The feathered friends of fall migration

Guest post by Ken Klick

Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.

Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.

Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?

Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.

July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.

Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A few weeks later, near the tail end of August, is when swallows (Hirundinidae family) and common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) congregate in ever-increasing numbers for their South American destinations. Six kinds of swallows can be seen skimming our lakes and ponds, catching insects such as flies and beetles. Each evening the swallows gather in large, swirling flocks before resting on power lines, bridges, buildings, or treetops for the night. These communal gatherings become seasonal tourist attractions, often garnering news coverage.

Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Nighthawks are my favorite. Like winged darts, these sleek birds can be seen sailing south high in late summer’s humid air. Nighthawks sometimes catch the season’s first cold front in late August for an easy tailwind ride south. Sadly, this bird is becoming rare in Lake County due to toxic pesticides and habitat loss. I know of only a few breeding pairs remaining.

Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d'Entremont.
Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d’Entremont.

September is the month when fall bird diversity and numbers reach their peak. Think warblers (Parulidae family), vireos (Vireonidae family), tanagers (Thraupidae family), grosbeaks (Passeroidea superfamily), and thrushes (Turdidae family). It’s the time when the air can have a hint of autumnal crispness. Leaves begin to change colors, fewer mosquitoes are around, and yet asters, goldenrods, and gentians still bloom. This is the time when bird identification can be very challenging, especially considering the abundance of first-year young with immature plumages.

Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A visit to a preserve now can seem quiet and lacking birds, but there’s a little trick I use to draw distant birds closer—sometimes within inches. I sit quietly and “squeak,” a sound that birds either find alarming or intriguing; I’m not sure which. When the purse-lipped squeak works, birds seem to drip from every branch and descend from all directions. There’s something magical about being that close to a bird weighing a mere three ounces, eye to eye. Moments like that don’t require formal names. I just marvel at the incredible journey this tiny bird faces and it helps put my life in perspective.

Living close to the western shores of Lake Michigan provides us with some of the world’s best hawk viewing opportunities. It’s in October when strong northwesterly winds blow migrating raptors—hawks, eagles, and vultures—eastward until they reach the undesirable airspace over the Great Lake’s open water. (It’s undesirable because there are no rising thermals to improve flight.)

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Patient, dedicated hawk watchers sit in comfortable chairs scanning the sky. On a good flight day when the wind, cloud cover, and barometric pressure are just right, counters log thousands of hawks silently passing at dizzying heights, some singly and some in swirling masses of thousands called kettles. Visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website to learn more about our local hawk watch sites at Fort Sheridan and Illinois Beach State Park. Unless it’s raining, there are always dedicated volunteers there from Labor Day to Thanksgiving keeping an eagle-eye view of the sky. They love having visitors and appreciate an extra set of fresh eyes to help.

Compared to October, November’s sky is loud like a concert, and it delivers our area’s most recognizable bird migration scene. This is the month when skeins of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) fly in their iconic V-shaped formations. We often hear these birds long before spotting them high in the blue-domed sky. There’s no doubt winter is just around the corner when we see them, since ice-laden wetlands and fields drive them southward.

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

There’s one last migrant you might see in November, often when the weather is most unpleasant with snow and wind. The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) can be spotted locally, a real rarity. It’s amazing to think these November birds—the eagle, crane, and goose—were nearly extinct when I first started birdwatching 50 years ago.

Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.

As you can see, each month of the year provides unique birding experiences. Yet they’re fairly predictable by those who venture out and look. These annual events unfold in nature’s rhythms and patterns, and have brought comfort to many during this pandemic. Do what you can to protect bird habitat by planting native plants on as much of your property as possible. Birdwatching places our local and global community in context. Our feathered friends are bellwethers of how well we share our world. 

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.
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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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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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