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. She is an active citizen scientist, surveying calling frogs and Odonate populations in Lake County, Illinois. Her background in Forestry and Natural Resources from Purdue University and passion for land stewardship is a great fit for the public relations team at a conservation agency. She believes that we can join forces to take major action against climate change and other environmental challenges. From restoration workdays in local preserves to exploring natural areas with her family, she works daily to inspire positive changes in the world around us.

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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.

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Guest author Ken Klick has worked as a Restoration Ecologist at the Lake County Forest Preserves for 25 years. He finds joy and solace in looking at birds. His career has involved restoring and managing native plants and animals for more than 40 years.

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Guest author Eileen Davis, Environmental Educator, has variously served the Lake County Forest Preserves as an intern, volunteer and staff member since 1997. She earned her B.S. in Zoology and Environmental Biology from Eastern Illinois University, and an M.S. in Environmental Education and Interpretation from University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. Eileen teaches people of all ages about Lake County’s diverse ecosystems, and the plants and animals that call them home. In her free time, she enjoys tending her home garden and traveling in search of new nature adventures.

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

Recent Posts

Become a community scientist

Post by Jen Berlinghof

While the past year and a half has kept many of us mostly at home, nature in our backyards and beyond has provided a balm for these trying times. General use of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois is trending 30% higher in 2021 than a typical pre-pandemic year. And in 2020, there was an astounding 70% surge in visitation. The number of folks delving into home gardening and backyard birding has skyrocketed as well, making headlines by leaving store shelves bare of birdseed and bird feeders. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified our desire to connect to nature closer to home, and it has created space and time for local, daily observations. All of this translates to an environment ripe for community science, also called citizen science.

Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.

Community science consists of collaborations between professional scientists and members of the general public. Through such partnerships, volunteers, or community scientists, make many important scientific contributions. They assist with biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard flower. They help answer important questions around the effects of climate change on plants and animals, and how we can help mitigate those effects. Ordinary folks, with a desire to help and some basic training, have discovered everything from new animal species to new exoplanets.

A group of preserve visitors watches for birds. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A group of preserve visitors watches for birds. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Researchers list the top reasons for participation in community science programs as a desire to contribute meaningfully to science, to enjoy a pleasant distraction from everyday life and to be part of a supportive community. Rest assured that you don’t have to be an expert. Professional scientists break down complex tasks into smaller duties that people without specialized training can tackle. Anyone can do it—from students to senior citizens.

While some rookie community scientists might worry the data they share or the plant or animal identifications they make won’t be accurate, a 2018 analysis found such concerns to be unwarranted. Volunteers and professional scientists agree on the data an impressive 96% of the time, thanks to a number of tools and techniques that ensure data integrity, ranging from training sessions to standardized protocols.

Volunteers watch for birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest. Photo © Michael Haug.
Volunteers watch for birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest. Photo © Michael Haug.

For organizations such as the Forest Preserves, community science is a win-win, creating opportunities for public involvement and baseline data collection. We’re always seeking new volunteers to participate in our various Wildlife Monitoring programs to listen for frogs on calm spring evenings or to search the skies for raptors riding thermals during fall.

Additionally, there are countless community science programs you can participate in on your own, whether in a preserve or your own backyard. My budding herpetologist son and I have started searching for reptiles and amphibians in order to contribute to HerpMapper, an easy-to-use network designed to gather and share reptile and amphibian observations across the planet. Our local expeditions have nudged us out of the house to witness cool species such as blue-spotted salamanders (Ambystoma laterale), bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) and water snakes (Nerodia spp.).

The author and her son spotted this water snake (Nerodia spp.) on a citizen science expedition. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son spotted this water snake (Nerodia spp.) on a community science expedition. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.

My family has tracked the phenology—the timing of seasonal life-cycle events in plants and animals—of our garden. We’ve contributed our findings to Budburst, a community-focused, data-driven approach to plant conservation overseen by the Chicago Botanic Garden. As one example, we watched the leaves of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) unfurl slowly day by day and were treated to a plethora of pollinators that visited the pink pom-pom flowers as they bloomed.

A Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) visits a common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plant in the author's garden. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
A Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) visits a common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plant in the author’s garden. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.

In winter, we diligently filled our feeders with seed and suet (when we could find it!) and reported the daily happenings of northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) that bopped in and out of our yard to Feederwatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. And when spring came, we turned to eBird as we traversed further afield to witness the wonder of a Midwest migration. Each boldly colored bird was like a drop of the rainbow in the tree branches and among the grasses.

A scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) perches on a tree branch. Stock photo.

All in all, the more hands on deck—and eyes and ears in the field—collecting data and contributing to scientific discoveries, the better. How can you help? Consider participating in a Backyard BioBlitz this summer, or simply go for a walk and report your findings to one of the largest networks of community scientists on iNaturalist. Learn more about the preserves and our volunteer opportunities.

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