Flicking through the Flickr pool

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been a long year. In a pandemic, separated from routines, sometimes days go slow but months go fast, and vice versa. There are fewer anchors around which to pin our schedules like so many pieces of laundry on a clothesline. Some people have started baking homemade bread, assembling model kits, binging movies and podcasts, devouring piles of books, or playing long-distance board games over Zoom. Our strategies may vary, but I think it’s helpful to have as many coping mechanisms as we can gather this year.

One adopted or continued by many folks is spending more time outdoors. Whether in yards, neighborhoods, parks, or the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, people are discovering or rediscovering the value of nature, even as the thermometer dips. Fresh air; sunshine; wide horizons; the sounds of wind in trees and water over rocks; birds and squirrels and foxes living their private lives; the calm curiosity to find out where a trail goes and the confidence that it’s designed to go somewhere.

"Ice Ice Baby." Photo © Michelle Wendling.
“Ice Ice Baby.” Photo © Michelle Wendling.

We’ve seen gobsmacking levels of visitation since March. Daily average visits have consistently been 40% higher than previous records. Early spring numbers looked more like those of midsummer weekends. And our stats are chiefly based on preserves where car counters are installed in the parking lots. So, they don’t capture anyone who arrives at a preserve without a car, often the case along regional routes such as the Des Plaines River Trail and the Millennium Trail.

Which is fantastic. I’m thrilled that tens or even hundreds of thousands have found solace, stress relief, and, yes, fun in their preserves. (Fun is still possible in 2020, I swear.)

I’m also thrilled that talented photographers have continued to capture and upload photos to our group Flickr pool despite the pandemic. Lake County’s flora, fauna, and natural areas are always good fodder for gorgeous shots. I find it reassuring that people are still practicing their skills and, oddly enough, that other species don’t know what human society has experienced these past several months.

"Long-eared owl (Asio otus)." Photo © Phil Hauck.
“Long-eared owl (Asio otus).” Photo © Phil Hauck.

The long-eared owl (Asio otus) photographed in a snowy woodland by Phil Hauck isn’t aware of the latest case numbers. The trees reflected on the surface of the Des Plaines River in Bob London’s enchanting fall photo let their leaves turn just like any other autumn, regardless of whether people walking by them wore masks they didn’t need last fall.

In turns, it’s validating, therapeutic, and necessary to talk with others about everything that’s happened in 2020. But I’d argue it’s also therapeutic to remind ourselves that for every negative headline, there’s a bird on a branch, singing songs vetted by evolution. For every holiday that doesn’t take the same shape it did before, there’s a trail through open space protected for public use in perpetuity. For the overwhelming rush of events, there’s a kaleidoscopic pattern on the surface of an icy pond, or a sycamore’s enchantingly spotty bark, or the promise that seasons change and a new one will come.

None of this is to say that nature outweighs the grief and loss you may have gone through recently. It doesn’t, or it doesn’t always. But I think it helps. Maybe it eases one percent of the year’s effects, or 20 percent, or 50 percent. No matter. I welcome help.

I also welcome pretty photos of the preserves. Enjoy this selection of my 10 favorite images from our wonderful Flickr photographers this year. (You’ve already seen two of them further up in the post.) And, hey—if you’re inclined afterwards to upload some shots from your camera or phone, you can do so here. I’d really appreciate it.

"Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)." Photo © Paco Luengo.
“Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).” Photo © Paco Luengo.
"Turk's-cap lily." Photo © Paco Luengo.
“Turk’s-cap lily.” Photo © Paco Luengo.
"Pearl crescent butterflies mating." Photo © Sean Anderson.
“Pearl crescent butterflies mating.” Photo © Sean Anderson.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) – Rollins Savanna, Lake County Forest Preserve District, near Grayslake, IL -20 June 2020
"Peaceful morning." Photo © Michelle Wendling.
“Peaceful morning.” Photo © Michelle Wendling.
"August creek, early fallen leaf." Photo © Sean Anderson.
“August creek, early fallen leaf.” Photo © Sean Anderson.
"Early fall water reflections." Photo © Bob London.
“Early fall water reflections.” Photo © Bob London.
"Ryerson oaks." Photo © Bob London.
“Ryerson oaks.” Photo © Bob London.

As always, thank you to our dear readers, without whom this blog would not exist. We hope our posts this year have provided education, entertainment, and encouragement to keep going. To get outside as much as you can, to learn a bit about the flora and fauna you encounter there, and to take comfort in the rhythms of the natural world. They are out there, steady and true.

So are the magnificent photographers who contribute to our group Flickr pool. Their talents at, well, preserving the preserves in visual form are second to none. I hope every veteran and budding shutterbug who turns their lens on the Lake County Forest Preserves finds something worthwhile to capture. In fact, I know they will; there are nearly 31,000 acres of possibilities.

We’ll be back next month—next year—with our regularly scheduled programming. Until then, visit a preserve, take a virtual program with our educators, or browse a bunch of digital resources we’ve gathered all in one place. Stay safe and happy new year.

Growing through change

Editor’s note: hello readers, Brett Peto here. This month, we’ve opened up the floor to guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology. She’s here to discuss a recent virtual workshop we held as part of our research project to determine best seed sourcing practices for climate resiliency.

“We know that by 2050, our climate is predicted to be more like Oklahoma,” says Pati. So, we need to understand whether we should source seeds from further south to make our restoration projects more resilient to climate change. To help determine this, we’re procuring 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky.

This November, we’ll plant those seeds in 180 acres of former agricultural fields at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Then we’ll monitor and compare each species’ growth to seeds sourced from our area. I’ll let Pati pick it up from here.

A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Guest post by Pati Vitt

The natural world is changing, and we can see the evidence in increased flooding here at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Other, more subtle differences include warmer winters and longer, more drought-prone summers. These changes have been gradual over the last 100 years, but will greatly affect the next hundred. In keeping with our 100-Year Vision for Lake County, we constantly review scientific literature to determine when and how we need to update our ecological management practices to ensure our preserves remain healthy and resilient to environmental changes.

One big issue that’s challenging to assess is if we, along with other conservation organizations throughout the region, need to change how we source seeds for restoration activities. As part of that assessment, we received a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Fund to explore how seed sourcing affects the outcomes of our restoration projects. We’ve used part of the grant support to bring together climate change scientists, restoration managers, and other stakeholders to discuss the issue.

On September 15, 2020, we hosted a virtual workshop, Growing Through Change: Sourcing Climate-Resilient Seed for Ecological Restoration, which welcomed 124 participants from across the Midwest and the broader United States, as well as Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Germany. The workshop’s purpose was to discuss the most current research, challenges, and best practices related to sourcing seed for ecological restoration while building resilience to climate change.

The workshop featured three plenary speakers and lightning talks by land managers and seed producers. Dr. Julie Etterson, professor at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and principal scientist at Project Baseline, was the first speaker. She highlighted her research on whether plant populations can adapt to keep pace with climate change, and whether we should restore sites with plant material that is “pre-adapted” to the climate of the future. Dr. Etterson’s research provides evidence for the value of climate-informed restoration practices.

Dr. Julie Etterson (third from left) collecting seeds with students. Photo © Julie Etterson.
Dr. Julie Etterson (third from left) collecting seeds with students. Photo © Julie Etterson.

Next, Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor in the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster presented her talk. Her research focuses on plant evolutionary ecology, specifically the challenges of using seeds for ecological restoration in a changing environment and the rapid evolution of plants in response to climate change. Dr. Bucharova dissected the effects of seed cultivation on plant genetics and evolution, and their implications for seed-based restoration in a shifting climate.

Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster. Photo © Anna Bucharova.
Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster. Photo © Anna Bucharova.

Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program and collections manager at the University of Arkansas Herbarium, was the workshop’s final speaker. Her presentation highlighted the program’s work to develop regional sources of locally adapted native seed for large-scale habitat restoration and revegetation projects in Arkansas. The program is currently focused on developing demand and incentivizing the use of locally sourced native seed for agencies working in Arkansas; training volunteers to collect seed; increasing seed storage capacity; and developing sustainable ecotypes of target species.

Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program. Photo © Jennifer Ogle.
Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program. Photo © Jennifer Ogle.

We asked workshop attendees to participate in a pre-workshop survey designed to gather an overview of their seed sourcing policies and strategies. Participants hailed from a variety of institutions and backgrounds, and included seed producers, educators, researchers, and restoration practitioners. Most participants considered themselves both users and producers of seeds, as many institutions or groups that were represented implement restoration projects, and have native seed nurseries or active seed collection programs.

Workshop participants represented a variety of organizations. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Workshop participants represented a variety of organizations. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Most workshop participants both used and produced seeds. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Most workshop participants both used and produced seeds. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.

By far, most on-the-ground restoration projects undertaken by workshop participants occur in natural areas, especially in forest preserve or conservation districts, state and regional park systems, and private conservation land trusts. While the scale of restoration projects varied from one acre to more than 100 acres, the average size was 33 acres.

Workshop participants conducted their restoration projects mostly in natural areas, followed by rural agriculture and non-agriculture areas. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Workshop participants conducted their restoration projects mostly in natural areas, followed by rural agriculture and non-agriculture areas. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Most organizations have a tendency to use more than one source population in their restoration projects (67%) and to use more than one vendor or producer to source seeds for a single project (72% source from between one and three producers). Also, most organizations don’t engage in a formal competitive bid process (63%), but they do have formal guidelines or policies in place to direct their sourcing strategies (66%). However, by and large, their guidelines do not currently consider climate resilience explicitly; only 33% of respondents noted that their guidelines do consider it.

Editor’s note redux: hello, Brett again. The story doesn’t end here. This post is the first in a series of three on this topic. Keep watch through February 2021 for the second and third posts. And learn more about our research project on our website.

The feathered friends of fall migration

Guest post by Ken Klick

Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.

Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.

Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?

Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.

July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.

Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A few weeks later, near the tail end of August, is when swallows (Hirundinidae family) and common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) congregate in ever-increasing numbers for their South American destinations. Six kinds of swallows can be seen skimming our lakes and ponds, catching insects such as flies and beetles. Each evening the swallows gather in large, swirling flocks before resting on power lines, bridges, buildings, or treetops for the night. These communal gatherings become seasonal tourist attractions, often garnering news coverage.

Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Nighthawks are my favorite. Like winged darts, these sleek birds can be seen sailing south high in late summer’s humid air. Nighthawks sometimes catch the season’s first cold front in late August for an easy tailwind ride south. Sadly, this bird is becoming rare in Lake County due to toxic pesticides and habitat loss. I know of only a few breeding pairs remaining.

Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d'Entremont.
Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d’Entremont.

September is the month when fall bird diversity and numbers reach their peak. Think warblers (Parulidae family), vireos (Vireonidae family), tanagers (Thraupidae family), grosbeaks (Passeroidea superfamily), and thrushes (Turdidae family). It’s the time when the air can have a hint of autumnal crispness. Leaves begin to change colors, fewer mosquitoes are around, and yet asters, goldenrods, and gentians still bloom. This is the time when bird identification can be very challenging, especially considering the abundance of first-year young with immature plumages.

Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A visit to a preserve now can seem quiet and lacking birds, but there’s a little trick I use to draw distant birds closer—sometimes within inches. I sit quietly and “squeak,” a sound that birds either find alarming or intriguing; I’m not sure which. When the purse-lipped squeak works, birds seem to drip from every branch and descend from all directions. There’s something magical about being that close to a bird weighing a mere three ounces, eye to eye. Moments like that don’t require formal names. I just marvel at the incredible journey this tiny bird faces and it helps put my life in perspective.

Living close to the western shores of Lake Michigan provides us with some of the world’s best hawk viewing opportunities. It’s in October when strong northwesterly winds blow migrating raptors—hawks, eagles, and vultures—eastward until they reach the undesirable airspace over the Great Lake’s open water. (It’s undesirable because there are no rising thermals to improve flight.)

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Patient, dedicated hawk watchers sit in comfortable chairs scanning the sky. On a good flight day when the wind, cloud cover, and barometric pressure are just right, counters log thousands of hawks silently passing at dizzying heights, some singly and some in swirling masses of thousands called kettles. Visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website to learn more about our local hawk watch sites at Fort Sheridan and Illinois Beach State Park. Unless it’s raining, there are always dedicated volunteers there from Labor Day to Thanksgiving keeping an eagle-eye view of the sky. They love having visitors and appreciate an extra set of fresh eyes to help.

Compared to October, November’s sky is loud like a concert, and it delivers our area’s most recognizable bird migration scene. This is the month when skeins of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) fly in their iconic V-shaped formations. We often hear these birds long before spotting them high in the blue-domed sky. There’s no doubt winter is just around the corner when we see them, since ice-laden wetlands and fields drive them southward.

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

There’s one last migrant you might see in November, often when the weather is most unpleasant with snow and wind. The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) can be spotted locally, a real rarity. It’s amazing to think these November birds—the eagle, crane, and goose—were nearly extinct when I first started birdwatching 50 years ago.

Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.

As you can see, each month of the year provides unique birding experiences. Yet they’re fairly predictable by those who venture out and look. These annual events unfold in nature’s rhythms and patterns, and have brought comfort to many during this pandemic. Do what you can to protect bird habitat by planting native plants on as much of your property as possible. Birdwatching places our local and global community in context. Our feathered friends are bellwethers of how well we share our world. 

Milkweed. It’s not just for the monarchs.

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Being home more these past months has allowed my family copious time to observe the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in our garden go through its life cycle day by day. We’ve witnessed the transformation from wily little sprouts in early summer to blooming beasts, with pompoms of eraser-pink flowers wafting perfume across the yard—even threatening to take over the footpath—by Fourth of July. Now in the sweet days of September, our milkweed is laden with swelling seed pods, ready to burst with floating seeds like so many little white parachutes scattered in the autumnal sky. The situation is similar in many of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The beautiful flowerhead of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The beautiful flowerhead of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Continue reading

The moth and the moon

Post by Jen Berlinghof

A full moon rises, a screen door slams shut, a katydid’s creaking calls echo, and a Luna moth (Actias luna) flutters in circles around the back porch light. We’re captivated by this green ghost of summer, concealed by broad leaves and seen rarely during the day, emerging at night only to mate for its few fleeting days of adulthood. How lucky it is that Luna moths live in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The bright green wings of the Luna moth (Actias luna) are instantly recognizable. Stock photo.
The bright green wings of the Luna moth (Actias luna) are instantly recognizable. Stock photo.
Continue reading

Behind the bandit mask

Post by Brett Peto

You know them as raccoons (Procyon lotor). Though maybe trash pandas is more your style, a phrase that’s taken off since it first appeared on Reddit in 2014. (I can’t help but note the Rocket City Trash Pandas, a Minor League Baseball team, plays ball in Madison, Alabama). Or you could even know them as washing-bears, an old Germanic nickname bestowed on the species “because they have a habit of rinsing and softening their food in water before they eat it.” This moniker actually has a connection to the legendary naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, who created the Latin-based binomial nomenclature system and originally labeled the raccoon as Ursus lotor (“washer bear”). Whatever you call them, raccoons are commonly found in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

It’s easy to spot one, of course, by its bandit mask: the patches of black fur bending below each of its eyes. This mask is nothing short of iconic, but it’s likely an icon with a purpose: “one hypothesis for the dark fur is that it may help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.” There’s more to know, though, about these medium-sized mammals beyond face value—or just one feature of their faces.

A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Continue reading

The joy of a feather found

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

I found a feather today and it stopped me in my tracks. There it was, tucked into the dewy grass—a single, beautiful feather just lying next to my sidewalk.

It’s not uncommon to come across feathers in my work at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. My naturalist brain immediately started to assess the discovery, analyzing it on a few key points.

The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Continue reading

Jack-in-the-pulpit? Or Jill?

Guest post by Pati Vitt

The weather has varied a lot so far this spring. Minor snow squalls and hailstorms trade off with wonderfully warm, sunny days, which seem to call out, encouraging us to find the signs of spring. When the season brings all the beauty and promise of plants and flowers emerging from the winter, I feel as if I am seeing friends old and new once again. It’s rather comforting to know that regardless of what occurs in human society, spring carries on in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Many of the floral signs of spring are ephemeral, created by healthy populations of plant species that only emerge above ground for six to eight weeks—between the start of the spring warm-up and the closure of the canopy, when the trees grow a full set of leaves. Their live-fast lifestyle is an evolved response to their shade intolerance. Ephemerals need to finish flowering and fruiting while they have enough sunlight, and also put something away for a rainy day. They stash the sugar they make during photosynthesis in underground storage organs such as corms, bulbs, and rhizomes. The starchy carbon will see them through the winter into the next spring.

Some residents of our woodlands and prairies announce the arrival of spring in understated ways that require careful attention. The early-flowering harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and later bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), are two examples. Other signs of spring are exuberant and showy, such as the carpets of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. And of course, no spring display is quite so welcome as large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in full bloom. (This sight is only possible when the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population is stable; otherwise these beautiful plants are eaten out of existence.)

Not all spring wildflowers are showy, though, and not all of them are ephemeral. Arriving later in the season, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is one of the most common spring wildflowers in our woodlands. It’s usually entirely green in Lake County. Rarely, some maroon stripes may also be seen on the inflorescence, the reproductive portion of the plant.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Continue reading

The solace of purple martins

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There’s solace to be found in the fact that the rhythms of nature march on. This spring, the sun still rises. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) still pulses its verdant green arms through the pulpy leaf litter of the forest floor. The birds still surge through the skies as they migrate to and through the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Like us, some of these birds are inclined to congregate in large communities. Over the years, the colonies of a particular species, the purple martin (Progne subis), have become largely reliant on people to provide shelter for their nesting flocks.

Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Continue reading

Here comes the Sun (Lake)

Post by Brett Peto

The sky to the west was robin’s egg blue, a clearing in the day’s dose of clouds. They had just sneezed a handful of snow, already melting. I drove with the radio off. I didn’t know whether to wear my regular hiking boots or a pair of Wellington boots I’d packed at the last moment. The trail could be soggy, or maybe not. I was on my way to Sun Lake in Lake Villa, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

For this month, I decided to revisit the idea behind my February 2019 post, when I explored a new-to-me preserve and wrote up my observations as a virtual tour. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed circling another name on the map I keep at my desk. So, here I was, about a year later, ready to chronicle another tour. Find a comfy chair and a warm mug. Here’s a snapshot of Sun Lake as I saw it.

The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. I walked the trail loop clockwise. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Continue reading