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.
My hike started, as many do, just outside the parking lot. Sun Lake’s lot provides access to 629 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands, and restored prairies. The preserve’s namesake, Sun Lake, is an exquisite example of a glacial lake, formed by the glaciers that retreated north from Illinois about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. But let’s talk more about that later.
I hiked the 3.25-mile trail loop on an early March day, when you can sense the fingers of winter trying to hold on as spring plucks them off the world. The trails were indeed soggy, through no fault of our maintenance crews, but I left the Wellies behind anyway. A little dirt and damp is a good sacrifice for better traction. Heading east, I paused on a bridge over Sequoit Creek. A male-female pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated in the water, seemingly watching me. The creek flows south to north, threading under Grass Lake Rd. and into East Loon Lake, then eventually on to Lake Marie in the Chain o’ Lakes. It was placid, the color of steel.
The familiar conk-la-ree songs of male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) emanated from some wetlands along the creek. I stood and listened to these abundant indicators of spring. Compared to the males’ showy red-and-yellow shoulder badges, females look quite different and are harder to spot. Their feathers are mostly dark brown and streaked. A yellow patch surrounds their beak. While the males sing and defend their overlapping territories among the cattail seed heads above, the mating partners they’re competing for sneak through vegetation below to collect food and nest material.
I soon moved on, following a southwest curve toward an upland woodland. A squirrel’s large drey nest huddled in the canopy. The clouds had fully broken. I leaned forward into the wind. More red-winged blackbirds, and a few American robins (Turdus migratorius), and one northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), sang from the bare crowns of trailside trees. But—hold on—something else was among them. Through my long lens, I saw it was a northern shrike (Lanius borealis). I felt a little thrill.
This bird is somewhat famous for its carnivorous diet and its tendency to store extra prey for future meals by impaling them on thorns, branches, or fences. You’re probably familiar with other meat-eating birds: hawks, harriers, falcons. Images of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) snatching a fish from a river come pretty easily to mind.
A carnivorous songbird, though, stretches your mind’s eye a tad more. Here’s the shrike’s typical hunting method. It scans from elevated perches, then swoops down, bites the prey’s neck, and rolls its head back and forth to snap the vertebrae. It doesn’t have strong leg muscles like a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), so it must kill quickly. They’re sometimes called butcherbirds. You may ask yourself: do I need to start dodging shrikes now? No. Happily, we’re far too big for them. Their diet is usually composed of rodents, insects, and small birds. After a minute or so, this particular shrike flew away, and I walked.
Up over a slope and toward the south end of the trail loop I went. The preserve revealed Sun Lake, a half-mile or so away. It’s a 25-acre reminder of the Midwest’s glacial history. Starting 2.5 million years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet, a massive continental glacier that covered five million square miles, began cycles of growth and melting across Canada and the northern United States. Its final advance and retreat carved out the Great Lakes, changed the flow of the Mississippi River, and flattened many of Illinois’ bluffs, valleys, and hills into the relatively level landscape we’re familiar with today. It also scooped out various depressions in the earth as it ground its way south. When it melted its way north about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the gigantic amounts of meltwater filled the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest freshwater source.
This process also created Sun Lake. There’s an image for you: a 2,000-foot-thick glacier, an undeniable wall of ice, trickling away and leaving behind a thin, silver disc we can admire.
I continued on the trail and started to make the turn back toward the parking lot. New clouds began to rumble over the horizon, but the sun was still out when I stopped at an overlook. The angle of the bench allowed me to glimpse Deep Lake, beyond Sun Lake. A man walking his dog passed by from behind. In fact, at least five people passed me in less than five minutes. This preserve seemed popular with the neighbors, for a few reasons, I think—its beauty, its longer hike length, and the three trail spurs connecting it to the community.
The homestretch, now, pointed north. All hike long, I noticed half-empty milkweed pods in the prairies. By half-empty, I mean several seeds that had failed to launch last October still clung to the pods. The wind tousled their fluff, also called silk, which is hollow, buoyant, and waterproof. When milkweed seeds release correctly, they float on their natural parachutes to sprout in other spots. In fact, these little fibers intersect with a crucial period of American history. During World War II, the U.S. collected an estimated 1.5 billion pods, or 11 million pounds of seed, to produce 1.2 million life jackets. (A friendly reminder: no harvesting of any sort is allowed in the preserves.) Milkweed is a lifesaver for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and other pollinators, too.
Don’t turn off your brain, even if you think you’re done. It’s a piece of advice I received last year from Denise Grady, a science reporter at The New York Times. She applied it to interviews, observing that often, people will say the most compelling, thoughtful, or revealing things when they think the interview’s about to be over. Don’t think about lunch or the weather or your next appointment, Denise said, until you’ve gotten up and left.
I thought of her advice at the end of my hike when I spotted yet another welcome sign of spring: several sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) soaring by. Their warbling, prehistoric bugle hit my ears just as I was loading my gear into the car. Awareness zipped through my brain. I scanned the skies, but didn’t see them. A few more calls, and there—18 cranes flying northwest. I captured the best photos I could, tracing the birds’ arc as they skimmed the northern edge of the preserve.
Sandhill cranes are migratory, spending the winter in New Mexico, Texas, Florida, and Mexico, then returning to the northern U.S. and Canada in summer to breed. They’re perennially monogamous, a rare trait in the animal kingdom, and can live for more than 20 years. Their graceful movements and courtship dancing skills are well-documented, but perhaps a bit less publicized is the fossil evidence that indicates they haven’t changed much anatomically in the past 2.5 million years. Our best fossil evidence suggests we humans have existed as a species for only about 300,000 years. It makes me feel young in an interestingly ambiguous way—more potential to learn, more potential to make mistakes.
Choosing Sun Lake was not a mistake. It gave me an early taste of spring, which other preserves would have done, but not quite in the same way. And that’s why I’m determined to visit the remaining, 15 waiting-for-a-circle locations on my map. Each one holds unique features, habitats, plants, animals, and experiences. Next time, I think I’ll pack my Wellies again. Just in case.