Become a community scientist

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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.

Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.

Community science consists of collaborations between professional scientists and members of the general public. Through such partnerships, volunteers, or community scientists, make many important scientific contributions. They assist with biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard flower. They help answer important questions around the effects of climate change on plants and animals, and how we can help mitigate those effects. Ordinary folks, with a desire to help and some basic training, have discovered everything from new animal species to new exoplanets.

A group of preserve visitors watches for birds. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A group of preserve visitors watches for birds. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Researchers list the top reasons for participation in community science programs as a desire to contribute meaningfully to science, to enjoy a pleasant distraction from everyday life and to be part of a supportive community. Rest assured that you don’t have to be an expert. Professional scientists break down complex tasks into smaller duties that people without specialized training can tackle. Anyone can do it—from students to senior citizens.

While some rookie community scientists might worry the data they share or the plant or animal identifications they make won’t be accurate, a 2018 analysis found such concerns to be unwarranted. Volunteers and professional scientists agree on the data an impressive 96% of the time, thanks to a number of tools and techniques that ensure data integrity, ranging from training sessions to standardized protocols.

Volunteers watch for birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest. Photo © Michael Haug.
Volunteers watch for birds migrating along the Lake Michigan flyway at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest. Photo © Michael Haug.

For organizations such as the Forest Preserves, community science is a win-win, creating opportunities for public involvement and baseline data collection. We’re always seeking new volunteers to participate in our various Wildlife Monitoring programs to listen for frogs on calm spring evenings or to search the skies for raptors riding thermals during fall.

Additionally, there are countless community science programs you can participate in on your own, whether in a preserve or your own backyard. My budding herpetologist son and I have started searching for reptiles and amphibians in order to contribute to HerpMapper, an easy-to-use network designed to gather and share reptile and amphibian observations across the planet. Our local expeditions have nudged us out of the house to witness cool species such as blue-spotted salamanders (Ambystoma laterale), bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) and water snakes (Nerodia spp.).

The author and her son spotted this water snake (Nerodia spp.) on a citizen science expedition. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son spotted this water snake (Nerodia spp.) on a community science expedition. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
The author and her son. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.

My family has tracked the phenology—the timing of seasonal life-cycle events in plants and animals—of our garden. We’ve contributed our findings to Budburst, a community-focused, data-driven approach to plant conservation overseen by the Chicago Botanic Garden. As one example, we watched the leaves of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) unfurl slowly day by day and were treated to a plethora of pollinators that visited the pink pom-pom flowers as they bloomed.

A Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) visits a common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plant in the author's garden. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.
A Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) visits a common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plant in the author’s garden. Photo © Jen Berlinghof.

In winter, we diligently filled our feeders with seed and suet (when we could find it!) and reported the daily happenings of northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) that bopped in and out of our yard to Feederwatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. And when spring came, we turned to eBird as we traversed further afield to witness the wonder of a Midwest migration. Each boldly colored bird was like a drop of the rainbow in the tree branches and among the grasses.

A scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) perches on a tree branch. Stock photo.

All in all, the more hands on deck—and eyes and ears in the field—collecting data and contributing to scientific discoveries, the better. How can you help? Consider participating in a Backyard BioBlitz this summer, or simply go for a walk and report your findings to one of the largest networks of community scientists on iNaturalist. Learn more about the preserves and our volunteer opportunities.

A native garden to call your own

Guest post by Eileen Davis

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.

The author's daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
The author’s daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
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The cunning of cowbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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The curious courtship of the American woodcock

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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.

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
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The feathered friends of fall migration

Guest post by Ken Klick

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.

Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
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The joy of a feather found

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

I found a feather today and it stopped me in my tracks. There it was, tucked into the dewy grass—a single, beautiful feather just lying next to my sidewalk.

It’s not uncommon to come across feathers in my work at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. My naturalist brain immediately started to assess the discovery, analyzing it on a few key points.

The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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The solace of purple martins

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There’s solace to be found in the fact that the rhythms of nature march on. This spring, the sun still rises. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) still pulses its verdant green arms through the pulpy leaf litter of the forest floor. The birds still surge through the skies as they migrate to and through the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Like us, some of these birds are inclined to congregate in large communities. Over the years, the colonies of a particular species, the purple martin (Progne subis), have become largely reliant on people to provide shelter for their nesting flocks.

Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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Here comes the Sun (Lake)

Post by Brett Peto

The sky to the west was robin’s egg blue, a clearing in the day’s dose of clouds. They had just sneezed a handful of snow, already melting. I drove with the radio off. I didn’t know whether to wear my regular hiking boots or a pair of Wellington boots I’d packed at the last moment. The trail could be soggy, or maybe not. I was on my way to Sun Lake in Lake Villa, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

For this month, I decided to revisit the idea behind my February 2019 post, when I explored a new-to-me preserve and wrote up my observations as a virtual tour. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed circling another name on the map I keep at my desk. So, here I was, about a year later, ready to chronicle another tour. Find a comfy chair and a warm mug. Here’s a snapshot of Sun Lake as I saw it.

The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. I walked the trail loop clockwise. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Finding the right angle

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

I keep thinking about angles. Not the kind you measure with a protractor, but those you measure with your mind. The angle of a story, a conversation, or a project. Photography, of course, uses physical angles—where’s the camera pointed? is the sun directly overhead or is it the sweet time of golden hour?—but the best photos make you want to see even more. They make you want to break open the frame and soak in every bit of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Since it’s nearly the end of 2019, I thought I’d turn 180 degrees and peruse the photos uploaded to our group Flickr pool since January 1. Suffice to say: we’re spoiled. Spoiled with the beauty of Lake County’s flora, fauna, and natural areas, and the talent of the photographers who capture it for everyone to see. Trees and shrubs in their bright fall wardrobes on either side of a trail draining into a vanishing point. A sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) with both wings up like a paper airplane as it dashes to take off. A whirlpool of stars spun around a rich blue sky over a tranquil wetland.

I’ve gathered these moments plus seven more below, but that’s only a small taste. I encourage you to browse the rest of the visual buffet as we make the turn out of the 2010s into the 2020s. And, hey! You might become inclined to upload that shot living on your phone, camera, or computer.

"Night Moves." Photo © reddog1975.
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Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Come late November, most of us have turkeys on the brain. But a different type of turkey is taking to the skies at this time of year on its annual migration south: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). You can spot them in the sky or on the ground in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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