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.

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.

The cunning of cowbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Bird migration is well underway, and the nesting season is upon us at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. I watched last week as an American robin (Turdus migratorius) plucked dried grasses from the yard, nudging them into place with her beak and wings, readying her cup-shaped nest for the azure eggs that are synonymous with spring. From the nearby American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) tree, I heard the gurgling chatter of a flock of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).

I thought about how while the robin might’ve seemed completely absorbed in her nest building, she was probably wearily listening to the cowbirds, too. Brown-headed cowbirds are North America’s most common avian brood parasite, forgoing nest building altogether. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of more than 200 other species of birds, leaving the incubation and rearing of their young to these unwitting foster parents.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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The curious courtship of the American woodcock

Post by Jen Berlinghof

March is the demarcation of spring. This new season is brewing now as snowmelt percolates through the thick mats of leaves on the forest floor into swollen creeks. Sap is rising in the sugar maples (Acer saccharum), with its promise of sweetness after a harsh winter. The purple, mottled crowns of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) peek out of the thawing mud, surging toward the sun. And the quiet of winter is replaced with the cacophony of western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) accompanied by the “peent” and “whir” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
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The solace of purple martins

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There’s solace to be found in the fact that the rhythms of nature march on. This spring, the sun still rises. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) still pulses its verdant green arms through the pulpy leaf litter of the forest floor. The birds still surge through the skies as they migrate to and through the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Like us, some of these birds are inclined to congregate in large communities. Over the years, the colonies of a particular species, the purple martin (Progne subis), have become largely reliant on people to provide shelter for their nesting flocks.

Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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Get to know groundhogs

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Late last summer, I literally watched a groundhog (Marmota monax) fatten up before my eyes. He’d made a burrow in the field outside my office window and frequently visited the rain gardens around the Edward L. Ryerson Welcome Center in Riverwoods, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. We watched him scamper back and forth, snipping flower tops here and there, always with a mouth crammed full of flora.

Fast forward to early February, and as I look out across the same field, now dotted with small snow drifts punctuated by tufts of grasses gone tawny, I think about that groundhog curled tight in his burrow and deep in hibernation, oblivious to the hubbub of a day in his honor.

Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.
Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.
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Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Come late November, most of us have turkeys on the brain. But a different type of turkey is taking to the skies at this time of year on its annual migration south: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). You can spot them in the sky or on the ground in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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A different kind of autumn apple

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Fall is the time of harvest here in the Midwest. Golden stacks of hay bales, farmer’s markets teeming with end-of-season produce, and above all, apples. But step away from the orchard and into an oak woodland and you’ll find a different kind of autumn apple: an oak apple gall. What looks like a small, lime-green, spotted apple dangling from an oak leaf is not a fruit at all, but rather a secret abode for a tiny wasp.

There are more than 50 species of oak apple gall wasps in North America. Each one creates a unique fruit-like structure that protects and feeds its eggs and larvae as they develop. Lately, I’ve been finding many dried, spent brown husks created by the larger empty oak apple wasp (Amphibolips quercusinanis) around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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The din of the dog days

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The dog days of summer are a bounty for the senses. We see the lemon-yellow of whorled sunflower blooms, taste the ripe flavor of a homegrown tomato, smell the spicy sweetness of bee balm flowers, feel the heat of the day and the cool of the evening. Yet the most quintessential sensation of these end-of-summer days is hearing the overwhelming cacophony of cicada songs around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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The wonder of wood ducks

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Spring is the starting block for wildlife in the race to find suitable mates and nesting sites. With the increased flurry in wildlife activity, staff at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois also get an increased flurry of phone calls with questions from the public. One recent call came from a gentleman in disbelief upon seeing ducks perched in his trees. He was utterly transfixed by the phenomenon. The call brought back a flash of memory for me of the first time I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa) as a child, on my maternal grandfather’s property in northern Illinois. Grandpa “Duck,” as we affectionately called him, was an avid outdoorsman. He spent a few moments that spring day pointing out the distinct, vibrantly hued male and the more muted female near a nest hole in an old maple tree. The pair then took off into the woods to the soundtrack of their high-pitched whistling calls.

Male wood ducks are easily identifiable by their glossy green head, chestnut breast, and other vibrant colors. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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Leopards and tigers and bears!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Around the first frost is the best time for spotting bears in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois…woolly bears, that is! These fuzzy caterpillars succumb to a late fall wanderlust and can often be found traversing trails and roads, as well as climbing vegetation and nibbling a last few bites before winter sets in. They belong to the subfamily Arctiinae, commonly known as tiger moths. Their scientific name stems from the ancient Greek word arktos (“bear”), for the appearance of their hairy larvae.

A woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) found along the Des Plaines River Trail. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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