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.

Happy birthday to our hawk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a landmark law that protects bird species worldwide. To honor and celebrate this milestone, organizations and citizens have teamed up to designate 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” We at the Lake County Forest Preserves in Lake County, Illinois are celebrating another bird-related milestone this year as our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turns 30 years old.

Our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turned 30 years old this year. Photo © Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

Found as an injured, immature bird in 1988 and deemed not releasable to the wild due to a damaged wing, she has spent almost her entire life as an educational ambassador for the Lake County Forest Preserves. During her tenure, she has encountered about 76,000 people through special events and school programs at the forest preserves, teaching them first-hand about Lake County birds of prey. Across three decades, a behind-the-scenes network of more than 70 employees and volunteers has cared for and learned from this majestic raptor. A handful of staff members still at the Lake County Forest Preserves has worked with her from the beginning.

The hawk started serving as an educational ambassador soon after arriving at Ryerson Woods (Riverwoods) in 1989. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Starting as a volunteer, Environmental Educator II Jill Stites has worked with the hawk for nearly three decades. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Director of Education Nan Buckardt with the hawk in 1989. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Lately, we have all been reminiscing, sharing stories of what it’s been like to have the privilege of such intimate access for all these years to the life of the hawk.

There’s a lot to do when you’re caring for a wild hawk. It comes with challenges and rewards. She’s fed her daily rat or quail while perched on our arm atop a thick leather glove. We’ve all learned she can be picky about which parts of her meal she eats (skin and muscle) and which parts (intestines) she flings on your shirt. But watching from inches away as her instincts take over and she uses her razor-like beak to precisely dismantle her prey is a thing of grotesque beauty.

Her hooked beak and dagger-like talons need to be honed so they don’t grow too long, impeding her eating or movement. In the wild, her beak and talons would be naturally filed down as she landed and perched on a variety of surfaces, but due to her limited movement she needs a little help. The hardest part isn’t the trimming itself, but safely wrapping her in a towel and covering her eyes so she remains calm during the process. She knows when it’s trimming time and tends to bate (fly off the glove) and vocalize a ton. Yet, once swaddled securely, she becomes docile. The hum of the Dremel often even lulls her to sleep. Feeling the feathered weight of a sleeping hawk on your lap is an embodiment of the quiet grace often overlooked in this predatory raptor.

Staff trim the hawk's talons and beak safely and regularly. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

In front of an audience, this large bird of prey commands the room, hushing the crowd and demanding respect by her presence alone. Folks are usually surprised when we tell them she only weighs about as much as a half-gallon of milk. It doesn’t sound like much, but it sure feels like it when you’re holding her on an outstretched arm for long periods of time. The pain fades, though, as you see the awestruck faces of the group when the hawk stretches to reveal her full wingspan or coughs up a pellet in front of them.

The hawk has participated in countless school programs throughout her long life. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Through the seasons, we have heard her scream to the migrating hawks flying overhead in the fall and found remains of wild rodents that sought shelter in her mews over the winter, unaware of their impending fate. We have watched her meticulously build a nest and tiptoe her talons around her eggs with care in the spring. We have felt the spray of water as she bathed and preened in her dish on a hot summer day.

These intimate moments through the years that staff and volunteers have been privy to with our red-tailed hawk help remind us that at the end of the day, she is truly wild.

Visit Ryerson Welcome Center (Riverwoods) to see the hawk in her mews. Photo © Jeff Goldberg.

We invite you to share in the joy of her wildness as we celebrate her 30th birthday with a free drop-in program at Ryerson Welcome Center on Sunday, September 23, 12–3 pm. Meet the hawk and our education eastern screech owl. Learn about raptors with hands-on education activities, then make a birthday card for the hawk. Drop in any time starting at 12 pm. No registration required. All ages.

Summer “buzz kill”

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The sun had set, the campfire was doused, and the food was stashed away for the night as my sons and I tucked ourselves into our sleeping bag cocoons, thoroughly exhausted in a way one can only be from a day spent entirely outdoors. Still, sleep would not come easily. The whirling drone of thousands of annual cicadas buzzed through the nylon walls of our tent loud enough to overpower our fatigue. I lay awake, thinking it odd the cicadas would be calling after dark, when I caught a hint of the rising full moon through the ceiling screen and realized they were staying up late to party with the extra light. One of my boys groaned, “Isn’t there anything that can stop these CICADAS?” As a matter of fact, the next day we found just the thing: a cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus).

The author holds a dead cicada killer wasp in her palm. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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“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.

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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.


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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