The back-to-school season in early fall brings restlessness and routine to my house. I’m struck by how it parallels the flurry of fall migration across the natural world: a return to the patterns of movement ingrained over generations.
Green darner (Anax junius) dragonflies skim the skies by the dozens along the lakefront at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest, their wings glittering. Fields of bee balm (Monarda didyma) along the 31.4-mile Des Plaines River Trail quiver with monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) nectaring to gear up for their epic journey. And, sporting less vibrant feathers than in the spring, migratory birds take flight in muted autumnal tones, heading south. As the sun sets in September and the harvest moon rises, this silent surge of fall migration commences.
This happened at least 30 times as I cycled the winding 1.62-mile trail section from Gilmer Road to the Singing Hills parking lot. As I coasted by these birds, I detected a “chunk” call and noticed their color pattern, which has been described as a classic black tuxedo worn backwards.
I wondered who this dapper fellow was and why there were so many along this route, emerging from this habitat. I would soon learn this pop-up-from-the-grasses blackbird was none other than the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). It’s eastern North America’s only songbird whose feathers are black below and mostly white above, with a buttery, cream-yellow nape. Keep watch for a white rump, too, as he takes flight.
In February, sensational sunrises and sunsets break up the stark days and cold, dark nights of a waning winter. Dawn and dusk not only bring the thrill of color to a monochrome landscape, but also the best chance of hearing and seeing nocturnal raptors. As the mercury drops, owl courtship heats up. While many other birds head south for winter, owls pair up and hunker down. At night, the soundtrack of our resident species’ hoots and hollers fills the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, offering us a glimpse into an otherwise hidden world.
The winter landscape, stripped of its lush layers of leaves and fields of flowers, reveals hidden homes. This season of stillness offers a glimpse into animal lives that were carried on clandestinely throughout spring, summer and fall around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. It’s surprising to see how many critters have been busy raising families right under our noses, or sometimes, right above our heads, without us always noticing.
Living in Illinois, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a change of seasons. Though I often find it difficult to switch from the crunch of fall leaves to the crunch of snow, it can be a peaceful time to head outdoors. Recently, I went walking in Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. As I looked around in the quiet, contemplative landscape, I thought about the life that teemed all around me, and how it was now hidden from view or departed on a migration.
While leading winter walks, I’m often asked, “Where are all the animals?” It depends on the animal. Each employs different survival strategies that help it adapt and even thrive in winter. What, exactly, do animals do to make it through the challenges of cold temperatures and a lack of food? Well, I like to say they have MAD strategies: migrate, active and dormant.
While the past year and a half has kept many of us mostly at home, nature in our backyards and beyond has provided a balm for these trying times. General use of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois is trending 30% higher in 2021 than a typical pre-pandemic year. And in 2020, there was an astounding 70% surge in visitation. The number of folks delving into home gardening and backyard birding has skyrocketed as well, making headlines by leaving store shelves bare of birdseed and bird feeders. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified our desire to connect to nature closer to home, and it has created space and time for local, daily observations. All of this translates to an environment ripe for community science, also called citizen science.
What is your earliest gardening memory? Was it planting a seed in a paper cup at school, and watching it sprout and grow on the classroom windowsill? Perhaps you gathered dandelion flowers and presented your mom with a beautiful, yellow bouquet. Or did you rake up a giant pile of leaves to jump in on a crisp fall day? You might even have visited the native garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
My earliest gardening memory is helping my aunt and uncle in their garden. I was only about four or five years old, but I clearly remember the prickly feeling of the cucumber vines scratching my forearm as I helped pull weeds. No matter the memory, we are all doing the same thing—tending to our little piece of the Earth. It’s something humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. We are and always have been dependent on our environment for survival.
Bird migration is well underway, and the nesting season is upon us at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. I watched last week as an American robin (Turdus migratorius) plucked dried grasses from the yard, nudging them into place with her beak and wings, readying her cup-shaped nest for the azure eggs that are synonymous with spring. From the nearby American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) tree, I heard the gurgling chatter of a flock of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).
I thought about how while the robin might’ve seemed completely absorbed in her nest building, she was probably wearily listening to the cowbirds, too. Brown-headed cowbirds are North America’s most common avian brood parasite, forgoing nest building altogether. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of more than 200 other species of birds, leaving the incubation and rearing of their young to these unwitting foster parents.
March is the demarcation of spring. This new season is brewing now as snowmelt percolates through the thick mats of leaves on the forest floor into swollen creeks. Sap is rising in the sugar maples (Acer saccharum), with its promise of sweetness after a harsh winter. The purple, mottled crowns of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) peek out of the thawing mud, surging toward the sun. And the quiet of winter is replaced with the cacophony of western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) accompanied by the “peent” and “whir” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.
Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.
Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?
Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.
July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.