The River(s) in Spring

[Today’s blog is written by guest blogger and SDNC volunteer Butch Wittaker, who grew up in the area and has watched the river in all its seasons for many years.]

It is not quite spring here in our area, but the robins are back, and summer is near. And, looking the other day at the Kishwaukee River and its flooded state, I began thinking about the life that is going on under the water.

We often only see what is directly in front of us. When you look at a river that is flooded you see water; perhaps we see only the damage that it causes, but maybe we should adjust our sight.

Consider the river as its own world, because it is. We move fast and have little time for anything other than ourselves, but when we need a break from work, school, or the stress of it all, we might say, “I need some fresh air,” and we step outside. Do you wonder why we say that?

While you are considering that, let’s look back at the world of the river.

Brook Stickleback ( Culaea inconstans  ) - image from  Wikipedia

Brook Stickleback (Culaea inconstans ) - image from Wikipedia

Do you know that during this flood stage there are a lot of things going on? There are species of fish that are preparing to mate, some of which you might never see if you don’t go looking for them before the water is back in its bank. We have a little fish called a stickleback that is one of them. They don’t necessarily like cold water, but they can get caught in pools once the flood water begins to recede I used to catch them with seine nets when I was young. By the time March ends, for instance, the channel catfish will be biting readily on night crawlers.

The river is not only alive, but is awakening all of nature around it. Whatever you are doing today, take time to go outside, or at least look out a window, and find nature somewhere, because it’s there and it’s not boxed in by walls or schedule. The box elder bugs are telling us that spring is here. Maybe you will see nature in the form of early blooming flowers - some are blooming already. Or maybe you will see something that is just a little different, like the ringed-bill gulls I saw recently at Sports Score. Nature is alive and well, and it’s out there just waiting for us to come and find it - so go find it!

8 Reasons Why You Should Love Opossums


For one reason or another, opossums have gotten a pretty bad reputation as filthy, rabies-ridden creatures that we should fear. This perception couldn’t be farther from the truth! Read on to learn about the Virginia opossum and why it should earn your love.

1) Kangaroo Cousins

As the only marsupials in North America, these amazing creatures have pouches just like koalas or kangaroos. Mothers will raise up to 10 babies or “joeys” in their pouches at one time for two to three months. As the joeys get older, they start to explore outside the pouch and will ride around on mom’s back. Can you imagine giving a piggy-back ride to 10 children? Opossum mothers are incredible.

2) Pest Vacuum Cleaners

Opossums are like pest vacuum cleaners. One opossum can eat up to 4,000 ticks a week! They also eat a lot of creepy-crawlies, like snails and slugs, that may be chewing up your garden. Welcoming an opossum to your backyard means that you will have a free, zero-effort tick defense program in place.

3) Natural Landscapers

baby possum.jpg

These creatures won’t dig up your garden; instead, they will eat overripe fruit that falls to the ground and make a stink. They’ll also eat the beetles and bugs that might be chewing up your plants! Why pay a landscaper to clean your yard when you could invite an opossum to do the job for free?

4) Incredible Immune Systems

Many people fear opossums because they are rumored to carry rabies. While it is true that there is a small chance that opossums can carry rabies, they are eight times less likely to have rabies than other wild animal. You should be less worried about an opossum in your yard than the 20 squirrels that probably already live there.

5) Resistant to Snake Venom

Opossums are resistant to rattlesnake and copperhead bites. They have something called a “Lethal Toxin Neutralizing Factor,” or LTNF. Rats injected with LTNF are also immune to botulism and ricin. This factor seems to be effective across several snake species and is now being synthetically made to make antivenin, which is great news for both us and our opossums!

6) Quiet Neighbors

If startled, the opossum will “freeze” or “play dead,” essentially entering a catatonic state for a few minutes or up to four hours. Its eyes stay open, the body stiffens up, and the animal falls over; sometimes it might foam at the mouth and release a foul smell. This is all part of its way of convincing predators that their next meal should be elsewhere. If you see an opossum enter this state, take the hint and leave it be. It will wake up in no time and make its way out of your yard.

7) Phenomenal Prehensile Tails


 Just like monkeys, opossums have prehensile tails that can wrap around branches, grip them, act as a balancing tool, and support the opossum while it climbs. These amazing tails are strong enough to help an opossum dangle from a branch by just their tail! Sometimes they will use their tail to grip nesting material to make a cozy home. Unfortunately, the exposed skin on their tails often succumbs to frostbite. If you ever see an opossum with a black or charred-looking tail end, it likely is the result of frostbite.

8) Amazing Pupils

An opossum’s eyes aren’t all black. We only see a strongly dilated pupil when we look at these fuzzy creatures. These large pupils help our friends see in the dark, as they are mostly nocturnal creatures.

In Conclusion

As amazing as opossums are, they have a lot going up against them. Opossums generally live only 2-4 years, as they have several natural predators. Humans aren’t helping the matter—opossums are frequent roadkill victims and are quickly losing their homes to human development. Rather than shooing away these incredible creatures, try to learn how to live in a space that was theirs to start with. Make sure to close your doors, keep your trash sealed, and watch your pets when they are outside. If you notice an opossum hanging out in your area more than you want, don’t fear! They aren’t territorial and will probably move on soon.

Blossom the Opossum

Blossom the Opossum

Hopefully you learned a thing or two about these furry friends! Please come out and observe our four opossum friends, including Blossom the Opossum, at our bird feeders any day of the week. Let us know if you spot one in your yard or local preserve, too.

Happy Trails,


Supporter Spotlight: Lora McClelland & Michael Simmons

Michael Simmons and Lora McClelland

The relationship that Lora McClelland and Michael Simmons have to Severson Dells Nature Center is as deeply rooted as it is far-reaching. The love for this organization and the legacy of service was passed down to Lora through her parents, Lowell and Betty Edwards. After becoming dear friends with former director Don Miller, the Edwardses became friends to the nature center and volunteered with restoration efforts, nature education and weekend hosting. Lowell shared his love for the Dells with his grandsons, bringing them out to activities and camps when they were young. The family established a Severson Dells internship with Lowell and Betty’s alma mater, Manchester University, to honor the Edwards’ long-time dedication to Severson Dells. Michael and Lora now host the summer interns at their nearby home, enabling the interns to share their passion for nature education with the children at our camps.

Lowell and Betty Edwards

Lowell and Betty Edwards

Lora and Michael have kept up the tradition of involvement with Severson Dells. Lora shares her time and talents with us as an event volunteer. Michael Simmons picked up the mantle of education volunteer when he and Lora married. In fact, Severson Dells is such a beloved place to them that they celebrated their wedding at the pavilion overlooking the prairie and the old oak trees on the summer solstice.

Michael and Lora’s spirituality is deeply connected to the earth and with sharing their love for nature with children. They enjoy spending time hiking, bicycling and fighting invasive honeysuckle together. Lora loves getting her hands in the soil and Michael enjoys wandering the forest preserves with their beloved dogs.

Michael and Lora enjoying the beauty of nature together

Michael and Lora enjoying the beauty of nature together

The pond at the Dells is a favorite spot for both Michael and Lora. Michael loves teaching aquatic studies to visiting students there and it reminds him of his first connection to nature as a child in the wetlands of Louisiana. Lora says, “I too, love the pond. It makes me laugh as I remember my son Connor falling into it (not once, but twice)!”

Spending time at Severson Dells with their family through camps and explorations with their mother and grandparents left an indelible impact on Lora’s sons. She explains, “My sons both ended up with a love of nature, and my youngest is an environmental science major. I credit a large part of their passion to their formative years at Severson Dells.”

Lora, Connor, and Donovan McClelland and Michael Simmons

Lora, Connor, and Donovan McClelland and Michael Simmons

Severson Dells has been fortunate to benefit from Lora and Michael’s generosity and vision, and their gifts have helped more children to develop a meaningful connection to nature. We are so grateful to Michael and Lora for their legacy of support.

If you are inspired by Michael and Lora’s giving nature and you want to make a difference in the place where you live, you can learn more about becoming involved with Severson Dells Nature Center through our many volunteer opportunities, by joining us as a member, or by donating to our mission to connect people to nature.

Death at the Dells - a story in four parts

This morning Andrea and I headed out to do a little prep work for my scout program tomorrow. As we were finishing up flagging a couple trees by the kiosk, we saw a couple Forest Preserve fellows on their “trail vehicle” in the woods. They drove past us, waved, and drove on. We thought nothing of it and headed down the icy path.

We weren’t two minutes down the trail when we saw the first pool of blood. (My foot is in the photo for scale - it was a lot of blood.) The tan stuff is probably fecal matter.


Oh dear! We were suddenly concerned that one of the guys had been injured doing some restoration work. As the tale unfolded ahead of us, though, we discovered that no people were injured. We can’t say the same for some unfortunate critter.

The following videos were filmed later in the morning - the original footage was not of good quality.)

In Part Two, we find ourselves further down the trail, where additional evidence was deposited both on the trail and along side it. (Due to cameraman error, this version of Part 2 was filmed after parts 3 and 4.)

We continue to follow the clues in Part Three - where did it go and what did it do?

And finally we wrap up with Part four - conclusions to our whodunnit.

When we first arrived at the gut piles, Andrea thought she saw an animal dashing through the woods. “It was much bigger than a squirrel,” she said, but it was only a flash, of movement and she couldn’t say conclusively what it looked like. After I had returned from my second filming of the crime scenes, and had come to the conclusion that our predator was probably a fox, she watched a video online of a fox and thought that the movement fit what she saw. And since the evidence I saw when I went back out to “film” again suggested that the predator had returned, it is not unlikely that she did indeed see it - it had moved off to a safe distance to wait for us to move on so it could finish scavenging any edible parts left behind.

I haven’t had this much fun with such a mystery since I found a massive scat in the Adirondacks that was full of fur and claws that belonged to a fisher that I suspect was eaten by either a very large coyote or possibly a bear. That one took some hands-on dissecting to suss out!

Does every trip outside end in such an adventure? Well…you won’t know unless you go out there, eh? Let us know what amazing discoveries you make the next time you are out and about.

Coming Back Home

Photo credit: Michael Lim

Photo credit: Michael Lim

For some people, a home is a house with walls and windows. For others, it is a group of people with whom we can let down our walls. For me, it is Severson Dells Nature Center.


My first introduction to “Severson” (a term that I use to describe the people and place of Severson Dells Nature Center) was a first grade field trip. I climbed over logs, stomped in mud, and splashed in the creek while overloading an Education Volunteer group with questions. I couldn’t get enough of the experience, and couldn’t wait to come back for more.


Adventure Quest 2010

Adventure Quest 2010

So I came back for more! I attended several more field trips and asked several more questions. I also started to come to summer camps, and somehow they were even better than field trips. Instead of climbing over logs, I was scuttling through Maquoketa Caves. Instead of stomping in the mud, I was burying my feet into the sand of Illinois State Beach. Instead of splashing in the creek, I was canoeing the rivers of Winnebago County for the first time. I loved camp and the fantastic staff- Don, Kathy, and Richard- who made the magic happen. While at camp, I pursued every experience with boundless enthusiasm and a bewildered sense of awe. It was so good that I began to crave camp again as soon as it was over.


Coyote Clan Outing

Coyote Clan Outing

Thankfully, Don Miller came up with a simple yet elegant antidote to my camp cravings: Coyote Clan. We were a group of young adolescents and young-at-heart volunteers who would go exploring somewhere new every month. Somehow, Coyote Clan was even better than camp. We did everything from fire-starting to turtle monitoring to scrambling our way up Kishwaukee Gorge. Together, we were the threads of a tight-knit community that loved to play in and learn about nature. I grew to treasure these outings, and some of my bewildered sense of awe transformed into a certain reverence for creation. I also began to watch the adult volunteers very closely and cling to every word they said. They were very cool, after all.

Summer 2015

Peek-Into-Creek 2015

Peek-Into-Creek 2015

Coyote Clan was the perfect primer for the next step of my Severson Dells journey: joining the summer staff team. As a high school graduate, I had matured into someone who understood the fundamentals of biology and could see the way it played out on the landscape of Severson. I also was deeply interested in how organizations worked. I learned so much that summer—about camp, ecology, volunteer management, and more. I loved the dynamic rhythm of camp and the eco-themed chatter of the office. I searched for more responsibilities and opportunities to get my feet wet (literally and metaphorically) into everything that made Severson run.

I remember an especially pivotal moment from that summer. It was a warm evening and I could drink in the rich smells of a sun-drenched prairie as we whisked past it. I was shotgun in a car with Don Miller and several Severson regulars touring Winnebago County’s Milkweed populations. Between our stops, we were telling tales and solving all of the world’s problems. Sometime during that car ride, I realized something that had not occurred to me before. Not only was Don paid to do this, but maybe, someday, I could be paid to do it too. It sounded as realistic as making it big in Hollywood at the time, but I couldn’t shake that possibility from my horizon.


Andrea and Don at a Monday Night Canoe Convoy

Andrea and Don at a Monday Night Canoe Convoy

That September, I said goodbye to Severson and made my way to Hillsdale College, my new home for the next three years. As someone approaching adulthood, I was trying to be realistic with my plans. I told my classmates that I was studying Environmental Law. When the debates in my politics classes started to feel daunting, I told my classmates that I was going to pursue general Biology. I spent a summer researching species richness of a restored mining site, and while I loved being waist-deep in Ammophila breviligulata and internalizing the Latin names of 181 plant species, I knew something was missing. I started to seriously consider if I needed to commit to my far-fetched dream of working in environmental education.  Whenever I was home if even for a few days, I would try to volunteer at Severson.

Summer 2017

Collecting toxic plant specimens at Severson

Collecting toxic plant specimens at Severson

The next summer, I was back at Severson as a summer intern. While I was elated to be back, I came in with some slight reservations about working with an entirely new staff. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest within the first week of work there. The new dynamic was different- very different- from what I knew Severson to be, it was still Severson. The white noise of the office was still eco-themed chatter and everyone carried the same sense of joy about their jobs. I learned a lot from the new crew and rose to claim even more responsibilities. I loved every new task I tried and developed an even greater interest in how non-profit organizations work. After a summer of wonderful experiences, I finally had the courage to claim my dream: I wanted to work in Environmental Education, and no matter how difficult it would be, and I would work relentlessly toward that goal.


A few months ago, a door opened for me to come back home to Severson. I have to tell you: it feels so good to be back. While I know that I have big hiking boots to fill in the absence of Greg Rajsky, I can’t wait to try. I will give everything that I have to honor Severson and the people and nature that make it who it is. I will get my feet wet, get my hands dirty, and learn at every chance I get. I am so grateful for this opportunity to grow with this organization and see it pioneer a bright new future during my time here.

Most of all, I hope that I get to see you out here very soon! I know that, whatever the occasion may be, it will be a good time.

Happy trails!


Nature and Etymology

In addition to being a nature nut, I am also a bit of a word geek. While reading, I can get hung up on words: why this word or that word - where does that word come from, why is it used in this way? And there I go…down the rabbit hole.

After last night’s beautiful snowfall, it is only fitting that today I am working on some research for next weekend’s Winter Hike. I want to be able to provide our hikers with an experience that is a bit more than the run-of-the-mill nature walk in winter. Some topics are discussed all the time, everywhere, and are nothing new. How dull. Nope - I am in search of a few nuggets that might make our participants say “Hm! Who knew! Isn’t that interesting?”

Well, I didn’t get two pages into a book about winter when I came across my first SQUIRREL! It showed up in the early history of how the people of the world started to take note of the seasons and record them (the most familiar record to most of us is Stonehenge). As the years spun on, we moved from thinking of the Earth as the center of the universe to knowing that our planets move around our sun, and our sun is on the edge of our galaxy, which is only one small galaxy in the greater expanse known as outer space. It is all rather daunting.

But what stopped me in my tracks was the discussion about the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. You may know these terms: they are two “lines” that encircle the planet, one north of the equator, and the other south of the equator. But what do they mean…and why in the world are they called what they are called? It was primarily the latter question that sent me down the rabbit hole.

First, why “tropic?” Most of us probably hear the word “tropic” and think of palm trees, ocean breezes, sunshine and beaches. Maybe we think of rainforests, rainfall, and high humidity. But what does any of this have to do with these lines? Do they demarcate the boundaries of the “tropical zone?”

Secondly, why “Cancer” and “Capricorn?” These are signs of the Zodiac - what do they have to do with beaches and rainforests?

It turns out that none of this has anything to do with the tropics as we know them today. These names were assigned over 2000 years ago (in the last centuries BCE). But first, a little science:

At the time of the Summer Solstice, the sun is directly overhead along the line known today as the Tropic of Cancer (which is above the equator) - the furthest north the sun travels. And at the Winter Solstice, it is directly overhead along the line known today as the Tropic of Capricorn (below the equator) - the furthest south it travels. Once it hits these points, the sun starts to head once more in the other direction. Thus we have our long summer days and our short winter days.



Now for some history. Two-thousand plus years ago, the Sun was actually within the constellation of Cancer in June, and within the constellation of Capricorn in December. According to the website, the sun was in Taurus for the last Summer Solstice, and during last Winter Solstice, just a month ago, it was in Sagittarius. Nothing is so constant as change.

And here’s where the etymology comes in. According to Etymology Online, the word “tropic” comes from the “late 14c., "either of the two circles in the celestial sphere which describe the northernmost and southernmost points of the ecliptic," from Late Latin tropicus "of or pertaining to the solstice" (as a noun, "one of the tropics"), from Latin tropicus "pertaining to a turn," from Greek tropikos "of or pertaining to a turn or change; of or pertaining to the solstice" (as a noun, "the solstice," short for tropikos kyklos), from trope "a turning" (from PIE root *trep- "to turn").

The notion is of the point at which the sun "turns back" after reaching its northernmost or southernmost point in the sky. Extended 1520s to the corresponding latitudes on the earth's surface (23 degrees 28 minutes north and south); meaning "region between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn" is from 1837.“

The short version of all that: Tropic basically means to turn - these are the imaginary lines on the planet where the sun has moved the furthest in said direction (north or south) before heading back the other way, thus creating the cycle of our seasons. And in the 16th century the term was assigned to the Torrid Zone, or the region of the Earth between the two Tropics, which is why we now think of beaches, palm trees and rainforests when we hear the word ”tropic.” (And the word “solstice,” just in case you were wondering, is from the Latin sol, meaning sun, and stice, meaning standing or still - in other words, the solstices are when the sun stands still, and then turns around and goes back in the other direction. Isn’t language fascinating?)

So there we are: two questions that have bothered me for years (why “tropic” and why Capricorn and Cancer) have finally been answered…all thanks to a nature hike at Severson Dells.

Do you have a nature-related conundrum that we might be able to solve? If it is a winter question, we might just address it on our hike next weekend. Consider joining us (but please call and let us know you are coming - we want to be sure to have enough leaders on hand so everyone has a good experience).

In the meantime, I hope you get out and enjoy this wonderful new snowfall!

Aldo Leopold at Severson Dells

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

— Aldo Leopold

Today is the 132nd birthday of the great conservationist, writer, and nature philosopher Aldo Leopold.

A Sense of Place in the Midwest

Aldo Leopold spent a good deal of his life in the Midwest and was deeply connected to this region’s landscape. He was born in Burlington, Iowa, on January 11, 1887, and returned to the Midwest after attending Yale Forest School and pursuing a career in wildlife management in Arizona and New Mexico. His philosophy of wildlife management was radically changed when he was working out West and witnessed the “fierce green fire” die in they eyes of a wolf he had shot. He then settled in Madison, Wisconsin, to pursue his explorations into ecology and philosophy. In 1935, his family purchased a worn-out farm on the Wisconsin River in Baraboo and worked to plant pines and restore the prairies at “the shack.”

Aldo Leopold and his family at “the shack” in Baraboo, WI.

Aldo Leopold and his family at “the shack” in Baraboo, WI.

Leopold’s Travels at Severson Dells

Landscapes and the wildlife helped define Leopold’s philosophy and his “land ethic” that he eloquently illuminated in his perennial book A Sand County Almanac. As part of his travels, Leopold even explored what is now Severson Dells Forest Preserve and Howard D. Colman Dells Nature Preserve as one of the first studies of deer-forest management in the United States. Leopold conducted this survey between 1936 and 1937 with Paul B. Riis, former Rockford Park District Superintendent. I like to hike the Severson trails imagining Leopold wandering through the woods, sitting at the base of one of the great old oaks with his journal open, divining inspiration from this land.

Leopold’s Land Ethic

While we don’t know if the land that is now Severson Dells directly inspired Leopold or his philosophy, we do know that his relationship with the land deeply affected his life and work. His land ethic approached ethics in broader terms of community; not just people, but all aspects of what he termed “the land” - plants, wildlife, soil, water. His ethic defined a set of values in our relationship to the land, one that was continually formed by his explorations into the natural world. This set of values is why Leopold’s land ethic never gets outdated - it is just as true today as it was when it was published in 1949. He believed that direct experiences in nature help us to see beyond human self-interest. His essays have inspired many others to connect to nature and explore the world around them, developing a sense of place and stewardship for the land. Essentially, the land ethic is about nurturing the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world and instilling a sense of care and stewardship for all members of the community.

We invite you to come out and spend some time at Severson Dells and walk in Leopold’s footsteps. The winter can be such a wonderful time to connect with the land when the crowds have quieted and you can find yourself more easily in conversation with the world around you.

January Prairie

January Prairie

Learn More About Leopold

To learn more about Aldo Leopold, visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation. You can even plan a trip up to Baraboo, WI, to visit Leopold’s shack and the beautiful Aldo Leopold Center. There is also a wonderful documentary on Aldo Leopold called Green Fire if you want to learn more about the man who helped shape modern conservation.

Nothing is Permanent Except Change

I love to do research - there is just so much out there to discover!

For the last couple of days I’ve been researching information for an upcoming scout program about birds. Now, I like birds as much as the next guy, and I can hold my own in some birding circles, but I am not a birder - sparrows and warblers are probably always going to throw me. However, ask me about bird anatomy and adaptations (feet, wings, feathers, beaks), and I’ve got you covered.

Part of this program requires that the scouts learn how to use a field guide. No problem, said I, field guides are easy enough to navigate. Probably the most confusing part for novices is trying to figure out how the book is arranged. It’s not alphabetical, and, with a few exceptions, it’s not by color. Most bird field guides are arranged by taxonomic sequence: birds that are related to each other are grouped together, and the “oldest” birds are in the front of the book, with the “youngest” birds bringing up the rear, evolutionarily speaking.

Then why is it, I asked myself a few years ago, that loons are no longer in the front? Loons used to be considered the oldest of the birds. I did not pursue an answer at that time, but today, I discovered why.

When the first field guides were assembled, taxonomic science was based primarily on fossil records. Without a time machine, this is all we had to go on to try to figure out where everything came from and how species developed. Today, however, we have DNA and genetic sequencing…and boy has that turned up some very interesting results.

For example, I bet you thought falcons were raptors! Am I right? Yes, we all grew up putting hawks, eagles and falcons together as strong-taloned, curved-beaked, powerful birds of prey known as raptors. Well, after they did some genetic sequencing on these birds, they discovered that falcons are not related to hawks and eagles after all; they are more closely related to …PARROTS! Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

Another example: nightjars, those long-winged, fringe-mouthed, night-time foragers, are closely related to hummingbirds (or, perhaps more accurately, hummers are related to nightjars, since nightjars are “older” and hummers are, evolutionarily speaking, johnny-come-latelies).


That is one of the things we can probably all count on: the only constant in life is change. And just when you think you have something nailed down, someone will discover something new about it and possibly turn it all on its head.

This is not a bad thing, and it certainly doesn’t mean science is bogus. Nope - science is predicated on change. We draw conclusions based on the evidence we have. When new evidence turns up, we may have to modify our suppositions…or perhaps it verifies what we already thought. Either way, the search for “the truth” continues and with each new discovery, we learn a bit more about the life all around us.

Here’s hoping 2019 is a year full of discovery and positive changes for you and yours. And I hope we’ll see you out on the trails soon


Taxonomic Tree of Life - Wikipedia


At the heart of Severson Dells Nature Preserve is the valley of Hall Creek, with its weathered bedrock cliffs standing as mute testimony to the power of moving water. Thousands of years ago, glacial meltwaters carved the valley, exposing the ancient dolomite (a kind of limestone); today Hall Creek (or Mosquito Creek as it is called out on some maps) meanders through the valley, flowing year-round, draining farm fields that occupy areas north of Montague Road and carrying the water to the Rock River.

Hall Creek, flanked by dolomite limestone cliffs

Hall Creek, flanked by dolomite limestone cliffs

Within the field of physical geography, more specifically fluvial geomorphology, Hall Creek would be categorized as a ­first-order stream or a headwaters stream. What does that mean? Well, human beings are always sorting, classifying, or categorizing things. Taxonomy generally refers to the classification of organisms, but the same principles apply to other things, including streams. Stream order is a way of sorting waterways—from small headwater streams to mighty rivers.

To explore this idea, we first need to settle upon a definition of stream. We’ll use the term in a generic sense to refer to any body of water that flows, generally confined within more-or-less well defined banks.

Early classification systems tended to be subjective and therefore inconsistent. Classifications based upon morphology (such attributes as gradient, sinuosity, width-depth ratios, etc.) had limited application because stream characteristics may change back and forth across space. (Sinuosity, in case you were wondering, is defined as the ratio of channel length to valley length.) In the words of hydrologist David Rosgen, “One consistent axiom associated with rivers is that what initially appears complex is even more so under further investigation.”

So, based on work done in the middle 20th century by researchers named Horton and Strahler, stream order can be quantified by what is known as a Strahler Number (or Horton-Strahler Number). It works like this. A perennial headwater stream is a first-order stream. Below the confluence of two first-order streams is a second-order stream. Below the confluence of two second-order streams is a third-order stream. This continues until the 12th order.

(Note that adding a first-order stream as a tributary to a second-order stream does not elevate the second-order stream—it continues as a second-order stream and the first-order stream ceases to have its separate existence. It is only when encountering another second-order stream that the order is elevated to third. And so forth.)

an illustration of the Strahler numbering system

an illustration of the Strahler numbering system

Generally, first-, second-, and third-order streams can be considered small or headwater streams; those ranked fourth through sixth are considered medium-sized streams; those ranked seventh through 12th are considered to be rivers. For example, the Ohio River is an eighth-order stream; the Mississippi is a tenth-order stream; the Amazon is a 12th-order stream. Some 80 percent of the world’s waterways are small (first- to third-order) streams.

To further confuse things, there is an alternative method, the so-called Shreve method, which is additive: the confluence of a first-order and second-order stream yields a third-order stream; the confluence of a third-order and second-order stream results in a fifth-order (or fifth-magnitude) stream. Because the Shreve method counts all upstream tributaries they may be referred to as magnitudes rather than orders.

An illustration of the Shreve numbering system

An illustration of the Shreve numbering system

So what about all the other names we have for streams (like creek or brook)—do they have specific meaning? One way of thinking about it is expressed in an old adage:  “You can step over a brook, jump over a creek, wade across a stream, swim across a river.” Not very scientific, though.

As it turns out, some of the place-names (toponyms) widely used for these flowing bodies of water have certain regional or cultural affiliations. For example, words like rio and arroyo are of Spanish origin and are commonly used in the Southwest. Here in the upper Midwest we have several other words for streams, mostly borrowed from North, South, or Midland sources.

Brook, for example, is widely used in New England and elsewhere in the North. Branch, on the other hand, is used mostly in the South. Run is a Midland term. Such words may also be used to describe the physical milieu of the stream. In that context, a run implies a swift flow, perhaps across relatively steep terrain, with energetic action, while a branch or fork may suggest divisions of a stream, often in flat terrain.

Creek originally referred to coastal inlets and tidal estuaries, but now is ubiquitous and, much like stream, might be used in the generic sense. Where pronounced, “crick” it likely is of southern origin. Watercourse actually refers not to the flow of water but to the channel it occupies.

So, looking at our place-names, it would appear that whoever had naming rights used terms familiar to them—likely terms that reflected their personal geographic and linguistic histories.

No matter what we name our streams, or how we rank and categorize them, the fact of the matter remains that surface waters are vital components of our hydrological systems and water quality is essential to life. We depend on our waterways to alleviate flooding, recharge groundwater, maintain wildlife, and generally enrich our lives. In fact, streams and rivers do help to sustain us.

P.S., for those readers who would really like to geek out on a map and commentary regarding toponyms applied to streams in the continental United States, I invite you to spend some time here:


The naming of plants is a curious business. When I first studied botany it was explained to me that it would be necessary to learn binomial nomenclature because the common names given to plants could be notoriously confusing. A plant could go by one name in one part of its range and be called by a different name elsewhere in its range. Ah, but the true scientific names are universally applied and—so it was explained to me—those names don’t change.

But they do. In fact, over the past few years there have been wholesale changes to the botanical names of a great number of native plants. But that’s not what I’m blogging about today. Today I want to address some common names of plants.

Some common names employ the modifier, “false.” For example, the prairie wildflower that I prefer to call obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)—for the compliant nature of its corollas, which may be turned as if on a swivel to point in one or another direction—also has been known as false dragonhead. Long ago, one of my teachers shared his disdain for the “false” modifier, stating that each plant is an organism worthy unto itself, deserving of its own identity and not to be relegated to the status of a false or inferior shadow of some other plant species.

True obedient plant or false dragonhead? ( Physostegia virginiana )

True obedient plant or false dragonhead? (Physostegia virginiana)

Similarly, feathery false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum recemosum) and starry false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum) were so named because of the resemblance of their foliage to that of the “true” Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum canaliculatum). I prefer to call them feathery Solomon’s plume and starry Solomon’s plume. “Feathery” because of the appearance of the terminal inflorescence, the raceme at the end of the growing stem; “starry” because of the star-like aspect of the widely spaced individual flowers and the star-shaped pattern that appears on the ripening fruits.

Other common names also correlate to their botanical names. Pale spiked Lobelia is Lobelia spicata. A more arcane example would be silky wild rye (Elymus villosus), whose delightfully soft, silken hairs adorn the surface of each leaf blade. (Botanists refer to a surface covered with long, straight, soft hairs as “villous.”)

Sometimes I wish that more common names reflected the botanical nomenclature. Take for example the rustic name of poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata). Given the specific epithet, wouldn’t it be better to call it the exalted milkweed? For that matter, what about swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)? We could call it milkweed incarnate.

exalted milkweed? ( Asclepias exaltata )

exalted milkweed? (Asclepias exaltata)

millkweed incarnate? ( Asclepias incarnata )

millkweed incarnate? (Asclepias incarnata)

Locally, two species of Impatiens grace our moist-soil habitats. Spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) also goes by the name of orange jewelweed and occurs in a wide variety of moist habitats, from full sun to partial shade. Pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) also may be called yellow jewelweed and is more likely to found in wet woodland pockets. I prefer to call them jewelweeds because “touch-me-not” strikes me as a bit off-putting, although the name derives from the plants’ seed-dispersal strategy:  ripe seedpods are spring-loaded and the slightest touch will cause the pod to burst open with ballistic force, hurtling the seeds some distance from the parent plant. In fact, the name of the genus, Impatiens, derives from the Latin for “impatient,” referring to the sudden bursting of the ripe seed capsules.

The plant sometimes known as green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) is not in the same genus as the gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), which is also known as the yellow coneflower. Neither share the same genus as the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida). But back to Rudbeckia laciniata, which is in the same genus as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba); rather than the somewhat pedestrian name of green-headed coneflower, I much prefer the more lyrical appellation, wild golden glow. Now that’s an evocative plant name, and one befitting the majesty of this streamside species.

I will humbly defer to my betters when it comes to scientific names, but when more than one common name might be applied to a given local species, I am inclined to select the more lyrical or evocative appellation. As Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.”

Christmas in August

CSI Rockford, watch out!  The naturalists at Severson Dells will give you a run for your money!

Last Friday, August 31, one of the Forest Preserve staff brought us an owl pellet that he found up by the farm.  It was quite large, with long fur attached on one side, and a very clean jaw bone sticking out. 


Now, I love dissecting owl pellets – they are like little furry Christmas presents, full of goodies and you never know just what you might find.  I’ve dissected probably hundreds of pellets over the years, mostly with students, but a few on my own.  The majority of the time one finds rodent bones in them, which is no surprise - mice and voles make up a huge part of an owl's diet.  A handful of times I’ve found shrew bones (red and black teeth always give them away).  I’ve found bird skulls maybe three or four times.  Jerusalem cricket mandibles were probably the most exciting thing I found…until this last week.

As soon as I saw that pristine jawbone sticking out the side, I knew we had something special – that was no rodent jawbone.  The molars were long and pointy, and the teeth went all the way from the back to the front of the jaw (rodents have a space between their molars and incisors).  But it had to be a "small mammal" – the bone is less than an inch in length.


I decided to do a Facebook Live video while dissecting it – a new challenge for me.  Got my phone set up, balanced on bundled knotweed stalks in lieu of a tripod, and off I went.  Each piece I pulled out was exhibited and pondered over.  Some bones were obvious: femur, shoulder blade, ribs, vertebrae.  There was the pelvis with a femur still attached.  There were two jaw bones (sadly, no skull). 

And then I found a foot.


Now, this wasn’t just any old foot.  Most small mammals’ feet are composed of numerous tiny, fragile bones.  If you are lucky, you find them still articulated.  This foot, however, was huge.  In truth, it was the claws I found first – enormous claws attached to a large, wide foot with sturdy, broad bones.  I was left with no doubt as to what I had:  a mole.

I quickly looked up online to see what species of moles are found in our region, and was disappointed to find only one:  the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), also called the prairie mole.  Still, it made the choice pretty easy.

Two mysteries still remained, however.


One:  what in the world were these two very thick bones that I found?  At first I speculated they might be part of the skull, based on what I could see in the morphology of the first one I found; once the second one, identical in every way, showed up, this theory was out the window.  There was no way these were part of the skull – they were definitely two separate bones.

This image is from the Natural History Museum, online.  I drew the arrows in to show you where the humerus is located on each leg.  This is a European Mole, not an Eastern Mole, but the parts are still essentially the same.

This image is from the Natural History Museum, online.  I drew the arrows in to show you where the humerus is located on each leg.  This is a European Mole, not an Eastern Mole, but the parts are still essentially the same.

Today’s search online for a mole skeleton provided the answer:  the humerus!  The mole’s skeleton is quite unlike those of other small mammals when it comes to the front legs, and considering that this animal is using powerful front legs to move mountains of earth every day, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The thickness of these bones attests to the strength they must have to support the mole’s fossorial lifestyle.  The shape of the bones, however, still leaves me saying “huh!” – the humerus for most mammals is long and thin – think your upper arm.  What an amazing adaptation!


The second conundrum was two-fold.  I found a molar that just did not come from this animal – way too big, and structurally different.  Add to this the fur that made up the pellet: there was not only the dense dark fur of the mole, but also some long pale fur that in no way ever came from a mole.  This fur was too long for any other small mammal (plus the tooth was too big).  I thought at first rabbit, but, again, the tooth morphology was all wrong.  This morning the three of us in the office sat down to wrack our brains to come up with an answer as to what else this owl had eaten. 

“What about opossum,” Greg said. 

OF COURSE!  The answer was so obvious!  That fur could be nothing BUT opossum.  I quickly looked up the dentition and am fairly confident that the molar is a ‘possum molar.  But why there is just the one bone/tooth from the ‘possum will remain a mystery.

Here is what I surmise happened:  the owl caught a mole and had a lovely meal of it, and then later washed it down with an opossum chaser.  While eating the ‘possum it ingested some of the fur, no doubt while plucking the flesh for swallowing.  There was no reason to ingest the bones – meat of the animal was likely plentiful and easy to get at. 

What a wonderful find this owl pellet was - thank you, Mike!!!

May YOUR days be filled with such treasures as this.

Mysteries Abound

Studying nature, the answers we find lead often to more questions. Mysteries abound, such that naturalists and ecologists frequently act as sleuths in pursuit of clues. Observations feed our curiosity, leading to speculation, reflection, and inquiry.

So I was naturally curious when one of our canoe-program volunteers mentioned that he had seen some unusual markings along the bank of the Kishwaukee River in the Deer Run Forest Preserve. He said it looked like someone had dragged something out of the brush and into the river. When he told me about it, he was helping out with our youth canoe camp, Blazing Paddles. We were going to be paddling that very section of the river and he wanted to know if I could help interpret what had made the marks.

As good fortune would have it, he was able to point out the place along the bank shortly before we directed our pod of teenaged paddlers to pull ashore for a lunch break.

striations, etched like scratch marks into the sloping riverbank

striations, etched like scratch marks into the sloping riverbank

With a small band of curious campers in tow, I hiked back along the shore to investigate. The markings fanned out from a small opening in the vegetation, as if someone had combed or raked the surface. But this was no Zen garden and there were no trails near this section of shoreline. I ducked into the willows to investigate further.

There, behind the edge of the brush line, the answer was apparent. Sharp stumps of willow, a couple of inches in diameter, bore the grooved channels formed by sharp rodent teeth. Beavers apparently had been taking down willows and dragging them toward the water, stump-first with the upper leaves and branches trailing, raking the surface of the soil.

The adolescent paddlers in my company were impressed, never before having seen for themselves that sort of evidence of beaver activity—and they also were impressed with the beavers’ famed industriousness. We knew that the work must have been recent, as we found additional evidence farther along the bank:  A length of willow trunk, gnawed at the base and bearing the tell-tale tooth marks, still had a few green leaves at the tip. Those leaves would have wilted within days of the stem having been severed.

evidence of beaver activity; adolescent human for scale

evidence of beaver activity; adolescent human for scale

Beavers (Castor canadensis) are the largest rodents in North America, with bodies reaching 30 inches or more in length. A typical adult beaver may weigh between 35 and 65 pounds, although specimens weighing up to 85 pounds have been reported. Beaver teeth are formidable: the front incisors are oversized and appear orange in color, as iron replaces calcium in the enamel, making the incisors exceptionally strong—capable of gnawing through hardwood trees.

a stump exhibiting the grooved marks left by a beaver’s tough incisors

a stump exhibiting the grooved marks left by a beaver’s tough incisors

Further adaptations of these aquatic mammals include webbing between the toes of the hind feet and the distinctive paddle-like tails. When startled, a beaver may slap its flat tail in warning as it disappears beneath the water’s surface. Beaver fur was prized by the trappers who were among the first Europeans to explore this area. The outer guard hairs are long and glossy while the underfur is very fine and dense, protecting and insulating beavers’ skin from the water. Oils secreted through glands are distributed and combed through the fur while grooming to enhance the waterproof qualities of the fur. Such musky oils are also used to mark territorial boundaries.

Physiological adaptations like webbed feet and a flat tail enable beavers to thrive in aquatic environments.

Physiological adaptations like webbed feet and a flat tail enable beavers to thrive in aquatic environments.

Beavers are monogamous and live in extended family units, typically spanning three generations. Their preferred diet consists of herbaceous vegetation, although they will browse on woody stems when necessary.

Of course, we seldom see beavers. Not only are they generally restricted to riparian and pond-side habitats, they also are generally nocturnal, spending the daylight hours in lodges built of branches and accessible through underwater entrances. So, like much of the wildlife with whom we share this little corner of the planet, they may remain unseen, but can be known by their effects.

And beavers can have amazing effects on the environment. They are nature’s environmental engineers; their dams and lodges my redirect the flow of streams and rivers, flooding vast areas and influencing plant communities and habitats over long periods of time.

Nature is endlessly fascinating; collecting evidence, we are drawn deeper into explorations of interrelated phenomenon. Threads lead to nodes that branch off to other threads. One of the things that I find satisfying about studying nature is that we can devote a lifetime of study there and never get to the end of it all. Mysteries abound and there is always more to explore.

Home Sweet Home

Home. Such a simple, yet evocative word. So essential to our sense of security and wellbeing. Most of us rely pretty heavily on the comforts of home to help us endure the vicissitudes of life out there in the wide world. Faced with daunting challenges and fearful prospects, dangers, difficulties and dilemmas, the child within cries, “I wanna go home!”

We are not alone in finding safety and comfort in the nest, in the den, in the burrow. Our animal compatriots in the wild need their space also. Educators here at Severson Dells explain to school groups that organisms “Have to Have a Habitat” and we explore the many ways in which they find their respective niches in nature. Every organism needs shelter, nourishment (food and water), and space. If any of those needs is withheld, the organism cannot thrive and may not survive—at least not for long.

I was reminded of these essential truths recently when setting up a photographic plot to record progress in restoration here at The Dells. Along the crest of a low ridge, I came across a spoil pile:  light-brown glacial till unearthed from below the surface by an animal digging a burrow or den. Evidently, the animal had taken up residence there some time ago:  the soil was worn and lightly weathered; new plants had taken root there.

Outside this burrow, the spoil pile has been colonized by new plants.

Outside this burrow, the spoil pile has been colonized by new plants.

Just a few feet away, however, was a second excavation, one that apparently was quite fresh, looking as if it had never seen rain. What impressed me about it was the size of the stones that had been dragged or pushed out of the hole. Some were rough-hewn, several inches in diameter, and must have weighed a few pounds.

a new spoil pile of glacial till featuring large stones unearthed from below

a new spoil pile of glacial till featuring large stones unearthed from below

It can be difficult to tell with certainty which local mammal would have dug a given burrow. For denning season, coyotes may dig holes to occupy while giving birth and caring for their young pups, although such dens are generally abandoned by early July. Opportunistic as they are, coyotes are more likely to use a den that was excavated, and subsequently abandoned, by another animal. Red foxes typically leave scraps of bone and hide around a den entrance. Woodchucks (groundhogs) are well known for their excavation expertise and their dens often feature a “dirt porch.” A woodchuck would be capable of pushing a fairly large stone up and out of its burrow.

Curiously, a number of local animals may occupy a single burrow, either consecutively or—reportedly—even at once. Skunks, opossums, badgers, coyotes, raccoons, and groundhogs are said to be among those known to cohabitate from time to time.

Hollow trees, of course, offer another familiar form of shelter for wildlife. A large oak near the underground burrows presented an ample opening into an interior chamber; a walnut husk on the lip of the opening hinted at the chamber’s occupancy.

another residential address for local wildlife

another residential address for local wildlife

In addition to the many bird species known to be cavity nesters, the following mammal species also are known to occupy hollow trees:  raccoons, opossums, fox squirrels, gray squirrels, flying squirrels, bats, white-footed mice, bobcats, and gray foxes. (Yes, gray foxes do climb trees!) Given the walnut husk, it seems likely that one of the squirrels calls this place home.

Home. It means much more than the house (or den or burrow or nest) that we live in. Home embraces the wider environment. Our community. And when we care deeply about the natural environment, we come to realize and respect the fact that our home includes at least a portion of the natural world. And we associate our sense of comfort and wellbeing with that local environment. This is what it means to have developed a sense of place. And this is what it means to come home to nature.

Forest Fantasy Camp

I know what you are thinking:  what can magic and dragons and potions have to do with environmental education?  Believe it or not, many of the classes that JK Rowling came up with for students to take while attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are a perfect fit for teaching kids about the outdoors.  Herbology?  That's botany!  Potions?  How about making stuff with the plants you learned about in Herbology?  Care of Magical Creatures?  That translates into learning about any of the many species of animals that live around here (and perhaps inventing a few additional ones just to add a spark of imagination).  Defense Against the Dark Arts?  How about learning how to become invisible?

Check out what we did:

Monday.  Campers were sorted into their Houses: Pyrewyrm, Wulfrun or Eagleloft.   Afterwards they made their wands.

Each House could earn points by answering questions correctly and doing good deeds.  Points were lost when campers didn't follow rules.

Each House could earn points by answering questions correctly and doing good deeds.  Points were lost when campers didn't follow rules.

Campers enjoyed decorating their wands and wanted to bring them everywhere.

Campers enjoyed decorating their wands and wanted to bring them everywhere.

Our first full class was Herbology, and we learned about some of the plants that grow here that have healing properties, like jewelweed and plantain.  After lunch, it was time for Potions, and we made a healing salve with plantain that we harvested right here.

Healing Salve:  Healer's Friend (plantain) simmering in Bog Juice (olive oil).  Will be strained and the liquid will have Golden Wax (bees wax) added to produce a salve.  Each camper received a small jar of salve.

Healing Salve:  Healer's Friend (plantain) simmering in Bog Juice (olive oil).  Will be strained and the liquid will have Golden Wax (bees wax) added to produce a salve.  Each camper received a small jar of salve.

Tuesday.  We were supposed to study aquatic creatures in Care of Magical Creatures (with Professor Cora Animacules), but the stream was still a bit too high, and most campers were not prepared to go in.   

Looking for critters...watching out for Grindylows.

Looking for critters...watching out for Grindylows.

It was slim pickings, but we did find a crusty toe-grabber (crayfish).

It was slim pickings, but we did find a crusty toe-grabber (crayfish).

After lunch, we had an Astronomy lesson and learned about a few of the constellations that are associated with the Harry Potter books, as well as learning which ones campers would be likely to see even if they live in the city.  Everyone made a star wheel to take home.

Wednesday.  We were back in Herbology this morning, and Professor Albus Quercus taught the campers about some of the dangerous and/or interesting plants that live here (Tentacula/poison ivy; Devil's Sting/wood nettle; Mandrake/mayapple).  Campers recorded them in their spellbooks.


Then it was time for Potions again, and this time we made Enemy Repellent, with Manticore Milk (glue), Goblin Slobber (starch) and Goblin Blood (food coloring).  Three drops on the trail behind you will keep your enemies from following you.


We spent some time in The Grove...


...and ended the day making Bowtruckles (guardians of wand trees, according to JKR) to take home.


Thursday.  Care of Magical Creatures was first on the docket this morning.  We learned about some woodland creatures and built a few fairy homes.


After "summoning" a Fire Snake on the screened-in porch (baking soda, powdered sugar, alcohol and sand), we had lunch and then spent the afternoon in Defense Against the Dark Arts class with Professor Danielle Spinifera, where we leared about invisibility.  And what is better to teach invisibility than camouflage in the mud?!

At first we tried just adding water to some mud left behind by recent rains.

At first we tried just adding water to some mud left behind by recent rains.

But then Prof. Spinifera took the campers down to the stream where we found the mother load of mud.

But then Prof. Spinifera took the campers down to the stream where we found the mother load of mud.

Once we were good and muddy, it was time to add some vegetation...

Once we were good and muddy, it was time to add some vegetation...

...and then see if the campers could disappear in the woods.  It worked pretty well.

...and then see if the campers could disappear in the woods.  It worked pretty well.

Friday.  Our day began with a Dragon Egg Hunt.  A dragon came through the forest during the night and had laid her eggs along the path.  We searched for them and then helped the baby dragons hatch.

This egg had a Forest Spirit guarding it.  It later proved to have twins in it!

This egg had a Forest Spirit guarding it.  It later proved to have twins in it!

We helped the hatchlings emerge.

We helped the hatchlings emerge.

Everyone with his or her hatchling.

Everyone with his or her hatchling.

That afternoon Professor Quercus did an Augury and Aeromancy lesson.  Campers learned how people throughout history used birds and bird behavior to predict events (augury), and then how to read the clouds to know what kind of weather is on the way. 

Looking at the lone cloud in the sky to figure out what the upcoming weather might be.

Looking at the lone cloud in the sky to figure out what the upcoming weather might be.

Next we took our O.W.L.s - tests to see how much we learned this week.  Everyone passed!  

It was then time to award the House Cup.  Wulfrun House had the most points and won the cup for this inaugural year of Forest Fantasy Camp.  Everyone also got a Pygmy Puff to take home.

Members of Wulfrun House, with their Head of House, Prof. Cora Animacules.

Members of Wulfrun House, with their Head of House, Prof. Cora Animacules.

Eagleloft House, with their Head of House, Prof. Albus Quercus.

Eagleloft House, with their Head of House, Prof. Albus Quercus.

Pyrewyrm House, with their Head of House, Prof. Danielle Spinifera.

Pyrewyrm House, with their Head of House, Prof. Danielle Spinifera.

The afternoon was slated to be another scorcher, so we were ready with our Water Olympics!  It was a great way to wrap up a fun and adventurous camp.


Will we be offering this camp again next year?  I'm thinking YES!

Most sincerely yours, Headmistress Eleanor Plunkett


 Every year in June I enter into a fresh round of negotiations. No, it’s not an annual contract; I am just trying to come to terms with some of my avian colleagues. You see, it is in June that the ripening fruits of serviceberry shrubs turn dusky purple and invite us to partake of the berries, luscious and delicious.

In fact, Juneberry is another common name for serviceberry, as is shadblow.

Robins are among the first birds called to raid my trees; Cedar Waxwings follow soon after. I have two serviceberry trees (shrubs) at my house and in most years they offer up an ample harvest; there’s plenty to share with my avian neighbors. The trouble is that the trees have grown tall enough that I can only reach the lower tiers of fruit, so only a portion of the produce can be harvested by me while the Robins and Waxwings have access to all.

Ripening Juneberries attract birds (and people).

Ripening Juneberries attract birds (and people).

Serviceberries (Juneberries, shadblow) are woody shrubs or small trees in the genus Amelanchier. There are about 20 species that occur in North America. Authors Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha describe eight species and one hybrid in their 2017 tome, Flora of the Chicago Region. Of the eight species listed, six are presumed to be native to the region. (Neither the nonnative species nor the hybrid cultivar are considered to be invasive here.)

Four serviceberry species have been recorded from Forest Preserves of Winnebago County:  eastern Juneberry (Amelanchier arborea) is listed from Rockford Rotary Forest Preserve; low Juneberry (A. humilis) can be found at Blackhawk Springs and Seward Bluffs; inland serviceberry (A. interior) has been reported from Colored Sands, Sugar River, and Sugar River Alder; Allegheny serviceberry (A. laevis) is at Blackhawk Springs, Kishwaukee Gorge, Severson Dells, and Seward Bluffs.

For a variety of good reasons, serviceberries have become popular landscape plants in both commercial and residential settings. Their bark, smooth and gray, with spiraling dark streaks, offers distinctive winter interest. The leaves are small, oval, and with lightly toothed margins. In April and May, these members of the rose family (Rosaceae) are bedecked in flowers, each bearing five white, strap-like petals, longer than they are wide. The flowers yield abundant fruits, edible berries (actually pomes, fleshy fruits that form from an inferior ovary, i.e., below the other flower parts) that ripen in June. The fall foliage turns richly to tones of apricot and orange with hints of red. Some serviceberries tend toward a tree-like growth form, but attaining a height of only about 25 feet; others, especially those sold in the landscape or nursery trade, are predisposed toward expression as multi-trunked shrubs. Serviceberries are the larval host of Red-spotted Purple butterflies.

Amelanchier  in autumn splendor

Amelanchier in autumn splendor

The common name of shadblow (or shadbush) comes from the eastern region of the country, where the blooming of shadblow was said to coincide with the running of the shad to spawn in New England rivers. The name serviceberry is said to have derived from the resumption of certain “services” in the spring, whether the performance of marriage ceremonies (wedding services) or the ability to dig graves in newly thawed ground (burial services). Juneberry, of course, refers to the ripening fruit, the cause of my conversing with birds.

My negotiations with the foraging birds goes something like this. I’ll go out to my serviceberries with a small basket to collect the fruit, flushing a few birds out of the trees. The Cedar Waxwings may quickly disperse to regroup out of sight; the Robins squawk in protest as they fly off to the nearby crabapples or perch on the edge of the gutter and eye me with suspicion.

If I approach slowly and quietly, the Waxwings may linger so that I might reason with them. I explain that they are welcome to all the berries at the top of shrubs, while those situated within my reach are reserved for me. The Waxwings are generally agreeable to these terms and seem to show admirable restraint.

The Robins, however, laugh at me. They dismiss me with derision, as if to say, “Hah! What are you going to do about it?” Once I am back inside the house, the Robins are back in the lower branches.

I suppose there’s nothing for it but to plant more serviceberries.


Of all the eagerly anticipated phenomena that mark the spiraling dance of the seasons, few are as sweet, or received with such delight, as the appearance of lightning bugs in June.

Perhaps you call them fireflies. I grew up calling them lightning bugs. In fact, they are neither flies nor bugs. They are winged beetles, in the order Coleoptera. And for many of us who grew up the Midwest, these seemingly magical insects provided an early-childhood introduction to the joyful exploration of the natural world. Many of us have fond memories of dashing across the lawn, big glass jar in hand, chasing flickering points of light and squealing with anticipation of the capture. And we always knew that we could catch these harmless little insects in our bare hands, examine them closely—in rapt fascination of their eerie rhythmic glow—keep them for a time in our clear glass jars (breathing holes punched in the metal lids), and release them once more into their habitat before we were tucked into bed.

Random Factoid:  A Jamaican term for lightning bug is, “blinkie.”

Random Factoid:  A Jamaican term for lightning bug is, “blinkie.”

Adaptation in nature is nothing less than amazing. Why would a little insect evolve in such a way as to regularly emit such a bright, distinctive glow? The short answer is that they use the light to communicate. And most of that communication is about finding a suitable mate.

There are thousands of species of lightning bugs (or fireflies—I’ll use the terms interchangeably) spread across temperate and tropical areas of the globe, classified within five subfamilies. While there are more than 200 species in North America, curiously enough there are few species that occur west of Kansas. (If you really want to impress your friends visiting here from out west, take them to a firefly show.)

Firefly behavior, color, and habitat preferences vary by species, but in general their bioluminescence is caused by enzyme-induced chemical reactions within specialized cells called photocytes. Reflector cells may intensify and direct the light emitted by the photocytes. Light cast by a firefly is extraordinarily efficient; it is what we call a “cold light” because, unlike most sources of illumination, there is no energy lost as heat.

While some fireflies may emit light to defend their territory or deter predators, what we typically see is a courtship display. Each species presents a distinctive blinking pattern that is unique to that species (although there are a few species that mimic one another as a means of interspecies trickery). Males flash their rhythmic signals in flight while females perch in low vegetation; a female may reflect the male’s flash pattern or she may, at a precise time interval, blink back to the male, signaling her whereabouts; the flashing and blinking typically continue until mating is complete.

The female lays her eggs under the surface of the soil. After about three weeks, the eggs hatch, revealing larvae that are fascinating in appearance:  segmented and armored, looking perhaps like a trilobite or some kind of spiny pillbug. The larvae persist in that form for a year or two before spending about three weeks as pupae, emerging as adults who then live for only 3 or 4 weeks—just long enough to reproduce.

A lightning bug larva is a fearsome sight—at least to its prey.

A lightning bug larva is a fearsome sight—at least to its prey.

It is pleasing to find a field or woodland edge filled with the silent twilight courtship display of fireflies. Even as adults we can be mesmerized by the flashing, dancing patterns of green or yellow points of light, swimming in the mild evening air. And yet, some neighborhoods—even some natural areas—seem to host fewer lightning bugs today than in years past. I haven’t found any published studies that compare population trends over time, but there are anecdotal reports of diminishing numbers.

Most of a firefly’s life is spent in larval form, on or below the surface of the soil where they are susceptible to environmental dangers such as drought, flood, contaminants, and predation. Some of the threats to lightning bugs are decidedly human in origin. Lawn chemicals are especially troublesome:  some can kill firefly larvae outright, and they might also kill the organisms that the larvae need to eat. Artificial lighting can reduce the ability of adult males and females to find each other, so we are encouraged to shut off our lights whenever they are not needed.

Those of us who grew up in suburban neighborhoods here in the Midwest may associate lightning bugs with lawns and the residential landscape, but of course those little beetles were here long before modern humans changed the environment, so what natural habitats would have been their haunts? Reportedly, they prefer moist environments that support low-stature vegetation. I would suppose that sedge meadows, mesic savannas, and the margins of wet prairies would have been their preferred habitats.

The ideal time to witness the firefly display is right around dusk, a little after sunset, at the onset of darkness. Firefly activity diminishes considerably about an hour or two after sunset.

Take my advice. Find a moist prairie, sedge meadow edge, or untreated old field. (If you live in a neighborhood that still has abundant lightning bugs, you can do this at home, although ambient light from the neighbors can interfere with the experience.) Perch yourself comfortably at sundown, and take in the show. Allow a soft focus to guide your steady gaze across the gloaming space in front of you. Turn off your thoughts for a few moments, quieting the internal dialog; with silent mind and open eyes, witness the play at hand… and smile like a child enchanted.

Get Outside

Heed, for example, the siren song of the Kishwaukee River, enticing you to Get Outside, Get Healthy.

Heed, for example, the siren song of the Kishwaukee River, enticing you to Get Outside, Get Healthy.

How much time do you spend outdoors? Is it enough? How much time should we spend outdoors?? Would spending more time outdoors improve your health?!

You’ve probably seen statistics that suggest that Americans today spend 90 percent of their time indoors or otherwise in artificial environments (like driving a car). On the one hand, that number strikes me as appalling; on the other hand, it shouldn’t surprise me. After all, most folks are employed in indoor work and live in houses or apartments, driving door-to-door between work, home, and indoor errands.

I prefer natural, outdoor environments:  I thrive outside.

Of course, I am fortunate to be able to work in a field that places me in nature on a routine basis. I celebrate the open sky above, the panoramic vistas of wide prairies, the rich scent of wetlands, and the sheltering closeness of the shady forest. To feel the breeze, and gulp fresh air; to delight equally in snowfall, sunshine, starlight and rain—these are experiences that can feed the spirit and help sustain an appreciation of the awesome beauty of living on earth.

And yes, those disturbing statistics are out there. Most recently, on May 19, the New York Post published a story that reported the findings of an inquiry conducted by Velux, a global architectural firm. The survey, which sampled some 16,000 respondents in 14 countries, found that Canadians, Americans, and Brits were among the folks most likely to stay indoors (around 25 percent of the population spending 20-to-24 hours per day indoors). Italians and Czechs occupied the other end of the spectrum, with 57 percent of respondents spending fewer than 14 hours per day indoors.

The famous “90 percent of time spent indoors” statistic appears to derive from a more rigorous study, The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants (Klepeis et al., 2001, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). Results of the study suggest that, on average, Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors, plus an additional six percent of their time in an enclosed vehicle. The survey was funded by U.S. EPA and (presumably) like the Velux study was intended to quantify the degree of exposure to indoor pollutants.

Such surveys may focus on the indoor environment because the researchers were looking to justify efforts to address indoor air quality and other (indoor) environmental exposures. The implication (stated, in fact, by one of the authors) is that human beings have become “an indoor species.”

Yet this is a relatively recent development in human history. A few (human) generations ago, most people spent a good deal more time outdoors. And some of the respiratory ailments that are so common today were less prevalent. And how about all those allergies that folks are facing today?

Human health and wellness may be enhanced by spending more time outdoors—especially given the fact that most outdoor time includes a higher degree of exercise than most indoor time. A number of studies published during the past ten years document the benefits of spending time in nature. Exposure to natural environments has a positive correlation to enhanced wellbeing, and with greater exposure to nature, there is a greater positive effect. I find it noteworthy that this is not so much about healing illness as it is improving wellness and being less likely to fall ill in the first place.

Severson Dells Nature Center is working with the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County to promote such wellbeing. Just this past week, on May 19, we launched the 2018 Get Outside, Get Healthy campaign, a series of events—free to the public—that support wellness through outdoor experience. Many of these events will take place at Severson Dells, listed on the calendar of events here on this website. Additional details are available through the Forest Preserves’ website.

So please, get out of the house, get out of your car:  Get Outside and Get Healthy!

Mantis Musings

It is spring, and any given week from mid-April to late May we may have 200+ students visiting for various outdoor/nature programs.  I love turning them loose to see what they can find, and given the opportunity, they make many amazing discoveries.  

Recently, we had a group participating in our Biodiversity Investigation program, which has them walking through two different habitats (woods and prairie), looking for (and recording) signs of wildlife.  Often, this means insects, although sometimes we find birds, animal tracks, dens and nests as well.  Under the bark of decaying trees, or in the wood of rotting logs, are some of the best places to explore.  The grassland is a little more of a challenge right now, because it hasn't been quite warm enough for the critters to be out and about.  Never the less, our group had a great find:  not one, but TWO praying mantis egg cases.

Egg case of the Chinese Praying Mantis.

Egg case of the Chinese Praying Mantis.

These are great finds because a) they are so odd-looking, and b) they are not something most people encounter.  We left the first one out in the field, but the second one I brought back in to the office to see if we could get it to hatch indoors and share with visitors.

Thanks to a post that came through on my Facebook feed this week about how we should destroy any eggs cases we find like this, for they are from the non-native Chinese praying mantis, which is apparently some consider an invasive species, I decided to do a little research. 

While there are about 2000 species of mantises/mantids found worldwide, North America is home to about 21.  Of those, only one is found in our neck of the woods:  the Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantus carolina).  Two non-native species are found here, too, and in much greater numbers:  the Chinese Mantis (Tenodera aridfolia sinensis) and the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa).  Both have been here over 100 years and are considered "naturalized."  

Last summer we had a beautiful enormous specimen clinging to the porch screen for a couple days right outside our entry way.  Simply because I knew that the Chinese mantis was quite common, I presumed that was who she was (pretty sure it was a female, too, because her abdomen was very large), but yesterday I started wondering:  would I know our native mantis if I saw one?

As it turns out, telling our native mantis from the interlopers is pretty easy, primarily because it is so small by comparison.  S. carolina is about two inches long (compared to the whopping four to six inches of the Chinese; the European falls in between, but on the larger side).  Its wings only cover about 2/3 of its abdomen (100% coverage for the other two), and its colors are mottled, either in browns or greens (the others are more solidly brown or green).  Our native mantis exhibits no spots between its two predatory front legs; the Chinese has a yellow spot, while the European sports black or black and white bullseye spots.

Found this good ID/comparison photo online - thanks to John Meyer of NC State University.

Found this good ID/comparison photo online - thanks to John Meyer of NC State University.

If you find a hard, frothy-looking egg case (ootheca), you can tell if it is native or not by the size and shape.  Our native mantids' egg cases are small, and are longer than they are wide.  The Chinese mantis egg case is fairly stout, almost round - as seen in photo above.  The European mantis egg case falls in between - longer than wide, but not as narrow as the native ootheca.

Native Carolina praying mantis egg case - thanks to S. Carolina Public Radio.

Native Carolina praying mantis egg case - thanks to S. Carolina Public Radio.

So this brings us to a conundrum:  are the non-native mantids good or bad?  It depends on who you talk to.  Gardeners love them, because they are providing a beneficial service by eating many insect pests.  However, the fact that our native species is becoming so difficult to find suggests that perhaps they are being elbowed out of the picture by the non-native species. 

Additionally, the Chinese mantis is known to voraciously eat whatever it can catch, including butterflies, beneficial pollinators, tree frogs and even hummingbirds!  Is it also eating our native mantids?  Sounds to me like that is quite possible.

The debate is raging on the Facebook post (it came through my feed again last night), so I sent an email to APHIS to get the official status.  (I've been waiting two weeks for an answer...none received to date.)

So we are left with a quandry:  do we keep the egg case we found on display for visitors, or do we destroy it?  It's a difficult choice to make.

The Quickening

In the middle of April, between snowfalls, with the new leaves of this year’s early wildflowers just starting to unfold, I posted on social media a couple of plant photos (newly emerging leaves) with the following commentary:  “Hang on, kids, here it comes: the quickening exultation of floristic fever as our local vegetation awakens from the deep sleep of winter and races into full form to dazzle and enchant plant geeks across the land.”

I call it the quickening, a term also used to describe the first movements of an unborn child felt by an expectant mother. I use it to describe the first movements we perceive on the part of growing plants each spring, the exceptional acceleration of botanical activity that takes place here April-to-May, that frenzied state of hastening changes, barreling headlong into the growing season as wildflowers and trees alike press forward in an eruption of fecundity that takes our collective breath away. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Every day brings new leaves, new blooms, new discoveries along the trail. Before the trees put forth their leaves, wildflowers—we call them spring ephemerals for the fleeting nature of their appearance—bloom in profusion across our timbered lands. Generally speaking, prairies and wetlands bloom later; springtime is time for the woods to shine.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flowers may persist for only a few days.  Photo from Severson Dells, April 24, 2018.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flowers may persist for only a few days.  Photo from Severson Dells, April 24, 2018.

Spring ephemerals appear in the woods early in the season, before the trees put forth their leaves. Around here, a few weeks after the vernal equinox, sunlight reaches the surface of the earth at a fairly direct angle, fueling the process of photosynthesis in woodland wildflowers. Once the trees come into leaf, shade is more prevalent in the woods and spring ephemerals scale back their metabolic activity; some go dormant by midsummer.

Food produced by these wildflowers during the brief period of active spring growth may be stored underground in a root organ called a corm. Unlike a bulb, which is layered (like an onion), a corm is a solid storage device. It holds enough food for the plant to survive the lengthy period of dormancy, summer to spring, and feed the plant’s growth until it can refuel, so to speak, by conducting photosynthesis.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) is a delicate flower of wooded slopes.  Photo from Severson Dells April 24, 2018.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) is a delicate flower of wooded slopes.  Photo from Severson Dells April 24, 2018.

Woodland wildflowers are among the native plants most favored in this region, arriving as they do to grace the land with color and vitality after the long sleep of dull dormancy. We love our spring ephemerals not only for their sudden beauty, delicate and subtle, but also for their role as harbingers, heralding the commencement of the growing season, with all its promise of delights and discoveries to come.

Our early blooms signal the release of winter’s hold upon the land, offering cheerful relief from the cold and dark months that came before. And these first flowers of the year entice us to explore our natural areas, seeking out each successive species as it expresses itself in the environment, taking its place in a grand botanical pageant that spans the seasons. It starts with the quickening; don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

Springtail Speculations

Prior to living in Illinois, my only relationship with the insects known as springtails was from their late winter/early spring appearance on top of snow, where for all the world it looked like someone had tripped while carrying a container of ground pepper, dumping its contents all over the white expanse.  Upon close observation, each little flake of pepper takes its turn popping up into the air, drawing the attention of even the most casual of observers.  These critters are affectionately known as snowfleas, even though they are not even remotely related to fleas.

Snowfleas ( Hypogastrura nivicola ), image taken at a tracking workshop at Kawing Crow Awareness Center, Greenfield, NY - March 2, 2010

Snowfleas (Hypogastrura nivicola), image taken at a tracking workshop at Kawing Crow Awareness Center, Greenfield, NY - March 2, 2010

Last spring, while sharing the wonders of aquatic insects with many school children, we discovered that the surface of the pond here at Severson Dells was covered with springtails - thousands of them (sadly, I have no photos).  I was well and truly stunned - I had no idea they would live on water...literally.

This spring, we found them crawling up and down the trunks of trees.  

Springtails on tree, Severson Dells Nature Center, Rockford, IL - March 30, 2018

Springtails on tree, Severson Dells Nature Center, Rockford, IL - March 30, 2018

Obviously there is more to springtails than I had originally thought.

Some "quick" research online turned up the usual set of brief verbatim snippets, but then I hit the motherload, a whole book (over 300 pages) about nothing but springtails:  Biology of Springtails by Stephen P. Hopkin.  As fascinating as these insects are, however, I wasn't about to read the whole thing (well, I couldn't, because a) the online review I found had more than half the book missing, b) I wasn't going to spend nearly $200 for an e-book, and c) I simply don't have time to read a scientific tome just to write a few paragraphs for a blog).  But I will share with you some of the highlights, because these really are pretty nifty creatures; then YOU can go buy the book and fill in the rest of the story.

So, Springtails -  subclass Collembola.  Springtails are fairly primitive insects, although there seems to be some debate as to whether or not they are truly insects.  Most enotomologists are happy keeping them in the phylum Arthropoda, so I shall as well.  These insects are tiny - most falling somewhere between 1/16 and 1/8 of an inch (don't let the photos above fool you).  When I said they look like little pepper flakes on the snow, that was no exaggeration.

The name springtail comes from the really nifty appendage they have underneath the abdomen.  This forked "thing," called a furca, is folded underneath the insect and held in place until the springtail needs a quick get-away, then *snap!* it is released (think mouse trap), propelling the insect upwards and away from the impending danger.  Some species can fling themselves many times their own body length in a mere fraction of a second.  On the other hand, those species that live deep in the soil and rarely, if ever, venture forth, may have greatly reduced or even non-existent furcas (furcae?).  Being able to fling themselves with the furca is the only way these insects will "fly" - they have no wings, and therefore are grounded.

Actually, as I continued reading about these insects, I discovered that they have been found way up in the air - caught on sticky traps or in nets pulled by airplanes!  It is believed that they make use of the wind to disperse, climbing way up into the tops of trees when conditions are just right, and hitching a ride, much as young spiders are known to do (only sans the spider silk parachutes).

Now, the scientific name, Collembola, is equally fascinating.  It is from the Greek, as so many scientific names are, and it breaks down as glue (colle) and piston (embolon).  This appellation was given to the critters because of a second interesting feature:  the ventral tube.  This tube is apparently important in the animal's fluid balance, but it is also sticky and can help them stay on slippery surfaces.  Additionally, it can help right the insect after it has flung itself away from danger.

Over 6500 species of springtails have been described to date.  Some live on the surface of the ground/trees (epedaphic), while others are active below (euedaphic).  They live in every environment - including Antarctica, on the surface of water, and even deserts (although they are much less common here).  They are very important in the decomposition process and in maintaining soil health.  They are mostly harmless to humans (don't sting, don't bite), although there are some species that feed directly on plants and can be problematic for agricultural interests.  Most, however, feed on fungal hyphae and/or plant detritis.  There are even a few that are carnivores, gnoshing on nematodes, rotifers and even other Collembola!

So, if you are out walking our trails this spring, and you stop to look at the trunk of a tree and see it alive with little pepper flakes crawling up and down, say hello to the springtails!  If you have a hand lens on you, take a look at some of them up close.  See if you can see the furca.  

The world is full of amazing things, most of which we never see.  Take a moment to look - enchantment is everywhere around us.