are no longer in bloom by the end of the summer but still draw an arthropod crowd. We witnessed all sorts of milkweed critters–from milkweed beetles to milkweed bugs to monarch butterfly caterpillars–using the sturdy plant’s large leaves and conspicuous seed pods as home and pantry.


And it’s not just the nectar-eaters getting in on the action. Mosquito-nabbing ruby- and sapphire-colored dragonflies and damselflies hovered around the flowers like tiny, bejeweled helicopters.


The vibrant red of the meadowhawk dragonfly was echoed in the blooming cardinal flowers along the sluggish river of late summer, as well as in the first crimson leaves we saw, signaling autumn is right around the corner. Fall is a perfect time to get out onto the Des Plaines River Trail or find a new favorite trail through our annual Hike Lake County challenge. We hope to see you out there!


Notes from our hike:


Des Plaines River Trail—Wadsworth Road to Kilbourne Road


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. Continue reading

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:

mouse tracks

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Saving a globally threatened ecosystem

Post by Allison Frederick

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.


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 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!

eastern wild turkey

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