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.
One adopted or continued by many folks is spending more time outdoors. Whether in yards, neighborhoods, parks, or the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, people are discovering or rediscovering the value of nature, even as the thermometer dips. Fresh air; sunshine; wide horizons; the sounds of wind in trees and water over rocks; birds and squirrels and foxes living their private lives; the calm curiosity to find out where a trail goes and the confidence that it’s designed to go somewhere.
“We know that by 2050, our climate is predicted to be more like Oklahoma,” says Pati. So, we need to understand whether we should source seeds from further south to make our restoration projects more resilient to climate change. To help determine this, we’re procuring 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky.
This November, we’ll plant those seeds in 180 acres of former agricultural fields at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Then we’ll monitor and compare each species’ growth to seeds sourced from our area. I’ll let Pati pick it up from here.
The natural world is changing, and we can see the evidence in increased flooding here at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Other, more subtle differences include warmer winters and longer, more drought-prone summers. These changes have been gradual over the last 100 years, but will greatly affect the next hundred. In keeping with our 100-Year Vision for Lake County, we constantly review scientific literature to determine when and how we need to update our ecological management practices to ensure our preserves remain healthy and resilient to environmental changes.
One big issue that’s challenging to assess is if we, along with other conservation organizations throughout the region, need to change how we source seeds for restoration activities. As part of that assessment, we received a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Fund to explore how seed sourcing affects the outcomes of our restoration projects. We’ve used part of the grant support to bring together climate change scientists, restoration managers, and other stakeholders to discuss the issue.
On September 15, 2020, we hosted a virtual workshop, Growing Through Change: Sourcing Climate-Resilient Seed for Ecological Restoration, which welcomed 124 participants from across the Midwest and the broader United States, as well as Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Germany. The workshop’s purpose was to discuss the most current research, challenges, and best practices related to sourcing seed for ecological restoration while building resilience to climate change.
The workshop featured three plenary speakers and lightning talks by land managers and seed producers. Dr. Julie Etterson, professor at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and principal scientist at Project Baseline, was the first speaker. She highlighted her research on whether plant populations can adapt to keep pace with climate change, and whether we should restore sites with plant material that is “pre-adapted” to the climate of the future. Dr. Etterson’s research provides evidence for the value of climate-informed restoration practices.
Next, Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor in the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster presented her talk. Her research focuses on plant evolutionary ecology, specifically the challenges of using seeds for ecological restoration in a changing environment and the rapid evolution of plants in response to climate change. Dr. Bucharova dissected the effects of seed cultivation on plant genetics and evolution, and their implications for seed-based restoration in a shifting climate.
Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program and collections manager at the University of Arkansas Herbarium, was the workshop’s final speaker. Her presentation highlighted the program’s work to develop regional sources of locally adapted native seed for large-scale habitat restoration and revegetation projects in Arkansas. The program is currently focused on developing demand and incentivizing the use of locally sourced native seed for agencies working in Arkansas; training volunteers to collect seed; increasing seed storage capacity; and developing sustainable ecotypes of target species.
We asked workshop attendees to participate in a pre-workshop survey designed to gather an overview of their seed sourcing policies and strategies. Participants hailed from a variety of institutions and backgrounds, and included seed producers, educators, researchers, and restoration practitioners. Most participants considered themselves both users and producers of seeds, as many institutions or groups that were represented implement restoration projects, and have native seed nurseries or active seed collection programs.
By far, most on-the-ground restoration projects undertaken by workshop participants occur in natural areas, especially in forest preserve or conservation districts, state and regional park systems, and private conservation land trusts. While the scale of restoration projects varied from one acre to more than 100 acres, the average size was 33 acres.
Most organizations have a tendency to use more than one source population in their restoration projects (67%) and to use more than one vendor or producer to source seeds for a single project (72% source from between one and three producers). Also, most organizations don’t engage in a formal competitive bid process (63%), but they do have formal guidelines or policies in place to direct their sourcing strategies (66%). However, by and large, their guidelines do not currently consider climate resilience explicitly; only 33% of respondents noted that their guidelines do consider it.
Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.
Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.
Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?
Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.
July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.
A few weeks later, near the tail end of August, is when swallows (Hirundinidae family) and common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) congregate in ever-increasing numbers for their South American destinations. Six kinds of swallows can be seen skimming our lakes and ponds, catching insects such as flies and beetles. Each evening the swallows gather in large, swirling flocks before resting on power lines, bridges, buildings, or treetops for the night. These communal gatherings become seasonal tourist attractions, often garnering news coverage.
Nighthawks are my favorite. Like winged darts, these sleek birds can be seen sailing south high in late summer’s humid air. Nighthawks sometimes catch the season’s first cold front in late August for an easy tailwind ride south. Sadly, this bird is becoming rare in Lake County due to toxic pesticides and habitat loss. I know of only a few breeding pairs remaining.
September is the month when fall bird diversity and numbers reach their peak. Think warblers (Parulidae family), vireos (Vireonidae family), tanagers (Thraupidae family), grosbeaks (Passeroidea superfamily), and thrushes (Turdidae family). It’s the time when the air can have a hint of autumnal crispness. Leaves begin to change colors, fewer mosquitoes are around, and yet asters, goldenrods, and gentians still bloom. This is the time when bird identification can be very challenging, especially considering the abundance of first-year young with immature plumages.
A visit to a preserve now can seem quiet and lacking birds, but there’s a little trick I use to draw distant birds closer—sometimes within inches. I sit quietly and “squeak,” a sound that birds either find alarming or intriguing; I’m not sure which. When the purse-lipped squeak works, birds seem to drip from every branch and descend from all directions. There’s something magical about being that close to a bird weighing a mere three ounces, eye to eye. Moments like that don’t require formal names. I just marvel at the incredible journey this tiny bird faces and it helps put my life in perspective.
Living close to the western shores of Lake Michigan provides us with some of the world’s best hawk viewing opportunities. It’s in October when strong northwesterly winds blow migrating raptors—hawks, eagles, and vultures—eastward until they reach the undesirable airspace over the Great Lake’s open water. (It’s undesirable because there are no rising thermals to improve flight.)
Patient, dedicated hawk watchers sit in comfortable chairs scanning the sky. On a good flight day when the wind, cloud cover, and barometric pressure are just right, counters log thousands of hawks silently passing at dizzying heights, some singly and some in swirling masses of thousands called kettles. Visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website to learn more about our local hawk watch sites at Fort Sheridan and Illinois Beach State Park. Unless it’s raining, there are always dedicated volunteers there from Labor Day to Thanksgiving keeping an eagle-eye view of the sky. They love having visitors and appreciate an extra set of fresh eyes to help.
Compared to October, November’s sky is loud like a concert, and it delivers our area’s most recognizable bird migration scene. This is the month when skeins of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) fly in their iconic V-shaped formations. We often hear these birds long before spotting them high in the blue-domed sky. There’s no doubt winter is just around the corner when we see them, since ice-laden wetlands and fields drive them southward.
There’s one last migrant you might see in November, often when the weather is most unpleasant with snow and wind. The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) can be spotted locally, a real rarity. It’s amazing to think these November birds—the eagle, crane, and goose—were nearly extinct when I first started birdwatching 50 years ago.
As you can see, each month of the year provides unique birding experiences. Yet they’re fairly predictable by those who venture out and look. These annual events unfold in nature’s rhythms and patterns, and have brought comfort to many during this pandemic. Do what you can to protect bird habitat by planting native plants on as much of your property as possible. Birdwatching places our local and global community in context. Our feathered friends are bellwethers of how well we share our world.
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.
A full moon rises, a screen door slams shut, a katydid’s creaking calls echo, and a Luna moth (Actias luna) flutters in circles around the back porch light. We’re captivated by this green ghost of summer, concealed by broad leaves and seen rarely during the day, emerging at night only to mate for its few fleeting days of adulthood. How lucky it is that Luna moths live in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
I found a feather today and it stopped me in my tracks. There it was, tucked into the dewy grass—a single, beautiful feather just lying next to my sidewalk.
It’s not uncommon to come across feathers in my work at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. My naturalist brain immediately started to assess the discovery, analyzing it on a few key points.
The weather has varied a lot so far this spring. Minor snow squalls and hailstorms trade off with wonderfully warm, sunny days, which seem to call out, encouraging us to find the signs of spring. When the season brings all the beauty and promise of plants and flowers emerging from the winter, I feel as if I am seeing friends old and new once again. It’s rather comforting to know that regardless of what occurs in human society, spring carries on in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
Many of the floral signs of spring are ephemeral, created by healthy populations of plant species that only emerge above ground for six to eight weeks—between the start of the spring warm-up and the closure of the canopy, when the trees grow a full set of leaves. Their live-fast lifestyle is an evolved response to their shade intolerance. Ephemerals need to finish flowering and fruiting while they have enough sunlight, and also put something away for a rainy day. They stash the sugar they make during photosynthesis in underground storage organs such as corms, bulbs, and rhizomes. The starchy carbon will see them through the winter into the next spring.
Some residents of our woodlands and prairies announce the arrival of spring in understated ways that require careful attention. The early-flowering harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and later bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), are two examples. Other signs of spring are exuberant and showy, such as the carpets of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. And of course, no spring display is quite so welcome as large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in full bloom. (This sight is only possible when the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population is stable; otherwise these beautiful plants are eaten out of existence.)
Not all spring wildflowers are showy, though, and not all of them are ephemeral. Arriving later in the season, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is one of the most common spring wildflowers in our woodlands. It’s usually entirely green in Lake County. Rarely, some maroon stripes may also be seen on the inflorescence, the reproductive portion of the plant.
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.
Post by Brett Peto. All mink images and footage by John D. Kavc.
Yes, it’s almost that time of year. American mink (Neovison vison) mating season. I know, I’ve been waiting for it, too. February is celebrated for human romance: fancy dinner dates, shiny gifts, and long walks on the Des Plaines River Trail. But it’s useful to step out of our human-focused perspective once in a while. And thanks to our comprehensive Wildlife Monitoring Program, we know minks live in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. So, let’s examine why humans aren’t the only species that looks forward to February 14.