A walk through winter

Post by Brett Peto

I started my position with the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in 2017. By the end of 2018, I had visited 45 of our 65 locations. Each time I returned from a new spot, I circled it on a map at my desk. Their names were just as diverse as the habitats within. Old School, Lakewood, Middlefork Savanna, Singing Hills, Cuba Marsh. Oak woodlands and savannas, prairies, sedge meadows, marshes, wetlands.

In mid-January, it felt like a good time to circle another name: Heron Creek in Lake Zurich, Illinois. It surprised me that I’d never walked its trails. A 242-acre preserve home to rolling woodlands, fields, the Indian Creek basin, and more than 116 species of birds, Heron Creek is closer to our General Offices than several sites I had been to. It was even roughly on my route to and from work. So toward the end of January, I took myself, some winter weather gear, and a few cameras there to explore.

A snow-swept field at Heron Creek on January 22, 2019. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

From the easternmost parking lot near Shelter A, I traveled the trails in Heron Creek’s southern half, following a 1.1-mile loop that climbed and descended the landscape more than I expected. Apart from exchanging good mornings with a visitor walking her dog, I didn’t see another soul for the next few hours. Just the land, my equipment, and myself.

The title of a navigational sign painted over with ice. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.The author's coat sleeve encrusted with freezing rain. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

There was a kind of quiet I’ve only noticed during or after a heavy snowfall. The sounds of traffic were nearly erased by the snow and my increasing distance from the road.

In a small thought, I realized much of what I think of as the noise of civilization and development is really the noise of traffic. People wear earplugs and install thick windows against it. With it mostly removed, though, whatever broke the silence seemed more purposeful.

Two mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) quacking, flapping above the tree canopy. The slow flow of Indian Creek’s not-yet-frozen bends. My steps punching through the crunchy surface of the snow. And something I’d never heard before, or at least not that I could recall: freezing rain falling on a pin oak (Quercus palustris) whose leaves were largely still intact. Its neighbors had lost theirs months ago. The falling rain sounded as if a gust of wind were blowing within the branches of just this one tree, never leaving the crown, redirecting back inward at its edges.

Like maples, hickories, and cottonwoods, most species of oak are deciduous. However, some individual oaks hold their leaves through the winter. This is called marcescence. Along with several oak species, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) frequently display marcescence.

It’s caused by incomplete development of the abscission zone, a region of specialized cells that forms at the base of the petiole, or stalk, of leaves. With shorter days in autumn, a number of chemical changes occur within the abscission zone. Two distinct layers of cells form, eventually separating the petiole from the branch and letting the leaf fall. In marcescent trees, this process is usually delayed until early spring, when expanding buds push last year’s leaves to the ground. During winter, snow or wind can rip certain leaves off, but they hadn’t done so to this particular oak.

Freezing rain falls on the leaves of a pin oak (Quercus palustris). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Despite the solitude, I noticed evidence of others having been there before me. Boot prints and cross-country skiing tracks marked each path in zigzag patterns. Small holes peppered the trunk of a standing dead tree, likely the handiwork of woodpeckers foraging for wood-boring insects. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks cut across the trail west-to-east, a pile of scat midway through the visible hoof prints.

Holes drilled by woodpeckers in search of insects to eat. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Evidence of a white-tailed deer trail crossing. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.You have to work a little more to spot wildlife in the winter. Many animals are harder to see due to lower activity levels and protective coloration. I experienced this when I spotted a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) from about 100 yards away. It was standing perfectly still on the frozen surface of Indian Creek, so still that I couldn’t determine what I was seeing at first. The bird’s blue-gray plumage blended well with the blue-gray ice it perched on. My long lens was in my camera bag, though. Could I swap lenses quietly enough? I had to try.

Midway through, both lenses in my hands, the heron cocked its head, spread its six-foot wingspan, and took off gracefully, flying northwest. By the time I clicked the long lens into place, the heron was indistinguishable among the trees. I followed the trail in its direction, but neither saw nor heard any sign of it. After 15 minutes of searching, I paused on a bridge over Indian Creek. East of the bridge, it was frozen; west, flowing. Thin shelves of ice hung over the water, which cast dark forms as it slipped and dipped beneath the ice. It was a mesmerizing Rorschach test. What exactly had I seen today? More than I thought.

The surface of Indian Creek was frozen in some parts, flowing in others. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Winter can seem to some like a monotonous season. The color palette can be limited; the cycles of snow and ice can feel limiting. But as I see more of the world in winter, I see more in the world in winter. There are 19 preserves still to circle on the map at my desk, and I intend to circle them. However your map may look, I hope you circle more of it in this new year.

Plan a visit to a new-to-you preserve in 2019. Use our interactive trail maps to help find and navigate your next adventure or attend a program in a preserve. Happy trails!

An oak leaf rests on the frozen surface of Indian Creek. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Time to make a moment

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

Time can never be stopped, sped up, or slowed down. It started long before now and will continue far after. But with photographs, we can pause time, pin it in front of us, and study reality. It’s like kneeling at a riverbank and scooping a handful of water. The current stops in your palm, but just a foot beneath it carries on. Photos take time to make a moment.

With nearly 31,000 acres to explore, many moments are possible in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. An eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) landing with one foot, wings at sharp angles. A cluster of milkweed seeds hanging on to their pod by threads of floss. Sunflowers and sunbeams, two shades of honey mixing in the air. I’ve collected these special moments and more in a gallery below.

All photos featured were taken by the truly skillful photographers in our group Flickr pool. Each of these images, these presses of the pause button and scoops out of the river, were captured in 2018. Our sincere thanks go to every photographer who shares their time and talent documenting the flora, fauna, and natural areas of Lake County.

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Final songs of summer

Post by Jen B

As summer winds down, a telltale hum that signals the changing seasons begins to ramp up in the fields and forests. These trills and chirps are the mating calls of tree crickets (Oecanthinae)—a group of fascinating insects that are often heard but seldom known or seen. Their small size and mint green color helps camouflage them amidst the verdant grasses, shrubs and trees of late summer.

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Restoring our woodland habitats

Post by Allison

The wooded habitats along the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, Illinois are changing. Last winter, the Lake County Forest Preserves completed 194 acres of canopy and understory thinning in woodland communities at MacArthur Woods and Grainger Woods Forest Preserves. This winter, woodland habitat restoration has begun at Captain Daniel Wright Woods and Ryerson Conservation Area, in addition to continuing at MacArthur Woods.

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The restoration and species monitoring that will continue within these natural areas for the next 20 years will help ensure the sustainability of oak woodlands and the wildlife they support for many generations to come.

Winter visitors to these preserves, or vehicular passersby, will notice the use of heavy equipment, burning piles of brush, and an already visible difference in the openness of the woodland landscape. A number of canopy trees are being removed to increase the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. Visit these areas again when the leaves return, and early results of the Woodland Habitat Restoration Project will be obvious. Continue reading

Heron highrise

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Kenn Kaufman, a naturalist and bird expert, speak at the Smith Nature Symposium. He is somewhat of a “rock star” in the birding world. His novel, Kingbird Highway, chronicles a personal adventure hitchhiking around the country at the age of 16 on a quest to find birds—a story that has reached the status of folklore. Many years later, and surely a much longer “life list,” his keynote address at Ryerson Conservation Area focused on warbler migration: the phenomenon of these teeny tiny birds in every hue of the rainbow that travel thousands of miles across entire continents each spring and fall. He presented complicated doppler maps and in-depth scientific research on these migratory dynamos, but by the end of the discussion the focus had shifted to something more simple: the children from his young birders club.

guide-bookLate that evening, as I settled down with one of his many guide books, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, I was struck by this same theme of simplicity. Kaufman urges folks to slow down and focus not on looking for the birds, but instead to spend time looking at the birds. He stresses getting to know the common birds of an area very well. By doing so, we are well on our way to knowing when a rare bird may enter the scene. This concept brought to mind one of the best places to take a long look at one common bird of Lake County, Illinois: a great blue heron rookery.

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Drought and maple syrup

With the recent snow and cold weather, last summer’s dry heat seems like a distant memory. Yet, it was only this past week that the National Weather Service officially changed its “moderate drought” designation to “abnormally dry” for most of Lake County, Illinois (although, a small northwest portion of the county is still considered to be in a “moderate drought”). While every drop of rain and flake of snow is helping to slowly ease our way out of the past eight months of drought, the damage already done will decide the sweetness of this spring.

Each spring for the past three decades, the naturalists at Ryerson Conservation Area have tapped sugar maple trees to harvest the sap and turn it into pure maple syrup.

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Fast-forward fall

Even though Illinois recently received a break from this summer’s heat and drought, the precipitation deficit that remains statewide has kicked off autumn with atypical natural events. Thus far, the year 2012 has been the fourth driest on Illinois record. However, it has been raining acorns and fall colors have been peeking through the greenery since late August—three weeks earlier than usual. This fast-forward to fall is a tree’s way of protecting itself when water is in short supply. The vibrant color displays of autumn, which seem so lively, are actually a sign that a tree is entering dormancy.

These flashes of fall colors are a result of changes in pigments. The dominant green pigment in leaves is chlorophyll. The leaves in a tree are like little factories, mixing together a recipe of specific ingredients (sunlight, carbon dioxide and water) to make food for the tree’s growth. Chlorophyll acts as the “chef” in this process, called photosynthesis; its presence is necessary in bringing everything together.

Typically, autumn’s cool nights and shortening days trigger photosynthesis to slow down. The scarcity of one key ingredient, water, is triggering this earlier-than-average dormancy. As the work of the leaves comes to an end for the year, chlorophyll breaks down and reveals yellow and orange pigments that have hidden behind its green cloak all summer. Leaves that contain the pigments xanthophyll and carotene—as do hickories, cottonwoods, elms and some maples—will change to vivid shades of yellow and orange as the green fades. Continue reading