Hordes of hummingbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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For me, most days on the job consist of time in my “office” outdoors—a woodland, prairie or wetland in the Lake County Forest Preserves—with my “clients”—students, teachers, and families interested in learning more about local nature. On those rare days spent plunking away at a computer indoors, the photo above is my view. Recently, this view is bustling with activity, as hordes of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzz around the feeders, bulking up for a long flight south.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.46.50 AMMid-August through early September is peak migration for these charismatic and acrobatic birds—the only species of hummingbirds that nests in eastern North America. The number of hummingbirds headed south this time of year is often doubled from their northward spring migration, providing even more viewing opportunities in Lake County. Why are there so many more headed south in the fall? Because, this group of travelers includes the immature hummingbirds that hatched over the summer, as well as surviving adults.

What you may not see during fall migration is the shimmering, jewel-toned throat that is emblematic of adult male ruby-throated hummingbirds. Males only stay in the area for a few weeks, just long enough for courtship and mating. Then each male is off on its own, beginning migration earlier than females and young. Immature males look a lot like mom at this stage, although some are beginning to sport a tiny 5 o’clock shadow of darker throat feathers.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.56.48 AMScientists believe the urge to migrate for these birds is triggered by the shortening length of sunlight. When they sense the strong drive to migrate, they also get an urge to binge eat, needing almost doubled bodyweight to make it to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Panama. Some of the mighty even cross the entire Gulf of Mexico in a 500-mile non-stop flight, which is far for a bird that only weighs as much as a dime or two.

In preparation for this long flight, ruby-throated hummingbirds flit around to feast on tiny spiders, insects, and nectar. They primarily sip nectar from red and orange flowers, but certainly won’t turn their beaks up at feeders. Bird banding research shows that individual birds return to the spot where they hatched, even visiting the same feeders year after year. While it may seem that the hummingbirds are swarming your feeders in large groups, they actually lead solitary lives and do not migrate in flocks.

If you want to see these charming dynamos in action at the Lake County Forest Preserves, join us for a Walk on the Wildflower Side program where you may spy them visiting a flower, or visit the Ryerson Welcome Center and watch them at the feeders. You can help track hummingbird migration next spring by interacting with this migration map.

And, this? ⇩⇩⇩ Just for fun!

 

 

 

Dwindling lights

Post by Jen Berlinghof

At a recent Firefly Campfire at Ryerson Conservation Area, kids and adults alike were flitting around, as fast as the fireflies they were trying to catch. For many of the children, this was their first time experiencing the age-old summer tradition of capturing living light. While the woods that night sparkled like the fourth of July, many of the adults lamented that their yards didn’t have many fireflies—certainly not like the numbers they remembered chasing as children. Turns out they may be on to something.

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Widespread anecdotal evidence of these dwindling evening displays have prompted scientists to take a look at possible reasons. One big culprit to the demise of these bioluminescent beetles seems to be the one thing that makes them so special: light. Continue reading

Saving the Blanding’s Turtle

Post by Allison Frederick

It was [dare we say] a perfect June day. Mostly sunny. Air temperature hovering around 75 degrees with a gentle breeze blowing off Lake Michigan, a mere 600 meters from where we stood. Sandhill cranes were bugling nearby in the marsh. Yellow warblers sang from the reeds, as we approached with 99 juvenile Blanding’s turtles. The young turtles were still quite small at 8 centimeters long and a mere 80 grams, but ready nonetheless for release into their natural habitat.

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Habitat Heroes

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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A group of third-graders from May Whitney Elementary School in Lake Zurich has come to the rescue at Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve. Instead of learning their science standards solely in the classroom, Mrs. Hosteland’s class is addressing an authentic environmental issue through investigation, research and collaborative reports that offer solutions to address the issue of invasive species. These hardworking 8- and 9-year-olds then presented their reports to the District 95 School Board and Lake County Forest Preserve officials. Continue reading

Virtual wildflower walk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

April is the month when every day seems to bring a new bird flying into the woodland, a new amphibian calling from the pond, a new mammal poking along the river, a new insect hatching in the prairie, and, most of all, a new plant unfurling from the forest floor.

April through the end of May provides ideal conditions to enjoy spring wildflowers. These plants are also called “ephemerals,” which means “lasting for a very short time.” Spring ephemerals take advantage of abundant light in the woodland before leaves emerge in the canopy above. Ephemerals complete their entire life cycle before shade covers the forest floor.

If you haven’t visited your favorite Lake County Forest Preserve lately, come along with me on this virtual wildflower walk to see what’s blooming now and what’s to come.

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Bluebirds are back!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Last week while I was out checking our sap collection buckets at Ryerson Conservation Area, everything in the woods seemed a bleak brown and gray. It didn’t look much like spring was on our doorstep, but it sure sounded like it with the “plink plink” of sap dripping into aluminum buckets on the sugar maple trees and the slow “peep peep” of cold, little spring peeper frogs. Then, a male eastern bluebird landed on the branch above my head. He was a vivid blue exclamation point that seemed to shout, “Spring has arrived!”

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Nature at night

Post by Jen Berlinghof

This winter’s lack of snow has made enjoying the winter woods a little more difficult for me. So, when a scant few inches of snow fell last week I made my way to Old School Forest Preserve at dusk to explore one of the Lake County Forest Preserves solar-lit trails.

Inky black branches of old oaks played in contrast to the white-washed sky before the blush of an orange sherbet sunset took over. The woods were still and quiet as I searched for any signs of crepuscular creatures that capitalize on the twilight. Continue reading