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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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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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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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.

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Hordes of hummingbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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For me, most days on the job consist of time in my “office” outdoors—a woodland, prairie or wetland in the Lake County Forest Preserves—with my “clients”—students, teachers, and families interested in learning more about local nature. On those rare days spent plunking away at a computer indoors, the photo above is my view. Recently, this view is bustling with activity, as hordes of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzz around the feeders, bulking up for a long flight south.

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Bluebirds are back!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Last week while I was out checking our sap collection buckets at Ryerson Conservation Area, everything in the woods seemed a bleak brown and gray. It didn’t look much like spring was on our doorstep, but it sure sounded like it with the “plink plink” of sap dripping into aluminum buckets on the sugar maple trees and the slow “peep peep” of cold, little spring peeper frogs. Then, a male eastern bluebird landed on the branch above my head. He was a vivid blue exclamation point that seemed to shout, “Spring has arrived!”

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