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.

A native garden to call your own

Guest post by Eileen Davis

What is your earliest gardening memory? Was it planting a seed in a paper cup at school, and watching it sprout and grow on the classroom windowsill? Perhaps you gathered dandelion flowers and presented your mom with a beautiful, yellow bouquet. Or did you rake up a giant pile of leaves to jump in on a crisp fall day? You might even have visited the native garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

My earliest gardening memory is helping my aunt and uncle in their garden. I was only about four or five years old, but I clearly remember the prickly feeling of the cucumber vines scratching my forearm as I helped pull weeds. No matter the memory, we are all doing the same thing—tending to our little piece of the Earth. It’s something humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. We are and always have been dependent on our environment for survival.

The author's daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
The author’s daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
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On the path to recovery

Editor’s note: hello readers, Brett Peto here. Guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, is back with the second of her three-part series about our research project to restore 180 acres of former farmland within Grant Woods Forest Preserve using a climate-adapted, regionally sourced native seed mix.

An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
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Flicking through the Flickr pool

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been a long year. In a pandemic, separated from routines, sometimes days go slow but months go fast, and vice versa. There are fewer anchors around which to pin our schedules like so many pieces of laundry on a clothesline. Some people have started baking homemade bread, assembling model kits, binging movies and podcasts, devouring piles of books, or playing long-distance board games over Zoom. Our strategies may vary, but I think it’s helpful to have as many coping mechanisms as we can gather this year.

One adopted or continued by many folks is spending more time outdoors. Whether in yards, neighborhoods, parks, or the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, people are discovering or rediscovering the value of nature, even as the thermometer dips. Fresh air; sunshine; wide horizons; the sounds of wind in trees and water over rocks; birds and squirrels and foxes living their private lives; the calm curiosity to find out where a trail goes and the confidence that it’s designed to go somewhere.

"Ice Ice Baby." Photo © Michelle Wendling.
“Ice Ice Baby.” Photo © Michelle Wendling.
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Growing through change

Editor’s note: hello readers, Brett Peto here. This month, we’ve opened up the floor to guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology. She’s here to discuss a recent virtual workshop we held as part of our research project to determine best seed sourcing practices for climate resiliency.

“We know that by 2050, our climate is predicted to be more like Oklahoma,” says Pati. So, we need to understand whether we should source seeds from further south to make our restoration projects more resilient to climate change. To help determine this, we’re procuring 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky.

This November, we’ll plant those seeds in 180 acres of former agricultural fields at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Then we’ll monitor and compare each species’ growth to seeds sourced from our area. I’ll let Pati pick it up from here.

A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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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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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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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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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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Go take a hike

Post by Nan Buckardt

Everyone has one! At least, anyone who regularly hikes in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois has one: a favorite trail. It might be the trail near your home or the one that reminds you of a secret only-I-know-about-this spot growing up. Maybe it holds a special memory. Whatever the reason, something about it always sparks joy in your heart.

I’ve been thinking about trails a lot this fall as I’ve hiked those selected for this year’s Hike Lake County (HLC) program. HLC has encouraged folks for 20-plus years to explore seven of 12 designated trails between mid-August and November 30. More than 200 miles of trails thread through dozens of preserves countywide, so the diversity of choices isn’t necessarily a big surprise, but it is a big benefit to residents and visitors.

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