Late last summer, I literally watched a groundhog (Marmota monax) fatten up before my eyes. He’d made a burrow in the field outside my office window and frequently visited the rain gardens around the Edward L. Ryerson Welcome Center in Riverwoods, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. We watched him scamper back and forth, snipping flower tops here and there, always with a mouth crammed full of flora.
Fast forward to early February, and as I look out across the same field, now dotted with small snow drifts punctuated by tufts of grasses gone tawny, I think about that groundhog curled tight in his burrow and deep in hibernation, oblivious to the hubbub of a day in his honor.
Post by Brett Peto. All mink images and footage by John D. Kavc.
Yes, it’s almost that time of year. American mink (Neovison vison) mating season. I know, I’ve been waiting for it, too. February is celebrated for human romance: fancy dinner dates, shiny gifts, and long walks on the Des Plaines River Trail. But it’s useful to step out of our human-focused perspective once in a while. And thanks to our comprehensive Wildlife Monitoring Program, we know minks live in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. So, let’s examine why humans aren’t the only species that looks forward to February 14.
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!
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.
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.
Leaves throughout the forest glowed gold against a backdrop of graying sky as I left Ryerson Conservation Area yesterday afternoon. This morning—as I entered the same preserve along the same road—the dark, skeletal branches were completely visible, stripped of their vibrant leaves that now lay in muddied piles on the forest floor.
These days of November mark a change from crisp colors to muted tones, which offer the perfect backdrop for animals to hide using camouflage. Lake County Forest Preserve educators often teach the concept of camouflage during environmental programs, where students hike in search of animal hides and mounts that have been hidden along the trail. Teachers and scout leaders, peruse our variety of school and scout programs to find a great fit for your group this year. Following is a virtual version of our camouflage hike. Continue reading →
One of our volunteer naturalists recently shared a story of an exciting discovery she made at her bird feeders. She loves to tell anecdotes about the slew of birds that frequent her backyard feeders during the day. However, this time her visitors were not birds, and they appeared in the middle of night. She had seen odd things at night when passing by the windows that looked out towards her yard: a bird feeder swinging wildly with no wind and shadows cast by the moonlight that moved in a herky-jerky scuttle up nearby trees. It wasn’t until one night this winter, with the flick of a light switch, that she caught these mysterious critters in action:Continue reading →
Now that the icy days of January have arrived, everyone in my house has that cooped up feeling and needs to get outside for a view of the expansive winter sky. We need to breathe a bit of fresh air, regardless of how cold it might be. At dusk, my sons and I have been hiking a nearby trail that takes us through scrubby meadows and thickets. During these forays, the boys are often loud and boisterous—until they flush out a cottontail rabbit. They quickly hush. We spend the rest of the hike searching for “our” rabbit (or signs of it) as we crisscross the worn network of trails trodden with tracks.
Last week as I was leading a group of adults on a fall color hike, our collective gaze turned quickly from the canopy of coppers and golds to the forest floor as we watched the flurry of chipmunk mischief unfold. We huddled around, marveling at the energy of these charming rodents.
While we revel in the slow pace of these last dog days of summer, sipping one last lemonade on the porch or wandering down one last stretch of beach, there is another mammal pulsing with life that has no such concept of slowing down. One of the most abundant mammals in Illinois, the shrew lives its life entirely in the fast lane—tunneling about a foot below the ground’s surface.
There are three species of shrews that live in Lake County, Illinois. The most common species, and largest at about 4 inches long with a 1-inch tail, is the lead-colored short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). The short-tailed shrew lives in a variety of habitats from forests to grasslands and typically only lives 1-2 years.
The least shrew (Cryptotis parva), at about 3 inches long, can be distinguished by its cinnamon-colored fur and extremely short tail. Least shrews are most commonly found in open grassy areas. About the same size as the least shrew, the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus), appears grayish-brown with a longer tail and prefers low wet areas such as floodplains.