Monitoring in the morning

Post by Brett Peto

Good things start at seven in the morning. That’s when our group of four hiked 15 minutes off-trail into the heart of Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The air was warm, the sunshine spread everywhere. Spiderwort blooms were freshly open, a waist-high meadow of bluish-purple fireworks. We found the steel T-post marking the start of the day’s first transect and the red flag for the first plot.

Then we gathered our tools. A one-meter-square collapsible wooden quadrat, retractable tape measure, clipboard, data sheets, and each other’s knowledge of plants.

Well, my own knowledge, not so much. I was there to take photos and observe the three experts onsite: Pati Vitt, Manager of Ecological Restoration; Ken Klick, Restoration Ecologist II; and Pete Jackson, who authored a 2009 study on this preserve’s plant communities that served as his thesis for a master’s degree program. In my head, I called them the Plant Team.

Ken stands in a field of spiderwort. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Middlefork Savanna is home to a significant portion of remnant, or original, oak savanna, a plant community in between prairie and forest. Oak savannas are usually classified by having 10 to 50 percent tree canopy cover plus continuous plant cover on the ground. They’re also generally more biodiverse than prairies and woodlands. Different levels of light availability are crucial to maintaining this.

The definition is made a bit slippery by the fact that so little remnant oak savanna is left to study today. It’s thought that just 0.02 percent of what existed before European settlers arrived in the Midwest is still with us. Most of the oak savanna that remains is badly degraded due to human activity such as fire suppression, fragmentation, agriculture, animal grazing, and timber harvesting.

To restore these areas effectively, we need to better understand the few high-quality oak savannas left. Middlefork is one, serving as a regionally important reference site. But to be a reference site, we need to understand its plant populations.

Remnant oak savanna is now one of the rarest ecosystems in the Midwest. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Our Permanent Transect Vegetation Monitoring program can help. It tracks what plants are growing where so we can better protect native species. Transects are straight, fixed paths through a natural area, capturing various species within them. Permanent start and end points are marked with steel posts and GPS coordinates.

Every 10 meters along a transect, the vegetation monitor lays down a quadrat—that one-meter-square wooden tool mentioned earlier—to serve as the boundary of a plot. Then they identify and record the plants inside.

Our aim that day was to monitor four transects at Middlefork that Pete had last visited in 2005, and before him, Marlin Bowles, Plant Conservation Biologist at The Morton Arboretum, in 1996. The new data will provide insight on any significant changes in vegetation that have occurred over the past 14 years, for example, an increase in invasive species such as European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) or reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea).

This allows our Natural Resources Department to gauge the effectiveness of our land management efforts over time. It’s a double-check on our strategies to preserve and improve native plant populations across Lake County, including controlled burns, native seeding, invasive plant control, deer population management, and hydrologic restoration.

The Plant Team on the move to the next plot, ten meters away. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Ken and Pati mark a plot with the quadrat. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Vegetation monitoring is a group effort full of friendly debate and discussion. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Data collection that day was teamwork in the flesh. The process began with what are called cover classes. Each member of the Plant Team estimated the relative abundance of forbs, graminoids, and woody plants in a plot out of 100 percent. Woody plants, of course, produce wood as their structural tissue instead of green stems. A forb is an herbaceous, flowering plant without grass-like features; a graminoid is an herbaceous plant with grass-like features.

The percentages correspond with the alphabet: “A” for <15%, “B” for 15–30%, “C” for 31–50 %, all the way to “F” for >90%. On the count of three, Ken, Pati, and Pete would announce their estimate for each type. 18% for forbs—it’s “B,” then. 45% for graminoids—write down “C.” If numbers were pretty different, they reconsidered, discussed. Taking turns, the botanists recorded it all on specially designed data sheets atop a fluorescent orange clipboard.

Ken's cheat sheet for cover classes. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Once the general cover classes were settled, identification of individual species was next. They were assigned their own cover class letters, too. Recitation of common names and scientific names filled the air beneath the tree canopy.

Prairie dock, mountain mint, New England aster, sawtooth sunflower, enchanter’s nightshade.

Silphium terebinthinaceum, Pycnanthemum virginianum, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, Helianthus grosseseratus, Circaea lutetiana canadensis.

A, B, C, B, EI’m glad my audio recorder was running.

Soon, the first plot was analyzed. One down, 49 to go.

Ken picked up the quadrat. Pete unwound the tape measure. We moved forward 10 meters, following the transect. Ken set the quadrat down and Pati readied the data sheet. The process started again: general to specific, high to low. Many names were familiar, but there were newcomers, too.

Tall coreopsis, fowl manna grass, marsh fleabane.

Coreopsis tripterisGlyceria striataErigeron philadelphicus.

Pati and Ken admire a plant. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

A few specimens had an identity crisis. If group discussion didn’t crack it, then it was time to use an identification key, or in verb form, key it out. Identification keys usually look like complex flowcharts. You start literally at square one, answering questions about a plant’s characteristics, narrowing the possibilities until you arrive at the true species.

In a pause between plots, Ken held up a small brown-black insect on the tip of his finger. “Here’s my namesake. It’s a click beetle!” he said.

“Put him on your shoulder,” said Pete, laughing.

Laughing too, Ken let it dart away.

Another pleasant discovery was purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens). Its bright purple-pink flowers glowed, nature’s neon. Like all milkweeds, purple milkweed is food for monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus). It’s also a nectar source for long-tongued bees, ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris), and other butterflies, including fritillaries and swallowtails. The plant is hard to miss.

The flowers of purple milkweed stand out in the sunshine. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

One easy-to-miss plant was bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), which only grows up to a foot tall. Hemiparasitic, it pulls nutrients from other plants by latching its roots onto theirs. This limits the height of its neighbors, opening up sunlight. Bastard toadflax also produces dry, mealy fruits.

Perhaps the most interesting part to me was its name. How did this little plant get so memorable a moniker?

Toadflax is a common name for several plants in the Santalaceae family. Somewhere at some point, a botanist decided Comandra umbellata looked like a toadflax, but actually wasn’t one. So they attached bastard to the front, signifying false in this context.

The scientific name is a bit more descriptive. Comandra means “male hairs”—the plant has small hairs at the base of its stamens. Umbellata refers to its clusters of white flowers that resemble the shape of an umbrella.

The best common name of the day: bastard toadflax (pictured center). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about layers of awareness. That’s my most concise name for the idea so far. It comes from reading On Trails by Robert Moor, an examination of how and why living organisms create, expand, and maintain trails, from humans to ants to elephants.

They didn’t concern many plants, but Moor’s experiences have me pondering how much of daily reality I’m truly aware of, or unaware of. I’m not talking about the movement of the planets or a conversation thousands of miles away. Rather, it’s the things I see, hear, smell, touch, travel through and around and about that I just don’t register consciously.

Consider this: each spring and summer day, we breathe in more than a million pollen grains from dozens to hundreds of plant species. Our bodies answer them—or don’t—with watery eyes, sneezing, and other allergic symptoms. And yet, I don’t know what my cells know. I can’t tell you which individual plant produced any particular grain of pollen.

Just the same, you can pass by thousands of plants and only notice a handful. Oh, that looks like a geranium over there. The butterfly weed is looking good this year.

The tape measure stretches across a sedge meadow. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Vegetation monitoring fills in the gap. It pays deep attention, tracking changes in the presence, abundance, and coverage of plants over time in a systematic way. It samples species we already know of in a preserve and captures those we don’t. This information gives us reference points for what high-quality and degraded plant communities look like. It also points toward what land management techniques work best for those communities.

This all seems so obvious. Maybe it is.

But along with the program’s practicality comes inspiration. Vegetation monitoring adds more layers of awareness to the plant pile. Watching it is seeing humans trying to understand nature better in order to help it better. That’s something I’ll always be interested in.

The Plant Team heads back to the trail. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

It’s certainly worth part of a midsummer morning. The Plant Team sampled 12 plots in four hours. (Only 38 to go.) We all wanted to stay out longer, I think. But as they tend to do, other obligations pushed in from their time slots later in the day.

Cleanup was easy. Pati, Ken, and Pete rewound the tape measure, secured the data sheets inside the clipboard, collapsed the quadrat, made sure nothing was left behind.

We hiked back to the trail, then the parking lot. I swapped my soaked-to-the-socks, muddy boots for dry shoes—always satisfying.

And, before we said farewell, the Plant Team undertook perhaps the most hopeful act of the day: planning the next time they could gather and monitor again.


Read more about our Permanent Transect Vegetation Monitoring program in the Spring 2018 issue of Horizons.

A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

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The wonder of wood ducks

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Spring is the starting block for wildlife in the race to find suitable mates and nesting sites. With the increased flurry in wildlife activity, staff at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois also get an increased flurry of phone calls with questions from the public. One recent call came from a gentleman in disbelief upon seeing ducks perched in his trees. He was utterly transfixed by the phenomenon. The call brought back a flash of memory for me of the first time I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa) as a child, on my maternal grandfather’s property in northern Illinois. Grandpa “Duck,” as we affectionately called him, was an avid outdoorsman. He spent a few moments that spring day pointing out the distinct, vibrantly hued male and the more muted female near a nest hole in an old maple tree. The pair then took off into the woods to the soundtrack of their high-pitched whistling calls.

Male wood ducks are easily identifiable by their glossy green head, chestnut breast, and other vibrant colors. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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A walk through winter

Post by Brett Peto

I started my position with the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in 2017. By the end of 2018, I had visited 45 of our 65 locations. Each time I returned from a new spot, I circled it on a map at my desk. Their names were just as diverse as the habitats within. Old School, Lakewood, Middlefork Savanna, Singing Hills, Cuba Marsh. Oak woodlands and savannas, prairies, sedge meadows, marshes, wetlands.

In mid-January, it felt like a good time to circle another name: Heron Creek in Lake Zurich, Illinois. It surprised me that I’d never walked its trails. A 242-acre preserve home to rolling woodlands, fields, the Indian Creek basin, and more than 116 species of birds, Heron Creek is closer to our General Offices than several sites I had been to. It was even roughly on my route to and from work. So toward the end of January, I took myself, some winter weather gear, and a few cameras there to explore.

A snow-swept field at Heron Creek on January 22, 2019. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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Time to make a moment

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

Time can never be stopped, sped up, or slowed down. It started long before now and will continue far after. But with photographs, we can pause time, pin it in front of us, and study reality. It’s like kneeling at a riverbank and scooping a handful of water. The current stops in your palm, but just a foot beneath it carries on. Photos take time to make a moment.

With nearly 31,000 acres to explore, many moments are possible in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. An eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) landing with one foot, wings at sharp angles. A cluster of milkweed seeds hanging on to their pod by threads of floss. Sunflowers and sunbeams, two shades of honey mixing in the air. I’ve collected these special moments and more in a gallery below.

All photos featured were taken by the truly skillful photographers in our group Flickr pool. Each of these images, these presses of the pause button and scoops out of the river, were captured in 2018. Our sincere thanks go to every photographer who shares their time and talent documenting the flora, fauna, and natural areas of Lake County.

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Leopards and tigers and bears!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Around the first frost is the best time for spotting bears in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois…woolly bears, that is! These fuzzy caterpillars succumb to a late fall wanderlust and can often be found traversing trails and roads, as well as climbing vegetation and nibbling a last few bites before winter sets in. They belong to the subfamily Arctiinae, commonly known as tiger moths. Their scientific name stems from the ancient Greek word arktos (“bear”), for the appearance of their hairy larvae.

A woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) found along the Des Plaines River Trail. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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A new fall fashion

Post by Brett Peto

Fall is my favorite season. I know it’s here on the first day I walk outside into the sort of air so crisp it makes your nose run instantly, somehow in a good way. Sunset shifts sooner. You opt for a sweater instead of a t-shirt and everything pumpkin-flavored becomes tastier than you remember. Best of all, the crowns of oaks, hickories, maples, and more across the Lake County Forest Preserves in Illinois change into their vibrant fall fashions.

Looking skyward at the crowns of color in Ryerson Conservation Area (Riverwoods). Photo © Emma England.

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