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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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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.
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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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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.
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Finding the right angle

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

I keep thinking about angles. Not the kind you measure with a protractor, but those you measure with your mind. The angle of a story, a conversation, or a project. Photography, of course, uses physical angles—where’s the camera pointed? is the sun directly overhead or is it the sweet time of golden hour?—but the best photos make you want to see even more. They make you want to break open the frame and soak in every bit of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Since it’s nearly the end of 2019, I thought I’d turn 180 degrees and peruse the photos uploaded to our group Flickr pool since January 1. Suffice to say: we’re spoiled. Spoiled with the beauty of Lake County’s flora, fauna, and natural areas, and the talent of the photographers who capture it for everyone to see. Trees and shrubs in their bright fall wardrobes on either side of a trail draining into a vanishing point. A sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) with both wings up like a paper airplane as it dashes to take off. A whirlpool of stars spun around a rich blue sky over a tranquil wetland.

I’ve gathered these moments plus seven more below, but that’s only a small taste. I encourage you to browse the rest of the visual buffet as we make the turn out of the 2010s into the 2020s. And, hey! You might become inclined to upload that shot living on your phone, camera, or computer.

"Night Moves." Photo © reddog1975.
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