Signs of the Season

Last Friday, on my way to work, I was stuck at an intersection waiting for a school bus on a practice run to figure out where he was going.

On Sunday I dashed into Office Max to pick up a binder for a project at home. There were many families in the shop stocking up on last minute school supplies.

This morning while I was chopping some veg for a salad to take to work for lunch I heard a flock of geese flying overhead.

Ah, yes - the signs are all there - fall is not far off.

When you think of autumn, what first pops into your mind? Colorful leaves? The smell of woodsmoke? Getting stuck behind a school bus on the way to work? The sudden predominance of yellow jackets? Blue jays returning to the feeders? Ooo - how about my favorite: cooler weather!

I cannot imagine living in an area where the changes in the seasons only exist on the calendar. Sure, we all have moments when we think “Oh, if only every day could be like today,” but in truth, I think we only really appreciate those “perfect” days because we have such a variety of days to choose from.

Already, however, I’ve heard people bemoaning the turn of the season, the coming of autumn. But to me it is one of the truly glorious times of year. One can appreciate the warm days of an Indian Summer because there are lots of cooler days just beforehand. And there is nothing that quite compares to the rich colors of autumn foliage - the reds, oranges, yellows, and even purples (well, a lot fewer purples now than there used to be, thanks to the emerald ash borer). We must collectively love the fall colors because they are on the shelves already in craft stores, grocery stores, and even clothing stores. It’s a time of harvest, of celebration - of pumpkin spice everything!

Out in the woods, savannas and grasslands around our county, we are already seeing the signs of autumn. The orioles are passing through, this time headed back south. Monarch caterpillars are gulping down final mouthfuls of milkweed before pupating and then making that long journey to Mexico. The daily drone of cicadas has dropped off significantly. When did you last see a firefly flashing in the evening dusk? Bats are starting to make their way toward their winter roosts.

For us at Severson Dells, this also means that the school program season will soon be under way. How exciting it is that in just two weeks our first groups of students will be arriving by bus or by car to learn the secrets of field and forest. For many it will be their very first time in the woods - and it is an honor for us to make sure it is a positive and rewarding experience.

What does the coming of autumn mean to you? Share some of your seasonal pleasures in the comments below. And don’t be a stranger - come on out and enjoy the season with us - we hope to see you soon.


Ryan's Summer at Severson


Hello everyone, my name is Ryan Lefaivre. I am going to be a Junior at Augustana College majoring in Environmental Studies and Geography with a minor in Anthropology. This year, I was fortunate enough to work as summer staff at Severson Dells, aiding in the summer programs. The experience and knowledge of nature I have gained throughout the summer is priceless. Working at Severson Dells has given me an insight for future career paths while allowing me to grow as a person.


During my time as a camp counselor, I felt myself grow more confident as a leader and as a person. I didn't have much experience with children before this summer, but now I possess many qualities and qualifications to guide any group of children through lessons and activities. Being able to see our campers create a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature made every single day worth it. Additionally, being a friend to the campers allowed me to develop meaningful bonds and hopefully leave a positive impact on their lives.


Working at Severson Dells has taught me that when a job description says "and other duties," it truly means "and other duties." The average workday for me would include assisting in summer camps as well as various other chores and tasks. From deep cleaning canoes to staining wooden boards, there is never a dull moment at Severson Dells. As lackluster those tasks sound, they allowed me to grow closer to my co-workers which made every job memorable. 

DSC_0045 Wulfrun - Ryan (Orland Titmouse), Esther, Trevi, Timmy, Henry, Ona.JPG

Along with being a counselor and general laborer at Severson Dells, I also gained a massive amount of knowledge about our natural world. I remember walking into Severson Dells on my first day not knowing almost anything about tree and plant identification. However, I can confidently say that I am now proficient in identifying many native animals and plants. I can now ID trees like no one's business.


In addition to the knowledge of nature I acquired over the summer, I also conquered my fear of snakes. I am the Great Value version of Indiana Jones with my Geography and Anthropology experience, but, most importantly, my fear of snakes. My partner in crime during the summer, Danni, helped me conquer my fear by allowing me to warm up to touching snake skins and tracking them down in tall grass. 


Overall, Severson Dells has been a dream of a summer job. I was able to be outside all the time while educating children on the wonders of nature. The memories I have created this summer will be with me for the rest of my life. I will forever be thankful for the experience of working at Severson Dells.


Behind the Scenes at Severson Dells with the Interns

My name is Arianna Papadakis. I have a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a Natural History focus and a minor in Peace Studies. I am spending my summer interning at Severson Dells Nature Center. I was lucky enough to have a Manchester University Alumni grant me this opportunity. I have come here with the goal of finding a focus for my future. For this, I need a wide variety of tasks to explore. Luckily Severson Dells offers me just that!


My days are anything but routine, I am always receiving a variety of tasks that keep me on my toes. From leading programs to organizing storage, I get to do it all. A current project I am participating in is the decoration the bird feeding stations. I am so glad to get to use my creativity to make bird viewing more enjoyable for the Severson Dells guests. The goal is for the stations to look as if covered in Virginia Creeper. The base of the posts have leaves resembling the vine’s spring colors, as the vine climbs the posts it transforms to resembling the plant through the seasons!


On a more regular basis I work on my research project. For my research, I have analyzed the current electrical appliances used in the nature center. After determining whether or not they are energy efficient I find alternative ways to reduce the Severson Dells energy use to better our facility and the Earth. After my proposal is ready I will hopefully be able to help the nature center move forward with new efficiency.

Working with guests is always the highlight of my day at Severson Dells. The people who come to camps, public programs, and volunteer days are a joy. Not only are they good people, but they genuinely care about nature. It has been a great experience to teach and learn alongside them.


I have also been given the opportunity to run Reading in the Rookery. This program occurs every other week and I always look forward to it. I choose a nature inspired book and put together a lesson plan based on that book! I have gotten to have a lot of fun adventures through this program. I’ve created sound maps, found the homes of many animals, and even searched plants for caterpillars! Some of my participants have come every program, making it so special for me to get to know them.


Of course, none of this would be possible without my coworkers. Everyone here is supportive and encouraging. I have learned a lot from each one of them. I am so thankful for everyone’s positivity and patience this summer. My coworkers have welcomed me into their community, making being so far from home a little easier.


Thank White Pines on the Fourth of July

White Pine trees, otherwise known as Pinus strobus

White Pine trees, otherwise known as Pinus strobus

As you are sitting back in the blazing summer heat, mowing down on brats and burgers, and watching fireworks explode above, I want you to take a moment to thank White Pines. Yes, White Pines played a critical role in securing the victory we celebrate on the Fourth of July every year. Upon a closer look at the history of the Revolutionary War, White Pines are found almost everywhere in some way, shape, or form. They were emblazoned on flags, used to build mighty war ships, and served as metaphorical tinder to start the flames of revolution.

To Start a War: Pine Tree Riot

The White Pines of Colonial North America were world-renown for their lightness, strength, and straightness. Even in the 15th century, White Pines were being shipped as far as Madagascar for mast-building. These pines were often several hundred feet old, five feet in diameter, 120 feet tall, and weighing up to 10 tons. Such trees were nowhere to be found in England, as much of England had been deforested by the end of the Middle Ages. King George I took note of this resource and included a “Mast Preservation Clause” in the Massachusetts Bay Charter, which forbade colonists from cutting trees marked with his broad arrow brand. The colonists did not take kindly to this restriction and viewed it as yet another form of taxation and unjust rule.

The King’s Broad Arrow Mark

The King’s Broad Arrow Mark

These laws went largely unenforced until 1766, when the new Governor started to inspect mills for violations. Six offending mills were found on February 2, 1772, and only a few mill owners paid the corresponding fines for cutting the Crown’s Pines. On April 13, 1772 the leader of the offending mill owners was arrested and the community’s tensions came to a boil. The following morning, more than 20 men rushed into the Sherriff’s room and “They crossed out the account against them of all logs cut, drawn and forfeited, on his bare back….They made him wish he had never heard of pine trees fit for masting the royal navy.” The sheriff and his deputy never returned to town. This localized act of resistance against British Authority was a significant, symbolic precursor to the Revolution.

A modern rendering of the Massachusetts Navy Flag circa 1776

A modern rendering of the Massachusetts Navy Flag circa 1776

Symbol of Revolution: White Pine Flags

The Pine Tree Riot added a dimension to the meaning of White Pine trees. They now carried an air of rebellion, independence, and self-authority. It’s no surprise that militia carried red flags stamped with pines at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.  In 1776, the Massachusetts Navy flew a white flag with a White Pine, accompanied by the words “An Appeal to Heaven.”  These flags topped masts of white pine on a small fleet of ships commissioned by George Washington. To this day, the Maine flag bears a White Pine tree in its center. With this said, the White Pine had been a symbol of New England and the revolutionary spirit for over 200 years.

Weapon of War: White Pine Masts

USS Alliance

USS Alliance

As mentioned before, White Pines were highly coveted for their straightness, size, and strength, making them ideal for ship masts. While many British Navy vessels built before the Revolutionary war boasted white pine masts, the United States began to build a fleet of their own once they declared independence. Their boats had masts of White Pine and Red Oak. From the first 13 frigates commissioned for the Continental Navy in 1775 to the USS Alliance that fired the last shots of the Revolutionary War in 1783, ships with White Pine masts secured dozens of victories for the Continental Navy.

White Pines, the Future, and You

These magnificent trees have shaped American history and played a major role in winning the Revolutionary War. White Pines have been a part of this nation since its beginning and is still used today for carpentry, interior finishes, and exterior finishes. However, these trees are not immortal and their local populations are facing major threats from climate change. Many models predict that these trees will move northward and leave the state entirely. You can follow this link to view these models. Severson Dells is known to have three white pines on the property, but aren’t easily found. You can make sure that White Pines continue to play a role in the American story by reducing your carbon footprint. To learn more about reducing your carbon footprint, check out our “It’s Easy Being Green” blog posts!

Supporter Spotlight: Mary Anne and Rich Toppe

Rich and Mary Anne chop wood at their daughter’s farm in West Virginia.

Rich and Mary Anne chop wood at their daughter’s farm in West Virginia.

Lifetime residents of Rockford, Rich and Mary Anne Toppe began coming to Severson Dells not long after it was donated by the Seversons and opened as a forest preserve in 1976. They developed a deeper connection when Mary Anne began taking her second-grade students on field trips and later chaperoned her own daughter Mollie on field trips. Since then, they have become integral and beloved members of the Severson Dells family. Director Ann Wasser says of the pair, “Rich and Mary Anne have been and continue to be so generous in so many ways to Severson Dells and the Rockford community.” In fact, when invited to Severson for this interview, Rich and Mary Anne brought pizza and ice cream for the whole staff and we enjoyed a lunch filled with laughter and memories.

Rich and Mary Anne expressed, “Severson Dells has had a big impact on our family.” Both their daughter, Mollie, and son, Sam, were involved with programming throughout their childhood. Through their experiences, they both developed a greater respect and love for nature. Sam and Mollie were in camps, went on canoe trips, and were part of the Coyote Clan, an adventure group for youth facilitated by the legendary Don Miller. Sam and Mollie had a deep admiration for the staff and made life-long memories. Sam recalls, “My strongest memory of Severson Dells is going to the luminaries every winter, drinking hot chocolate and walking through the woods surrounded by little white lights. I remember going to summer camps every summer, learning to canoe, build fires, use a compass, or just sloshing through the creek. I remember lots of musical performances and nature presentations in the big room. And I remember the passionate people who worked there, especially Richard, Kathy, and Don.” Time spent at Severson Dells helped Mollie define her path in life. Mary Anne and Rich explained, “Mollie went on in college to study environmental sciences and education. We see the impactful value that Severson Dells brings to our region. They are crucial in helping facilitate the connections between people and nature. We are privileged to have a wonderful forest preserve and park system. The Severson staff and programs focus attention on those valuable parks and preserves.”

Mary Anne shared her time and talent as a board member for Severson Dells in the early 2000’s. Rich helped when a parent chaperone was needed and began a friendship with the staff at that time, Don, Kathy, and Richard. Rich especially enjoyed the canoe activities when Don began the current canoe program (Monday night Canoe Convoys and Blazing Saddles Canoe Camp). After taking ACA (American Canoe Association) training, Rich became a regular volunteer canoe instructor and rarely misses an opportunity to get out on the water and teach some effective paddle strokes and throw out some of the best - and hilariously worst - jokes.

Rich entertaining the teens at camp by crossing the floatilla.

Rich entertaining the teens at camp by crossing the floatilla.

Rich and Mary Anne are both natural teachers. Mary Anne taught for ten years at Keith School and moved onto being a fitness instructor at the YMCA. Rich worked as a social worker at Rosecrance and then taught for 34 years in the Rockford Public Schools.

Since retirement in 2011, Rich and Mary Anne are enjoying engaging in the outdoor activities they have always loved: cycling, hiking, canoeing, and x-country skiing. These activities get them out often into the local parks and preserves. As a canoe volunteer, Rich feels privileged to help novices learn about local rivers. Rich said, “On our Monday night floats, many guests are surprised to discover the beauty of the land along our rivers. They always express wonder that these wilderness-like forests, prairies, and waters are just a few miles from home.” Our Naturalist/Educator Andrea Wallace has experienced many hours on the rivers with Rich as a camper and intern. She said of Rich, “He captures and embodies the magic we should all find in the outdoors!”

Rich and Mary Anne enjoy traveling as well; as Rich explained, “It’s fun to travel occasionally, but returning home is often the best part of the trip!” Rich and Mary Anne clearly have developed a deep sense of place at Severson Dells. Their son-in-law, John, chose a spot at Severson Dells with twin oaks to propose to their daughter because he knew how important it was to Mollie. Now it is an important place to Rich and Mary Anne. They also love sitting at the windows when the birds are active at the feeders. “It is a Muir moment! How can anyone watch the variety of birds and not feel connected to the natural world?!” Rich exclaimed. In fact, it was John Muir who once wrote, “Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” It will make sense, then, to anyone who knows Rich that he has spent a great deal of time in the forests at Severson Dells!

Rich Toppe enjoying a “Muir moment” by the bird feeders.

Rich Toppe enjoying a “Muir moment” by the bird feeders.

Rich and Mary Anne are rare gems. All of us at Severson Dells feel blessed that they share their spirit of giving and adventure with us. Join us for the Monday night Canoe Convoys to get patient and entertaining canoe instruction from Rich. You’ll also spot Rich and Mary Anne supporting one of our many events - from Wildflower Walkabouts to travelogues to our fundraisers. Strike up a conversation with them and get rewarded with warmth, humor and incredible stories!

Be like Rich and Mary Anne! Click here to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Be like Rich and Mary Anne! Click here to learn about volunteer opportunities.

For the Birds

A Baltimore oriole visits the bird feeders at Severson Dells.

A Baltimore oriole visits the bird feeders at Severson Dells.

“Birds are everywhere, they sing, they soar and provide us with one of the most exciting ways to connect with nature. They inspire us with their beauty, have intriguing behavior to be entertained by and are prime indicators of how well we are taking care of our planet. Birds enlighten the lives of people who feed, observe, photograph and study them,” explains Severson Dells board member Patty Oliveri.

Severson Dells Nature Center is a magnet for bird-lovers. Our nature preserve provides habitat for a variety of species of birds. Migrating and resident birds find habitat in our high-quality nature preserve. A diversity of birds are attracted to our world-class bird feeders that cater to a variety of different species.

Board member Patty Oliveri feeding the birds in the winter months at Severson Dells Nature Center.

Board member Patty Oliveri feeding the birds in the winter months at Severson Dells Nature Center.

Patty Oliveri’s enthusiasm for birds is hard to match. She organized efforts to install the new bird feeding system at Severson Dells. Local bird authority Barbara Williams designed the feeding station (she and her husband Dan also generously donate seed). A local supporter and bird-lover fabricated the steel posts and purchased bird feeders and large baffles to protect the feeders from raccoons and squirrels. Rock Valley Garden Center, Inc. has thoughtfully provided the bird feeders at half-cost and has provided us with bags of black oil sunflower seeds, Elite Mix, thistle, white safflower, suet, and peanuts to feed the birds at the Dells.

For the birds, these feeding stations provide nutrition, especially when resources are scarce in the winter and during migration. For our guests, they provide enjoyment, relaxation, and education, promote environmental stewardship, and serve as a citizen science tool for observation, data collection, and research.


Visitors are encouraged to spend some time at Severson Dells Nature Center watching the birds. Our library offers over-stuffed armchairs, binoculars, and field guides to birds. Our exhibit space provides a viewing bench with visual guides for birding and a bird board showing all of the species seen at Severson throughout the year. Benches and a picnic table offer outdoor observations. Whether you are an expert birder or are just bird-curious, come out to the nature center and you’ll fall in love with the birds.

Did you know that you can learn more about the birds of Winnebago County on our website?

Ellen Rathbone educates visitors about the birds at Severson Dells.

Ellen Rathbone educates visitors about the birds at Severson Dells.

Other helpful resources for birding include:


All About Birds

Rock Valley Garden Center

Check out Rock Valley Garden Center’s amazing selection of birdseed, houses, and feeders. They are located at 785 N. Bell School Rd. Rockford, IL. We are so grateful to them for all their support.

This article can be found in our latest Notes from the Dells Newsletter.

Summer Camp is Under Way!

Our first day of summer camp was yesterday, and we certainly couldn’t have asked for a better day in the weather department. Sunny, blue sky, a cooling breeze, and temps in the 70s - low humidity. Perfect!

And what better way to celebrate camp and being outdoors than rolling down a grassy hill!

And the fun doesn’t end there!

We looked for frogs at the pond…

We looked for frogs at the pond…

We played at The Grove…

We played at The Grove…

We explored some rotting logs…

We explored some rotting logs…

Found several caterpillars…

Found several caterpillars…

And we created some forest spirits out of clay. They are in The Grove - see if you can find them!!!

And we created some forest spirits out of clay. They are in The Grove - see if you can find them!!!

We still have some camp openings if you think this is something your child would like to do.

  • Forest Fantasy Camp, June 24-28, for 8-12 year olds, is perfect for the camper who loves Harry Potter, the fantastical, and nature.

  • Peek in the Creek Camp, July 15-19, for 7-11 year olds, is a wet and wild time as we explore all aspects of Hall Creek.

  • Junior Biologist Camp, July 29-August 2, for 11-14 year olds, takes campers into a deeper look at the plants and animals that live at Severson Dells.

What? Bananas are Berries? And a Strawberry isn't even a Fruit?

“Did you know that corn is a fruit?”

That single comment triggered some extensive research up here in the office at Severson Dells, as we collectively looked online and in books for definitions of what makes a fruit a fruit. It turns out that this is truly a much more complicated thing than any of us imagined (and yes, corn is technically a fruit).

My forestry school days were many years ago, and at that time I learned about such things as a “multiple of achenes,” but as a naturalist and environmental educator who works primarily with kids and the general public, I don’t throw around phrases like “multiple of achenes” without risking losing the attention of my audience. So, having not used botanical terms in their full glory for many years, I needed a refresher.

Let’s start off with a few botanical definitions so we are all on the same page.

  • Pistil: the female flower structure of a plant, the lower part of which is the ovary, which is hollow; inside the ovary, attached to its walls, are ovules, which, upon fertilization, become seeds.

  • Fruit: “a ripened ovary together with any appendages or dried flower parts that it still may retain” (William Harlow, Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs). Harlow goes on to remind us that “the flower develops into the fruit, and the fertilized ovule becomes the seed.”

  • Vegetable: the root, leaf or stem of a plant that we eat (beet, lettuce, rhubarb, for instance).

So, now that we have that sorted out, let’s look at fruits, for not all fruits are created equal. To being with, a fruit can be either simple or compound. We’ll take a look at compound fruits first.

A compound fruit is what you have when a single fruit develops from multiple ovaries in either a single flower or multiple flowers.

  • You get an aggregate if you have one flower that has several ovaries that grow together as the fruit develops. An example of an aggregate fruit is a raspberry.

  • A multiple is what you get when several flowers, each with its own ovary, develop into small fruits, and those small fruits grow together into one big fruit. For this picture a pineapple.

  • A tomato is a simple fruit that grows from a compound ovary…so is it technically a compound fruit? I don’t know. Augh!

Next, we have plain old ordinary simple fruits: one pistil, one ovary. Simple fruits are classified as dry or fleshy, but sometimes the flesh is actually hard and firm, not what we would consider “fleshy” at all. Harlow goes on to explain that fleshy simple fruits are most likely (but not always) going to be a drupe, a berry or a pome, while the dry simple fruits are further divided based on whether or not they split along a seam when they dry out. If they split, they are dehiscent (such as legumes, follicles and capsules), and if they don’t split, they are indehiscent (achenes, samaras and nuts).

Let’s take a look at each.

First, the fleshy fruits.

  • Drupe: “a fleshy fruit in which the inner ovary wall is hard and bony, the outer one soft and fleshy” (Harlow). Drupes usually have one pit, although some have two. Drupes you may know include cherries, prunes, peaches, plums and almonds. (And I bet you thought the almond was a nut!)

  • Berry: “a fleshy fruit in which both inner and outer ovary walls are fleshy, and the seeds are distributed throughout” (Harlow). Berries include blueberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, tomatoes and persimmons, but they do NOT include strawberries, blackberries, raspberries or mulberries, which are all compound fruits known as aggregates (see above).

  • Pome: a fruit whose “outer wall is fleshy, the inner one papery, or like cartilage” (Harlow). Here we can consider the apple, pear, shadbush, mountain ash and hawthorn.

Now the dry, dehiscent fruits:

  • Legume: made from a simple pistil that when dry cracks open along two seams. You are probably quite familiar with legumes: beans, peas, clover, black locust, coffeetree.

  • Follicle: also from a simple pistil, but this fruit only cracks open along one seam when dry. Peonies and milkweeds are examples of plants that produce follicle fruits.

  • Capsule: this fruit develops from a compound pistil and can open up in a variety of ways. Some examples of capsules that you might know are the fruits of poppies, lilacs, catalpas and horsechestnuts.

And finally we have the dry, indehiscent fruits:

  • Achene: Harlow’s definition of an achene will likely leave you shaking your head: “a small, unwinged, but sometimes plumed, one-celled, one-seeded fruit.”’s definition is a little clearer: “dry, one-seeded fruit lacking special seams that split to release the seed.” A dandelion seed is a great example. If you are interested in a combo pack, the fruit if the sycamore tree is a multiple of achenes!

  • Samara: these dry seeds have papery “wings.” Picture the seeds that fall from maples or ashes.

  • Nut: from our friend William Harlow we understand a nut is “partially or wholly enclosed in a husk which may be papery, leafy, woody or spiny in character. The nut itself has a bony, or leather outwall and is usually one-seeded.” Whew! to the rescue: a “dry hard fruit that does not split open at maturity to release its single seed.”

Wow - who knew that the world of fruit could be so complicated!

Does Joe Q. Public care that fruits come in such an amazing variety? Probably not. But we nature nuts [“crazy,” 1846, from earlier be nutts upon “be very fond of” 1785), which is possibly from nuts (plural noun) “any source of pleasure” (1610s), from nut (q.v.). Sense influenced probably by metaphoric application of nut to “head” (1846, e.g. to be off one’s nut “be insane,” 1860] - from Online Etymology Dictionary, 2010, Douglas Harper), especially those with a botanical bent and a fondness for using accurate terminology, tend to find such detail quite exciting.

Go forth, my friends, and be fruitful in your discoveries!

Ultimate Guide to Ticks of Winnebago County

A female adult deer tick

A female adult deer tick

Tick 101

Ticks may be the stuff of your nightmares, but how much do you know about them? Most of us know that ticks are parasites; they latch onto unsuspecting animals and feed on their blood until they are full. Contrary to common belief, ticks are actually arachnids instead of insects, meaning that they have 8 legs and two distinct body parts. Ticks go through three stages of their life cycle- larva, nymph, and adult- and usually require three separate hosts to get them through their life cycle. Most ticks are hardy creatures, going months to years without food and enduring frosts. Ticks find their way onto people by crawling up from the ground-- they don’t fall out of trees and they can’t jump.

Ticks of Winnebago County

There are currently four types of ticks that will bite people in Winnebago County. Read on to learn about each tick, the diseases they carry, and how to ID them! These ticks are in order from most common to least common in this region. More resources are available here.

American Dog Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

American Dog Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

American Dog Ticks are the most common in this area and can be found in grassy fields and scrubland. They will feed on a variety of hosts, ranging from mice to deer, but are frequently found on dogs. All life stages of American Dog Ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to humans in addition to Tularemia. These tough creatures can survive two years without a meal at any life stage. Adult American Dog Ticks are most active April to early August, though larvae overwinter. Females have white splotching on their dorsal shield and have red-brown abdomens. Males have white splotches across their entire body.

Deer Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

Deer Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

Deer Ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, are common in deciduous forests. They get their name from their host species, the white-tailed deer. While most prevalent in the summer, these ticks are active even after several frosts. They are also among the first invertebrates to become active in the spring. Deer ticks are known to carry Lyme Disease- about 50% of them are infected- but they can carry multiple diseases at a time including Babesiosis and Anaplasmosis. Adult females have black dorsal shields (a spot near their head) and auburn abdomens. Their bodies are usually oval in shape, though engorged deer ticks look like little gray balloons.

Lone Star Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

Lone Star Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

Unfortunately, Lone Star Ticks are on the rise in this area, which is possibly the result of our shifting climate. Lone Star Ticks are common in densely wooded areas with animal resting places. Adults can carry both Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Human Ehrlichiosis, and 'Stari' borreliosis. Females can be recognized by a distinct white spot in the center of their body, hence their name “Lone Star”. Males have black marbling on their brown body and white streaks around the outside of their abdomen. Adults are active April to late August. Lone Star Ticks also carry a substance called alpha-gal, which if transferred to its host, can make them experience allergic reactions toward red meat (Tick Bites).

Brown Dog Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

Brown Dog Tick (Male upper left, female upper right, nymph lower right, larva lower left)

Brown Dog Ticks can be found in Winnebago County, but are the least common. All life stages of this tick can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to dogs, but rarely to humans. Females have slender, oval-shaped bodies with long yellow legs. Males have deep brown bodies with black marbling and are shaped like a narrow triangle.It can be found worldwide and in a wide variety of habitats, though they prefer warm conditions. Adults can live up to 18 months without food, and they can complete their entire life cycle indoors.


Diseases Carried by Ticks

Lucky for us, most ticks don’t carry diseases, and even if they do, most ticks do not transmit disease transfers to the host in less than 24 hours, but it can happen. Not so lucky for us, many of the diseases carried by ticks can be serious and even fatal. It’s important to know what diseases are carried by ticks in our area, how to recognize their symptoms, and the treatment options available. This section highlights common diseases carried by ticks in this area, but a more comprehensive list can be found here.

Bullseye rash from Lyme disease infection, Photo Credit CDC

Bullseye rash from Lyme disease infection, Photo Credit CDC

Lyme Disease is caused by a bacteria carried by Deer Ticks. If caught early on, patients can take antibiotics and experience little to no consequences. However, early prevention is important as this disease can be fatal if gone untreated. One of the telltale signs of Lyme Disease is a bullseye rash that develops around the infection site. However, 20-30% of those with Lyme Disease will not develop the rash, so it is not a surefire diagnosis. Other symptoms include fever, chills, headache, joint and muscle pain, and general fatigue. As the disease progresses, those infected may experience multiple rashes, partial facial paralysis, dizziness and heart palpitations, among other symptoms. If you suspect that you have been bitten by a deer tick, it is important that you visit your doctor. Blood tests can help determine if you have contracted the disease, but they they are not 100% accurate. IGenex Labs has one of the more reliable tests, but you may have to order a testing kit. ILADS recommends that prophylaxis (preventive treatment) of 20 days of doxycycline (provided there are no contraindications) to all who have had a blacklegged tick bite. An appropriate course of antibiotics has been shown to prevent the onset of infection. While treatment and awareness is critical, only 1-3% of those bitten by an infected Deer Tick will contract the disease. You can learn more about Lyme Disease here.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Rash

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Rash

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a rare but serious disease transmitted by the American Dog Tick. It’s classic symptoms include a fever and spotted rash, though 10-15% of patients with RMSF will not develop a rash. Other early symptoms include nausea, headache, and muscle pain. Long-term consequences of the disease are very serious, including partial paralysis, loss of hearing, amputation, and even death. If caught in its early stages, RMSF can be treated with antibiotics and patients will experience relief from their symptoms within 1-3 days. Learn more about RMSF here.

Tulameria is an incredibly rare disease transmitted by American Dog Ticks. It can affect humans, dogs, cats, and other animals, with cats being the most frequently affected. Signs and symptoms vary, but generally include lesions near the bite site, swollen lymph nodes, fever, and chills. Since the invention of antibiotics, the fatality rate of this disease has dropped from 60% to 4% (Mandell). Early recognition and antibiotics are critical for the treatment of this disease. You can learn more about Tulameria here.

Babesiosis is the result of parasites carried by Deer Ticks. Roughly 20% of individuals with Babesiosis also had Lyme Disease. Most people with Babesiosis experience little to no symptoms, though symptoms can include headaches, fever, and anemia (low red blood cell counts). If individuals experience no symptoms, treatment is not required. Patients with ongoing, returning, or severe symptoms can be treated with a combination of microbial medications. Learn more about Babesiosis here.

Anaplasmosis is a disease caused by a bacteria transmitted by Deer Ticks. While anyone can contract Anaplasmosis, symptoms are more severe in older individuals with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include headaches, fevers, chills, and general fatigue. It is treated with antibiotics and early recognition is critical. Learn more about Anaplasmosis here.

Tick Prevention

Examples of prime clothes for hiking in tick season

Examples of prime clothes for hiking in tick season

While the simplest method of tick prevention is to stay indoors, there are several things you can do to enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors while preventing tick infections. Ticks are most frequently picked up when hiking through tall grasses or woods, so staying on mowed trails or paved paths can go a long way in avoiding exposure to ticks.

If you are planning on going off trail, which I hope you do, it is best to wear long pants and shirts. Tucking your clothes in eliminates a spot where ticks could get under your clothes and onto your skin.  Therefore, tuck in as much as you can: your pants into your socks, your shirt into your pants, your ponytail up into your hat. Women can also put their hair in tight braids to prevent ticks getting into their hair and unto their scalp.

Insect repellents have also been found to be effective in thwarting off ticks. There are dozens of home-made recipes out there, but the scientific consensus supports DEET as the most effective tick repellent. A bug spray with 20% or more DEET will certainly help to keep ticks at bay. If you do apply bug spray, though, there are some steps you can take to prevent polluting the environment. Spray in a parking lot to avoid overspraying unto native plants and wash your hands after applying to prevent spreading it unto the things you touch. You can also treat your clothes with Permethrin to ward off ticks.

What to do if You Have a Tick on You

The first step is to remain calm, as difficult as that can be. If you find a tick just crawling on you, pick it off and move it outdoors or out of your way. If you find a tick that has embedded, follow the following steps.

Narrow-tipped tweezers

Narrow-tipped tweezers

  1. Use Tweezers to pull it out. Pinch the tick at the base of its mouth and slowly pull it straight up. Squeezing the body may spew its guts contents out onto you, which can increase rates of infection. Narrow-tipped tweezers are usually best, and home remedies like suffocating or burning ticks will only aggravate them.

  2. Put the tick in a baggie. In this area, it is important to ID the tick to determine if you were exposed to any diseases. Refer to this handy chart to do so. You can keep the tick in a freezer just in case you develop symptoms and want to get it tested. When you are confident that you have not developed any disease symptoms, toss it out or flush it down the toilet.

  3. Wash the bite site with soap and water, and use isopropyl alcohol if available.

  4. Monitor your health. If you start to develop symptoms of any diseases, it’s worth it to go to your doctor to get it checked. Early detection makes a huge difference in treating most diseases from tick bites, so you could be doing yourself a huge favor. Some diseases take a while to develop, so keep that in mind as you continue to monitor your health. Remember that not everyone develops the bulls-eye rash with Lyme.

  5. Send in your tick to Tick Report to have it analyzed. Tick Report costs $50 but gives you peace of mind. Your results are securely delivered via email within 3 business days after your tick arrives at our lab.

Why is Blue Rare in Nature?

One of my favorite activities to do with school groups is a color scavenger hike. I will take students to a patch of prairie, hand them a paint sample card, and ask them to find something in nature that matches their color. After a few seconds, students with green and brown cards start exclaiming “I found it! I found it!” Students with blue cards, however, often struggle to find something blue beside the sky. There is a reason for that.


Blue is rare in nature. While we are blessed with bluebells, blue asters, and blue flag irises, yellow and white wildflowers are still far more common than their blue counterparts. Blue animals are even rarer. We have some local animals who bear that striking shade- bluebirds, blue jays, and blue-spotted salamanders- but they are few and far between. Why is blue so rare in nature, though?

This graphic shows that the two chlorophyll pigments absorb red and blue, but not green.

This graphic shows that the two chlorophyll pigments absorb red and blue, but not green.

Let’s start with plants. Since elementary school, we have been taught that plants need sunlight to survive. Sunlight, for our purposes, is a stream of energy-packed particles called photons. When these photons hit a chloroplast, they kick-start a chain reaction of chemical processes that help plants make sugar, its food. Our sun emits photons that vibrate at different frequencies which we see as different colors. Photons that vibrate at a low frequency occur to us as red light and are the most abundant in our atmosphere. Blue photons are less common but vibrate at a higher frequency, which translates to more energy for the plant (“Energy of Photons in Photosynthesis”). Plant pigments have evolved to absorb red photons because of their quantity and blue photons because of their quantity (“Sunlight and Photosynthesis”). “Low quality” green photons bounce off of plants and back to us, which is why we see most plants as green.

Some plants have vibrant blue flowers to attract pollinators, but we can’t attribute that shade to blue pigment. Many plants contain a pigment called anthocyanin, which can appear red, purple, black, or blue depending on pH. A careful mix of natural light, pH, and the chemical composition of anthocyanin can make flowers appear blue to us. Even still, there is no plant pigment that strictly makes the color blue (David Lee, “Nature’s Palette..”).

An Obrina olivewing

An Obrina olivewing

As far as we know, only one animal has cracked the code on making blue pigment. Obrina olivewings boast a brilliant blue spot on their wing that is the result of true blue pigments (Priscilla Simmons, “How Nature…”). All other blue animals, including bluebirds and blue jays, lack blue pigments. The chemistry of their pigments should make these animals appear anything but blue to us, but that isn’t the case. This is due to a phenomenon of physics that varies slightly from species to species (“Why is Blue…”).

A close-up view of a Blue Morpho wing, taken by Flickr user Johan J. Ingles-Le Nobel

A close-up view of a Blue Morpho wing, taken by Flickr user Johan J. Ingles-Le Nobel

Blue Morpho butterflies, for example, have microscopic structures in their scales that bend light in a way that bounces blue light back to our eyes. These structures are so ordered that they require certain angles of light to appear blue, which makes them appear to shimmer in different lights (“Wing Scales…”). Blue jays, on the other hand, have microscopic beads in the barbs of their feathers that serve a special purpose. They contain pockets of air that reflect blue light back to us thanks to something called the Tyndall Effect, which also makes the air in our atmosphere appear blue. These beads have a messy composition, which causes the blue of blue jay feathers to appear more uniform than the blue of the Blue Morpho butterfly (“What color is a bluejay?”). There are other examples of blue in the animal world, but the blue in each case can be attributed to the shape and physics of their bodies, not their chemical composition.

Egyptian Blue, a pigment created by heating azurite and other substances

Egyptian Blue, a pigment created by heating azurite and other substances

While blue can be found among non-living things, it is often hard to come by. For example, Cobalt is a rare element with a silvery-blue hue. Sapphires get their brilliant blue from a chemical compound called Sapphyrin, but they are relatively rare as well (“Chemistry Chat- Focusing on…”). Copper-derived compounds like such as azurite or malachite can be heated to 1,500 °F for several hours to achieve a blue color, but this process requires careful temperature maintenance. Ultramarine blue pigments are derived from a gemstone called lapis lazuli, which is found only in a mountain range in Afghanistan. Potash mixed with animal blood can make a pigment known as Prussian Blue (“A brief history of Blue”). In 2009, a team of researchers at Oregon State University accidentally mixed yttrium, indium and manganese oxide- an expensive combination of elements- to produce a blue pigment now called YInMn blue (“YInMn Blue”). With this said, it is rather difficult to find things that are truly, chemically blue in nature.

Scientists think that may be part of the reason that blue is so rare in animals. Many animals get their pigmentation from their diet, like the way Flamingos achieve their pink coloration from carotenoid pigments in the shrimp that they eat (“Why are Flamingos…”). The chemicals that make up red, orange, yellow, and brown pigments are common in nature and easily accessible in food sources, so they are also common among animals. Blue chemicals are hard to find, so animals have evolved not to depend on blue pigments to make them blue. Instead of achieving blue through chemical means, our animal friends have evolved to achieve it through physics by manipulating light itself before our very eyes  (“Why is Blue…”) .

I hope that you are able to look upon the bluebells, bluebirds, and blue jays of springs with newfound appreciation. If you learned something from this article, please share it with a friend so we can spread the word about the amazing nature around us!

It's Easy Being Green- Habitat Restoration at Severson Dells

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A pile of honeysuckle built in just a couple of hours.

A pile of honeysuckle built in just a couple of hours.

The students that come out on our field trips are excellent detectives. When they wander through the woods, they notice things that many people breeze past. Of course, like any good detective, they also ask a ton of questions. They notice hundreds of 3” tall stumps dotting the forest floor. Who cut down those trees? They gasp at the stark black and white ashes of a burn scar. Who was burning down the forest? Their eyes widen as they pass piles of brush that towers over them. Do we have giant beavers in our woods?

honeysuckle has invaded the understory of this forest

honeysuckle has invaded the understory of this forest

What our students are noticing is the remnants of an ongoing battle at Severson Dells Nature: Honeysuckle vs. our Conservation Crew. For those who aren’t familiar with the villain of this battle, Honeysuckle is a highly invasive shrub that was introduced to this area from Eurasia. It doesn’t take long for this plant to carpet the understory of forests, choking out native plants and doing a number on the species that depend on open woodland habitats. It can make a landscape completely unrecognizable once it moves in.

Our Conservation crew at the earth day restoration workday

Our Conservation crew at the earth day restoration workday

Luckily, Honeysuckle has a valiant opponent in our Restoration Workday Conservation Crew!  On the second Saturday and fourth Monday of every month, our Conservation Crew comes out to Severson to cut, pile, and burn honeysuckle. This crew is comprised of fitness enthusiasts, families, altruists, naturalists, students, retirees, and more-- everyone is welcome. These volunteers are united by a desire to do good, and everyone contributes their unique talents toward our cause. Everyone works at their own pace and chooses what work they feel most comfortable with. Severson Dells provides all of the tools and personal protective equipment required, so anyone willing to help can come and join the fight!

A volunteer cutting honeysuckle with loppers

A volunteer cutting honeysuckle with loppers

As mentioned before, our honeysuckle removal process is strikingly simple: cute, pile, and burn. Using loppers, hand saws, and bow saws, we cut honeysuckle as close to the ground as we can. We then bring our honeysuckle carnage to a central pile and burn it. Its cuttings are notorious for rooting after they have been cut, so that is part of our motivation to burn it. We also burn to clear up space for native species to move into. Though it’s a simple process, removing it from an entire forest is a daunting task to take on alone due to its abundance. A group of volunteers makes the process much faster!

In the battle of Honeysuckle vs. Conservation Crew, our Conservation Crew is gaining a lot of ground. The inside of our paved loop is almost clear, and the woods between the Nature Center and Montague have been cleared thanks to funding from a Rusty Patched Bumblebee grant. Our team enjoys support from generous donors like the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, which provided at 3 to 1 matching grant of up to $21,000. This means that for every dollar we raise the Foundation will award us $3. Additionally the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation will award Severson Dells $4,000 once our Conservation Crew has contributed 400 volunteer hours towards habitat restoration. We had until October 2019 to complete these volunteer hours, but our dedicated crew completed these hours on April 22nd this year! How appropriate that we met this goal on Earth Day. We are also supported by Nicholson Hardware, who allowed us to purchase hand tools and safety equipment at cost allowing our grant money to go much further.  

If you feel a call to action stirring within you, we would love it if you came out to give restoration work a try! You can join us on the second Saturday or fourth Monday of any month from 9AM-12PM. Please let our Naturalist, Andrea Wallace, know if you are planning on coming by emailing her at or calling 815-335-2915.

It's Easy Being Green - Composting and Native Plants in the City

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For the first time since I was in college, I find myself living in a city.  It was a big change for me, and one of the very first things I had to figure out was how to best be “green” in my new home.  The first thing I did was put in a compost “bin,” and the second thing was planting native flowers and shrubs around my house.

Urban Composting: Boy, this one can be a challenge.  Living out in the country, I could just toss my food scraps out in the field, or into dedicated space where my food scraps could decompose before being transferred into my vegetable garden.  My current property is not suitable for a vegetable garden, but that did not mean I couldn’t still compost my food waste (and when one makes most of one’s own meals, there is a lot to compost).  I’m not the biggest fan of closed compost bins – you have to have the balance of green and brown waste just right, or you can quickly end up with a smelly, slimy mess. I prefer the lazy man’s compost pile, so I drove four fence stakes into the ground as the corners of my compost area, and then enclosed them with wire fencing.  My compost area measures about three feet on each side, and into it go all my food scraps…and used Kleenex, paper towels, and garden waste.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  what about rats, raccoons, and other “varmints”?  The general rule of thumb is not to put meat or dairy into your compost bin – these smelly items are more likely to attract unwanted critters.  The only visitors I can verify are squirrels, but I suspect I’ve probably had opossums and raccoons as well (I’d be surprised if I didn’t). As far as I’m concerned, however, they are welcome to help themselves to any scraps that they like…I’d much rather they got them than to have my food waste go to the dump.


Native Plants: Outback, along the side of the house, and out in front of the house, the previous owner had planted sedums, spirea, and hostas – your typical urban landscaping plants.  These may look nice, but they don’t contribute much to the ecosystem, so I promptly pulled them all out and have been systematically replacing them with native species. Illinois is “The Prairie State”, but over 90% of the prairie is gone, tilled under for agriculture and development.  This has led to the drastic decline of insects and birds. By planting/restoring native flowers, shrubs, and grasses on my tiny plot of land, I am not only helping keep the native plants from going extinct, but I’m also providing food (and shelter) for native insects, which in turn provide food for our native birds.  Plus, it makes the neighborhood attractive.

Creating beautiful habitat for wildlife.

Creating beautiful habitat for wildlife.

There are many little things each of us can do to help make our footprint on this planet a little greener.  Starting at home is the easiest way to make a visible difference. We can cut down on our water and electricity use, keep our homes cooler in winter and a bit warmer in summer, set out our recycling - all those things that should be automatic for every home everywhere.  But even in the city, we can do a little extra by composting our food and yard waste, and replacing our landscaping with native (and/or edible) plants. It doesn’t require much effort, and the payback is immense.

It's Easy Being Green - Voting for a Healthy Planet - With Your Fork!


Even if you can’t put solar panels on your roof or a Tesla in your garage, you can still greatly reduce your carbon footprint with what you put on your dinner plate. Analyses by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (UN FAO) estimate that the global average for anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is between 14 and 18 percent. That’s more than WRI’s estimated emissions for the transportation sector, which is 13.5 percent! That means that changing what we eat is just as important as how we move around the planet. Looking for a way to lessen your footprint when it comes to your diet? Try these suggestions!

Think Global, Eat Local

On average, food now travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from the field to your table, which is 25 percent more than just 20 years ago. It now requires more energy to grow and transport the food than we actually consume from the food. Fortunately, there are many local growers in the region. You can join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm where you invest in the local farm and then enjoy fresh produce throughout the season - it’s a wonderful way to develop a sense of place when it comes to your meals. If you like more control over what produce you’re are receiving week-to-week, try one of the area’s fine farmers markets. Just make sure you ask if the vendor grows their own vegetables. If a vendor is the only one at the market with tomatoes in June, chances are they are shipping them in. Buying local not only helps the environment, but it also helps the local economy and connects you to where your food comes from. Growing your own garden is another way to keep your diet local. Plus, if you compost your food scraps, you are keeping waste out of landfills and rebuilding the soil in your garden.

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Cool Beans

Last year, 21 billion pounds of coffee were consumed. These beans were grown across 27 million acres in the tropical forest, vital habitat for birds and other wildlife. Because of the high demand for coffee, traditional ways of growing coffee have given way to industrialized methods which cause deforestation, water pollution, and loss of soil quality. If giving up your morning cup of coffee is totally off the table, there are still choices you can make to lessen your impact on the planet. Look for shade-grown coffee beans. This means that the coffee trees are planted under native trees, mimicking how the coffee trees would grow in nature -this helps the birds and maintains the biodiversity of the forest. You can also look for the Rainforest Alliance Certified label. Moreover, the Fair-trade label ensures that the farmer growing and harvesting the coffee beans gets a fair, livable wage.

Avoid the K-Cup coffee makers! As convenient as they may be, they are an environmental nightmare. According to the Story of Stuff, the amount of K-Cups in the landfill could wrap around the earth 11 times! It is more environmentally friendly to opt for home-brewed coffee in a french press or coffee pot (just make sure to unplug the coffee pot when not in use so it doesn’t zap unnecessary power). If you can’t live without your K-Cups, they do make a reusable K-Cup filter. Making your coffee at home also reduces the extra energy consumed by coffee shops; it also ensures that you are using responsibly sourced, shade-grown and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Skipping the latte and the creamer also helps reduce the carbon footprint of your coffee. Milk represents 60 to 70 percent of the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee with a few tablespoons of milk; or as much as 90 percent for a latte! For more information on sustainably-sourced coffee, check out Audubon’s guide to Bird-Friendly coffee.

Sustainable, bird-friendly coffee agro-forestry.

Sustainable, bird-friendly coffee agro-forestry.

Pass on the Palm Oil

Coffee is relatively benign compared to the environmentally destructive industry of conflict palm oil plantations. Rainforests sequester most of the world’s carbon, but they are being bulldozed for palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, 18 million more hectacres of rainforest are slated to be converted to palm oil plantations by 2020! Not only is this practice bad news for the climate because of the intense carbon emissions from deforestation, it also poses immediate disastrous effects on forest peoples and the wildlife of the forest, particularly Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants, and orangutans. Palm oil is found is many processed foods - actually, it’s found in roughly 50 percent of consumer goods, from lipstick to detergent. Read the ingredient label and pass on foods that contain palm oil. For a great resource on palm oil, the many aliases it goes by, and the foods it is found in, click here.

Deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Eat More Plants and Go Pasture-Raised

We have all heard that reducing our meat and dairy consumption can make a huge impact on the planet. According to an FAO report, “The global livestock sector contributes a significant share to anthropogenic GHG emissions, but it can also deliver a significant share of the necessary mitigation effort.” Cattle raised in CAFO’s or confined animal feeding operations for beef production and dairy contribute heavily to GHG emissions. On the other hand, cattle raised in well-managed pastures can actually help to store carbon back in the soil.

But just how much does it matter? If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it’s like not driving your car for five weeks!That’s just one meatless meal a week. Check out Meatless Mondays for a source of recipes and information. You can also check out Seafood Watch to ensure you are making sustainable choices with your fish and seafood consumption. Simply going vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet. If you are purchasing a lot of heavily processed and packaged vegetarian meals (with soy shipped from other parts of the world), this can also have a big impact. So remember to eat local and whole foods whenever possible and skip the packaging.


Want to Go Deeper?

Check out Yale’s Climate Connections for more ways to reduce your carbon footprint with your diet!

It's Easy Being Green - Greening Your Time Online

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As much as many of us would love to totally unplug from the technology in our lives, it may not be realistic for us to do so. Technology has become integral to our daily lives, and much of how we live is dependent on it, no matter how we live. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy says that the average American uses enough electricity to burn through 41 lbs of coal each day. That’s also equal to 30,491 burritos a year. I kid you not! While we probably can’t and won’t stop using our electronic technology right now, there are some ways we can be greener about it. Explore some of the ideas mentioned in this article and try to implement at least one of these strategies in your daily digital lifestyle!


Use a Green Search Browser

There are 2.3 million Google Searches per second, each of which generates .2 grams of carbon dioxide emissions. What if I told you that these searches would plant a total of 46,000 trees and remove 46,000 kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if they were done with Ecosia, a revolutionary tree-planting search engine?!

Ecosia was founded in 2009 when founder Christian Kroll wanted to act on his concerns about deforestation. Their business model is simple: the revenue from advertisements that appear as the top few options from your searches goes straight towards planting trees. Ecosia has planted 52 million trees and counting! They are also very transparent with their financial reports and can show you directly where your searches are planting trees. You can use Ecosia by simply searching on their website ( or adding it to the browser that you currently use!

Fundraise for your Favorite Nature Non-Profit on Facebook

If you have a Facebook account, you have probably seen your friends host fundraisers for non-profit organizations on their birthday. In just 2018, Facebook birthday fundraisers generated $300 million in donations to charities all throughout the world. All donations made to birthday fundraisers go straight to your favorite charity-- Facebook collects none of it! It’s easy to set up and is a very low-effort way for you to raise awareness and funds for nature non-profits on your special day! Click here to get started!

Shop with Amazon Smile

When you shop with Amazon Smile, a version that is virtually identical to the classic Amazon, 0.5% of the price of your purchase goes to a charity of choice. Since the average Prime user spends $1,400 a year on Amazon, their regular purchases would generate a $7 donation to their charity of choice. That may seem small, but if you extended that across the 80 million Prime users in the U.S., that is equivalent to $560 million donations. Severson Dells could certainly find a use for all of that money! Consider making this small change to your online shopping habits to make donations without any effort or additional cost at all.

Opt-Out of 2-day Shipping

Amazon is well known for its free 2-day shipping option with Amazon Prime, and several other online retailers offer similar programs. This express shipping is a major convenience-- I know I have used it countless times! However, if you are not in a last-minute pinch, consider choosing eco-friendly shipping. The slower ship time allows for your package to be consolidated with others if you are making multiple purchases and optimize their distribution process. In addition, many 2-day shipping supply-chains involve airplanes, which generate 2% of the global carbon emissions. Opting for slower shipping could take airplanes out of your supply-chain-equation. Sometimes you can even get credits for choosing slower shipping, as it saves these companies money too! Amazon’s No-Rush Shipping for prime members adds credits to their accounts instantly.

Use a Green Computer

While it is always best for the environment to use what you have or buy used, sometimes you just have to purchase something new. If you are in this situation for computers, consider purchasing a green computer! Many manufacturers are making options made from post-consumer recycled material that use less energy. For example, Asus has launched a Bamboo series that uses Bamboo in the construction of their laptops and is packaged in 100% natural and recyclable materials. The HP Slim Desktop PC 290 (ENERGY STAR) is a great desktop option that received a perfect score on Energy Conservation from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. The EPEAT registry is a great place to search for eco-friendly tech items across different categories, too.

Use a Solar Charger

Whether you are on the trail or your back porch, many of your electronics could benefit from solar charging! Recent innovations have made solar-panel chargers the size of a tablet accessible to the masses for under $50! Many feature rugged designs that are waterproof and can be dropped from considerable heights without damage. Check out a list of the best portable solar chargers of 2019 here.

Limit Vampire Power

Vampire power is a term used to describe the energy electronics consume when they are plugged in, even if they are turned off. The U.S. spends around $3 billion a year on vampire power. In fact, 25% of the energy your products’ energy consumption happens when they are turned off! Reduce vampire power by completely turning off and unplugging your tech when it is not in use. This means your TV, toasters, and computers should all be unplugged when you go to bed. You can also use power strips like this one to turn off multiple devices at once if you don’t feel like reaching behind your TV stand to unplug your TV every night.

Dim Your Screen

It take more energy to light up a white screen than a dark screen. Most people won’t notice a monitor or screen dimmed from 100% to 70%, but a dimmed screen could save 20% energy. Internet browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox offer “dark” modes to help save energy as well.

As you can see, there are many simple solutions anyone can adopt to green their online life. Just imagine how much energy could be saved if all internet users applied these ideas to their lives!

It’s Easy Being Green - Celebrating Earth Month

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Every April, environmental groups around the world host events in celebration of Earth Day. Some of these events are focused on education, others on habitat restoration or environmental clean-ups. My concern is that Earth Day has lost it’s luster as we approach the 49th Anniversary of this revolutionary event. How do we give Earth Day back it’s shine and encourage people to live lighter on the planet?

A few ideas worth considering:

1) Show-off the good work people are doing in support of the environment. There is a growing list of examples of areas where people have restored a clear-cut forest, re-established a wetland, cleaned a beach that now supports sea turtle nesting for the first time in years. I don’t know about you, but I need to see these messages too. It gives me hope that caring individuals willing to give their time and energy can do great things for the environment.

2) Help people fall in love with nature again. For those that spend time in nature regularly, we know just how good it feels to be outside and that it feels even better to experience a healthy outdoor space instead of an area full of litter. The quote from Baba Dioum has been used for decades in support of environmentalism and it rings as true today as ever, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” We have to start with love to bring that connection to nature back. Our challenge is overcoming people’s barriers to access nature, whether that is comfort level in nature, transportation, time, whatever the reason may be. So I encourage you to grab your non-outdoorsy friend or family member and take them to your favorite place in nature and share your love with them.

3) Start small. Most people are not going to go vegan, ride a bike as their primary mode of transportation, or have a plastic-free life. They can, however, take meat out of a few meals a week, ride their bike or walk for errands that are close by, and reduce their plastic consumption by using reusable containers or shopping in bulk. Take a look at your personal choices, is there an area or two where you could be greener? Many people say what difference is one person going to make, but the reality is that if everyone makes greener choices the collective impact is immense.

“One person can make a difference and everyone should try.”- John F. Kennedy

If you haven’t done a Carbon Footprint Calculator or just haven’t done it in a while, try it out. There are a few things it doesn’t take into account, but it gives you a good idea of where you might start changing habits to decrease your carbon footprint.

Join us over the month of April as we celebrate Earth Month. Look for posts each week by our staff on tips and tricks on greening your life! You can also join us on Earth Day, Monday, April 22nd from 9 AM - 12 PM, as we give back to nature by removing invasive species and restoring habitat.

The Earth is what we all have in common.”- Wendell Berry

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!