About

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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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Guest author Pati Vitt joined the Natural Resources Department of the Lake County Forest Preserves in late 2018. She holds a Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Connecticut, an M.S. in Botany & Plant Pathology from the University of Maine, and a B.A. from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Having grown up botanically in Maine, she considers plants that are found in boreal forests as old friends, and is happy when she finds them and other new friends in Lake County. Prior to joining the Forest Preserves, Pati worked for nearly 20 years as a Conservation Scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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

Recent Posts

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.

Along with daily observations of the flora come the fun and excitement of watching the fauna that use our little plot. Like witnessing each stage of the milkweed’s growth, we’ve observed each stage of the monarch butterflies’ (Danaus plexippus) metamorphosis as well. My youngest son seems best at spotting the teeny, striated eggs on the undersides of leaves—he does have the youngest eyes, after all.

We spent one afternoon watching a plump monarch caterpillar devour a leaf, leaving only a pile of frass behind. One morning at dawn, we found the treasure of a frosty-green-and-gold, bejeweled chrysalis hidden in the patch. And we’ve spent countless summer evenings gazing at monarch adults as they floated back and forth through the garden, sipping the sweet nectar of the milkweed flowers in their own happy hour.

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), while iconic, isn't the only species that uses milkweed. Stock photo.
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), while iconic, isn’t the only species that uses milkweed. Stock photo.

While monarch butterflies are the best-known milkweed loyalists, there are other similarly orange-and-black insects that we observed using this important native plant. These insects are part of a club known as the Monarch Mimicry Complex. Membership entails feeding on toxic milkweed and wearing the same warning colors as monarchs, giving them protection from predators in return.

All of these milkweed specialists have evolved, in one way or another, to deal with the milky sap of the plant. It contains cardiac glycosides, which can be poisonous in large quantities. They even use the treat of toxicity to their own defense, advertising that they’re unpalatable and even dangerous to consume with their vibrant orange and black patterns. These act like a big, flashing danger sign to would-be pursuers.

This milkweed tussock moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle) is quite noticeable against its milkweed host. Photo © Allison Frederick.
This milkweed tussock moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle) clings to its milkweed host. Photo © Allison Frederick.
Milkweed tussock moth larva can skeletonize milkweed leaves. Photo © Allison Frederick.
Milkweed tussock moth larva can skeletonize milkweed leaves. Photo © Allison Frederick.

The milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle) has voracious larva that skeletonize milkweed leaves in the blink of an eye. The species retains toxins from the sap like its fellow lepidopteran, the monarch. While monarch larva feed on young, fresh shoots, the tussocks seem to favor older shoots, so there’s rarely competition between the two.

The adult moth is a lackluster brown, yet the larvae is a showstopper. It sports long tufts of orange, black, and white hairs, warning daytime predators to stay clear and find some other food that won’t possibly make them vomit. But since the adult moths are nocturnal, they don’t really need the warning colors to evade their bat predators, who hunt using sound rather than sight. Instead, the milkweed tussock moth has developed an auditory warning in the form of ultrasonic clicks that bats have come to associate with a foul meal.

Large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) feast on milkweed seed pods. Stock photo.
Large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) feast on milkweed seed pods. Stock photo.
A small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii) rests on a milkweed flowerhead. Stock photo.

Next up in the milkweed mimicry club are the milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus and Lygaeus kalmii). These seed-specializing hemiptera, or true bugs, also store those damaging cardiac glycosides by consuming milkweed. In early fall, they congregate in large numbers on milkweed pods. They use straw-like mouthparts to inject enzymes into seeds, liquifying the plant food so they can suck it back up for a savory seed shake. The pokey proboscis only reaches so far. While they do devour the outer seeds, many inner seeds stay intact.

The large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), which is 0.75 inches long with a wide, black band across the center of its orange-and-black body, is migratory like the monarch. Its movements follow that of flowering milkweed. The small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii) is only a half-inch long, sports a large red X on its back, and overwinters as an adult in the detritus of fields and gardens.

A milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) traverses a milkweed leaf. Photo © Allison Frederick.
A milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) traverses a milkweed leaf. Photo © Allison Frederick.
The black polka dots of the milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) are easily recognizable. Stock photo.
The black polka dots of the milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) are easily recognizable. Stock photo.

The last in the mimicry club we saw this year is the milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus), whose orange-red and black polka-dotted body continues the aposematic tradition. Members of the order Coleoptera, these long-horned beetles have chewing mouthparts. They’re great for severing the large leaf veins of milkweed, which reduces the flow of milky sap that can gum up their chompers while they feast on the drained areas of said leaf.

Milkweed is not just food for these guys. It’s home as well. Milkweed beetles lay their eggs in milkweed stems near the ground. Once hatched, larva tunnel into the roots to feed during early fall before nodding off to overwinter in the rhizomes beneath the soil.

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purparescens) at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Purple milkweed (Asclepias purparescens) at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Since we’ll all probably spend even more time in our backyards and gardens this fall, it’s a good time to go investigate your own milkweed. See who’s sipping, slurping, chewing, and living on this significant native plant. Early autumn is also a good time to consider planting natives in your garden. There are many species of milkweed native to northern Illinois. This Chicago Botanic Garden guide will help you determine which ones might be best for your yard. You can also join us for a FREE virtual Native Plant Landscaping program on September 24, 7-8 pm to learn more about how to bring native plants into your garden.

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