My family and I spent the beginning of the new year in the Northwoods. We wanted quiet. We wanted nature. Most of all, we wanted snow. As we started out on a snowshoe trek to a nearby river, tiny snowflakes settled on my son’s navy blue parka. They seemed to freeze on contact for only a few seconds, forming miniature constellations, before melting into temporary teardrop stains. The filigree of each flake in those hushed, fleeting moments fascinated both of my boys.
This winter’s lack of snow has made enjoying the winter woods a little more difficult for me. So, when a scant few inches of snow fell last week I made my way to Old School Forest Preserve at dusk to explore one of the Lake County Forest Preserves solar-lit trails.
Inky black branches of old oaks played in contrast to the white-washed sky before the blush of an orange sherbet sunset took over. The woods were still and quiet as I searched for any signs of crepuscular creatures that capitalize on the twilight. Continue reading →
It was a new year and a new trail, as we completed the last leg of our Des Plaines River Trail journey to hike the entire length of Lake County, Illinois. We began this hike just south of Route 22, which led us south through the recently completed trail section and beyond to the southern border of the county. We left our tracks upon the trail, just as the animals do along this greenway. Along the way, we found fresh signs in the snow that mice, squirrels, small birds, raccoon, deer, fox and even some intrepid fat-tire cyclists had all traversed the trail before us, taking advantage of a balmy 40-degree day in January. Continue reading →
As the thermometer dipped to -8 degrees Fahrenheit this week, one thing was clear: the snow and cold are entrenched for a while longer. So are the stories of the animals, as told by the tracks etched in the frozen landscapes that sweep across the Lake County Forest Preserves. We may not see the animals themselves. However, each track, pile of scat, bit of hair clinging to a branch, hole in the snow and chewed acorn is an element of the tale from their winter excursions.
How do we decipher these stories? When trying to identify which animal made a particular track, it is important to look not only at the individual track but the overall pattern. Also, scan the surrounding habitat for clues.
Let’s see if you can figure out what happened in each of these nature vignettes:
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.
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 →