Des Plaines River Trail—Route 60 to Route 22

As the hours of daylight drastically shorten in November, the miles of our hike along the entire Des Plaines River Trail quickly stack up. The trek south along this stretch of the trail from Route 60 to Route 22 was summed up in the stillness of bare branches that were silhouetted against the sky and reflected back from mirrors of water in the surrounding floodplain forest.

The sepia tones of the season were punctuated every once in a while by burgundy sumac drupes—the burnt, exhausted color of late fall on its way out. These fruits make a fine meal for winter resident birds, including the red-bellied woodpeckers we watched as they hitched themselves up and down the crackled bark of old oak trees.

The goldenrod galls we saw along the trail during the summer had tarnished and dried, yet they still hold a live larva inside. These larvae are often discovered by downy woodpeckers, looking for an early winter treat. It looked like one woodpecker hit the larva jackpot, creating a cone-shaped opening big enough to accommodate its bill. Once it breaks through the hard stem casing, a downy will plunge its long, barbed tongue down the passageway to pull out the juicy, calorie-rich morsel living inside the gall.

As we pressed farther along the trail, we came across a large group of waterfowl feeding. There were mostly mallards and Canada geese, but we did spot a lone red-breasted merganser in the mix. The mallards and geese will stick around Lake County during the winter. However, the merganser was simply passing through, migrating from breeding grounds in northern Wisconsin and Canada to its winter home along the Gulf Coast. For many migratory species, long stretches of high quality “pit stops,” such as the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway, are paramount to successful migration.

Three low-head dams within the Des Plaines River in Lake County have caused a decline in habitat quality by deterring the natural movement of fish, altering normal river flow and impacting the surrounding floodplain. The dams’ low profiles are also a potential hazard to paddlers.

The dam at the Ryerson Conservation Area was removed in 2011 and replaced with a small riffle feature. Fish surveys show that current-loving species have recolonized the river above the former dam, which was shallow and slow-moving before removal. The dams at Captain Daniel Wright Woods (seen in the photo above) and MacArthur Woods will also be removed to restore a free-flowing river throughout Lake County. This will most certainly attract more migratory, fish-loving waterfowl like the merganser to this oasis.

After crossing the bridge into Half Day Forest Preserve, we came upon an open area with a few ponds and discovered that a meadow vole had been hard at work in preparation for winter. This small rodent seemed to have stripped seeds of the cattail plant (near my hand in the picture above), creating a carpeted “welcome mat” of sorts to its tunnel entrance. Voles stay active all winter long, scurrying under the snow in grassy tunnels.

We stopped multiple times along the trail to inspect small trees that had been recently scraped and shredded—a sure sign that white-tailed deer mating season, also called “rut,” was underway. A buck uses its antlers to strip bark off small trees, creating a “rub.” Rubbing sheds the velvet from a buck’s antlers, strengthens his neck muscles, and leaves a scent that is used for communication.

During their mating season in November, white-tailed deer are very active and sightings of these large mammals increase. Right before we ended our hike for the day, we were treated to a view of a one-antlered buck, crossing the trail right in front of us. Males shed their antlers each year after a drop in hormone levels, and this fella was already halfway there. As we wound southeast, staying on the Des Plaines River Trail, the buck headed south along his own well-worn path.

We crossed Route 22 near the Lincolnshire Police Department to finish our hike for the day, just as rain was starting to fall. We are now within reach of the trail’s end at the county line. We invite you to discover with us how the final stretch will look under the cover of January weather later this winter. Stay tuned!

Notes from our hike:


Des Plaines River Trail—Independence Grove to Route 60 Canoe Launch


As our hike continued south along the Des Plaines River Trail, we began to see, feel and hear the palpable signs of the seasons shifting from summer to autumn. We were not the only ones heading south along this greenway. Small flocks of Swainson’s thrushes and yellow-rumped warblers created a ruckus of fluttering feathers in search of sustenance. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.