Thank you for reading. This blog is an active effort to keep readers informed of current natural events and to offer helpful suggestions for exploring local nature niches in Lake County, Illinois. For many people, “Nature” starts with a capital “N.”

When asked to think of meaningful experiences in the outdoors, many minds automatically turn toward the grand vistas of huge National Parks or long road trips to faraway destinations. But what might be most beneficial for our health and environment is finding nature niches closer to home. Connect daily, not once a year. Explore the trails, and find your niche in the Lake County Forest Preserves.


About the author  Jen Berlinghof is a graduate of Loyola University and The National Outdoor Leadership School, as well as a Certified Interpretive Guide through The National Association of Interpretation. Her work as an outdoor guide and naturalist has taken her from the canyon lands of Utah to the shores of Lake Superior. Since 2003, she has been discovering nature near her hometown and working as an Environmental Educator for the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Jen birding yellowstone










Behind the scenes  Assisting with editing and photography is Allison Frederick. She is Assistant Public Affairs Manager for the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Her background in Forestry and Natural Resources from Purdue University and wildlife monitoring experience is a great fit for the public relations team at a conservation agency. You may notice a shift to Allison’s “voice” from time to time when Jen is away exploring the aforementioned grand vistas.








Behind the scenes  Brett Peto has served as Environmental Communications Specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois since 2017. A graduate of Elmhurst College in 2015, Peto edits copy, selects and retouches photos, and ponders the Latin roots of species names in his spare time. Ever since his first science column in the college newspaper, Peto has found fun in the broad accessibility and deep understanding of complex subjects that effective science writing requires.

© Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum








Guest author Andrew Rutter joined the Natural Resources Department of the Lake County Forest Preserves as a Wildlife Biologist in 2016. But he was already a familiar face, as he had worked as a Southern Illinois University wildlife field technician in various forest preserves. Andrew has a Bachelor’s Degree from Emporia State University and recently received his Master’s Degree from SIU with the Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab studying river otter ecology.







Guest author Alyssa Firkus joined the Education Department of the Lake County Forest Preserves as an Education Manager in October 2018. Alyssa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from Humboldt State University and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Education from Western Washington University. Her work in environmental education has taken her around the world, from Australia to Alaska. She now enjoys going on local adventures with her family.


Guest author Nan Buckardt, a long-time Lake County Forest Preserves employee, has seen many changes to the preserves during her career. As Director of Education, she puts her B.S. in Zoology and M.S. in Education to good use. The Education Department team helps tell Lake County’s natural and human history story. Nan spends much of her free time in nature with her family, especially enjoying birdwatching.


You may contact us at jberlinghof@LCFPD.org and afrederick@LCFPD.org.

Recent Posts

Get to know groundhogs

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Late last summer, I literally watched a groundhog (Marmota monax) fatten up before my eyes. He’d made a burrow in the field outside my office window and frequently visited the rain gardens around the Edward L. Ryerson Welcome Center in Riverwoods, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. We watched him scamper back and forth, snipping flower tops here and there, always with a mouth crammed full of flora.

Fast forward to early February, and as I look out across the same field, now dotted with small snow drifts punctuated by tufts of grasses gone tawny, I think about that groundhog curled tight in his burrow and deep in hibernation, oblivious to the hubbub of a day in his honor.

Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.
Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.

February 2 is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Historically, people have celebrated this seasonal crossroads in many ways. Groundhog Day in the United States is best described as a case of mistaken identity. It stems from a Germanic tradition involving hedgehogs and badgers as weather predictors for farmers. When German settlers arrived in Pennsylvania, they carried on this custom, substituting groundhogs, which were plentiful in the Keystone State.

While groundhogs can’t predict the weather, they do have other notable traits. It seems that we humans can’t quite agree on what to call them. Two common nicknames are woodchuck (which derives from a Native American word, wuchak) and whistle-pig (an homage to the high-pitched squeaks they use to signal danger). Groundhogs are rodents, and in fact, they’re Lake County’s largest squirrel, weighing in at up to 15 pounds. They can be seen swimming and climbing trees to elude predators such as raptors and coyotes (Canis latrans), which threaten to detour them away from their main focuses of food, architecture, and mating.

Except for mating season, groundhogs are solitary and spend the summer and early fall bulking up on a mostly plant-based diet, with some slugs and grubs as occasional ingredients. During this time, they also use their powerful front claws to create complex burrows. Their underground abodes have multiple entrance holes and can stretch up to 50 feet over several levels with numerous chambers. They even have a dedicated restroom chamber.

Once temperatures drop in late fall, groundhogs retreat alone to these palatial homes and begin hibernation. Unlike other animals that merely hunker down for cold bouts in the winter, groundhogs are true hibernators. They oscillate between short periods of arousal and long periods of torpor. In this altered state, groundhogs lose up to a third of their body weight. Their heart rate plunges from 80 to five beats per minute and their body temperature falls from 98 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same as inside a refrigerator.

Male groundhogs emerge from their dens temporarily in early February, then reemerge in March to mate. Stock photo.
Male groundhogs emerge from their dens temporarily in early February, then reemerge in March to mate. Stock photo.

Male groundhogs will wake up for one of these moments of arousal and emerge from their dens, typically sometime in February, to stumble sleepily around making house calls to the females living in their two-to-three-acre territory. It’s more a first date than anything else, but weather forecasting certainly isn’t on the radar for these rodents. The males eventually head back to their own burrows for another round of torpor before they emerge again to mate in early spring.

At the burrow I’ve been keeping tabs on, there are no tracks or signs of this groundhog rendezvous yet. But like the end of winter, whether it’s six weeks longer or not, my groundhog friend’s reemergence is one more thing to look forward to this spring.

A groundhog walks across a fallen tree. Photo © Tim Elliott.
A groundhog walks across a fallen tree in spring. Photo © Tim Elliott.

Get close to a real groundhog, make some tracks, and test your trivia knowledge at our Groundhog or Woodchuck? Drop In program, February 2, 11 am–4 pm. Learn more about one of Lake County’s few true mammal hibernators. FREE. No registration required. All ages welcome. Meet at the Edward L. Ryerson Welcome Center.

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