Here comes the Sun (Lake)

Post by Brett Peto

The sky to the west was robin’s egg blue, a clearing in the day’s dose of clouds. They had just sneezed a handful of snow, already melting. I drove with the radio off. I didn’t know whether to wear my regular hiking boots or a pair of Wellington boots I’d packed at the last moment. The trail could be soggy, or maybe not. I was on my way to Sun Lake in Lake Villa, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

For this month, I decided to revisit the idea behind my February 2019 post, when I explored a new-to-me preserve and wrote up my observations as a virtual tour. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed circling another name on the map I keep at my desk. So, here I was, about a year later, ready to chronicle another tour. Find a comfy chair and a warm mug. Here’s a snapshot of Sun Lake as I saw it.

The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. I walked the trail loop clockwise. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

My hike started, as many do, just outside the parking lot. Sun Lake’s lot provides access to 629 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands, and restored prairies. The preserve’s namesake, Sun Lake, is an exquisite example of a glacial lake, formed by the glaciers that retreated north from Illinois about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. But let’s talk more about that later.

I hiked the 3.25-mile trail loop on an early March day, when you can sense the fingers of winter trying to hold on as spring plucks them off the world. The trails were indeed soggy, through no fault of our maintenance crews, but I left the Wellies behind anyway. A little dirt and damp is a good sacrifice for better traction. Heading east, I paused on a bridge over Sequoit Creek. A male-female pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated in the water, seemingly watching me. The creek flows south to north, threading under Grass Lake Rd. and into East Loon Lake, then eventually on to Lake Marie in the Chain o’ Lakes. It was placid, the color of steel.

Sequoit Creek flows through Sun Lake Forest Preserve. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sequoit Creek flows through Sun Lake Forest Preserve. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A pair of mallards bobs in Sequoit Creek. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A pair of mallards bobs in Sequoit Creek. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

The familiar conk-la-ree songs of male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) emanated from some wetlands along the creek. I stood and listened to these abundant indicators of spring. Compared to the males’ showy red-and-yellow shoulder badges, females look quite different and are harder to spot. Their feathers are mostly dark brown and streaked. A yellow patch surrounds their beak. While the males sing and defend their overlapping territories among the cattail seed heads above, the mating partners they’re competing for sneak through vegetation below to collect food and nest material.

A red-winged blackbird perches in a wetland. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A male red-winged blackbird in a wetland. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Female red-winged blackbirds look quite different from their male counterparts. Stock photo.
Female red-winged blackbirds look quite different from their male counterparts. Stock photo.

I soon moved on, following a southwest curve toward an upland woodland. A squirrel’s large drey nest huddled in the canopy. The clouds had fully broken. I leaned forward into the wind. More red-winged blackbirds, and a few American robins (Turdus migratorius), and one northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), sang from the bare crowns of trailside trees. But—hold on—something else was among them. Through my long lens, I saw it was a northern shrike (Lanius borealis). I felt a little thrill.

A northern shrike (Lanius borealis) perches in a tree. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A northern shrike perches in a tree. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

This bird is somewhat famous for its carnivorous diet and its tendency to store extra prey for future meals by impaling them on thorns, branches, or fences. You’re probably familiar with other meat-eating birds: hawks, harriers, falcons. Images of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) snatching a fish from a river come pretty easily to mind.

A carnivorous songbird, though, stretches your mind’s eye a tad more. Here’s the shrike’s typical hunting method. It scans from elevated perches, then swoops down, bites the prey’s neck, and rolls its head back and forth to snap the vertebrae. It doesn’t have strong leg muscles like a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), so it must kill quickly. They’re sometimes called butcherbirds. You may ask yourself: do I need to start dodging shrikes now? No. Happily, we’re far too big for them. Their diet is usually composed of rodents, insects, and small birds. After a minute or so, this particular shrike flew away, and I walked.

The author looks over his shoulder and finds a cool view. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The author discovers he should look over his shoulder for cool views more often. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sun Lake in the distance. To protect the delicate shoreline, no access to Sun Lake itself is allowed. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sun Lake in the distance. To protect the delicate shoreline, no access to Sun Lake itself is allowed. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Up over a slope and toward the south end of the trail loop I went. The preserve revealed Sun Lake, a half-mile or so away. It’s a 25-acre reminder of the Midwest’s glacial history. Starting 2.5 million years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet, a massive continental glacier that covered five million square miles, began cycles of growth and melting across Canada and the northern United States. Its final advance and retreat carved out the Great Lakes, changed the flow of the Mississippi River, and flattened many of Illinois’ bluffs, valleys, and hills into the relatively level landscape we’re familiar with today. It also scooped out various depressions in the earth as it ground its way south. When it melted its way north about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the gigantic amounts of meltwater filled the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest freshwater source.

This process also created Sun Lake. There’s an image for you: a 2,000-foot-thick glacier, an undeniable wall of ice, trickling away and leaving behind a thin, silver disc we can admire.

Another view of Sun Lake from an overlook on the preserve's west side. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Another view of Sun Lake from an overlook on the preserve’s west side. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

I continued on the trail and started to make the turn back toward the parking lot. New clouds began to rumble over the horizon, but the sun was still out when I stopped at an overlook. The angle of the bench allowed me to glimpse Deep Lake, beyond Sun Lake. A man walking his dog passed by from behind. In fact, at least five people passed me in less than five minutes. This preserve seemed popular with the neighbors, for a few reasons, I think—its beauty, its longer hike length, and the three trail spurs connecting it to the community.

The homestretch, now, pointed north. All hike long, I noticed half-empty milkweed pods in the prairies. By half-empty, I mean several seeds that had failed to launch last October still clung to the pods. The wind tousled their fluff, also called silk, which is hollow, buoyant, and waterproof. When milkweed seeds release correctly, they float on their natural parachutes to sprout in other spots. In fact, these little fibers intersect with a crucial period of American history. During World War II, the U.S. collected an estimated 1.5 billion pods, or 11 million pounds of seed, to produce 1.2 million life jackets. (A friendly reminder: no harvesting of any sort is allowed in the preserves.) Milkweed is a lifesaver for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and other pollinators, too.

Milkweed seeds from last year hang onto their pods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Milkweed seeds from last year hang onto their pods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Don’t turn off your brain, even if you think you’re done. It’s a piece of advice I received last year from Denise Grady, a science reporter at The New York Times. She applied it to interviews, observing that often, people will say the most compelling, thoughtful, or revealing things when they think the interview’s about to be over. Don’t think about lunch or the weather or your next appointment, Denise said, until you’ve gotten up and left.

I thought of her advice at the end of my hike when I spotted yet another welcome sign of spring: several sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) soaring by. Their warbling, prehistoric bugle hit my ears just as I was loading my gear into the car. Awareness zipped through my brain. I scanned the skies, but didn’t see them. A few more calls, and there—18 cranes flying northwest. I captured the best photos I could, tracing the birds’ arc as they skimmed the northern edge of the preserve.

Part of a flock of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) spotted at Sun Lake Forest Preserve. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Part of a flock of sandhill cranes spotted flying over Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Sandhill cranes are migratory, spending the winter in New Mexico, Texas, Florida, and Mexico, then returning to the northern U.S. and Canada in summer to breed. They’re perennially monogamous, a rare trait in the animal kingdom, and can live for more than 20 years. Their graceful movements and courtship dancing skills are well-documented, but perhaps a bit less publicized is the fossil evidence that indicates they haven’t changed much anatomically in the past 2.5 million years. Our best fossil evidence suggests we humans have existed as a species for only about 300,000 years. It makes me feel young in an interestingly ambiguous way—more potential to learn, more potential to make mistakes.

Choosing Sun Lake was not a mistake. It gave me an early taste of spring, which other preserves would have done, but not quite in the same way. And that’s why I’m determined to visit the remaining, 15 waiting-for-a-circle locations on my map. Each one holds unique features, habitats, plants, animals, and experiences. Next time, I think I’ll pack my Wellies again. Just in case.

Monogamous minks? Not quite.

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.

A mink (Neovison vison) peeks over a fallen tree. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A mink (Neovison vison) peeks over a fallen tree. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Continue reading

Finding the right angle

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

I keep thinking about angles. Not the kind you measure with a protractor, but those you measure with your mind. The angle of a story, a conversation, or a project. Photography, of course, uses physical angles—where’s the camera pointed? is the sun directly overhead or is it the sweet time of golden hour?—but the best photos make you want to see even more. They make you want to break open the frame and soak in every bit of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Since it’s nearly the end of 2019, I thought I’d turn 180 degrees and peruse the photos uploaded to our group Flickr pool since January 1. Suffice to say: we’re spoiled. Spoiled with the beauty of Lake County’s flora, fauna, and natural areas, and the talent of the photographers who capture it for everyone to see. Trees and shrubs in their bright fall wardrobes on either side of a trail draining into a vanishing point. A sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) with both wings up like a paper airplane as it dashes to take off. A whirlpool of stars spun around a rich blue sky over a tranquil wetland.

I’ve gathered these moments plus seven more below, but that’s only a small taste. I encourage you to browse the rest of the visual buffet as we make the turn out of the 2010s into the 2020s. And, hey! You might become inclined to upload that shot living on your phone, camera, or computer.

"Night Moves." Photo © reddog1975.
Continue reading

Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading