About lakecountynature

Jen Berlinghof is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago 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 canyonlands of Utah to the shores of Lake Superior. Since 2003, she has been rediscovering nature near her hometown and working as an Environmental Educator for the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

“Toadally” awesome!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Last week, our Wetland Explorers summer nature campers went wild…in a good way! We were hiking along the Des Plaines River Trail when we came upon a major toad hatch-out. Hundreds of dime-sized toadlets took over the trail, prompting shrieks of excitement from the campers. The kids scurried around, scooping up handfuls of toads, trying to save all the hopping and popping amphibians from potentially hazardous bike tires and hiking boots along the trail.

The American toad, Anaxyrus americanus, is a common amphibian in Lake County, Illinois. Like other amphibians, this species of frog leads a “dual life,” spending stages of its life cycle in water and on land. These toads have unique adaptations to help them elude potential predators. The skin of toad tadpoles, as well as adult toads, contain glands that produce toxic fluids which can be harmful to predators that swallow them or get them in their eyes. If grabbed by the beaks of hawks or herons, or by the jaws of raccoons or snakes, adult toads will inflate themselves like a balloon, hoping they can no longer fit down the throat of the predator.

If all else fails, toads will urinate, which typically gets the predator to drop them. But of all these defenses, none is as successful for the species as the strategy of “safety in numbers” we witnessed that morning at summer camp.

While solitary as adults, American toads are known to go through metamorphosis in synchrony, or all at the same time. Thousands of teeny toadlets emerge from a pond within a few days. Less time in the water as an egg or tadpole means less time for a predacious diving beetle, fish or dragonfly nymph to eat you.

Once metamorphosis is complete and toads hit land, they have to contend with different predators. The most troublesome are garter snakes. These snakes are immune to the effects of the toad’s toxic skin and will gather around ponds in early summer, gorging themselves on a toad buffet. Emerging en masse makes it impossible for the snakes to eat all the baby toads, allowing many to survive and hop away on their pudgy legs to grow into adulthood in the woods. Research has shown that tadpoles raised in the presence of predators show higher levels of aggregation than tadpoles raised in their absence.

So perhaps the magic of a toad is not kissing it to transform it into a prince, but rather the wonder and awe of a mass emergence seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old child. Toads will likely be seen in high numbers countywide over the next few weeks. See a little of the magic for yourself along the trails, but watch your step while exploring the preserves! Want to sign your child up for fun and learning with our expert educators? Visit www.LCFPD.org/camps to learn more.

A tale of two squirrels

Post by Jen Berlinghof and Allison Frederick

Everywhere you look this time of year, animals are tending to nests during spring’s baby season. Squirrels are very active at this time with the bounties of spring. Food reserves from winter are low, and energy demands are high with young in the drey (their leafy, treetop summer homes) demanding to be fed. So, squirrels turn from their habits of digging for winter caches and begin eating buds, flowers, fungi and lichens. They will take advantage of almost ANY food source at this time of year!

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“Submarine cottages”

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Late spring and early summer are busy seasons for children visiting the Lake County Forest Preserves for pond study programs. The shorelines of ponds pulse with the excitement of students, nets in hand, ready to discover the macroinvertebrates teeming under the water’s surface. The most delightful find this season by students has to be what Henry David Thoreau once called the “submarine cottages” of caddisfly larvae.

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Tick season has arrived.

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Spring seems to be a bit accelerated this year in the Lake County Forest Preserves. Trillium are already blooming at Ryerson Woods. Yesterday, I even saw a tiger swallowtail butterfly, wafting its way through the dappled light of the forest. Both of these species are typically associated with mid-May. With earlier than usual spring weather comes earlier than usual “tick season.” Like the trillium and swallowtail, ticks are a part of our natural areas.

By learning more about ticks, along with some mindful actions before you head outside, interactions with ticks can be minimized so our enjoyment of the outdoors can be maximized.

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Contrary to what many people think, ticks are not insects. They are arachnids. Like spiders, they have two body parts and eight legs. In addition, ticks have intricate mouthparts designed to bite and hang onto their host, which can be any warm-blooded animal in the area, including us.  Continue reading

Skunk stories

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Just like fish stories, it seems everyone has a skunk story to tell. I have many, but my favorite one happened a few years ago in the spring, when I was getting ready to teach education programs at Greenbelt Forest Preserve. Before the students from a local school arrived, we were busy unloading supplies and setting them out around the preserve. When we returned to the van, we found a skunk sauntering right up the open lift-gate, looking curiously like he might climb in! We froze, chanting in a hushed tone to ourselves, “Please don’t go in there, please don’t go in there.” Either our chants worked, or he realized the preserved insects in the cases he was checking out were not a good meal. He casually wandered back to the brushy field and was long gone by the time the bus arrived.

 

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Bird-eat-bird world

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I remember the first time I saw it happen. It was a frigid Sunday in February, sixteen years ago. I had just started working for the Lake County Forest Preserves. The deep cold, the kind that temporarily freezes your eyelashes together every time you blink, kept potential hikers away from Ryerson Conservation Area that day. I ventured out only to fill the bird feeders, and the chickadees, juncos, cardinals, and woodpeckers quickly gathered around for a feast. I thought they would be my only visitors of the day. Then, a cacophony of bird wings ruptured the quiet. Bird visitors fled from the feeders in all directions. In a low hanging branch of a nearby oak, one bird remained: a Cooper’s hawk. It was devouring a mourning dove that had just been pecking around under the feeders only moments before.

Cooper's hawk eating bird Continue reading

Snowflake anatomy

Post by Jen Berlinghof

My family and I spent the beginning of the new year in the Northwoods. We wanted quiet. We wanted nature. Most of all, we wanted snow. As we started out on a snowshoe trek to a nearby river, tiny snowflakes settled on my son’s navy blue parka. They seemed to freeze on contact for only a few seconds, forming miniature constellations, before melting into temporary teardrop stains. The filigree of each flake in those hushed, fleeting moments fascinated both of my boys.

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