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.

The wonder of wood ducks

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Spring is the starting block for wildlife in the race to find suitable mates and nesting sites. With the increased flurry in wildlife activity, staff at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois also get an increased flurry of phone calls with questions from the public. One recent call came from a gentleman in disbelief upon seeing ducks perched in his trees. He was utterly transfixed by the phenomenon. The call brought back a flash of memory for me of the first time I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa) as a child, on my maternal grandfather’s property in northern Illinois. Grandpa “Duck,” as we affectionately called him, was an avid outdoorsman. He spent a few moments that spring day pointing out the distinct, vibrantly hued male and the more muted female near a nest hole in an old maple tree. The pair then took off into the woods to the soundtrack of their high-pitched whistling calls.

Male wood ducks are easily identifiable by their glossy green head, chestnut breast, and other vibrant colors. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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Virtual wildflower walk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

April is the month when every day seems to bring a new bird flying into the woodland, a new amphibian calling from the pond, a new mammal poking along the river, a new insect hatching in the prairie, and, most of all, a new plant unfurling from the forest floor.

April through the end of May provides ideal conditions to enjoy spring wildflowers. These plants are also called “ephemerals,” which means “lasting for a very short time.” Spring ephemerals take advantage of abundant light in the woodland before leaves emerge in the canopy above. Ephemerals complete their entire life cycle before shade covers the forest floor.

If you haven’t visited your favorite Lake County Forest Preserve lately, come along with me on this virtual wildflower walk to see what’s blooming now and what’s to come.

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Bluebirds are back!

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Last week while I was out checking our sap collection buckets at Ryerson Conservation Area, everything in the woods seemed a bleak brown and gray. It didn’t look much like spring was on our doorstep, but it sure sounded like it with the “plink plink” of sap dripping into aluminum buckets on the sugar maple trees and the slow “peep peep” of cold, little spring peeper frogs. Then, a male eastern bluebird landed on the branch above my head. He was a vivid blue exclamation point that seemed to shout, “Spring has arrived!”

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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