As the hours of daylight drastically shorten in November, the miles of our hike along the entire Des Plaines River Trail quickly stack up. The trek south along this stretch of the trail from Route 60 to Route 22 was summed up in the stillness of bare branches that were silhouetted against the sky and reflected back from mirrors of water in the surrounding floodplain forest.
The sepia tones of the season were punctuated every once in a while by burgundy sumac drupes—the burnt, exhausted color of late fall on its way out. These fruits make a fine meal for winter resident birds, including the red-bellied woodpeckers we watched as they hitched themselves up and down the crackled bark of old oak trees.
The goldenrod galls we saw along the trail during the summer had tarnished and dried, yet they still hold a live larva inside. These larvae are often discovered by downy woodpeckers, looking for an early winter treat. It looked like one woodpecker hit the larva jackpot, creating a cone-shaped opening big enough to accommodate its bill. Once it breaks through the hard stem casing, a downy will plunge its long, barbed tongue down the passageway to pull out the juicy, calorie-rich morsel living inside the gall.
As we pressed farther along the trail, we came across a large group of waterfowl feeding. There were mostly mallards and Canada geese, but we did spot a lone red-breasted merganser in the mix. The mallards and geese will stick around Lake County during the winter. However, the merganser was simply passing through, migrating from breeding grounds in northern Wisconsin and Canada to its winter home along the Gulf Coast. For many migratory species, long stretches of high quality “pit stops,” such as the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway, are paramount to successful migration.
Three low-head dams within the Des Plaines River in Lake County have caused a decline in habitat quality by deterring the natural movement of fish, altering normal river flow and impacting the surrounding floodplain. The dams’ low profiles are also a potential hazard to paddlers.
The dam at the Ryerson Conservation Area was removed in 2011 and replaced with a small riffle feature. Fish surveys show that current-loving species have recolonized the river above the former dam, which was shallow and slow-moving before removal. The dams at Captain Daniel Wright Woods (seen in the photo above) and MacArthur Woods will also be removed to restore a free-flowing river throughout Lake County. This will most certainly attract more migratory, fish-loving waterfowl like the merganser to this oasis.
After crossing the bridge into Half Day Forest Preserve, we came upon an open area with a few ponds and discovered that a meadow vole had been hard at work in preparation for winter. This small rodent seemed to have stripped seeds of the cattail plant (near my hand in the picture above), creating a carpeted “welcome mat” of sorts to its tunnel entrance. Voles stay active all winter long, scurrying under the snow in grassy tunnels.
We stopped multiple times along the trail to inspect small trees that had been recently scraped and shredded—a sure sign that white-tailed deer mating season, also called “rut,” was underway. A buck uses its antlers to strip bark off small trees, creating a “rub.” Rubbing sheds the velvet from a buck’s antlers, strengthens his neck muscles, and leaves a scent that is used for communication.
During their mating season in November, white-tailed deer are very active and sightings of these large mammals increase. Right before we ended our hike for the day, we were treated to a view of a one-antlered buck, crossing the trail right in front of us. Males shed their antlers each year after a drop in hormone levels, and this fella was already halfway there. As we wound southeast, staying on the Des Plaines River Trail, the buck headed south along his own well-worn path.
We crossed Route 22 near the Lincolnshire Police Department to finish our hike for the day, just as rain was starting to fall. We are now within reach of the trail’s end at the county line. We invite you to discover with us how the final stretch will look under the cover of January weather later this winter. Stay tuned!
Notes from our hike: