Go take a hike

Post by Nan Buckardt

Everyone has one! At least, anyone who regularly hikes in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois has one: a favorite trail. It might be the trail near your home or the one that reminds you of a secret only-I-know-about-this spot growing up. Maybe it holds a special memory. Whatever the reason, something about it always sparks joy in your heart.

I’ve been thinking about trails a lot this fall as I’ve hiked those selected for this year’s Hike Lake County (HLC) program. HLC has encouraged folks for 20-plus years to explore seven of 12 designated trails between mid-August and November 30. More than 200 miles of trails thread through dozens of preserves countywide, so the diversity of choices isn’t necessarily a big surprise, but it is a big benefit to residents and visitors.

What I appreciate most is that this extensive network gives me options when I’m planning a hike. How much time do I have? What’s the weather like? Do I want to visit a place I haven’t been recently? Where can I experience the best of the current season? Can I add a hike to an errand that can’t wait?

Every time, two major considerations are the trail condition and the season.

Since it’s fall, I’ve chosen trails in sunny areas that are just right to offset the cool autumn breezes. Also on the agenda are walks in woodland preserves where fallen leaves carpet the trail, creating nature’s artwork: unique mosaics of colors and patterns.

HLC offers two trails that show off very different fall palettes. Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods is stunning with the brilliant colors of the sugar maple woodland. Meanwhile, the Van Patten Woods trail in Wadsworth boasts oak crowns full of rich browns accented with subtle red overtones.

Thinking ahead a few months, I’d like to walk along the Des Plaines River and look for fragile pieces of ice resembling sparkly tutus or crystal teardrops clinging to tree trunks. These are sometimes called ice collars or ice skirts. I might also find tracks as animals leave clues to their daily routine in fresh-fallen snow.

Next spring, bouquets of flowers will appear on the woodland floor. But I choose trails where I can find migrating birds looking for a good place to nest or taking a break on their trip north. Warblers will flit about in flowering oaks searching for insects to eat. Shrub-loving birds, such as the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), can be seen and heard in areas with a mix of grasses and low woody plants.

I already look forward to next summer when the trails will be full of green. Did you ever notice the huge variety in shades of green? People see more variation in it than any other color. Nature truly presents us with eye candy.

I have participated in each and every season of Hike Lake County. Many of those 20-plus years were with my family; now, as an empty nester, it’s only my husband and I out on the trails. We never know what we’ll discover when we hike but I can tell you we’re never disappointed.

You may already have a favorite trail, but there are always more to explore. I encourage you to look at a map, find a path you haven’t wandered yet, and experience it for yourself. Who knows…it might just become your new favorite!

If you’d like some good company on your hiking journey, try one of our Guided Hike Lake County programs on October 20, and November 3 and 10. These naturalist-guided walks feature a new trail each session. FREE. No registration required. All ages welcome. Out of respect for all participants, please leave pets at home. Service animals are permitted.

Hordes of hummingbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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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.

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Acorn abodes

Post by Jen B

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).

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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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Fast-forward fall

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