“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.

The American toad, Anaxyrus americanus, is a common amphibian in Lake County, Illinois. Like other amphibians, this species of frog leads a “dual life,” spending stages of its life cycle in water and on land. These toads have unique adaptations to help them elude potential predators. The skin of toad tadpoles, as well as adult toads, contain glands that produce toxic fluids which can be harmful to predators that swallow them or get them in their eyes. If grabbed by the beaks of hawks or herons, or by the jaws of raccoons or snakes, adult toads will inflate themselves like a balloon, hoping they can no longer fit down the throat of the predator.

If all else fails, toads will urinate, which typically gets the predator to drop them. But of all these defenses, none is as successful for the species as the strategy of “safety in numbers” we witnessed that morning at summer camp.

While solitary as adults, American toads are known to go through metamorphosis in synchrony, or all at the same time. Thousands of teeny toadlets emerge from a pond within a few days. Less time in the water as an egg or tadpole means less time for a predacious diving beetle, fish or dragonfly nymph to eat you.

Once metamorphosis is complete and toads hit land, they have to contend with different predators. The most troublesome are garter snakes. These snakes are immune to the effects of the toad’s toxic skin and will gather around ponds in early summer, gorging themselves on a toad buffet. Emerging en masse makes it impossible for the snakes to eat all the baby toads, allowing many to survive and hop away on their pudgy legs to grow into adulthood in the woods. Research has shown that tadpoles raised in the presence of predators show higher levels of aggregation than tadpoles raised in their absence.

So perhaps the magic of a toad is not kissing it to transform it into a prince, but rather the wonder and awe of a mass emergence seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old child. Toads will likely be seen in high numbers countywide over the next few weeks. See a little of the magic for yourself along the trails, but watch your step while exploring the preserves! Want to sign your child up for fun and learning with our expert educators? Visit www.LCFPD.org/camps to learn more.

A tale of two squirrels

Post by Jen Berlinghof and Allison Frederick

Everywhere you look this time of year, animals are tending to nests during spring’s baby season. Squirrels are very active at this time with the bounties of spring. Food reserves from winter are low, and energy demands are high with young in the drey (their leafy, treetop summer homes) demanding to be fed. So, squirrels turn from their habits of digging for winter caches and begin eating buds, flowers, fungi and lichens. They will take advantage of almost ANY food source at this time of year!

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In search of river otters

Guest post by Andrew Rutter

I had just finished my time as a Masters student at Southern Illinois University with the Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab, studying river otter (Lontra canadensis) ecology, when I took my first full-time position as a wildlife biologist with the Lake County Forest Preserve District in Illinois.

Having spent the last two years of my life entirely focused on river otters, I figured my time studying the species was at an end. Although my research team and I found them to be relatively abundant where we focused our research efforts in southern Illinois, I did not expect the same to be true farther north in Lake County.

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“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.

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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.

 

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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 bird Continue reading

Turtle Champions

Post by Allison Frederick

109 adopted turtles!

bltu-20161104-004Our inaugural campaign to enhance conservation efforts and further protect an endangered species was a huge success. Donations poured in from Lake County and beyond (as far away as California!) to adopt baby Blanding’s turtles, allowing us to continue our head-starting program and field work next summer. Continue reading