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.

Turtle Champions

Post by Allison Frederick

109 adopted turtles!

bltu-20161104-004Our inaugural campaign to enhance conservation efforts and further protect an endangered species was a huge success. Donations poured in from Lake County and beyond (as far away as California!) to adopt baby Blanding’s turtles, allowing us to continue our head-starting program and field work next summer. Continue reading

Wood frogs found!

Discovery is often about being in the right place at the right time. This is exactly what happened recently when a wildlife biologist for the Lake County Forest Preserves was in the right woodland on the right spring day. While monitoring wildlife, a biologist heard sounds from the elusive wood frog (Rana sylvatica). The duck-like breeding calls made by male wood frogs had not been heard in Lake County, Illinois since the late 1980s. This discovery is the first sign of victory following extensive habitat restoration and recent species reintroduction efforts.

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Crane chronicles

I am part of a volunteer group for the Annual Midwest Crane Count, monitoring the wetlands and fields in Lake County, Illinois each year for sandhill cranes. In the pre-dawn hours, our eyes scan for any hint of movement. Our ears listen for a bugling sound. Our mission: Determine the abundance and distribution of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) in the Upper-Midwest United States.

The arrival of these large elegant birds in Lake County is a harbinger of spring. More migrate through this region every year, and an increasing number are deciding to nest here as well. We know this thanks to the early-rising volunteers who help with the Annual Midwest Crane Count held each spring. This year, some of the first sandhill cranes returning to Lake County, Illinois were spotted in mid-March at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve. Continue reading

Surviving in the subnivean

This winter has been harsh in Lake County, Illinois, causing many of us to wish we could migrate to South America like some birds do, or hibernate in a cozy underground den like the groundhog.  Alas, most of us just stick it out in the cold. It may offer consolation to know we are not the only animals active during these record-breaking cold, snowy days. It turns out there is a whole ecosystem teeming with life right under the snow.

Recently, scientists having been taking a closer look at life in the subnivean, which literally translates to “a place under the snow.” The space between the snow and the ground acts as a seasonal refuge for invertebrates, birds, and small mammals. Snow affords these small critters with remarkable insulation, and temperatures around 32 F regardless of the temperature above the snow. Biologist Bernd Heinrich explains the science underlying these insulating properties in the book Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. “As long as both ice and water exist side by side, they constitute a thermostat keeping temperatures constant.” When water converts to ice crystals, heat releases. When ice turns into water, the process uses up heat.

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A snowy spark

Many years ago, while running along the Lake Michigan shoreline late on an evening in January, a feathered ghost appeared on top of a flag pole. It was the first time I had ever seen a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) and it stopped me in my tracks. This was the spark on that frozen night that lighted my fire of curiosity about birds. This winter, snowy owls have left their Arctic homes in record numbers, causing one of the largest irruptions (sudden increase) in northern Illinois in decades.

Although it seems natural to correlate the arrival of these boreal birds with the extremely cold, snowy winter northern Illinois is having, experts say the motivator is more likely linked to food. On their Arctic breeding grounds, snowy owls feast under 24-hour sunshine. Their food of choice is lemmings, small mammals with an extremely cyclical population. Bird expert Kenn Kaufman explains in a recent Audubon magazine article, that when the lemming population explodes, like it did last summer in northern Quebec, snowy owls have great breeding success, producing large broods of up to 11 chicks. As these chicks quickly grow into juvenile birds, the competition grows for the now dwindling numbers of lemmings. Thus, the young birds get nudged further and further away to find a meal, resulting in them moving to areas that mimic their treeless tundra home, such as the Lake Michigan shoreline. Continue reading

Restoring our woodland habitats

Post by Allison

The wooded habitats along the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, Illinois are changing. Last winter, the Lake County Forest Preserves completed 194 acres of canopy and understory thinning in woodland communities at MacArthur Woods and Grainger Woods Forest Preserves. This winter, woodland habitat restoration has begun at Captain Daniel Wright Woods and Ryerson Conservation Area, in addition to continuing at MacArthur Woods.

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The restoration and species monitoring that will continue within these natural areas for the next 20 years will help ensure the sustainability of oak woodlands and the wildlife they support for many generations to come.

Winter visitors to these preserves, or vehicular passersby, will notice the use of heavy equipment, burning piles of brush, and an already visible difference in the openness of the woodland landscape. A number of canopy trees are being removed to increase the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. Visit these areas again when the leaves return, and early results of the Woodland Habitat Restoration Project will be obvious. Continue reading