We continued our hiking journey along the Des Plaines River Trail this month, starting where we left off last time: Sedge Meadow Forest Preserve in Wadsworth, Illinois. We were lucky to have a sunny, clear day for this “heart of the summer” hike. Surprisingly, we weren’t burdened with heavy humidity, which is typical this time of the year. This section of the trail was busy with cyclists, more so than the far northern section. Everyone we passed held up a hand for a friendly greeting.
Summer’s barrage of full blooms greeted us in open prairie areas the first half-mile or so, beginning with a common evening primrose (above)—a favorite pollination stop for sphinx moths and charismatic ruby-throated hummingbirds that flit through the fields. A camera-shy marsh wren called incessantly, playing hide-and-seek with us in the cattails.
Pollinated by various bees and butterflies, yellow and purple coneflowers punctuate the trail edges. The sweet, woodsy perfume of milkweed plants drew us in for a closer look, much like this monarch caterpillar (below) was drawn in for lunch. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed, a plant that is toxic to other animals if eaten. The toxins don’t seem to harm the larvae, but are stored in their bodies, which then makes them toxic to other animals if eaten. The larva’s snazzy black, white and yellow striped pattern acts as a warning to these would-be predators: “Stop! I am dangerous to eat!”
It’s not long before we spy an adult monarch butterfly, whose seemingly mythical long-distance migration to Mexico is known by most school children. The Des Plaines River Trail is merely a pit stop for this butterfly to fuel up on nectar. The adults also rely upon flashy warning coloration for survival. However, scientists are finding that these milkweed toxins break down over time in adult monarch butterflies, leaving the aging adults more susceptible to predation.
The fields are teeming with insects, and we find another orange and black butterfly that looks suspiciously similar to the monarch. This viceroy butterfly is a monarch mimic, hoping to cash in on the learned avoidance of orange and black butterflies by birds and other predators. One way to tell the monarch and viceroy apart is by watching them fly. Monarchs tend to float haphazardly, while viceroys fly a more a direct route, flapping and gliding intermittently. Hover over the picture below to find out another way to distinguish a viceroy from a monarch.
We wind on along the trail, through the shade of mature cherry and oak trees, listening to the soundtrack of yellow warblers and cedar waxwings that nest here in Lake County, Illinois. We cross the river, where it is wide and flat, and watch as a team of tree swallows chases a lone rock dove (a.k.a. pigeon) away from the wooden bridge.
After “Mile 6,” the trail leaves the winding ways of the river and follows along the straight-and-narrow of some train tracks. The wet woods on the west side of the trail are muted as a freight train rumbles past on the east.
As the trail leaves the tracks behind, the woods sparkle again with sounds of buzzing cicadas, and squawking blue jays, whose fondness for acorns makes this oak woodland a perfect home. As we listened to their conspicuous calls over our heads, we spotted some blue jay feathers along the trail. Surprisingly, the pigments in jay feathers are actually brown. The blue color is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather barbs.
As we approached the Kilbourne Road crossing, we encountered many snags in the wet woods that would make ideal homes for cavity-nesting woodpeckers, such as the downy that left this polka dotted feather behind.
We crossed Kilbourne Road and entered the parking area to end our hike for the day. There, we found some friendly bikers with questions about the Des Plaines River Trail. Do you have questions about the Lake County Forest Preserve trails? If so, visit our booth this weekend at the Lake County Fair in Grayslake. We will be highlighting all of our trails with interactive activities and fun prizes.
Notes from our hike: