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.

When we talk cicadas, the first questions that often come to mind concern periodical cicadas that emerge en masse every 17 years. This phenomenon is fascinating, but our last emergence of Magicicada occurred in 2007, so we will have to wait until 2024 to experience that spellbinding season again.

The cicadas we hear now, and indeed every summer, are considered annual cicadas. While their lifecycle actually lasts anywhere from two to five years, they’re not synchronized, so we end up hearing and seeing some each year.

Whether periodical or annual, all cicadas go through the same basic lifecycle. A female deposits rice-shaped eggs into grooves on small branches. She makes these grooves with her sharp ovipositor, a sword-like organ that extends from her abdomen for this purpose. Later, teeny cicada nymphs hatch out, then plummet to the ground and burrow in the soil in search of a root to feed on. They start with grass roots, and as they grow and molt, the nymphs eventually work their way up to a host tree root where they’ll sip away at sap for years.

When it’s time to emerge, cicada nymphs claw out of the dirt and head for higher ground to complete one final molt: shedding their exoskeltons. The exoskeletons, or what my kids always called “cicada coats,” remain on tree trunks and tall grasses long after the cicadas’ wings have inflated and they’ve flown away to complete their courtship and mating rituals.

The most obvious of those rituals is the mating songs of the male cicadas. These “true bugs” sing with their tymbal, an organ with a series of ribs that buckle when the cicada flexes its muscle. Like a bendy straw being pushed together and pulled apart, each snap of a rib collectively creates the loud, buzzing song.

And loud it is, sometimes reaching up to 100 decibels, the same intensity as a motorcycle rumbling past on a warm summer night. It may seem strange—and deafening—that a cicada sports exposed eardrums on its abdomen right next to the tymbal. But nature has figured out a workaround; just as male cicadas start to sing, a small muscle folds the eardrum shut.

You might have noticed the cicada chorus isn’t monotonous. It includes a variety of buzzing, clicking, and grinding noises. There are actually more than 190 species and subspecies of annual cicadas throughout North America. In Lake County, we commonly hear three species. The dog-day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) sounds like a buzzsaw and tends to sing during the heat of the day. The scissor-grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus) sings its grinding song from late morning until dusk. And Linne’s cicada (Neotibicen linnei) sounds like a whirring rattle all day long.

For better or worse, our eardrums don’t fold shut when cicada songs really get going. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that what may seem like racket to us is sweet music to female cicadas’ ears. Enjoy the crescendo of the chorus in these dog days of summer.

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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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