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.

IMG_0887Blue-spotted salamanders are one of the earliest amphibians to breed in Lake County, Illinois. They mate “explosively” during the first three days of thaw, emerging en masse each evening at vernal pools, which are temporary woodland ponds created by snow melt, rain and rising water tables. Here the inhabitants are in a race against time. As soggy spring gives way to arid summer, these temporary reservoirs dry up. As treacherous as this ticking timeline may sound, its transient nature provides some advantage for defenseless creatures at the low-end of the food chain. Because these pools dry up each year, there’s no way for predators such as fish or bullfrogs to make their homes there.

photo 1At two to three years of age, this species of salamander returns to the same vernal ponds they swam in as larvae to begin their own breeding ritual as adults. Male salamanders attract females with the fancy footwork of a courtship two-step. If the dance is successful the male rubs his chin on the female’s head, transmitting pheromones between their slippery skin like a whispered love song. Following this cheek-to-cheek dance the male deposits a spermatophore (a mass containing sperm) near the female. She collects the sperm packet using her cloaca (an opening used for breeding, egg-laying and waste). Her eggs are fertilized internally, as the male saunters off to his subterranean woodland home.

bluespottedeggsEach female lays 300-400 eggs in small clusters attached to twigs or leaves in the pond. The eggs develop for two to three weeks before bushy-gilled, long-tailed larvae hatch—complete with well-developed mouths. These quarter-inch eating machines spend about 100 days swimming laps on a carnivorous feeding frenzy, gulping down any moving critter they can fit in their mouths. By June or July they have grown legs and developed lungs during metamorphosis. They climb out of the water and begin the terrestrial part of their life.

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Adult salamanders continue the carnivorous lifestyle established as larva, feeding on their roommates in rotting logs, such as worms, slugs, beetles and centipedes. Salamanders even eat their own slimy shed skins! While nutrition is not the primary function of a salamander’s skin, it might be surprising to learn that breathing actually is. In addition to small lungs, salamander skin also acts as a breathing organ, which must stay moist to aid in the exchange of gases. The oozy mucus that keeps their bodies slimy is secreted by skin glands. This slime not only allows the animals to breathe, but it also keeps them safe from predators, such as raccoons and skunks. Special glands in the tail excrete a milky, noxious liquid when the salamander is threatened. When approached by a predator, a blue-spotted salamander holds its body still and wiggles its tail back and forth, luring the predator to strike its tail. Often, the predator ends up with a bit of tail and a mouthful of sticky slime, while the salamander slinks away to safety. Over time, the tail will regenerate as the salamander carries on its life.

This year at the Lake County Forest Preserves we are exploring the unexpected ways in which “Soil Sustains Life.” A variety of programs and events focus on the sustainability of healthy soils from the preserves to your own backyard. We’ll highlight the amazing abundance of life that soil supports and how the unique soil and landscapes of Lake County formed. Certainly, blue-spotted salamanders depend on healthy soils not only for food, but for habitat as well. Come join us to learn more!

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
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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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