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

Arachnid architecture

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.

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Goldenrod galls

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.

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Crayfish tales

When most adults hear someone mention crayfish, what most likely comes to mind is a culinary dish rooted in the South. However, mention crayfish to a group of Summer Campers at the Lake County Forest Preserves, and you will see eyes light up and hands reach for pond-scooping nets and buckets while their minds contemplate questions of “how big?” and “how many?” During our hikes to the edge of a pond the campers exchange crayfish stories about the best techniques for catching these crustaceans, the size of earlier catches growing the closer we get to the water.

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Ant parade

With June comes the arrival of many eagerly awaited events. It’s the end of the school year and the beginning of a season of bare feet, beaches, camping trips and baseball games. In my house, one thing we are not excited about is the return of ants that parade around our kitchen. We know these ants are not going to cause us any harm. But, when a horde of them begins an organized march around the rim of my sons’ cereal bowls, it starts to bug me. At the same time, I realize they are just doing their job. It is a highly evolved social structure that allows these ants such precision in the tasks at hand—carrying away crushed Cheerios from the kitchen floor for their own pantries, taking to the air for a ritualized mating flight, deciding which eggs will be fertilized, or starting a new colony from the ground up.

Marching ants

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Heron highrise

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Kenn Kaufman, a naturalist and bird expert, speak at the Smith Nature Symposium. He is somewhat of a “rock star” in the birding world. His novel, Kingbird Highway, chronicles a personal adventure hitchhiking around the country at the age of 16 on a quest to find birds—a story that has reached the status of folklore. Many years later, and surely a much longer “life list,” his keynote address at Ryerson Conservation Area focused on warbler migration: the phenomenon of these teeny tiny birds in every hue of the rainbow that travel thousands of miles across entire continents each spring and fall. He presented complicated doppler maps and in-depth scientific research on these migratory dynamos, but by the end of the discussion the focus had shifted to something more simple: the children from his young birders club.

guide-bookLate that evening, as I settled down with one of his many guide books, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, I was struck by this same theme of simplicity. Kaufman urges folks to slow down and focus not on looking for the birds, but instead to spend time looking at the birds. He stresses getting to know the common birds of an area very well. By doing so, we are well on our way to knowing when a rare bird may enter the scene. This concept brought to mind one of the best places to take a long look at one common bird of Lake County, Illinois: a great blue heron rookery.

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Water Connects Lake County

It comes as no surprise that in a place named “Lake County” you are never more than a stone’s throw away from water. Lake County, Illinois is scattered with thousands of acres of wetlands, dotted with over 170 lakes and rivers, crisscrossed with 400 miles of streams, and bordered by massive Lake Michigan. This year at the Lake County Forest Preserves, we are celebrating this wealth of water by exploring how Water Connects Lake County through educational programs and recreational opportunities.

One way water connects the critters of Lake County is through the magic of metamorphosis. Ponds, streams and other wetlands host and hide well-known animals in surprising forms. Take a look at the picture below. This is a type of insect found in most local bodies of water. Can you identify this creature?

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“Flying” to a feeder near you?

One of our volunteer naturalists recently shared a story of an exciting discovery she made at her bird feeders. She loves to tell anecdotes about the slew of birds that frequent her backyard feeders during the day. However, this time her visitors were not birds, and they appeared in the middle of night. She had seen odd things at night when passing by the windows that looked out towards her yard: a bird feeder swinging wildly with no wind and shadows cast by the moonlight that moved in a herky-jerky scuttle up  nearby trees. It wasn’t until one night this winter, with the flick of a light switch, that she caught these mysterious critters in action: Continue reading

Drought and maple syrup

With the recent snow and cold weather, last summer’s dry heat seems like a distant memory. Yet, it was only this past week that the National Weather Service officially changed its “moderate drought” designation to “abnormally dry” for most of Lake County, Illinois (although, a small northwest portion of the county is still considered to be in a “moderate drought”). While every drop of rain and flake of snow is helping to slowly ease our way out of the past eight months of drought, the damage already done will decide the sweetness of this spring.

Each spring for the past three decades, the naturalists at Ryerson Conservation Area have tapped sugar maple trees to harvest the sap and turn it into pure maple syrup.

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