Post by Jen Berlinghof
It was a bone-chilling winter’s day at Captain Daniel Wright Woods in Mettawa—part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois—when a group of five gathered to monitor for the future. Our crew consisted of Restoration Ecologists Ken Klick and Dan Sandacz, Environmental Educator Eileen Davis, Environmental Communications Specialist Brett Peto and myself.
It’s all hands on deck for an ambitious new tree monitoring program with the lofty goal of sampling every woodland, upland forest and flatwoods habitat within the Forest Preserves every 10–15 years. Ken and Dan are spearheading this project.
In the field, the pair are like bookends. Ken has served 25 years at the agency, while Dan is fresh to the Forest Preserves, starting his tenure this past fall. The two have opted to take a collaborative approach, inviting volunteers from our Natural Resources and Education Departments to help with this significant undertaking.
Trudging through mud and muck, snow and ice, Dan led us into the woods from the parking lot, carrying a yellow-and-orange piece of equipment called the Bad Elf that reminded me of Gandalf’s staff from The Lord of the Rings. The Bad Elf is used to calibrate GPS coordinates. We carried other gear to help take stock of trees and shrubs, too: measuring tapes, metal posts, iPads, styluses.
Our boots gently kicked up spores from giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) mushrooms as we slipped past a babbling, half-thawed stream. When we arrived at the correct area, we quickly split into two teams and got to work on the day’s sample plots. Each circular plot has a 17.8-meter radius, randomly selected through mapping software. We used the Bad Elf to locate the center of each plot and pounded a metal post into the ground to mark it.
Then we followed two monitoring protocols: tree canopy monitoring and shrub monitoring. For the former, we identified and measured every tree that had a diameter at breast height (DBH) larger than 10 cm within the 17.8-meter radius. We also took notes on each tree’s health. For shrub monitoring, we counted the number and size of species and stems found within a smaller, 5-meter radius. In practice, both protocols involved Ken and Dan carrying a meter tape and walking in a slow circle, measuring plants and calling out stats, which Eileen and I recorded data on iPads into our in-house database.
While we recorded data, other bits of knowledge passed back and forth among the group. We discovered together that a tree snag—a standing dead or dying tree that provides wildlife habitat—was a shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) formerly home to pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus). We pondered the curly tufts of dried poverty oat grass (Danthonia spicata) that, according to Ken, seems to only grow at the bases of certain trees. We worked through the challenges of identifying tree species without their leaves, focusing on the bark, twigs and buds, and using our knowledge of the habitat. This sharing of wisdom across departments strengthens the Forest Preserves as a whole.
Trees are the old souls of the forest. They don’t respond as quickly to natural resource management practices as animals or herbaceous plants do. This monitoring effort is designed to create a baseline, long-term dataset of the tree canopies in woodland habitats throughout Lake County. With the data collected, we’ll be able to evaluate how our management efforts—such as prescribed burns and removal of European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)—affect woodlands over long periods of time.
We’ll also use this information to describe the tree canopies at different preserves, focusing on forest health, age and canopy structure. The results can help us estimate important metrics of woodland quality and ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration.
As we finished up our nine plots for the day, we looked up from our focused view to contemplate the expansive sight of towering oaks (Quercus spp.) and hickories (Carya spp.). We walked under leafy squirrel dreys tucked high in the craggy branches. We passed a papery praying mantis (Mantidae family) egg case attached to a vermilion stem of red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). And we followed the Bad Elf out of the woods, our arms a little less heavy with equipment, but our database loaded with new information.
It’s satisfying to know these efforts are laying the groundwork toward a goal of the Forest Preserves: understanding Lake County’s tree populations today so we can better protect them for tomorrow. Learn more about our natural resource management strategies.