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.
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.
As the hours of daylight drastically shorten in November, the miles of our hike along the entire Des Plaines River Trail quickly stack up. The trek south along this stretch of the trail from Route 60 to Route 22 was summed up in the stillness of bare branches that were silhouetted against the sky and reflected back from mirrors of water in the surrounding floodplain forest. Continue reading →
As our hike continued south along the Des Plaines River Trail, we began to see, feel and hear the palpable signs of the seasons shifting from summer to autumn. We were not the only ones heading south along this greenway. Small flocks of Swainson’s thrushes and yellow-rumped warblers created a ruckus of fluttering feathers in search of sustenance. Continue reading →
With Halloween fast approaching, much attention is given to animals that are considered “scary.” Foreboding ravens, ominous bats, super-sized spiders and snakes are everywhere. Thankfully, many people know the benefits of these critters. However, it seems there is one thing found in nature, surprisingly flora not fauna, that remains misunderstood and maligned: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The chemical urushiol in the sap of poison ivy can cause an allergic reaction in many people that results in an itchy rash. However, wildlife is not sensitive to the plant in the same way. In fact, poison ivy is an important native plant in Illinois with a host of benefits for our natural areas—from food and shelter for birds, mammals, and insects to erosion control on shorelines.
My family went on a bike ride last weekend at Ray Lake Forest Preserve. All afternoon, rain sputtered on and off as the clouds played tag with the sun. After climbing up a steep hill, the sky darkened again and we sought refuge under a canopy of large oak trees. One of my sons yelped,”Ouch! That raindrop hurt!” We quickly realized it wasn’t a raindrop, but a storm of acorns jiggled loose by the wind, plopping down on us. The trail became littered with acorns, and the kids began grabbing them. Upon inspection, the boys noticed tiny round holes in many of the acorns—evidence that these nuts were homes to acorn weevils (Curculio spp).
With the warmth we’ve experienced this October, I have spent many mornings drinking my coffee outside, watching the early sunlight glint off strands of spider silk that have encased my tiny porch overnight. While I’m enchanted by this maze of webs, my next door neighbor is not. I’m quickly called next door to clear a web-free path as she rushes down the stairs and off to work. I feel a bit of guilt as it takes me seconds to paw through a huge orb web that I know took the spider hours to intricately create.
September in Lake County, Illinois is a month of big sky punctuated by tips of tall prairie plants in an array of autumnal colors. Before the trees really get going with their own colorful show, sparks of bright yellow from the many varieties of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) dominate the open spaces. Most of the summer these plants go unnoticed, adding merely another green hue to the lush surroundings, but September is their time to shine. What may also go unnoticed, even now as goldenrod demands our attention, is the hidden world inside each plant in the form of a gall.
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.
Even though Illinois recently received a break from this summer’s heat and drought, the precipitation deficit that remains statewide has kicked off autumn with atypical natural events. Thus far, the year 2012 has been the fourth driest on Illinois record. However, it has been raining acorns and fall colors have been peeking through the greenery since late August—three weeks earlier than usual. This fast-forward to fall is a tree’s way of protecting itself when water is in short supply. The vibrant color displays of autumn, which seem so lively, are actually a sign that a tree is entering dormancy.
These flashes of fall colors are a result of changes in pigments. The dominant green pigment in leaves is chlorophyll. The leaves in a tree are like little factories, mixing together a recipe of specific ingredients (sunlight, carbon dioxide and water) to make food for the tree’s growth. Chlorophyll acts as the “chef” in this process, called photosynthesis; its presence is necessary in bringing everything together.
Typically, autumn’s cool nights and shortening days trigger photosynthesis to slow down. The scarcity of one key ingredient, water, is triggering this earlier-than-average dormancy. As the work of the leaves comes to an end for the year, chlorophyll breaks down and reveals yellow and orange pigments that have hidden behind its green cloak all summer. Leaves that contain the pigments xanthophyll and carotene—as do hickories, cottonwoods, elms and some maples—will change to vivid shades of yellow and orange as the green fades. Continue reading →