This is the 40th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Early summer means the return of the buzzy peent call of the Common Nighthawk. Neither completely nocturnal nor a raptor species, nighthawks are a member of the Nightjar family that also includes Whip-poor-wills. A bird to look for at dawn and also at dusk, nighthawks swoop and dart with a batlike flight.
Author Edward Abbey writes of the nighthawk in his 1968 classic Desert Solitaire, set in what is now Arches National Park in Utah:
"They feed in the twilight between evening and night and again in that similar twilight, unknown to most Americans, between dawn and sunrise, at which times aerial insects are at their most abundant. In my sack on the cot out back of the trailer, I am awakened many a morning by the sound of their wild cries and thrilling plunges through the air."
The Common Nighthawk, a bird that winters in South America, a bird of remote deserts, of grasslands, of urban rooftops and suburban neighborhoods, is appearing now all across the Chicago Wilderness region.
This is the 39th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
For much of his young life, Simon Tolzmann's been interested in identifying as many birds as possible.
"I don't know what I'd be doing if I hadn't discovered the world of birding," the 9th grader from Bucktown says.
A newer pursuit in these pandemic times, though, is herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. It turns out that forest preserves in the southern part of Cook County are just the place to look for "herps," as aficionados say.
"Last time I didn't even look at birds," Simon says. "I was really focused on finding salamanders. It's really important to document them as much as you can. Because if they're not known they can't be conserved."
That's not to say that Simon's entirely moved away from birds. He has 235 species on his 2020 Cook County bird list. That puts him second in the county, just ahead of his mom, Andrea, and his brother, Peter.
"It's been really important to start learning about other things," says Simon, "but my main focus for many years has been birds."
On a forest visit in early May, Simon was flipping logs when he found a few salamander types that hadn't been previously recorded in the iNaturalist mobile app from the preserve.
"It's been pretty fun," says Simon. "It's been a lot better than most springs, even though we don't have the entirety of the lakefront and Montrose."
This is the 38th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Until 1873, the species we now know as the Nelson's Sparrow remained unknown to scientists. It was a naturalist named Edward Nelson, who spent his formative years in Chicago, who's responsible for the first identification of this elusive denizen of wet meadows and freshwater marshes.
Citizen science in 1873 differs from that of 2020. Nelson shot a specimen in the marshes near the Calumet River in South Chicago and sent it to a scientist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The scientist, J.A. Allen, dubbed the bird Ammodramus nelsoni.
Nelson lived quite a life; he and his mother were left homeless by the Chicago fire of 1871. He eventually spent many years in Alaska and served as the President of the American Ornithologists Union and as Chief of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey.
An article appeared in the April 1935 edition of The Auk, a quarterly journal of ornithology, soon after Nelson's passing:
"His scientific explorations during more than 20 years embraced a life of adventure in many regions, from the far North to Central America, and included ascents of the highest mountains of the continent south of Alaska.
"His very large collections of birds and mammals, and his notable accumulations of specimens of fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants, attest the wide range of his interest in natural history. From these collections, gathered for the most part in almost unknown territory, he and others described new genera and hundreds of species and subspecies new to science."
As Nelson's Sparrows now pass through the Chicago region on their way to their breeding grounds, more evidence that nature has loved Chicago and Chicagoans have loved nature for a long time.
Thank you to Matt Beatty for suggesting this piece. Joel Greenberg's A Natural History of the Chicago Region provided important background.
This is the 37th of 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
James Woodworth Prairie isn't a typical prairie. For starters, a fast food restaurant sits on the southern border of the 5-acre parcel. But it also stands out for ecological reasons, as it is considered a Grade A prairie with undisturbed black soil. There's little of that remaining locally.
"It's a very diverse site," says Erin Faulkner, who's been conducting research and assisting with prairie management at the prairie since 2002. "We've done vegetation surveys and in a quarter square meter there are up to 20 species."
The prairie, located in the North Suburbs and owned by the University of Illinois at Chicago, will be featured on Saturday morning during a virtual event with the Illinois Native Plant Society's Northeast Chapter. What had been intended to be an in-person walk will be broadcast live on Facebook. The prairie will be in full bloom, and Erin will use a quadrat, a type of square frame, to lead an identification exercise of a small section of prairie.
"Everybody else is a big enough nerd that it will be fun," Erin says with a laugh. "It's a rich assemblage of spring flora on the prairie, and it's fun to see that before it gets really tall and crowds [the spring flora] out."
Join the Illinois Native Plant Society and Erin Faulkner, winner of Illinois Botany Big Year in 2018, on a virtual hike through James Woodworth Prairie on Saturday, May 30, at 10 a.m.
This is the 36th post in 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
In many ways, Gillson Park in Wilmette is an underrated gem in comparison to more well-known city birding sites like Montrose Point and the Jarvis Bird Sanctuary. Its stature has been on the rise since the pandemic closed the Chicago lakefront.
“[Gillson] gets maybe not the influx or diversity of birds of Montrose,” says local birder Kat O’Reilly, “but there is a nice diversity of habitat and there’s been so much work in the last few years there to make it better for migration.”
In past years, Kat and others led bird walks at Gillson each Sunday in May in partnership with Go Green Wilmette. The pandemic, though, led to the cancellation of the walks and a re-thinking of plans. The idea came up of a virtual information source for self-guided walks while adhering to social distancing. Kat eventually volunteered for the task.
“I was basically going on long walks in the morning in April and ending up at Gillson almost every day,” says Kat, an art teacher at New Trier High School. “I thought I could just give a guide to the location and tell you where to look and where I would take [people] in real life.”
Kat turned to Google Maps to create a map with site-specific features. “Here's a great area to look for ground feeding birds in the open areas around the shrubs,” writes Kat about the Nature Garden Seating Area on the site’s east end. “On 5/2/2020, White-crowned, White-throated, Swamp and Savannah Sparrows were present in this area this morning.” And the early feedback is that it has been useful for area residents.
“I was birding the other morning and a woman was like ‘Are you the Kat from the Katbirding site?’ I have some fame within the park now, so that's fun.”
View Kat O'Reilly's website and the Gillson Park Virtual Bird Walk here.
This is the 35th in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
While official TreeKeeper events have paused due to Covid-19, trained volunteers like Anne Alt are keeping tabs on the trees in their neighborhoods.
"The need doesn't go away," says Anne, a TreeKeeper for seven years. "We need to take care of the trees we've got."
Anne, a Beverly resident, takes regular walks in her local park to check for bark damage and signs of disease. Recently when she saw that some trees in a business district "needed a little bit of TLC" she contacted the neighborhood association to see if she could help. She went out with her tools to do a bit of pruning.
Since 1991, nearly 2,000 TreeKeepers have provided eyes and ears on trees year-round across the Chicago region. Openlands founded the program to identify potential tree-related problems and lead neighbors in tree planting and tree care.
Anne's been involved in the planting of as many as 300 trees on the Major Taylor Trail between 87th and 127th streets. She finds peace as she's focused on the arboreal world--all the more important now--away from her job at a small law firm.
"It's nature and dirt therapy," she says. "I'm grateful to have green space to relax in and relieve the stress of the pandemic."
This is the 34th in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Friendships were forged. Bonds were made. A shared purpose emerged, and a new community formed. The story of "Monty" and "Rose," Chicago's endangered piping plovers, has always been a human story as much as a wildlife story. All that time on the beach last summer brought people together in a spontaneous way, and in a way that would be impossible a year later. The fact is that Great Lakes piping plovers require human assistance if their population is to continue to expand. And the outpouring of support--190 volunteers in all last summer--is what made it possible for a pair of this fragile species to nest at crowded Montrose Beach and to fledge two chicks.
Today is a day to look back at one of Chicago's mightiest recent volunteer efforts as news arrives that Monty and Rose have a new nest and have laid three eggs. With the beach closed, and Monty and Rose alone on the dunes, this year's circumstances are wildly different in so many ways. Park district staff and other wildlife officials are monitoring the nest. A wire exclosure is in place again with a game camera to track the presence of predators. Coyotes and Caspian Terns are in close proximity. We know that Monty and Rose are in the good hands of professionals, but our parental instincts sometimes kick in and we worry on occasion.
Last year's volunteers miss being out at the beach, in many ways as much for the camaraderie and idyllic scenery as for the time spent with the beloved plovers. But there's a satisfaction in knowing that what started last year continues this year. That even though we are behind barricades, that somewhere down Montrose Avenue and out past the Beach House, Monty and Rose have picked up right where they left off. The thought's a comforting one in a time when comfort is sorely needed.
This is the 33rd in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Like so many, Sarah Scanlon lost her job in March at the start of the pandemic. The actor/director had been working a "day job" in the hospitality industry, an industry hit especially hard by the stay-at-home order. So for Sarah, online searching for jobs has become a big part of her daily routine.
"I'm looking for new work and having eye breaks [from a computer] is a nicer part of the routine," Sarah says, "and knowing the world hasn't completely gone to [heck]."
Sarah and her partner had moved into a home in the North Park neighborhood a little before the pandemic hit. During those eye breaks, she takes a look out the window at her backyard, where she has a bird feeder she received as a housewarming gift from her mother. She's seen 26 species in her yard so far.
"My mom is an avid birdwatcher," Sarah says. "Maybe it sounds odd, but doing some birdwatching feels like some additional connection to family and some normalcy in the day to day."
Around the third week of April, Sarah saw something truly unexpected at her feeder: a young male Summer Tanager, a relatively scarce bird in the Chicago area. At the advice of a friend, Sarah joined the Chicago Ornithological Society's Facebook page and posted a few photos of the bird in hopes of confirming her identification. The photos of the colorful bird drew a massive response on the page.
"It's just really been an exciting thing to see who's going to visit today," says Sarah, who's TV work has included shows such as "Fargo." "It's like a treat. Your brain is searching for a reward and you get a little dopamine hit [when a bird arrives].
"The birds are still out there and still hopping around like there's nothing wrong. We are experiencing something that most in our lifetime have not experienced, and the world hasn't actually ended. It's just really been a really exciting thing to see who's going to visit today."
This is the 32nd in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
Blue Flag Iris and Spiderwort are two of our more readily identifiable native perennial plants and relatively easy to locate.
"You're not going to find them everywhere, but they are findable," says Linda Masters, Restoration Specialist with Openlands, which is one of the oldest metropolitan conservation organizations in the nation. "They can take a little wetter and dryer [conditions] and disturbance and still hang in there."
Linda says that individuals of the species, found in places like the Calumet region, have probably been around for up to 50 years. Blue Flag Iris is 2 to 3 feet tall and produces clumps of sword-shaped basal leaves. Spiderwort is 2 to 4 feet tall and mostly unbranched, except at the apex. Irises like sunny, wetter areas, and Spiderwort likes sunny, grassy, dryer areas.
On a recent day, Linda shared that the timing of wildflower blooms vary quite a bit from south to north across the region. Plants on the North Shore are about two weeks behind plants on the South Side and in the South Suburbs. Their presence helps inform her and Openlands' management of land.
"When I see [these plants], it signals me to take a closer look to slow down a little bit," Linda says. "I take a closer look to see something else to inform me about the area."
Happy International Day of Biological Diversity! This is the 31st in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature. Read previous posts here.
It was on a volunteer work day a few years ago when Edward Warden realized he didn't know a thing about moss.
"Here I was doing work where at least basic knowledge of flora was kind of important," Edward says. "I figured I'd just do some googling around when I get home and find the answers I sought. Turns out it wasn't such a simple search."
The search engine failed to turn up a whole lot of resources that were current. It turns out it's much harder to find information on moss, than say birds or trees. So Edward, who serves as President of Chicago Ornithological Society and Conservation Stewardship Coordinator at Shedd Aquarium, started in on what he later called an "obsession" with bryology. To look up information about the moss of the Chicago region, he'd have to search for all sorts of publications and articles, and comb through papers dating all the way to 1878.
In December 2018, Edward concluded an almost two-year project by posting a checklist of 414 mosses documented in the 34-county Chicago Wilderness region. It ends up that some counties have a lot of mosses documented, like Cook County for instance. Rural Ford County has just two. As Edward wrote in 2018, "there is a lot to unpack in this thing." Moss make up a huge portion of the Kingdom Plantae.
"It can be really discouraging when you have no idea where to go [for research]," Edward says. "But it can also be really thrilling when you do make headway because you're likely unearthing information very few other people know about."
You can find Edward's checklist for the mosses of the Chicago region by clicking here.
One great way to identify most any living thing, including mosses, is to download the iNaturalist app.