A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

On May 4, I participated in the Spring Bird Count at Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods, where I entered the complex, intimidating world of spring warblers. These birds are small, dynamic insect-eaters that look very similar to each other in the eyes of a novice birder. They pass through Lake County in April and May as they migrate from the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America toward Canada and the northeastern U.S.

Warblers can be hard to spot; they’re small, they move a lot, and males and females of the same species can have different plumage. Prior to this effort, each time I opened my Peterson Field Guide I would skip the warbler section. Despite the challenge, warblers are the most thrilling birds to see. They bring a burst of color, a promise of spring. Their flashes of orange, yellow, and blue make any woodland seem more alive.

Thankfully, a coworker helped make this a less daunting experience by focusing me on three warblers to start: the palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), and the black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens).

The palm warbler is easily spotted by its near-constant tail pumping. And you can look for the yellow-rumped warbler’s, well, yellow rump patch, as well as white patches in its tail.

The black-throated green warbler is often heard before it’s seen. I quickly learned to pick out one of its calls: zee, zee, zo zo zee. It can be identified by its white wing bars and straight, thick bill. They’re found in all different types of forest habitats, even swamps, where they feed on insects, mainly non-fuzzy caterpillars.

A black-throated green warbler sings on a branch. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Soon I was confident with these species and ready to identify more. My next goal was the black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia). Named for its black-and-white stripes, it was fairly simple to identify. This species often hangs out on tree trunks looking for insects in the bark.

The magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia) tends to hang low in shrubs or short trees. Adult male magnolia warblers boast a distinguishing black mask. They migrate at night, traveling long distances to their summer breeding ground in Canada. In Lake County, they’re often found in thick vegetation, hopping branch to branch and collecting insects from the undersides of leaves.

Look for the male magnolia warbler's distinctive black streak across its face. Photo © Randall Wade.

There are plenty more warblers, plenty more birds, to learn about and identify and appreciate. As I continue to grow my annual list and become more familiar with birding areas in Lake County, I encourage you to do the same. Before you travel far and wide, consider engaging with the nature around you. Look no further than your backyard for your next adventure. A world of warblers is out there.

An educator searches for birds at Independence Grove. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Join us as we close out the spring birding season with our final Birdwatching Hot Spots programs on Saturday, June 1 and Saturday, June 15, 8–10 am at Spring Bluff in Winthrop Harbor. Look for waterfowl and other migratory species. Spotting scopes and binoculars will be available. FREE. No registration required. All ages welcome.

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.

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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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