About brettpeto

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.

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.

The moth and the moon

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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.

The bright green wings of the Luna moth (Actias luna) are instantly recognizable. Stock photo.
The bright green wings of the Luna moth (Actias luna) are instantly recognizable. Stock photo.
Continue reading

Behind the bandit mask

Post by Brett Peto

You know them as raccoons (Procyon lotor). Though maybe trash pandas is more your style, a phrase that’s taken off since it first appeared on Reddit in 2014. (I can’t help but note the Rocket City Trash Pandas, a Minor League Baseball team, plays ball in Madison, Alabama). Or you could even know them as washing-bears, an old Germanic nickname bestowed on the species “because they have a habit of rinsing and softening their food in water before they eat it.” This moniker actually has a connection to the legendary naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, who created the Latin-based binomial nomenclature system and originally labeled the raccoon as Ursus lotor (“washer bear”). Whatever you call them, raccoons are commonly found in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

It’s easy to spot one, of course, by its bandit mask: the patches of black fur bending below each of its eyes. This mask is nothing short of iconic, but it’s likely an icon with a purpose: “one hypothesis for the dark fur is that it may help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.” There’s more to know, though, about these medium-sized mammals beyond face value—or just one feature of their faces.

A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Continue reading

The joy of a feather found

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

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 feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Continue reading

Jack-in-the-pulpit? Or Jill?

Guest post by Pati Vitt

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.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Continue reading

Here comes the Sun (Lake)

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.

The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. I walked the trail loop clockwise. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Continue reading

Monogamous minks? Not quite.

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.

A mink (Neovison vison) peeks over a fallen tree. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A mink (Neovison vison) peeks over a fallen tree. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Continue reading

Go take a hike

Post by Nan Buckardt

Everyone has one! At least, anyone who regularly hikes in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois has one: a favorite trail. It might be the trail near your home or the one that reminds you of a secret only-I-know-about-this spot growing up. Maybe it holds a special memory. Whatever the reason, something about it always sparks joy in your heart.

I’ve been thinking about trails a lot this fall as I’ve hiked those selected for this year’s Hike Lake County (HLC) program. HLC has encouraged folks for 20-plus years to explore seven of 12 designated trails between mid-August and November 30. More than 200 miles of trails thread through dozens of preserves countywide, so the diversity of choices isn’t necessarily a big surprise, but it is a big benefit to residents and visitors.

Continue reading

Monitoring in the morning

Post by Brett Peto

Good things start at seven in the morning. That’s when our group of four hiked 15 minutes off-trail into the heart of Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The air was warm, the sunshine spread everywhere. Spiderwort blooms were freshly open, a waist-high meadow of bluish-purple fireworks. We found the steel T-post marking the start of the day’s first transect and the red flag for the first plot.

Then we gathered our tools. A one-meter-square collapsible wooden quadrat, retractable tape measure, clipboard, data sheets, and each other’s knowledge of plants.

Well, my own knowledge, not so much. I was there to take photos and observe the three experts onsite: Pati Vitt, Manager of Ecological Restoration; Ken Klick, Restoration Ecologist II; and Pete Jackson, who authored a 2009 study on this preserve’s plant communities that served as his thesis for a master’s degree program. In my head, I called them the Plant Team.

Ken stands in a field of spiderwort. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Continue reading

A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

Continue reading