The winter world of cottontails

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.

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Chipmunk song

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.

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Shrew crossing

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.

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Year of the Bat

Post by Allison

Amazing. Fascinating. Adorable. Essential. These are the first words that come to mind when I think about bats. Would you use the same descriptors? 

Bats are highly beneficial and play a vital role in maintaining the balance of nature. They help control insect pests and are vital pollinators and seed-dispersers for countless plants worldwide. Yet the world’s only flying mammal is still among the most feared and misunderstood of animal groups. Continue reading

Muskrat musings

It was the calm before the storm. The pond was the calm, sheer and smooth. The bus that was due with over 100 middle school students for a field trip was the impending storm. Although students are always a good storm, filling the forest preserve with energy, it is inside these few moments of quiet before the bus arrives that nature seems to poke its head out to see if the coast is clear. This particular morning, the glassy water became rippled in V-shapes like geese migrating in the sky. A lone muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) slid through the water towards a clump of cattail, its snake-like tail slithering behind him.

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