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.

It may seem an odd sight, but wood ducks such as this female can perch on trees and branches. Photo © Michael Warner.

Unlike most dabbling ducks, wood ducks are perching ducks, equipped with well-developed claws that help them cling to branches and nest in tree cavities anywhere from two to 60 feet high. Most courtship displays happen in fall and by mid-winter these ducks have already paired up. Come spring, the mated couples inspect old woodpecker holes, cavities created by broken branches, and wood duck boxes for a suitable nesting spot. Typically, the male will perch nearby while the female tips her head into each potential home before selecting the best nest.

A female wood duck inspects a nest box while a male perches close by. Photo © Janis Stone.

Wood ducks seem to prefer nest sites adjacent to water. Once she has found the perfect hollow, the female will pluck out down from her breast to create a soft space for each egg she lays, stacking soft feathers and eggs in layers. While females usually lay one egg a day, totaling six to 16, their nests are often filled to the brim with up to 30 eggs due to a unique behavior called compound nestingFemale wood ducks will actually lay eggs in multiple nests nearby. The nest owner will incubate them along with her own brood and raise them as if they were her own.

If from the same nest, wood duck young all hatch within a few hours of each other. They’re born precocial, with fuzzy down and the urge and ability to leave home and find food. Just one day post-hatching is considered a wood duck nestling’s “jump day,” in which the chicks leap with abandon, wings spread, from their towering tree nest holes, landing near their waiting mother up to 50 feet below. While the nestlings may be momentarily stunned, they are rarely injured in this seemingly daredevil move. The female then corrals all her young on the ground and heads off to nearby water and feeding areas. The nestlings never look back.

You can participate in Birdwatching Hotspots programs this spring and summer across Lake County. Photo © Tim Elliott.

The duck-spotting gentleman has called back multiple times to speak to the “duck lady,” each time with more anecdotes and questions about the ducks in his yard and the wood duck box he plans to install. It seems fitting that for a short time this spring I have been known as the “duck lady” around the office. I think my Grandpa “Duck” would be proud.

Birdwatching volunteers train atop the new observation deck at Spring Bluff in Winthrop Harbor. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

You can witness the wonders of wood ducks and all the diverse behaviors of birds at our new Birdwatching Hotspots programs in the Lake County Forest Preserves this spring. Join us at Lake County birding hot spots to look for waterfowl, marsh birds, and other migratory species. Spotting scopes and binoculars will be available. Free. All ages welcome. No registration required.

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.

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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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Leopards and tigers and bears!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Around the first frost is the best time for spotting bears in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois…woolly bears, that is! These fuzzy caterpillars succumb to a late fall wanderlust and can often be found traversing trails and roads, as well as climbing vegetation and nibbling a last few bites before winter sets in. They belong to the subfamily Arctiinae, commonly known as tiger moths. Their scientific name stems from the ancient Greek word arktos (“bear”), for the appearance of their hairy larvae.

A woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) found along the Des Plaines River Trail. 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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Summer “buzz kill”

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The sun had set, the campfire was doused, and the food was stashed away for the night as my sons and I tucked ourselves into our sleeping bag cocoons, thoroughly exhausted in a way one can only be from a day spent entirely outdoors. Still, sleep would not come easily. The whirling drone of thousands of annual cicadas buzzed through the nylon walls of our tent loud enough to overpower our fatigue. I lay awake, thinking it odd the cicadas would be calling after dark, when I caught a hint of the rising full moon through the ceiling screen and realized they were staying up late to party with the extra light. One of my boys groaned, “Isn’t there anything that can stop these CICADAS?” As a matter of fact, the next day we found just the thing: a cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus).

The author holds a dead cicada killer wasp in her palm. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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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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