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.

From the easternmost parking lot near Shelter A, I traveled the trails in Heron Creek’s southern half, following a 1.1-mile loop that climbed and descended the landscape more than I expected. Apart from exchanging good mornings with a visitor walking her dog, I didn’t see another soul for the next few hours. Just the land, my equipment, and myself.

The title of a navigational sign painted over with ice. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.The author's coat sleeve encrusted with freezing rain. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

There was a kind of quiet I’ve only noticed during or after a heavy snowfall. The sounds of traffic were nearly erased by the snow and my increasing distance from the road.

In a small thought, I realized much of what I think of as the noise of civilization and development is really the noise of traffic. People wear earplugs and install thick windows against it. With it mostly removed, though, whatever broke the silence seemed more purposeful.

Two mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) quacking, flapping above the tree canopy. The slow flow of Indian Creek’s not-yet-frozen bends. My steps punching through the crunchy surface of the snow. And something I’d never heard before, or at least not that I could recall: freezing rain falling on a pin oak (Quercus palustris) whose leaves were largely still intact. Its neighbors had lost theirs months ago. The falling rain sounded as if a gust of wind were blowing within the branches of just this one tree, never leaving the crown, redirecting back inward at its edges.

Like maples, hickories, and cottonwoods, most species of oak are deciduous. However, some individual oaks hold their leaves through the winter. This is called marcescence. Along with several oak species, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) frequently display marcescence.

It’s caused by incomplete development of the abscission zone, a region of specialized cells that forms at the base of the petiole, or stalk, of leaves. With shorter days in autumn, a number of chemical changes occur within the abscission zone. Two distinct layers of cells form, eventually separating the petiole from the branch and letting the leaf fall. In marcescent trees, this process is usually delayed until early spring, when expanding buds push last year’s leaves to the ground. During winter, snow or wind can rip certain leaves off, but they hadn’t done so to this particular oak.

Freezing rain falls on the leaves of a pin oak (Quercus palustris). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Despite the solitude, I noticed evidence of others having been there before me. Boot prints and cross-country skiing tracks marked each path in zigzag patterns. Small holes peppered the trunk of a standing dead tree, likely the handiwork of woodpeckers foraging for wood-boring insects. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks cut across the trail west-to-east, a pile of scat midway through the visible hoof prints.

Holes drilled by woodpeckers in search of insects to eat. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Evidence of a white-tailed deer trail crossing. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.You have to work a little more to spot wildlife in the winter. Many animals are harder to see due to lower activity levels and protective coloration. I experienced this when I spotted a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) from about 100 yards away. It was standing perfectly still on the frozen surface of Indian Creek, so still that I couldn’t determine what I was seeing at first. The bird’s blue-gray plumage blended well with the blue-gray ice it perched on. My long lens was in my camera bag, though. Could I swap lenses quietly enough? I had to try.

Midway through, both lenses in my hands, the heron cocked its head, spread its six-foot wingspan, and took off gracefully, flying northwest. By the time I clicked the long lens into place, the heron was indistinguishable among the trees. I followed the trail in its direction, but neither saw nor heard any sign of it. After 15 minutes of searching, I paused on a bridge over Indian Creek. East of the bridge, it was frozen; west, flowing. Thin shelves of ice hung over the water, which cast dark forms as it slipped and dipped beneath the ice. It was a mesmerizing Rorschach test. What exactly had I seen today? More than I thought.

The surface of Indian Creek was frozen in some parts, flowing in others. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Winter can seem to some like a monotonous season. The color palette can be limited; the cycles of snow and ice can feel limiting. But as I see more of the world in winter, I see more in the world in winter. There are 19 preserves still to circle on the map at my desk, and I intend to circle them. However your map may look, I hope you circle more of it in this new year.

Plan a visit to a new-to-you preserve in 2019. Use our interactive trail maps to help find and navigate your next adventure or attend a program in a preserve. Happy trails!

An oak leaf rests on the frozen surface of Indian Creek. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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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Happy birthday to our hawk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a landmark law that protects bird species worldwide. To honor and celebrate this milestone, organizations and citizens have teamed up to designate 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” We at the Lake County Forest Preserves in Lake County, Illinois are celebrating another bird-related milestone this year as our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turns 30 years old.

Our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turned 30 years old this year. Photo © Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

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Summer “buzz kill”

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The sun had set, the campfire was doused, and the food was stashed away for the night as my sons and I tucked ourselves into our sleeping bag cocoons, thoroughly exhausted in a way one can only be from a day spent entirely outdoors. Still, sleep would not come easily. The whirling drone of thousands of annual cicadas buzzed through the nylon walls of our tent loud enough to overpower our fatigue. I lay awake, thinking it odd the cicadas would be calling after dark, when I caught a hint of the rising full moon through the ceiling screen and realized they were staying up late to party with the extra light. One of my boys groaned, “Isn’t there anything that can stop these CICADAS?” As a matter of fact, the next day we found just the thing: a cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus).

The author holds a dead cicada killer wasp in her palm. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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“Toadally” awesome!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Last week, our Wetland Explorers summer nature campers went wild…in a good way! We were hiking along the Des Plaines River Trail when we came upon a major toad hatch-out. Hundreds of dime-sized toadlets took over the trail, prompting shrieks of excitement from the campers. The kids scurried around, scooping up handfuls of toads, trying to save all the hopping and popping amphibians from potentially hazardous bike tires and hiking boots along the trail.

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