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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In the picture above, the tracks begin at the base of a tree and consist of two small impressions, side by side, with a line imprinted in between. The individual tracks are tiny compared to the tree and are difficult to see, but notice the other clues: the size, the hopping pattern (hind legs land ahead of the front legs), the tail dragging in the snow. Add it all together, and these tracks are unmistakably those of a mouse. The white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) is a good climber known to repair old bird nests in woodlands, creating a cozy winter home. Perhaps this nocturnal rodent scurried down from its arboreal home for a midnight snack.

hawk printThe photo above illustrates an ambush from above. Voles make tunnels beneath the snow in open areas. They have a similar gallop pattern to mice, but since voles have a short tail there is no impression of it in the snow. A meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), seems to have hopped out of its subnivean tunnel near a hungry red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Perhaps this hawk was scanning the open fields from the top of nearby tree when it spotted movement a half-mile away and then attacked in its signature style: a controlled dive with legs outstretched.

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Was this a human doing handstands and broke a small tree? Likely not. A beaver’s webbed hind feet and leave a very recognizable track as it lumbers back and forth near water, creating a distinctive waddling pattern. American beavers (Castor canadensis) spend most of the winter holed up in a lodge, feasting on cached food and living off fat stored in their paddle-shaped tails and elsewhere on their bodies. The lodges stay relatively warm in the winter. In one Canadian study scientists found that when outdoor temperatures plummeted to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, the average minimum temperature inside the lodge was 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps a late-winter thaw (that we will hopefully have soon) tempted this beaver to clamber out of its lodge in search of fresh food.

IMG_5958 Coyote Track Pattern

Coyote (Canis latrans) often hunt open areas in pairs or small groups, using trails of smaller animals to conserve energy and avoid deep, heavy snow. Their prints have four toe impressions with nail marks punctuating the top of each toe. Coyotes are considered “perfect steppers.” The hind foot registers on the track made by the front foot, creating a straight line of single prints. Sometimes the hind foot lands behind or to the side of the front track, varying in the pattern. Perhaps this is a small group of coyotes hunting together or multiple coyotes using the same path at different times to a den?

08 mink slide in  snowThe mink (Mustela vison) is a long, slender weasel that spends the majority of its life within 100 feet of water. In the winter, this nocturnal carnivore hunts through holes in the ice to capture slow-moving prey, such as fish and crayfish. It bounds through the snow, leaving five-toed tracks in evenly spaced bunches or pairs. Sometimes minks push forward, creating a slide and then diving under snow to dig into the mud in search of hibernating critters. Perhaps it found a tasty morsel under this snow drift and may have scared a vole back into its tunnel in the process.

These are just a few of the snowy stories that Lake County Forest Preserve Educators and volunteers have uncovered. As the sun sets, take advantage of extended hours offered along solar-lit trails at Old School and Lakewood Forest Preserves.

Here’s a starter guide for your adventures: LCFPD Track Identification and Walking Gaits.

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!

eastern wild turkey

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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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Acorn abodes

Post by Jen B

My family went on a bike ride last weekend at Ray Lake Forest Preserve. All afternoon, rain sputtered on and off as the clouds played tag with the sun. After climbing up a steep hill, the sky darkened again and we sought refuge under a canopy of large oak trees. One of my sons yelped,”Ouch! That raindrop hurt!” We quickly realized it wasn’t a raindrop, but a storm of acorns jiggled loose by the wind, plopping down on us. The trail became littered with acorns, and the kids began grabbing them. Upon inspection, the boys noticed tiny round holes in many of the acorns—evidence that these nuts were homes to acorn weevils (Curculio spp).

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Final songs of summer

Post by Jen B

As summer winds down, a telltale hum that signals the changing seasons begins to ramp up in the fields and forests. These trills and chirps are the mating calls of tree crickets (Oecanthinae)—a group of fascinating insects that are often heard but seldom known or seen. Their small size and mint green color helps camouflage them amidst the verdant grasses, shrubs and trees of late summer.

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Ghost of the prairie

Post by Jen B

Many years ago, while hiking through a prairie at dusk, I saw a stalk of delicate white flowers. They seemed to rise and hover above the surrounding plants like a group of little dancing ghosts. This was the first and last time I ever saw an eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). Due to its dwindling numbers and hidden habitats, this rare plant has reached almost mythical status—a holy grail of sorts in the Midwest. We’re thrilled that this endangered native orchid seems to be gaining a foothold in the Lake County Forest Preserves, which are home to some of the largest remaining populations. Just this month, one of our restoration ecologists discovered an orchid in bloom (photo below). It was found at one of the preserves known to provide habitat for this species but is the first documentation of a population at the site.

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A beautiful invasion

Post by Kelsey Roehrich

I am a student at Iowa State University, and traditions are an important part of school life. One long-standing tradition centers around two swans, Lancelot and Elaine, which float on a small campus lake. Legend has it, walk around the lake three times with your significant other and you will be together forever, since it is said that swan pairs mate for life.

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