A parade of colors

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

Watching kids play in a pool, waiting for burgers to come off the grill, sitting on a curb enjoying a parade—these are all images that I conjure when daydreaming about summer.

Luckily, I don’t have to wait to watch a parade; I can see a parade every day this summer by taking a walk in our Lake County Forest Preserves.

Not the type of parade with floats and brass bands, but nature’s parade of colors, textures and blooms. My favorite preserves to see this parade are those that have splendid expanses of prairie.

Summer in the prairie starts with green. Not with one hue of green but myriad greens—more hues than I can count. Early in the season the green is fresh and shows more yellow. Then, as photosynthesis does its magic, the green intensifies and hides all hint of yellow. During your next walk, take a moment to really look at the surroundings and focus on the vast number of greens.

The violet-blue of spiderwort blossoms, with their bright yellow stamens, are often the first showy colors in the prairie parade, followed by the white blossoms of the wild indigo with its blue-tinted leaves.

Next in the parade comes lavender. Large patches of preserves seem to be painted purple by bergamot and Echinacea carpeting the area.

Midsummer is announced by the stunning orange of butterfly weed and the subtle pink of common milkweed. Close inspection of either of these blossoms reveals clusters of tiny individual flowers that remind me of women dressed for a ball with long flowing skirts.

Purple spikes of feathery blazing star blossoms not only add a vertical feature to the scene but also act as terrific landing pads for butterflies and bees.

Remember to explore the textures of the prairie as well. Spiderwort has long, slender smooth stems. The leaves of prairie dock are rough like sand paper and are easy to notice among the vegetation. The flowers of rattlesnake master look like miniature pieces of sculpture that add their own texture to the landscape.

The end of the parade is signaled by the yellows of late summer. Gray-headed coneflower and multiple species of goldenrods add sunshine to prairie, even on overcast days. Prairie dock and compass plant punctuate the late summer prairie by sending their yellow flowers high over our heads.

Happily, the finale of the prairie parade doesn’t happen until October. As the seasons change, the bright yellow will fade away but the parade isn’t over yet—grasses will show rich browns, reds, and tans.

The best way to appreciate nature’s parade is visit your favorite preserve regularly.

Recommended hikes: Forest preserves with a showy prairie parade include Rollins Savanna, Berkeley Prairie, Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway (walking north of Sedge Meadow), and Waukegan Savanna Forest Preserves.

“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.

Students patiently fill their buckets with wiggly tadpoles and hulking crayfish. What appears to be an insignificant, teeny stick in a student’s pond bucket suddenly transforms when placed under a microscope. The “stick” suddenly springs to life, as students notice the head of a caddisfly larva unsuspectingly pop out of one end.

Caddisflies are insects in the order Trichoptera, one of the largest orders of aquatic insects. The larvae are widely distributed in various freshwater bodies, and a few species inhabit marine environments. Some consider caddisfly the aquatic cousins of moths. Only terrestrial for a brief period as adults, caddisflies spend most of their lives as larvae and pupae in a wide variety of waterways.

Their success as an order is directly tied to their unique ability to make silk strands, which is used to create portable homes and, in some cases, nets for filtering food. These unique silk retreats have some real advantages when it comes to camouflage, physical protection, food acquisition, and respiratory efficiency.

Caddisfly larvae resemble caterpillars tucked into “sleeping bags” adorned with stones, sand, sticks, and bits of plants. The larvae have silk glands in their lower lips and use this silk to create temporary homes and affix their cases to large rocks or woody debris. By attaching to substrate, they avoid being carried away by the current. The natural materials attached to the outside of the cases not only help weigh them down to prevent drifting, but also serve as amazing camouflage.

Some species create flat, thin extensions on their cases to increase the surface area, which allows them to sprawl on top of soft sediments. Others encase themselves in super long tubes burrowed into the mud, secure inside, never even contacting the muck surrounding them.

While most caddisfly larvae eat algae and plants, some species forgo homebuilding all together and use their silk to catch food instead. These net-spinning species construct mesh silk nets that strain edible particles of plants, crustaceans, and insects from the water.

Caddisflies will spend anywhere from two months to two years in the larval stage before pupating in the water. The case where they spent the larval stage will be modified into a cocoon with the addition of a porous, silk sieve plate to the rear of the case. This allows water in, and with it a fresh supply of dissolved oxygen, while keeping predators out. The cocoon is capped on top with stones or plants and the whole thing is glued in place with silk to a rock or log.

After a few weeks, the caddisfly will cut the pupal case open with its sharp jaw. Many species use the pupal skin like a raft, drifting to the edge of the water to dry their wings before flying to nearby vegetation. Adult caddisflies are mostly nocturnal and live about one month, feeding on nectar with sponge-like mouthparts.

These insects play an important role in the function of freshwater ecosystems. Most species are sensitive to pollution, so the diversity and abundance found in our wetlands can provide useful information about the environmental condition of our waterways.

With the exception of net-spinning caddisflies, each species creates its own, unique abode. Currently, there are 15 documented species of caddisfly in Lake County, Illinois, and likely even more out there—waiting to peek their heads out under the microscope.

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.

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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.

 

Not surprisingly, the Latin name of striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) means ” bad odor.” Until recently, members of this family, including 10 New World skunks and 2 Asian stink badgers, were included in the same mammal family as weasels. This group is now considered part of a separate family entirely, Mephitidae, which is characterized by black and white fur (warning coloration) and special glands that produce a foul musk.

Striped skunks are the only species of skunk in Illinois and are found commonly throughout Lake County, Illinois. They utilize a wide variety of habitats, always within reach of permanent water, from forest edges to grassy fields. Chiefly nocturnal, striped skunks locate mice, eggs, insects, and berries by their sense of smell and hearing, often digging and rooting around in soil for their favorite critters. While they are generally solitary animals, small groups have been known to den together in winter for warmth rather than companionship. While they do become dormant when temperatures dip below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, skunks are not hibernators, and are often active on warmer winter nights, becoming increasingly active during their breeding periods between February and March.

As breeding season begins, skunks emerge from dens, which are typically abandoned underground labyrinths from other animals such as woodchucks and fox. In a pinch, a skunk will dig its own very simple den. Regardless, skunks will almost always build a nest of leaves inside its burrow, in a very entertaining way, backing into the entrance hole with a giant mouthful of leaves as the caboose.

After mating, an adult female will continue to use dens, albeit different ones than in winter, to raise her 4-8 babies on her own, while the adult male returns to his solitary life. Young are typically born in May and will stay close to the mother, often following in a single file line, like fuzzy little ants marching, until late June or July.

Most skunk stories people tell me are different from mine, in that they almost always focus on what skunks are most known for: stinky spray. Skunks themselves are not foul-smelling animals, nor are their dens. The musk they create as a form of self-defense, is secreted by two internal glands at the base of the tail. Skunks have control over these scent glands and can form a stream or fine spray of the phosphorescent fluid that can glow at night and travel up to 20 feet. The scent glands contain only about 1/2 an ounce of the volatile, sulfuric fluid, which is used up in about 5 rounds of spraying. Since a skunk’s body can only produce about 1/2 an ounce of musk a week, it is truly a defense of last resort.

Skunks generally put up with a considerable amount of abuse before resorting to musking. When threatened, they will give several warning signs from stamping their front feet loudly, to clicking their teeth while hissing and growling. If that doesn’t do the trick, they have even been seen walking short distances on their front feet, their tails held high in the air, like some kind of a circus act. If all else fails, skunks will raise their tails, stand all their hair on end, twisting their bodies into a U-shape with both head and tail facing the threat, and let it fly. Sometimes, even after all of this, skunks can still fall victim to predators such as great horned owls and coyotes.

While it can be a positive and memorable experience to see skunks, from a distance, on a hike in our Lake Country Forest Preserves, sometimes they can be uninvited guests near our homes. By reducing elements, such as food, water, and shelter, that skunks require for survival, we can make areas around our homes less attractive real estate for wildlife. For more tips like this on living with wildlife, as well as a calendar of events that will get you out in the Lake County Forest Preserves this spring, visit us online and take a look at our newest edition of Horizons magazine.

Bird-eat-bird world

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I remember the first time I saw it happen. It was a frigid Sunday in February, sixteen years ago. I had just started working for the Lake County Forest Preserves. The deep cold, the kind that temporarily freezes your eyelashes together every time you blink, kept potential hikers away from Ryerson Conservation Area that day. I ventured out only to fill the bird feeders, and the chickadees, juncos, cardinals, and woodpeckers quickly gathered around for a feast. I thought they would be my only visitors of the day. Then, a cacophony of bird wings ruptured the quiet. Bird visitors fled from the feeders in all directions. In a low hanging branch of a nearby oak, one bird remained: a Cooper’s hawk. It was devouring a mourning dove that had just been pecking around under the feeders only moments before.

Cooper's hawk eating birdWhile perhaps shocking the first time you see it, Cooper’s hawks targeting bird feeders has become a more common occurrence over the years. These medium-sized hawks with long, striped tails, are forest dwellers that specialize in darting nimbly through the woods in pursuit of their favorite food—other birds. Rock doves and mourning doves are common prey, easy targets at bird feeders, which the hawk captures in its sharp talons and kills by squeezing.

According to data from Project FeederWatch, a citizen science survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, there has been a significant increase of Cooper’s hawks visiting bird feeders over the past 25 years. There are a multitude of reasons behind this rise in visitation. Hawk populations in general have increased since the ban of DDT in the early 1970s, a pesticide that caused the thinning of egg shells in raptors and other birds.

Additionally, there has been a significant increase backyard bird feeding. Over 40 percent of American households report feeding backyard birds, which congregates a Cooper’s hawk’s favorite foods into one big buffet. Scientists have found that this growing food source may contribute to some hawks staying put during the winter in lieu of migrating each fall. Research thus far has not provided evidence that these newer winter residents have caused significant declines in songbird species at feeders.

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It’s fascinating to find the food chain in action in our local forest preserves and even our own backyards. While the winter bird feeder season is ending soon, we are on the precipice of spring when many other animals will rise from various forms of winter “sleep.” Others will migrate back from afar.fox

Each spring our interactions with wildlife tend to increase. The spring issue of our quarterly Horizons magazine, features an article on “Living with Wildlife.” The feature includes tips on how to best interact with animals that have found suitable habitat in your backyard or other urban areas. By remembering a few key factors about living alongside wildlife, we can avoid potential problems, and enjoy the excitement that these animals bring to our backyards and communities.

 

 

Snowflake anatomy

Post by Jen Berlinghof

My family and I spent the beginning of the new year in the Northwoods. We wanted quiet. We wanted nature. Most of all, we wanted snow. As we started out on a snowshoe trek to a nearby river, tiny snowflakes settled on my son’s navy blue parka. They seemed to freeze on contact for only a few seconds, forming miniature constellations, before melting into temporary teardrop stains. The filigree of each flake in those hushed, fleeting moments fascinated both of my boys.

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