With the Vernal Equinox nearly upon us (it’s March 20 this year), my imagination turns to the flowering plants. We aren’t seeing much activity yet, of course, but a few specialized species make their move early in the season, taking advantage of the lack of competition as other organisms have yet to awaken from their winter slumber.

One of the earliest—and best-known—spring bloomers is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), a denizen of calcareous seeps, fens, and banks of spring-fed streams. Some authorities assert that, of all our flora, skunk cabbage is the first to bloom each year. To be sure, it has its charms, but as flowers go some folks might be disappointed. It looks and smells—more or less—like a wad of rotting flesh. It is no surprise, then, to find that it is pollinated principally by flesh flies (Sarcophagidae family) and carrion flies (Calliphoridae family), which happen to be out and about early in the year, feeding on carcasses and contributing to the nutrient cycle by aiding in decomposition.

Often overlooked are the flowers of the silver maple (Acer saccharinum). This fast-growing tree has found its way into our residential landscapes as an opportunistic volunteer, but its shallow, spreading root system may lift sidewalks, causing them to buckle, and may enter drain lines and sewer pipes, blocking their capacity. Silver maple’s relatively brittle wood, in combination with its growth form, leaves the trees susceptible to damage from wind, ice, and snow. And while they may not be ideal street trees, silver maples perform essential ecosystem services, playing host to hundreds of species of beneficial insects, as well as providing forage and habitat for many birds and mammals. Their natural habitat is alluvial forests such as those occupying floodplains along our water courses. The flowers are tiny and have no petals, but the stamens, pistils, and floral bracts may present a rich, reddish-pink color. While the flowers may bloom as early as February, they often escape our attention (situated high in the tree) until storms knock them to the ground.

 Florets of silver maple (Acer saccharinum)

Florets of silver maple (Acer saccharinum)

One of my favorite native plants to present its flowers very early in the year is American hazelnut (Corylus americana), which usually enters its bloom period in the middle of March. We have a fine, tall specimen near the Severson Dells Nature Center, so I have been watching it daily in anticipation of seeing its welcome demonstration that spring is arriving.

Hazels bear separate male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers on the same plant (what we call a monoecious plant species). The male flowers form during the growing season and remain immature through the winter, visible as catkins, dangling from the twigs of the shrub (and making it relatively easy to identify hazel during the winter). The catkins elongate to about 2 to 3 inches or more as they mature in mid-spring. It is the pistillate flowers that I look for in March. While most of the flower remains hidden within its protective bracts, the slender, magenta stigmas are exposed, filamentous in the vernal air. Hazels, like maples, are wind-pollinated.

 Female (pistillate) flowers of hazelnut (Corylus americana) exert their magenta stigmata (left center) while male (staminate) catkins dangle nearby,

Female (pistillate) flowers of hazelnut (Corylus americana) exert their magenta stigmata (left center) while male (staminate) catkins dangle nearby,

The fruits (hazel nuts) are beautiful brown orbs wrapped in dramatically fringed bracts. In appearance, the nut is similar to that of the European filbert (Corylus avellana), a close relative, but the bracts of the American hazelnut are distinctive. It can be difficult to collect hazel nuts, they are prized by squirrels and other wildlife. And while hazel brush was frequently noted by surveyors who crisscrossed the region during the early nineteenth century, we see relatively few specimens today, mostly due to habitat loss and encroachment from invasive species.

 Hazel nuts encased in their distinctive bracts--at Pecatonica River Forest Preserve

Hazel nuts encased in their distinctive bracts--at Pecatonica River Forest Preserve

So, before those beloved woodland wildflowers even begin to festoon the forest floor with their blooms of white and yellow, look to the trees and shrubs above for some of the first flowers to burst their buds and herald the coming of spring.

Tale of the Thaw, Part 2

Morning mist lifts from fence lines drawn between farm fields draped in melting snow; ghostly shrubs, veiled in frigid fog, lurk behind the glistening vapors of dawn.

Such were the scenes of the second thaw of the month as mild temperatures returned to the area during the latter half of February. The snow and ice that had accumulated over previous weeks quickly melted and flowed to our watercourses. First-order streams (the smallest streams under current stream classification systems, also known as headwater streams) are the first to swell with meltwater. These tributary stream channels fill and flow rapidly toward larger waterways, with water volume and velocity increasing as temperatures above freezing continue to contribute matter and energy to the system. Higher-order streams—like our rivers—accept the contributions from many tributaries; their levels crest as water levels in low-order streams subside.

All of this makes for some dramatic scenes around the area. Here at Severson Dells, one of the salient features of the landscape is the first-order stream that we call Hall Creek. It has its origins north of Montague Road and enters our forest preserve from the west, meandering through many switchbacks on its way to the Rock River. When the thaw began I went out to see how rapidly it would fill. On February 19 it was flowing freely. On February 20 it had overflowed its banks. And this was before the Kishwaukee or Rock Rivers had risen appreciably.

 Left:  Hall Creek begins to rise, February 19, 2018. Right:  Hall Creek in flood, February 20, 2018.

Left:  Hall Creek begins to rise, February 19, 2018. Right:  Hall Creek in flood, February 20, 2018.

A healthy, resilient waterway can accommodate flooding. The curves and bends of a meandering stream serve to limit the velocity of the water as it flows. The floodplain along the banks can accept the overflow, gently ushering the excess water downstream. The natural vegetation of the floodplain helps to protect the soil from erosion. Even during the dormant season, the roots of those plants are holding the soil.

The resilient functionality of Hall Creek was in evidence on February 20, the second day of the big thaw. Floodwaters overran the channel of the creek and spread out onto the frozen floodplain. The creek ran through braided channels and flowed over new terrain. The watercourse carried meltwater that might otherwise have found its way into basements or across roads. Unlike this stretch of Hall Creek, many of our streams have been channelized, ditched and straightened in an effort to increase tillable acreage and improve productivity—and to whisk away excess water as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that engineered efficiency comes at a cost:  all of that fresh water is taken away when it might otherwise have been returned underground to recharge our fresh-water aquifers. Groundwater recharge is an important function of wetlands like the floodplain forests and riparian marshes that line healthy streams. Ditched channels with steep banks hasten erosion and carry sediment, rich in organic matter, rapidly away to places where the silt is likely to do more harm than good. The meanders of a natural stream like Hall Creek slow the flow of water, reducing erosion along the banks and allowing more water to go underground.

 The area in the foreground is usually well above water, with Hall Creek confined to a channel behind. The floodplain deftly carried the excess water downstream toward the Rock River.

The area in the foreground is usually well above water, with Hall Creek confined to a channel behind. The floodplain deftly carried the excess water downstream toward the Rock River.

Before the first wildflowers of spring open to the warming sun, our streams come alive, dancing with water drawn from melting snow.

Shrewd Observatons

As one of our volunteers and I were standing at the window this morning, watching the birds at the feeders (he was hoping for some redpolls), I saw a small, dark, furry body scamper across the snow toward the sunflower seed hulls scattered on the ground.  As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared behind a pile of snow. 

“A vole!” I declared.  Then I corrected myself.  “No, a short-tailed shrew!”

Neil put up his binocs as the animal reappeared, continuing its foray toward the motherload, and indeed, it was a shrew.  Blarina brevicauda – the only venomous mammal in North America (technically there are two species, the northern and the southern short-tails, but for the purpose of the article, I shall lump them together).

shrew crop1.jpg

Now I know what you are thinking:  venomous mammals?  Really?  Truly!  There are not many worldwide:  the duck-billed platypus, the Cuban and Haitian solenodons (which are foot-long, shrew-like animals), the Eurasian water shrew, and the short-tails.  Unlike the others, the platypus isn’t going around biting and “poisoning” animals – it has a spur on its hind foot that it uses in self-defense to inject venom into its enemies; the rest of them, however, use their venom to incapacitate their prey.

If you came out to our Science Saturday last month, you would’ve seen a short-tailed shrew specimen at the table where we were talking about the subnivean zone, for these small mammals are active all winter, scurrying around between the ground and the snow layer in a constant search for food.  Their metabolism is so fast that they must eat every two or three hours or else starve to death.  Therefore, they do not hibernate, and they are constantly on the move.  Invertebrates (insects, worms) make up the bulk of their diet, but thanks to their venomous bite, they can also immobilize mice and voles, taking them into their tunnels to consume later at their leisure (if such frenetic animals are ever “at leisure”).

What kind of venom are we talking about?  Is it dangerous to people?  What if one bites my cat, my dog, my kid?

The shrew’s venom is apparently similar to that of the cobra, chemical-wise.  It contains two kinds of toxins:  a neurotoxin that causes paralysis, and a hemotoxin that decreases the prey’s blood pressure and wreaks havoc on the circulatory system.  It seems that the shrew’s “purpose” for applying the toxin is not so much to kill its prey (for it is fully equipped tooth- and claw-wise to take out most of the food it finds), but rather to allow it to put prey into storage for later consumption – a paralyzed beetle or mouse will stay “fresh in the larder” until needed later on, when perhaps a quick snack cannot been found.

Knowing all that, you might still be worried about Fluffy, Fido or Freddy.  But fear not – if your cat or dog is bitten by a shrew, it will most likely not come to any harm.  Infection from the bite is probably of more concern than any reaction to the toxin.  Ditto for your child. 

Many years ago, I took a class on Winter Mammalian Ecology, and the guest instructor was Dr. Joe Merritt, who probably knows more about short-tailed shrews than anyone, thanks to his years of research at the Powdermill Biological Station in Rector, PA.  He claims to have been bitten many times by his research subjects, and has suffered little more reaction than what one would get from a bee sting.  However, like with bee stings, some people can react more strongly than others, so it is always wise to not handle wildlife unless it is absolutely necessary, and even then, use proper care and precautions (wear gloves).

shrew crop2.jpg

But I love these little guys.  They are energetic, easy to sneak up on (I was within a couple feet when I took these photos), they sing (yes – many years ago I heard one singing in the backyard while I was sitting on the grass, writing in my journal).  They have tiny little eyes, no external ear flaps, and fur that is unidirectional – all adaptations for a life spent primarily underground.

I have found many a dead shrew just lying on top of the ground in my lifetime.  Found two within about 15 feet of each other last summer right here in Rockford while I was walking the dog around our neighborhood.  Short-tailed shrews are very common (living ones, I mean, although deceased ones seem to be quite common, too).  I have often wondered why these small morsels remain uneaten by the predators that caught/killed them, and later on by scavengers, and after a bit of research I learned that birds will eat them (owls, hawks), but not so much mammals.  Supposedly this is because the shrews taste bad (and birds, apparently, are oblivious to this).  This could be from glandular secretions (located on the animal’s belly and nether regions), which turn a tasty mouthful into something that makes the predator (say a fox, or house cat) think twice about actually consuming it.

If you didn’t get to see the shrews last month, don’t fret the missed opportunity.  I have sent all the bodies from my freezer to a taxidermist and in a couple months I anticipate having specimens on hand to share with visitors.  In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled.  Watch for small furry bodies moving along the foundation of your house, or darting out to your birdfeeders.  Look for a pointy snout and plush grey fur.  Odds are, short-tails are in your back yard and you’ve just never had the opportunity to say hello.

Tale of the Thaw

 Fog forms above the snow

Fog forms above the snow

Our region in February saw an unprecedented nine consecutive days of measurable snowfall. And it was beautiful, powdery snow that invited me to explore the trails on cross-country skis, something I had scarcely been able to do during the prior winter, what with the dearth of snow. Those of us who enjoy the winter white were delighted by a foot-and-a-half of fresh snow on the ground. Here at Severson Dells we had a night hike on February 9 with about 20 of us trudging around through the drifts. A couple of folks even brought snowshoes for the hike.

Of course, it’s the middle of February and the sun is growing stronger every day. Even with air temperatures below freezing we can lose snow pack on sunny days as radiant sunlight thaws the surface of the snow. This week, tree branches high in the forest canopy were dropping loads of snow to those below.

And then we did get a real warm-up, a two-day thaw during which roofs came clean, watercourses flowed, and puddles formed. There was drizzle and fog—lots of fog.

Interestingly, we lose our snow pack faster under foggy conditions than we do under rain. Of course, air temperature, along with the temperature of the rainwater, will affect the rate of thawing, but generally the heat energy released by the condensation of water vapor over the snow (the formation of fog) is much greater than the energy transfer in a rain event.

We tend to think of water as an interim phase of H2O—liquid water. We know that water freezes into a solid we call ice (also snow crystals). And water evaporates into a gaseous form (we think of steam and water vapor). But H2O can change from its solid (frozen) phase to its gaseous phase directly, bypassing its liquid form, through a process called sublimation.

This can result in the kind of fog that we see during a thaw. And while we might not see sublimation taking place, we can see its effects. Have you ever noticed that snow disappears first from around the base of trees? Tree trunks receive and reflect solar radiation—and trees, like all living organisms, generate a certain amount of heat through basic metabolic processes. The snow around the tree absorbs this energy quite efficiently, resulting in sublimation of the snowpack closest to the trunk. You can see it in the photo.

 Snow disappears from around the base of trees by means of sublimation (direct transition to vapor).

Snow disappears from around the base of trees by means of sublimation (direct transition to vapor).

As we round the corner into the latter half of winter, enjoy the freeze, the snowfall, and the thaw—all part of the dance of moisture through the natural world.

Winter Walk

OH, People - get out there!  It may be cold (about 4*F), but the sun is out, the sky is blue, and at 8:30 this morning it was a GLORIOUS time to be out walking the trails here at Severson Dells!  Yesterday's snow, with its giant dry flat flakes, is only about 2-3 inches deep, and it is PERFECT for finding tracks, for decorating last year's dried flowers, and transforming the ground into a sparkling sheet of rainbows.  SO beautiful. 


It's too cold?  Heck - bundle up!  Truly, there is no good excuse to not go out on a morning like this.  Today I had on my boots, two pairs of wool socks, a pair of thinnish longjohns under my usual nylon pants, a turtleneck shirt, a sweatshirt, a wool coat, woolly mittens, alpaca scarf and a wool hat.  That's it.  Nothing fancy.  And I was plenty warm (well, until the end of my walk, when my legs were starting to get a bit chilly).


And what did I see?  Amazing things.  I was anticipating photographing snow on stuff (last year's flowers, old bird nests, branches and twigs), but I was blessed with so much more.

 Did these coyotes find something to eat here, or was it a territorial marker?

Did these coyotes find something to eat here, or was it a territorial marker?

Coyote tracks.  Coyote tracks galore.  I haven't seen such coyote tracks since I was living in the Adirondacks.  I found scent sites, possible capture sites (vole?  mouse?), sites where snouts were thrust into the snow.  There were interesting spots where a coyote walked a circle... why?  No idea, but interesting.  

 Classic otter slides and 2x2 bound.

Classic otter slides and 2x2 bound.

And then there were the otter tracks.  OTTERS!  I'm still so excited about them that I am nearly vibrating!  There was a slide down a hill, slides into and out of the open water (and the stream is only a very few inches deep), and very distinct footprints.

 Mouse tracks on the frozen creek.

Mouse tracks on the frozen creek.

Oh, sure, there were deer, squirrel and mouse tracks, too, but it was the coyote and otter tracks that made my morning.  

In fact, we are going to head back out in a little while, my coworkers and I, so I can show them what I found.

If you go out for an explore on a wintery morning like this, here are my tips:

  1. Be sure you are dressed for the weather (see above).  Nothing will ruin a winter morning more than being cold.
  2. Keep your eyes (and ears) open!  You never know what you are going to find.
  3. If/when you find tracks, don't walk on them!  Walk around, to the side, or step over.  Leave the integrity of the tracks intact so others can enjoy them as well.
  4. Try to figure out the story the tracks tell.  Was it one animal or more?  Which way was it going?  Was it looking for something, or "commuting" - yes, with practice you can tell the difference.  

Winter walks are great, because we now see all the stuff that is going on that other times of the year we are oblivious to simply because we do not see the evidence of the animals' passing.

Weasel Wonderings – Part One:  The Badger

I love weasels.  Once upon a time I had ferrets, which are amazing, curious, and slightly destructive animals that are full of whimsy and are thoroughly delightful.  I also used to live in a region that was full of many weasel species:  short- and long-tailed, mink, marten, fisher, otter (and, historically, wolverines) – I loved following their tracks and pondering their lives.  Northern Illinois has its own collection of weasels, some of which overlap with the ones I used to know (short- and long-tailed, mink, otter), and others that are entirely new (least and badger).  I eagerly anticpate learning more about these species.

Let’s start with the badger, which is high on my list of “gotta see” critters.  To begin with, it is just so beautiful!  The white, black and brown markings are simply stunning – who wouldn’t want to see something so gloriously patterned?!?  Next, it has an amazing build:  broad and short, large and powerful.  It lives underground and is a known to be ferocious hunter. 

During my six years living in southern Michigan, I heard of badgers being in the region, but finding one was nearly impossible.  Oh, there were rumors (“they are out by the prison”), but I never found anyone who knew exactly where I could see one.  Like the moose, it looked like it would remain out of reach, a mere pipe dream for me.  Then, during my first few weeks here in Illinois, a coworker and I were visiting Ferguson Forest Preserve and he pointed out some burrow openings saying “those are badger dens.”  Really?  How can you tell? (According to him, they have a D-shaped hole, which is highly diagnostic.)  Might we see one today? (No, we didn’t.)


I actually saw my first badger this summer.  True, it was taking a permanent nap on the side of the road down near Sycamore, but you’d better believe I pulled over and started taking photos (see above)!  I really should’ve put it in my car and popped it into the freezer for later taxidermy, but I had the usual excuses:  the dog was with me, I had no plastic to protect the car, it was a very hot day and who knew how long it had been dead…

Still, it was a beautiful animal and I needed to know more.

In my research, I have found the usual common information about badgers:  they are primarily fossorial (live underground), can dig at tremendous speed (faster than a person with a shovel), are ferocious fighters (I just watched a video of a badger fighting a fox…it was impressive).  I read up on the history of badgers in Illinois (ridiculously common pre-European settlement; declined precipitously in the 1800s due to people digging up the prairie, their primary habitat; started to make a comeback in the early 1900s thanks to small farms with diverse crops, which provided fair habitat, especially for the badger’s primary food – rodents; dropped again in the 1950s thanks to modern agriculture with its monocultures, heavy equipment, and reliance on chemicals for fertilizer, pest and “weed” control; and today is not only considered to be “recovered,” but is also once more allowed to be trapped either for its fur or as a nuisance animal).  I also found some questionable “facts” (i.e., the lower jaw locks making it impossible to disassociate from the upper jaw – only one reference to this and not verified by any research, nor is it mentioned in my authoratative book about skulls). 

But then I came across something that has me puzzled, and like a mountain lion, my intellectual jaws have clamped down on this one detail and won’t let go:  badger hair is sought for use in shaving brushes because it is super absorbent – holding water apparently makes for lavish quantities of lather, which the person in search of a superior shave apparently wants. 

Wait a minute, says I.  How in the world would having super absorbent fur be of benefit to an animal that spends its life underground?  Everything about this animal is adapted to its fossorial life:  a thin transparent membrane over each eye (like a contact lens) to protect it from debris; small ears fronted with long stiff hairs to keep out flying dirt out; powerful neck and shoulders, and huge feet with long claws, all ideal for rapid digging through even the hardest “soils” (yes, there are records of badgers digging through asphalt and concrete); the squatty body and triangular head both designed for maneuvering in tunnels.  But nothing, NOTHING suggests any sort of evolutionary advantage to having water absorbent fur.  Badgers are even known to be good swimmers (that was a surprise), so here is a good reason not to have absorbent fur:  it would make one heavy in the water (potential drowning hazard) and it would reduce any insulative properties the fur would have (hypothermia).

I tracked down the names of a couple researchers who did work on badgers, but that was in the 1990s, and I cannot find any current contact information for them.  And any badger research I did find was only looking at ecosystem type stuff:  where they lived, what they ate, how the population was doing, etc.  No one (online) has an answer to my question.

So I toss my query out to the Universe:  if anyone knows why badgers would have absorbent fur, please let me know.   In the meantime, if you know of a badger den where I can sit down with my camera and observe their comings and goings, I would love to know that, too. 

It's All Happenin' Below the Snow

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a very special, ephemeral habitat.  It forms in the winter, is home to many small mammals and invertebrates, it helps plants survive the deep freeze, and, it turns out, it is also vital to carbon sequestration.  It is the Subnivean Zone.

I thought I knew enough about this microhabitat to create a pretty good introductory learning experience for our next Science Saturday (Jan. 27), but, as with all things science, it is always good to do a little research to see if anything new has been discovered since the last time I read up on the subject.  And then I thought to myself:  Self, you know about the importance of the subnivean…but with less and less snow cover, and very cold temperatures like we’ve been having these last few days of 2017 and early 2018, how are the animals that depend on the subnivean surviving?  Hmmmm.

I sent an email to a small mammal ecologist I know asking if she knew of any current studies.  She’s on vacation right now, so I also turned to the internet to see if there was any research going on.  Wow – have I been enlightened.


The subnivean layer (from the Latin “sub” meaning below, and “nives” meaning snow) has long been known by the Inuit.  They call this special snow zone Pukak:  it is the space that forms between the ground and the snow pack.  When the first snows fall, vegetation bends over creating supporting arches that hold the snow up.  The subnivean doesn’t really get created, however, until there is a minimum of six to twelve inches of snow.  Fluffy snow.  Fluffy snow is full of air pockets, and air pockets mean insulation:  the snowy layers above the ground now protect the ground from the bitter winds and temps that swirl above.  Between the heat radiating from the Earth (even when the ground is frozen), and the insulating qualities of the snow, the subnivean zone stays at, or near, a toasty 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

This may not seem balmy to you or me, but to those animals that live there, it is quite acceptable.  It is warm enough for them to remain active throughout the winter.  Mice, voles and shrews create vast networks of tunnels through the arched vegetation (surely you’ve seen these tunnels and trails after the snow melts in the spring).  A keen eye can also pick out “kitchens” and latrines – all sorts of chambers where daily life takes place.

The mice and voles are eating plants:  seeds and grains they stored over the fall, and still-green vegetation that is also hanging on in the mild climate of the subnivean.  Shrews are shrewd hunters, going mostly after invertebrates (beetles, worms, etc.) that they find hunkered down in the leaves and spaces under logs and rocks, but they will also take another small mammal if the opportunity presents itself, especially the short-tailed shrew, which is famous for its venomous saliva (that is a blog for another day).

Now, all of this I knew…no news there.  It was, however, when I started to read about the biota of the soil and leaf litter that I realized that there is more to this subnivean layer than I suspected.  Than anyone suspected. 

Let us begin by considering what happens when there is no snow cover, or the wrong kind of snow cover.  Recall that I said the snow had to be fluffy; you get fluffy snow when the temps are cold.  With climate change we are getting heavier, wetter snows more and more frequently.  These snows are much more compact, which means there are significantly fewer air spaces.  This means the snow has less insulative properties, which means the subnivean will no longer be warm.  It also means that there is less air exchange, resulting in a build-up of carbon-dioxide, which can suffocate the animals that are living there.

This also has an effect on plants:  no insulating snow means that the ground freezes harder and dries out.  Roots dry out; roots freeze.  Plants suffer the stress of these conditions and if it happens long enough, the plants will die.  We’re not just talking dandelions and ferns; we’re talking trees, shrubs…our forests and prairies.

And then there are the microorganisms, the things that live in the soil. 

Microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, and protozoans.  Toss in the small invertebrates, too.  Collectively, these are the tiny beings that, truly, make life on this planet possible. 

We tend to think of winter as a time when the “earth sleeps.”  It is easy to see why:  trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves, insects have disappeared, many birds fly south, and a handful of animals hibernate.  The world seems quiet and empty.

The thing is, it’s all happening beneath the snow!  Winter is when things really get hopping underground – great biological activity is going on and we are oblivious to it.  And all this activity is creating lots and lots of CO2.  Paul Brooks, at The University of Colorado Boulder, is one of the handful of people doing research on this, and he has discovered that the amount of CO2 that is released into the atmosphere is directly tied to the amount (and type) of snowfall.  In a nutshell, if things freeze before there is enough snow to provide insulation, microbes (et al) feast on the ruptured tissues of the plants and critters.  The more plants and organisms that die, the more tissues that are ruptured, which means the microbes go to town…and the more active they are, the more CO2 they produce.  Brooks’ research has shown that these trends can release 25-200% more CO2 than “normal.”

See that:  one more piece of evidence that climate change is doing irreparable harm.  Without adequate snow, fluffy snow, creating the subnivean zone, protecting plants, small mammals, invertebrates and microorganisms, we get yet another source of CO2 releasing into the atmosphere.

Many folks moan about the snow – they don’t like the cold, they don’t like shoveling, they don’t like driving in it.  But, y’know, it’s not about us.  It’s about this spaceship we call Earth, the only home we have.  And snow, which supposedly covers 40% of our landmasses most of the year, is vitally important for our continued survival.  It’s not just that the snowpack provides the water that keeps ecosystems from becoming deserts; the picture is so much bigger than that. 

This is why I love science.  I love that we have curious minds that ask questions and then set about trying to find the answers to those questions.  I love learning about all the intricate ways that everything on this planet is connected.  I love learning about new things that make me think “gee, I never thought of that before!”  And I love that learning these things allows us to imagine new ways to work with nature.

I hope you do, too, and that you will join us once a month this year for our Science Saturdays, where we hope to share some new science with you that opens up new realms of inquiry and fascination in your minds.  See you January 27th!


Avian Dynamics

My desk affords a view to the northwest, from the vantage-point of a second-story window that overlooks a cluster of bird feeders. My snowy view of winter white is studded with color:  punctuated by the plumage of the avian visitors that flock to the feeders and congregate in the branches of the Viburnum next to the building. The birds offer an affable distraction, flitting from branch to branch, swooping down to feed on seed, calling or chuckling, fluffing and preening.

Against the snowy backdrop, the brilliant Cardinals and effulgent Blue Jays command the eye. More subtle are the Dark-eyed Juncos, the so-called “banker birds” in their conservative gray suits. Striped Goldfinches in their subtle winter plumage linger in large numbers at the feeders. Woodpeckers, the Downy, the Red-bellied, the Hairy, are especially fond of the suet feeders.  Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and House Finches round out the usual assembly.

On a recent winter morning, my attention was drawn by the repeated calls of Blue Jays—cries that clearly called alert, alarm, warning. Moving to the window, I looked down to see the bird feeders vacant and the Blue Jays, Cardinals, Chickadees, and Juncos amongst the branches of the Viburnum. Like the other birds, I understood the Blue Jays’ alarm calls to mean that a predator was about. Peering through the window, I scanned the area, wondering whether I might spy a coyote or a feral cat prowling among the shrubs, or perhaps a Red-tailed Hawk perched and alert.

Then she flew by, close to the building and just below my window:  a Cooper’s Hawk with her slate-blue back and narrow, barred tail.

 a Cooper's Hawk in flight

a Cooper's Hawk in flight

Birds account for the predominant portion of a Cooper’s Hawk’s diet, so the feathered flyers around our bird feeders did well to heed the Blue Jays’ warnings. Coopers’ Hawks are extremely agile in the air, accustomed to maneuvering between the branches in our oak woods and savannas as they hunt, generally capturing their meal on the wing. An accipiter, the Cooper’s Hawk is less inclined to soar like a buteo, adrift on a thermal of air. With a long, rounded tail serving as a nimble rudder, a Coopers’ Hawk hurtles through narrow spaces in the tree canopy, dipping and twisting to avoid colliding with obstacles while bearing down on its swift passerine prey. I think of the Cooper’s Hawk as a classic savanna bird.

For a little while she came and perched in the Viburnum, sending the other birds scattering. She didn’t, however, linger in the vicinity of the feeders, so soon the other birds were back to their banquet, the snowy scene flecked with birds bedecked in plumage of red, white, blue, and gray.

Frosted Windowpanes

I like winter; I like snow.  I like frost and ice, too.  All of it is delightful, as long as one doesn't have to drive in it, or shovel massive quantities of it.  So when I woke to a gorgeous Christmas morning this week, after the previous day's hazardous driving, I was enchanted.  The ground was white with a whopping 1.5-2" of snow, the sky was a cloudless blue and the sun shone brilliantly, transforming the outdoors into a magical wonderland.

 "Mountain Range" formed on Hall Creek - probably a good 2-3 feet long.

"Mountain Range" formed on Hall Creek - probably a good 2-3 feet long.

Back at work two days later, after the deep freeze of Boxing Day, I was in awe of the frost patterns I found out on Hall Creek when I walked out there with the four- to six-year-olds of our Winter Day Camp.  There was an incredible "mountain range" formed by the moving water, and on either side of it were fronds of feathery frost and spokes of toothpick-like frost.

 Frost feathers (hoar frost) on Hall Creek.

Frost feathers (hoar frost) on Hall Creek.

In our "conference room," where staff often eat lunch, we have some beautiful frost growing on the windows that face the butterfly gardens.  When the sun hits the ice just right, it sparkles with a kaleidoscope of colors, which are nearly impossible to capture with the camera.  They appropriately call it "fern frost," these graceful lacey creations that adorn our windows.

 Close-up of the frost on the conference room windows.

Close-up of the frost on the conference room windows.

It all seems so magical - and yet, the mechanics of frost formation are pretty basic:  water freezes.  Yes, it really is that simple.  

First, let's quickly review the three states of matter:  solid, liquid and gas.  Everything around you is either a solid, a liquid or a gas.  When it comes to water, you have ice (solid), water (liquid), and water vapor (gas).  We are a water planet, and there is almost always water around in one form or another...maybe not in great quantities, but it is usually there.

So, when the temperature drops below freezing, water vapor, which is in the air all around us, condenses on cold surfaces and turns directly into ice, skipping the liquid stage (at temps above freezing, it condenses as a liquid, forming dew).  Water vapor is made up of tiny tiny particles of water, and each particle finds something to cling to and freeze - this is the nucleus of the frost formation.  Additional water vapor clings to the sharp edges of this formation, and it, too, freezes, forming a tiny little ice crystal.  As more water vapor collects and freezes, the ice (or frost) crystal grows.  

Tiny imperfections on the surface where the ice is growing (like scratches on your window, or even the film/streaks left behind by window cleaners) can influence how the crystal grows.  So can wind.

The beautiful frost patterns we found on the stream are a type of frost called hoar frost (from the Old English word hoar, which refers to something being grey or white).  Hoar frost is formed when there is a lot of moisture in the air, which one would definitely have at a stream or pond...or if fog had formed overnight and then froze on surfaces.  When there is a lot of moisture present, one is almost guaranteed incredible shapes and patterns in the frost...and it will likely be a beautiful opaque white color (hence the name).  Add some wind to the picture, and you can get amazing fingers and spires of frost...all pointing in the same direction.

Most newer houses, or older houses with new windows, do not get frosty windows - a good thing when it comes to your heating bills, but kind of sad if you enjoy the beauty of frost formations.  This is because you have to have windows that are only single-paned:  one side of the glass is in touch with the cold air outside, and the other side is in touch with the warmer, moister air in your house.  When the two collide on your window pane - voila! - frost forms.  Newer windows are too well insulated - the air trapped between the two panes prevents the intimate contact needed between the cold air outside and the warm, moist air indoors.

Whenever I see frost creations, I grab my camera and try to capture them "on film."  As soon as the surface they are growing on warms up, they disappear, so I immortalize them as best I can.  But even without a camera in hand, they are a delight to behold.  So don't let the chill of this cold snap keep you from discovering the wonders of winter - get out there and explore!

Unmitigated Gall

When is a pinecone not a pinecone? When it grows on a willow.

Now that the leaves have fallen from the trees we can see details in the landscape that we might miss during the growing season. Sometimes the little things call our attention or capture our imagination. I think of willow thickets and the distinctive appearance of the willow pinecone gall, an elegant appendage seen at the tips of willow twigs. These may be prominently visible now that the vegetation has gone dormant for the winter months.

As a budding botanist, I puzzled over these vegetative structures. I knew that willows, in the genus Salix and the family Salicaceae, do not produce cones (like conifers, such as pine and spruce) nor strobiles (like birch and alder). Yet I often noticed conical growths on willow wands, with imbricate bracts, leaf-like and layered, arranged in a perfect spiral toward a pointed tip, looking for all the world like a gray, leafy pinecone. And I saw them only on willows. Specifically on three native species:  pussy willow (Salix discolor), heart-leaved willow (S. eriocephala), and sandbar willow (S. interior).

 A willow pinecone gall in winter shows hardening of the scales that protect the larva of the gall midge within.

A willow pinecone gall in winter shows hardening of the scales that protect the larva of the gall midge within.

The leafy, cone-like appendages in question are galls, produced by a little gall gnat midge named Rabdophaga strobiloides. The insect’s scientific name is telling:  Rabdo means rod (or branch, twig); phaga refers to the feeding habit of the organism; a strobile is a structure composed of woody scales in the form of a cone; the suffix, oides, says that something “looks like” the preceding. So the scientific name translates into “twig-feeder” that produces a gall that “looks like a strobile.”

While we are familiar with the knowledge that many insects and other animals feed upon the leaves, stems, and flowers of plants, consider how striking it is that some of these insects also induce plant growth in such a way as to provide shelter, as well. Yet, here in the United States, there are more than 2,000 types of insect galls, of which some 700 are produced by gall midges related to Rabdophaga strobiloides. Some 39 of them focus exclusively on willows.

In the case of our pinecone willow gall midge, females deposit eggs in the new growth of willow twigs during the spring. When larvae hatch from the eggs they produce a chemical that causes the willow to produce aberrant growth and thus the gall begins to form. (In some insects, the deposition of the egg includes a chemical that initiates the gall-formation process.) The midge larvae undergo three instar phases, each of which contributes to the gradual formation of the gall. (Early in the season, the nascent gall is round; as the year progresses, the gall assumes its familiar cone shape.) Mature larvae overwinter in the galls and pupate in the early spring. We can expect the adult to emerge from the gall in late April or early May.

So, this winter, as you roam the margins of frozen wetlands, look for the “pinecones” that appear on willow wands—and know that you are seeing the winter palace of a tiny midge.



Things happen in threes.  Have you experienced this?  My most recent threesome has been conversations on Grounding, aka Earthing.  Since this seems to be a trend that is on the rise yet again (it’s been known about for over 2000 years, and Nikola Tesla was a believer in its value), I thought I’d do a little more research into it and share my findings with you.

 Photo credit: https://fablefeed.com/health/15-benefits-of-walking-barefoot/

Photo credit: https://fablefeed.com/health/15-benefits-of-walking-barefoot/

I first encountered the concept of grounding about two or three years ago while working on a “Forest Bathing” program.  The two concepts sort of go hand-in-hand, in that they both deal with human connections with some aspect of the Earth, both have scientific support, and for most folks they are both a bit “out there.”

If one accepts that we are all energy, and that electricity is the powering force for this energy of life, then grounding makes complete sense.  If one is not on board with these concepts, however, then this is the stuff of science fiction.

The basic idea is this: in our lives, our bodies build up excess positive charges, known as free radicals, from natural processes, but also from the electromagnetic radiation of all the electrical stuff around us – cell phones, power lines, computers, televisions, radio signals, appliances, the wiring in your house.  Now, free radicals are not, in and of themselves, bad things.  Free radicals are a natural part of your body’s operation, and their job is to help combat things like bacteria and viruses.  However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and when you get too many free radicals zooming about inside you, they can lead to health problems, such as inflammation and chronic disease (think heart disease and diabetes).

Meanwhile, the Earth has a surplus, or reservoir, of charged free electrons.  Electrons, if you remember from high school chemistry, carry a negative charge.  Apparently, when we touch the Earth with our bare skin (most commonly walking outside barefoot), these negatively charged free electrons are taken up by our bodies and cancel out the free radicals within us.  The result is a reduction of inflammation in the body, which leads to improved healing, reduction in stress (cortisol levels decrease), reduced hypertension, et al.  They say it even improves one’s sleep. 

If you look online, you can see videos of the blood moving in people’s vessels before and after grounding.  Before shots show blood cells are clumped together and moving sluggishly – this is known as having sticky cells.  After about 30 minutes of grounding, the blood cells are zipping right along solo – no more, or vastly reduced, clumping. 

The study that I find most fascinating deals with grounding and plants.  Scientists have taken regular plants (house plants, sunflowers) and have placed a grounding wire in one, while the other is left alone as the “control.”  The other end of the grounding wire is stuck in the ground.  Plants that are grounded grow faster and are more lush than the control.  Likewise, cut flowers last longer in a vase if they are grounded than those that are not.  It’s fascinating.

Up until the last 100 years or so, grounding happened naturally, for most people still had daily connections with the Earth, often through growing their food (gardening), but also when they walked outside.  It is said that the creation of the sneaker (rubber soles, which serve as insulators) was the first step in the decline of our connection with the Earth.  Industrialism runs a close second – people were outside a lot less.

Of course, this is hardly the time of year to promote running around barefoot outdoors (I’ve tried it…I don’t recommend it).  The good news, however, is that there are other options.  There are a variety of products out there that you can hook up to either the grounding wire of your house (via our outlets), or by running a wire out your window and into the ground.  Some are pads you can place under your computer keyboard, some are sheets and/or blankets you can put on your bed.  There are even bands you can wear around your wrist or ankle.  The key is that you have to have your bare skin touching the surface of the material (which eliminates the chair pad if you are in a multi-person office). 

Two summer ago, I put together a plan for a summer camp where we would encourage the campers to go barefoot.  It was going to be a bit of an experiment to see if there was a noticeable difference in how the campers felt and behaved.  Sadly, that camp never materialized, but I encourage you all to give it a try next summer.  I know that as a kid, I ran around barefoot much of the summer (much to my mother’s great dismay), and I spent three summers barefoot in the Adirondacks where I worked at a residential summer camp.  I don’t do it much anymore – my yard here is full of Norway spruce needles (not conducive to barefooting).  I may have to rectify that.

We are indeed creatures of this Earth, and it seems to me that we are connected in more ways than most of us can see or feel.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how different things would be if we all knew and acknowledged these connections.

Feed the Birds

This last week of mild weather lulled us all into a false sense of bliss, I think.  Yesterday it was in the 60s (!), and this morning, when I went out to walk the dog, it was significantly colder; in fact, not only were my layers not quite enough, but I really wished I had worn a hat and brought along a scarf!

So imagine what our wildlife must be going through.  

"In the old days," the gradual cooling of the seasons between the end of summer and the start of winter helped plants and animals alike get ready for the long, cold Dark, but these days, with the roller coaster weather that seems to have become the norm, it is difficult for anything to be ready for winter.  What can we do to help?

One of the traditional activities of winter is feeding the birds.  We buy (or make) feeders, fill them with seed, hang them out in the trees, and wait for the birds to arrive.   It really is that simple.  And, I suspect that if we put out some really good quality food for the birds now, it will help them be prepared when the temperatures suddenly dip.


I have learned that if I am only going to put out one kind of seed, black oil sunflower seed is the best choice.  It is high in fat, all birds like it and all can eat it.  Grey-striped sunflower seed is also good, but it is larger and has a harder shell, so the smaller birds cannot open it to get to the seed inside (grosbeaks, however, love it).  My second go-to is peanuts - out of the shell.  Again, all birds love this high-fat food:  bluejays fly off with their gullets stuffed with whole peanut kernels, while the smaller chickadees and nuthatches peck off small bits at a time to eat. 

Next, I go for nyjer, or thistle seeds.  These small seeds are frequented by the finches, but it is expensive, and they are just as happy to eat the black oil sunflower seeds, so if finances are tight, I skip this one.  Finally, I round out my offerings with suet cakes (which can easily be made at home if you collect your bacon drippings and other fats drained from the meats your cook).  Most birds enjoy suet, but it is a real draw for woodpeckers - always a bonus at your feeder station.

If I'm feeling generous, I'll also put out peanuts in the shell.  I've had a lot of fun watching blue jays puzzle out how to get them out of the coiled wire feeders.  This morning, however, I found one of my peanut-in-the-shell feeders on the ground.  Whether this was from the high winds or a rambunctious squirrel, I'm not quite sure, but I may be rethinking that one.

Where I used to live in northern New York, hunters routinely put the rib cages of their deer up in the trees.  These fat and meat offerings attract not only most of the birds, but also bring in other amazing visitors, like martens and their smaller weasel kin.  

The coups de grâce for your bird feeding station is water.  If you can keep a birdbath filled with unfrozen water, the birds will be your best friends.

As the gift-giving season approaches, it's kind of fun to make your own bird food and/or bird feeders.  These are gifts you can give to friends and relatives (especially great for young children to make and give), but they can also be a gift for your winged neighbors.

A classic DIY bird feeder is the peanut butter pine cone.  PLEASE - if you make these, you want to do them right.  You see, the oil in the peanut butter can be a genuine problem for birds, because it can get into their feathers and not only make a mess, but it can wreak havoc on their insulation.  So, if you are going to use peanut butter in any of your bird treats, be sure to mix it with cornmeal, or even oat meal.  These ingredients will absorb the oil and make it much less hazardous for the birds.

Another great way to make stand-alone birdfood/feeders is to mix gelatin (or agar agar) with your birdseed (you can find lots of recipes online).  This mix can be pressed into a bundt cake pan or even molded by hand.  Be sure to leave a hole so you can add string for hanging your creation.

Good foods to use in your homemade bird mixes are lard/suet (every bird needs fat - it is high energy and lasts), peanuts, and sunflower seeds.  Dried fruits are also good - you can chop them up and add them to your homemade suet cake mixes.  Insects are a high protein food that the birds will love you for - buy some mealworms and either put them out in a bowl or mix them (dried) into your suet cakes.

You want to avoid filler items that have little to no nutritional value (most birds will not eat them anyway, so you might as well save yourself some money and not buy them).  These include golden and red millet, flax seed, rapeseed, and canary seed.   Quite often, premixed bird feed is loaded with these fillers (read the labels).  This is why these mixes are cheap - you get what you pay for - and the birds will kick the fillers onto the ground as they search for the good stuff (sunflower seeds).  

More than once people have asked me: "What happens to my birds if I go away - will they starve if the feeders are not filled?"  The good news is, no, your birds will be perfectly fine.  Odds are they visit a number of feeders in the neighborhood, not just yours, plus they know where the "wild" food is located.  So you need not worry about "your birds" if you want to take a vacation or if the bird seed runs out and it's a few days before you can get to the store.

So, put up a feeder or two, fill it with seed, and see who comes calling.  If you start now, you will be ready to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count when Valentine's Day rolls around!

Happy feeding!

Cabinet of Curiosities

  (photo credit: odgamer.wordpress.com)

(photo credit: odgamer.wordpress.com)

The mid-1800s through the early-1900s was the heyday for the study of natural history.  Men and women explored the outdoors in droves, learning about birds, plants, and all other aspects of the natural world.  Collecting was huge, but not often done in a sustainable manner (for example, birds were usually shot and then identified, and their eggs and nests were also collected; many of these items also made their way onto hats, but that's a whole different blog).  Wasp nests decorated corners of rooms.  Ferns were hugely popular in collections (a hobby known as Pteridomania) and were grown in miniature glass houses called Wardian Cases.  Many a Victorian home had shelves or rooms that were known as Cabinets of Curiosities.  The outdoors was “in.”

In many ways, I can relate to these Victorians, for I, too, love to collect natural objects.  My house and my office are full of things I have found out in the field:  acorns, rocks, shells, leaves, galls, exoskeletons, bones, sand.  I often bring objects in so I can identify them at my leisure, or to incorporate in programs – original objects are terrific teaching tools.  But in truth, some things I collect just because they fascinate me.

Legally, I am “allowed” to collect some of this stuff because I work at an educational facility that has the proper state and federal permits to possess such things as feathers and nests.  What most people do not realize is that these items (all parts of or belonging to our native birds, with the exception of game birds like turkeys) are protected by law…a result of that very collection (and hat) craze of the Victorian era.  Many bird populations were nearing critically low levels during this time and we have them around today only because laws were passed that made their collection illegal.  So, please be aware that unless you have the proper permits, you cannot legally have most bird nests, feathers, or eggs in your collections.

Children are natural collectors; many’s the time we have had school groups here and found students with their pockets jam-packed with acorns, walnuts and more.  I’ve had students who really wanted to take frogs home with them, or even worms.  Rocks and sticks naturally find themselves in children’s hands.  We are by nature drawn to picking up stuff that we find; more than once I have turned around to find a student has plucked the flower I was just showing them. I imagine this is an ancestral habit from when we were a nomadic species, and by investigating our surroundings we could determine if objects could be used for food or as tools to either help us get food more easily or to protect ourselves from those who wanted to eat us!

Today nature centers tend to discourage the urge to collect stuff, and in many cases this is quite reasonable, for if every student or visitor took a pocket full of souvenirs home, there would be a lot less here for others to enjoy (not to mention the impact it would have on the plants and animals themselves).  However, I often wonder if we have taken this “hands off” dictate too far.  If we do not encourage children to pick up and touch things, or to go off the trail to explore, we are putting just one more barrier between them and the natural world.  And then we wonder why interest in the outdoors is waning.

As with all things, I think there is a happy medium here.  There should places where we encourage visitors to step off the trail and go exploring.  And it really is okay if a child pockets a walnut husk, or takes home an acorn cap that she has learned to use as a whistle.  For it is only by exploring and getting our hands dirty that we engage our minds, learn about the natural world, and develop a love for it that will carry on into adulthood.  I think every child should have his or her own cabinet of curiosities – a shoebox under the bed that is stuffed with found rocks, bones, and cicada exoskeletons.  These will be the memories that tie him or her to the outdoors, memories that when accessed as an adult will hopefully trigger the desire to protect our planet.

With caution and respect, good sense and where permitted, collect on. 

Cranes Fly

 A Whooping Crane, accompanied by Sandhill Cranes, above McHenry County, Illinois, during autumn migration, November 15, 2017. Photo by Ken Wick.

A Whooping Crane, accompanied by Sandhill Cranes, above McHenry County, Illinois, during autumn migration, November 15, 2017. Photo by Ken Wick.

Last Sunday was clear and cold, with a brisk breeze out of the north:  perfect weather to support the migration of one of North America’s largest birds, the Sandhill Crane. At home that day, I could hear the unmistakable sound of bugling cranes filtering through the closed windows of my house. Cranes call to one another in flight, keeping in close contact as they make their migratory way up and down the central corridor of the continent following the seasons. Their clarion calls can be heard for miles, a guttural sound that can be described as profoundly primordial. As I do every year, I ran out the door and stood, shivering, craning my neck (pun intended) to view the majestic birds as they swirled and careened above me, “kettling” as they sought a fresh thermal to carry them along on their continuing southward journey.

My early exposure to Sandhill Cranes occurred years ago while I was living in central Wisconsin. There were woodlands, prairie remnants and hayfields, along with a crescent of wetland, surrounding the house that I lived in. I would slip out of the house in the morning, startled to find Sandhill Cranes, tall as deer, standing in the fields, gleaning insects and seeds. They would fly low over the house, like some prehistoric dream creatures, dropping in to land nearby. I was captivated.

Two species of cranes occur in North America; their respective stories seem at first to be at odds, but my hope is that the relative abundance of Sandhill Cranes today may presage the recovery of the endangered Whooping Crane. As recently as the 1930s there were but a couple dozen nesting pair of Sandhills throughout the whole state of Wisconsin. They were absent from Illinois until later in the century. Now, no longer over-hunted, Sandhill Cranes have seen their population numbers rebound dramatically over the past several decades. The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, estimates today’s population of Sandhill Cranes (including all five subspecies) to number more than 650,000 and increasing.

The fate of their larger cousin, the Whooping Crane, remains in question. The total number of Whooping Cranes in the world today is just 612, including 161 that are in captivity. Yet, that is a great improvement; the Whooping Crane population reached an all-time low of just 21 individuals in 1944, perilously close to extinction. Recovery has been gradual:  in the 1970s the population remained precariously low, at about 50 birds; by the late 1980s there were more than a hundred Whooping Cranes. Federal protection, habitat improvements, captive breeding, and assisted migration have contributed to the recovery process.

Sadly, illegal shootings still claim Whooping Cranes every year; more troubling is the revelation that most such takings are intentional, with shooters well aware that they are taking a protected species. Other threats to Whooping Cranes include hazards of migration, such as predation and power lines. Nest disturbances can inhibit reproduction, as can low genetic diversity caused by the depletion of the population in the 20th century.

The eastern migratory population of Whooping Cranes numbers 93 individuals that mingle with the Sandhill Cranes in mixed flocks during spring and fall migration, traveling over northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin twice a year. The Whoopers are easily discerned as they are bright white, with black wing tips and are noticeably larger than the gray or brownish Sandhills. While Sandhill Cranes typically may be 4 to 4 ½ feet tall, Whoopers can attain a height of 5 feet.

We’ve seen (or more probably heard) Sandhill Cranes migrating across northern Illinois for decades, but for many years they did not nest south of the Wisconsin state line. Setting them on the road to recovery, Sandhill Cranes in 1989 were listed as Endangered in Illinois. In 1999 their improved status was listed as Threatened. They were delisted in 2009. For the past dozen or so years I have taken part in the annual Crane Count organized by the International Crane Foundation. This Citizen Science initiative has helped generate a clearer picture of crane population trends throughout the Midwest. Today, among the northern-tier counties of Illinois, Winnebago County reportedly has the highest count of Sandhiill Cranes with 429 observed this past spring. (For comparison, the count revealed 51 cranes in McHenry County and 63 in Lake County.) The fact that we now see Sandhill Cranes during the summer, rearing their young, is testimony to the success of our conservation efforts.

With continued efforts toward protection, habitat improvement, and public education, it is hoped that Whooping Cranes will follow the example set by the recovery of Sandhill Cranes. Our lives will be wilder and much enriched thereby.

Behold, the Box Elder Bug

“You have bugs on your window,” a second grader said very quietly to me the other day, pointing at the windows behind me in our classroom.  I turned and looked, and she was right, the windows were crawling with red and black insects, but there were far fewer than there had been! 

 Image from abcwildlife.com

Image from abcwildlife.com

Severson Dells is not alone when it comes to the annual invasion of box elder bugs (BEBs).  Members of the True Bug Family (Hemiptera), these stunningly colored black and red insects are the bane of many a home-owner when fall arrives.  Why are they here, what do they want, and why won’t they leave us alone?

Like with so many animals that have been labeled as “pests” in the eyes of humanity, our troubles with box elder bugs are ultimately our own fault.  Left to their own devices, they would be perfectly happy to leave us alone (see paragraph seven).

Box elder bugs, Boisea trivittata, are one of our native insects (bet you didn’t see that coming).  The family to which they belong, Rhopalidae, is known as the scentless plant bug family.  Its members are notorious for lacking the scent gland that is found on the hind legs of most true bugs.  However, unlike the rest of its kin, the BEB is not unscented.  In fact, it is apparently famous for its stink, which it produces only when pestered – no doubt it is part of its defense mechanism.  Biologists theorize that the production of this smell, and subsequent bad taste, is what allows BEBs to congregate in such large numbers in the fall without fear of being eaten.  The red and black coloring no doubt serves to advertise that it is not tasty, just like the coloration of ladybugs, milkweed bugs and monarch butterflies.

In the spring, the females lay their bright yellow eggs in the crevices of bark of the box elder tree.  The eggs turn red as the embryo develops, and within two weeks the youngster emerges.  Also red and black, just like its parents, the juvenile goes through several instars as a nymph before finally turning into an adult.  All the while, it is feeding on its host plant.  (Like aphids, BEBs have piercing and sucking mouthparts, designed to stab into the “flesh” of the plant on which they feed and suck out its juice.  The food of choice for BEBs is the seeds of the box elder tree, although they are also known to nip and sip from the tree’s leaves, flowers, and tender twigs.) 

So, summer arrives, the nymphs grow and eat, and eat and grow.  All good things must come to an end, however, and soon summer turns in to fall.  As the cooler weather approaches, the BEBs seek someplace new to live.  Remember I said that if left to their own devices, BEBs would happily not have any interactions with us?  It’s true.  In the wild, minus the presence of humans, these insects seek out rocks, loose bark, or hollow logs to crawl into or underneath for the winter.  If it is dry and sheltered, they will be happy.  People, however, have moved in to their habitats, and as we have altered the landscape, BEBs, like so many other animals, have had to adapt.  And lo! and behold – our houses provide dry, sheltered spaces that are just perfect for these insects to overwinter!  In they come – through cracks in the foundation, holes by utility wires or plumbing, old window screens.  They crawl under siding, and nestle by loose windows.  South- and west-facing walls are preferred real estate, for they get good and toasty on cool days when the sun is out.

BEBs are not going to hurt you and are not going to eat your wiring.  If your dog or cat tries to eat them, your pet may get sick, but I haven’t read of any accounts where a pet died after ingesting a BEB.  On the other hand, I have read that even though BEBs do not “bite people,” they have been known to inflict injury, although more as a defense mechanism (you rolled over on one in your sleep) than as a premeditated action (like a mosquito biting you for a blood meal).

So what is one to do when the BEBs seem like they are taking over one’s house?  Vacuum up the interlopers.  You could also employ a variety of sprays, from insecticides to mixtures of water and dish soap, but remember:  insecticides are poisons, and they are not often specific in their targets.  You are better off trying to prevent the insects from invading by plugging all possible entrances during the summer while they are out.  Replace old or torn screens; plug holes with tight wire mesh; put tight screens on foundation and attic vents; be liberal in your caulking adventures.

In the meantime, BEBs could make for some interesting insect studies.  Maybe you can capture and mark some – follow the daily lives of individuals.  Host BEB races for your friends and relatives.  Apply some engineering and see if you can build a better BEB trap!  Who knows – maybe you or your child might discover some previously unknown trait of BEBs that will change the world!

Simple Sensory Perception

 night hiking...

night hiking...

Into the dark, follow your senses, leaving behind the artificial lights, the jumble of your thoughts, the bustle of the day. Enter the woods behind twilight to find the silence.

Night hiking is a favorite activity of mine, largely because it is something of a rare treat. Most of our natural areas are public preserves that close after sunset. Unless we happen to be spending the night at a campground, we don’t generally have access to the trails after dark. For the most part, wherever we go at night we are under artificial lighting. Street lights, porch lights, endless photons spilling over from myriad sources all flood the nighttime environment of the built landscape. As a result, we are losing our ability to maneuver in the dark, losing our night vision, losing touch with the many senses that can rise to the compensatory challenge when vision is limited. We have forgotten how to be in darkness.

Night hiking can reawaken our senses. If we set out on a trail in full awareness we have much to discover. Sounds and other sensations take on new meaning and import. Our sensory awareness might extend beyond the limiting frame of our bodies and expand into the space around us, alerting us to the branch hanging at head level, or that dip in the eroded trail, without us ever “seeing” the hazard with our eyes. This simple sensory perception can be cultivated and refined, honed like any other tool to keen sharpness if only we practice.

Taking to the trail by starlight, by moonlight, or by the pale ambient light reflected under a blanket of clouds, can lead us to a heightened awareness that brings a deeper appreciation for the subtleties of the night. The stillness. The silence. The tactile sense of the very atmosphere. These things come alive.

In preparation for leading a public night hike I recently roamed the trails at Severson Dells and came to pause in an opening of the trees along Hall Creek. I leaned back on an angled trunk and relaxed, gazing upward. The stars filled the sky with patterns at once mysterious and familiar, dazzling in their silent array. Later, on the deck at the pond, out in the open, I could discern the Milky Way, a rare enough sight in these parts, these days. I returned to the parking lot renewed and reinvigorated.

If the notion of a night hike appeals to you, consider visiting Severson Dells during our Luminaria program, December 8 or 9, 2017 (6-9pm). We’ll have a trail lit with festive candles, and for those called to explore further, our staff will be available to lead walks into the woods and fields under the night sky. You’re welcome to join us under the stars.

Turn 'em Loose!

One of my favorite activities to do with a group of kids is just let them go for an explore, with me there to answer their questions and guide their discoveries. 

We recently had a group of second and fifth graders out for a Discover Nature Hike, and we couldn't have had a more perfect autumn day for it!  The sun was out, the sky was blue, the leaves were changing color and drifting to the ground.  It was just warm enough that the possibility of seeing snakes basking on the pavement, or turtles on logs at the pond, was real. 

The students I had in my group were second graders, and they were full of curiosity and in full explorer mode.  We first headed out to an old stone wall that runs along part of the driveway.  Armed with hand lenses, they checked out seeds, mosses, lichens, tree bark.  One girl turned to me to ask me to identify the insect she found - and it was a tiny red and black wasp, which was crawling on her hand.  Kudos to her for not freaking out when I said "Oh, it's a wasp!"  She was completely unfazed by it.  We talked about how it was likely an important pollinator and possibly even parasitic on other critters, like caterpillars.  A classmate joined our conversation, and both were very serious in their investigation of this insect...and reassured when I told them that the odds of it harming them were pretty slim.

 Checking out the seeds on the Canada Wild Onion.

Checking out the seeds on the Canada Wild Onion.

Nuts are still all over the place (hickories, walnuts and acorns), although there are significantly fewer than there were a month ago.  We found the mother load of acorns by the picnic tables on the island in the middle of the parking lot.  Could it be that because cars drive around it that the squirrels hadn't gathered these nuts yet?  Whatever the reason, it was a boon for us, as each child learned to make a top and a whistle from their finds.

Then we were off down the trail...but only for a short distance, for they saw a "clearing" in the woods that was so tempting that they eagerly asked if they could go check it out.  What the heck - why not!  So off the trail we went, on a genuine "explore" into the unknown. 

We found ourselves in a little hollow under a fallen tree that just made the best exploration spot for second graders.  They looked at the logs, pulled off bark, jumped over the dry "stream" bed, pet some moss (after admiring the way the sun shone through the russet sporophytes).  

After bushwhacking back to the trail, they saw the deer exclosure (cage), and said "can we go there?!?!"  Absolutely - I'd never explored it myself, so it was new to me, too.  We discovered that the cage also had fencing over the top...once upon a time.  That fencing has now sagged and collapsed into the cage.  The kids found a "door" on the back side, so of course they had to go inside.  We talked about the purpose of the exclosure, but second graders aren't really concerned about browsing pressure.  They were intrigued, however, when I mentioned the Severson Dells legend of Humphrey the Dragon, who supposedly uses the cage as a home.

We completed our walk around the trail, stopping at the pond to look for turtles (none), frogs (nope) and dragonflies (zero).  And then we went to The Grove, where running and climbing were the order of the day.

I know I certainly had a great time exploring the unknown with these students, and I think they did, too.  I worked with a volunteer once who said that everyone needs to "step off the sidewalk" from time to time, which is exactly what we did this day.   The next time you go out, take a chance and step off the sidewalk in your explorations - even if only for a few steps (and watch where you walk - be aware of your surroundings).  You might be amazed at what you find.

Citizen Science: A Timely Option

The other day I spotted a spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) in bloom. Not many native flowers bloom this late into the season, so it caught my eye. Of course, this has been an exceptionally warm autumn, so it didn’t surprise me altogether to see the bright blue denizen of the summer prairie basking in the bold October sunshine. But I’m used to seeing it flower in June and July, so I consulted a couple of reference texts. The online resource, “Illinois Wildflowers,” suggests that the bloom time is from late spring to midsummer; likewise, the Ohio Prairie Association reports that it flowers from “late May to early July.” However, Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha cites bloom dates observed by the authors ranging from May 14 to October 27, so my own observation was hardly unprecedented.

 spiderwort ( Tradescantia ohiensis )

spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)

Thankfully, interested witnesses have been recording such information for much of our history. Phenology is the name we apply to the timing of events in nature and people have been recording such data for thousands of years. According to Project BudBurst, “The Chinese are thought to have kept the first written records of phenological observations dating back to around 974 B.C.” While records here in the Midwest are nowhere near that old, we do have some pretty good local data from the past hundred years or so.

Famed conservationist Aldo Leopold collected phenological data in Sauk County, Wisconsin from 1936 to 1948 and his daughter, Nina, resumed the tradition from 1976 to 2011. In his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold shared, “Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and meaning in these events.”

Leopold was in good company. Back in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau recorded his observations of nature in a daily journal spanning the years of 1851 through 1858. Included in his journals are the first flowering dates of hundreds of local forb species.

If, like me, you enjoy making such observations (bloom dates, seed ripening, etc.), you might like to volunteer to assist with the collection of phenological data for the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County. If you’re at all curious, I invite you to save the date, Saturday, February 3, 2018, for a Species Spotlight orientation and training for plant monitoring in the year ahead—including a proposed phenology project. There are several other monitoring projects planned under our Citizen Science program; join us January 20 for a Citizen Science Spotlight to learn more. Further details are forthcoming so keep an eye on our online calendar.


Finding the Little Things

There are a lot of advantages to being vertically challenged. 

The other day we had a group of children out for programs highlighting plants.  They learned how seeds travel, how seeds store food and energy, and the important role(s) of plants in our ecosystems.  They also learned how to identify some of our more “dangerous plants,” how to make whistles from acorn caps, how to make cordage from plant fibers and how to make toy ducks from cattail leaves.  It was a lot of hands-on fun for all involved.

After showing my first group wood nettles and discussing why it is a good plant to avoid, I had my eyes peeled for poison ivy.  It seems I can never find it when I need it.  I thought I had found a PI vine, and was starting to tell the kids how to recognize it (leaflets three, let it be; hairy rope, don’t be a dope), when I noticed that the vine I was looking at, while indeed sporting three leaflets on each leaf, had a couple suspicious leaves with itty bitty fourth leaflets present.  Hm…

Just as I was contemplating (to myself) these “aberrant growths,” the kids started shouting “there’s a caterpillar, there’s a caterpillar!”  I had no idea what they were talking about – I saw no caterpillar!  But sure enough, underneath the leaf, there was a small green caterpillar.  The kids had seen it because their heads were all beneath the leaf – I was too tall and was looking down at the leaf!  

Pandorus sphinx Eumorpha pandorus on Virginia creeper.JPG

And what a magnificent caterpillar it was:  about an inch long, bright green, with brilliant white spots on its flanks and a wisp of a red horn on its back end.  The front end was held rigidly erect – no doubt trying to look big and tough to scare us off.  Well, we ooo-ed and we ahh-ed, photos were taken, and then we moved on.

Back in the office I looked up our mystery larva, and it turns out it was a Pandorus sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus.  It’s a lovely cream and brown moth, perfectly designed to blend in in its woodland surroundings, and reading up on it I discovered that our caterpillar was doing all the trademark things noted for this species:  a) it was on the underside of a leaf, and b) the leaf it was on one of its food preferences, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), as was evident by those rogue fourth leaflets.

The white spots on the caterpillar’s sides each surround one of the caterpillar’s spiracles, or breathing holes.  Why it’s to the caterpillar’s advantage to have its spiracles made so obvious is unknown to me, but an interesting question nonetheless.  And the little red tail/horn is only present on the early and middle instars, so we obviously had a youngster.  On the final instar the horn is replaced with a “button,” which looks a lot like an eye.  Perhaps it, too, serves to scare off predators.

Another interesting thing about these caterpillars is that they come in several colors: pink, green, orange, brown, black or cinnamon.  And they can change color for the last instar.  Why?  Are the colors diet related?  Maybe predicated on the habitat they are in?  Luck of the draw?  I have no idea, and I've not found an answer online yet, but it is sure fun to speculate.

Besides rearing up, displaying the tail horn, or hiding under leaves, what can these stunning caterpillars do to protect themselves?  Apparently they use regurgitation to ward off ants and other parasites that might want to prey on them.  We didn't put that to the test.

So today I tip my hat to the second graders who saw a caterpillar I never would have seen because I was too tall (it’s not often I get to say that) and too focused on identifying a plant.  Because they are curious and closer to the ground, kids often see things that we adults miss…and it can almost always be an eye-opening experience.  I encourage everyone to occasionally change your perspective:  get down on the ground and look at things from the level of a chipmunk; climb a tree to see how the landscape looks to a bird perched on high; take a child out and kneel down at her level to experience nature when you are less than three or four feet tall.  Let us know what you discover.