Lake Villa's Sun Lake offers welcoming signs of spring
Editor's note: Lake County Forest Preserve visitors are reminded to practice social distancing so trails and preserves can remain open. All facilities, restrooms, playgrounds and dog exercise areas are closed until further notice. Preserves are open but without regular maintenance. Please check the website (LCFPD.org) to find the latest closures and cancellations.
The following is by Brett Peto, environmental communications specialist at the Lake County Forest Preserves, who writes a nature blog.
The sky to the west was robin's egg blue, a clearing in the day's dose of clouds. They had just sneezed a handful of snow, already melting.
I didn't know whether to wear my regular hiking boots or a pair of Wellington boots I'd packed at the last moment. The trail could be soggy. I was on my way to Sun Lake in Lake Villa, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sun Lake contains 629 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands and restored prairies. I hiked the 3.25-mile trail loop on a March day, when you can sense the fingers of winter trying to hold on as spring plucks them off the world.
The trails were indeed soggy, through no fault of the maintenance crews, but I left the Wellies behind anyway. Dirt and damp is a good sacrifice for better traction.
Heading east, I paused on a bridge over Sequoit Creek. A pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) floated in the water, seemingly watching me. The creek flows south to north, threading under Grass Lake Road and into East Loon Lake, then on to Lake Marie in the Chain O' Lakes.
The familiar "conk-la-ree" songs of male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) emanated from adjacent wetlands. I stood and listened to these abundant indicators of spring. Compared to the male's showy red-and-yellow shoulder badges, females look quite different and are harder to spot. Their feathers are mostly dark brown and streaked. A yellow patch surrounds their beak.
I soon moved on, following a curve toward an upland woodland. A squirrel's large drey nest huddled in the canopy. The clouds had fully broken. More red-winged blackbirds, a few American robins (Turdus migratorius) and one northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sang from the bare crowns of trailside trees. But something else was among them. Through my long lens, I saw it was a northern shrike (Lanius borealis).
This bird is famous for its carnivorous diet and its tendency to store extra prey for future meals by impaling them on thorns, branches or fences.
You're probably familiar with other meat-eating birds. Images of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) snatching a fish from a river come easily to mind. A carnivorous songbird stretches your mind's eye a tad more.
When hunting, the shrike scans from elevated perches, then swoops down, bites the prey's neck and rolls its head back and forth to snap the vertebrae. It doesn't have strong leg muscles like a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), so it must kill quickly.
They're sometimes called butcherbirds. Their diet is usually composed of rodents, insects and small birds. After a minute or so, this shrike flew away, and I walked toward the south end of the trail loop.
The preserve revealed Sun Lake a half-mile away. It's a 25-acre reminder of the Midwest's glacial history. To protect the delicate shoreline, no access to Sun Lake itself is allowed. Starting 2.5 million years ago, the Laurentide ice sheet, a massive continental glacier that covered 5 million square miles, began cycles of growth and melting across Canada and the northern U.S.
Its final advance and retreat carved out the Great Lakes, changed the flow of the Mississippi River, and flattened many of Illinois' bluffs, valleys and hills into the landscape we are familiar with today. It also scooped out depressions in the earth as it ground its way south.
When it melted its way north 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the gigantic amounts of meltwater filled the Great Lakes, the planet's largest freshwater source.
This process also created Sun Lake. A 2,000-foot-thick glacier, an undeniable wall of ice, trickled away and left behind a thin, silver disc we can admire.
I made the turn back north toward the parking lot.
All hike long, I had noticed half-empty milkweed pods in the prairies. By half empty, I mean several seeds that had failed to launch last October still clung to the pods. The wind tousled their fluff, also called silk, which is hollow, buoyant and waterproof.
When milkweed seeds release correctly, they float on their natural parachutes to sprout in other spots. In fact, these little fibers intersect with a crucial period of American history.
During World War II, the U.S. collected an estimated 1.5 billion pods, or 11 million pounds of seed, to produce 1.2 million life jackets. (A friendly reminder: no harvesting of any sort is allowed in the preserves.) Milkweed is a lifesaver for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and other pollinators, too.
"Don't turn off your brain, even if you think you're done." It's a piece of advice I received last year from Denise Grady, a science reporter at The New York Times. She applied it to interviews, observing that, often, people will say the most compelling or revealing things when they think the interview's about to be over. Don't think about lunch or your next appointment, Denise said, until you've left.
I thought of her advice at the end of my hike when I spotted yet another sign of spring: several sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) soaring by. Their warbling, prehistoric bugle hit my ears as I was loading my gear into the car.
I scanned the skies. A few more calls, and there -- 18 cranes flying northwest. I captured the best photos I could, tracing the birds' arc as they skimmed the northern edge of the preserve.
Sandhill cranes are migratory, spending the winter in New Mexico, Texas, Florida and Mexico, then returning to the northern U.S. and Canada in summer to breed. They're perennially monogamous, a rare trait in the animal kingdom, and can live for more than 20 years. Fossil evidence indicates they haven't changed much anatomically for 2.5 million years.
Choosing Sun Lake was not a mistake. It gave me an early taste of spring, which other preserves would have done, but not quite in the same way. Each one holds unique features, habitats, plants, animals and experiences. Next time, I think I'll pack my Wellies again. Just in case.
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She provides a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.