Spring is for the Birds at the Garden

“Baltimore oriole,” my husband Chuck called out—and there it was, its orange coloring glowing so brightly in the morning sun that it seemed lit from within. The bird almost seemed to be posing for us, perching in full view on a nearby tree branch and bobbing its black head as it sang.

Al Stokie, our expert birding companion, recorded it in his notebook; it would become part of the weekly bird survey he supplies to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

We continued on our walk through a wonder of the natural world that anyone in the Chicago area can see for the price of a pair of binoculars: spring bird migration.

Every spring, small, colorful warblers fly through the Chicago area on their way from their winter homes in Central and South America to their nesting grounds in the northern United States, Canada, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. And every year, birders at the Garden and beyond delight in the sight.

“In May, you always go crazy,” said Stokie, who has become the official compiler of the Garden’s bird statistics.

Cape may warbler.
Cape May warbler
Blackburnian warbler.
Blackburnian warbler

But May isn’t just for experienced birders; the birds are so numerous and their breeding plumage so gorgeous that it’s a perfect time for anyone to explore bird-watching. The 385 acres of the Garden are an excellent place to start. “The Garden is a pretty well-known spot for birding,” said Jim Steffen, the senior ecologist who oversees the Garden’s bird-friendly practices and its cumulative bird list, which currently numbers 255 species.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

FPDCC Bird of the Month chart.
Learn about the bird of the month at birding events at your local forest preserves.

And this year, the Garden is partnering with the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s #birdthepreserves initiative. There are events at the preserves, and a different bird is featured each month. (In May, it’s the Baltimore oriole.) There’s even a good-natured competition to see which site can record the most bird species. 

Where to look for birds at the Garden? It depends.

“You bird the Garden at different times of the year in different places,” Stokie said. “May is warbler month, and warblers are found in the woods.” So he started us off in the McDonald Woods, in the Garden’s northeast corner. We walked along the wood-chipped path, and on boardwalks and bridges over streams and ephemeral ponds, watching for movement in the trees. It was a blustery morning. “Our problem today is going to be the wind,” Stokie said, and he was right. We saw blue-gray gnatcatchers, catbirds, ovenbirds, and that beautiful oriole. And when we got to a small forest pond, we saw a solitary sandpiper scurrying through the water on its stick-like legs.

Stokie saw far more than I did—he recorded 48 species—but we didn’t get the full-on spring migration blast of birds.

You might, though.

The peak of spring migration is typically May 10 – 20, and International Migratory Bird Day is May 14. Most of the warblers will still be moving through in the next few weeks, Steffen said, and there should be flycatchers, goldfinches, woodpeckers, and orioles. Around the Garden Lakes, he said, people can see wood ducks, mallards, night herons, green herons, and great blue herons.

Great blue heron.
Great blue heron
Ruby-crowned kinglet.
Ruby-crowned kinglet

It’s a grand sight. But along with the beauty, Steffen sees cause for concern due to climate change. Trees are leafing out earlier, before the warblers—cued by the lengthening of days—arrive. “The buds are already open, and the insects associated with them are gone,” Steffen said. “It’s messing up the synchronization.”

The best places to see birds at the Garden in spring, Stokie says, depend on the bird. Warblers and vireos will be in woodlands like the McDonald Woods and the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the Garden’s southeast corner. Sparrows will be in open areas like the Dixon Prairie; and shorebirds and late migrating ducks will be found in the wet areas just north of Dundee Road.

Hairy woodpecker.
Hairy woodpecker

Sign up for a bird walk with an expert. The Garden will have a spring migration walk on May 21. 

Or go to any forest preserve or park. Look for people with binoculars, and ask what they’re seeing. You’ll be off and birding.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Skunk Cabbage: Gross and Cool Herald of Spring in Chicago

Do you see something pushing up from the ground that looks like the claws of some creature in a zombie movie? Does it smell bad too?

Happy spring! This charmer is the first native wildflower of a Chicago spring: the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

PHOTO: A skunk cabbage blooms in early March in the McDonald Woods.
A skunk cabbage blooms in early March in the McDonald Woods.

It’s a biologically intriguing, ecologically brilliant prelude to the wildflower riot about to burst forth on forest floors from the McDonald Woods at the Chicago Botanic Garden to area preserves.

It’s a welcome sight to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation, who pointed out skunk cabbage as we walked through the McDonald Woods, the 100-acre restored and protected natural area that is home to at least seven state-listed threatened or endangered plant species.

Skunk cabbage’s appearance means that the trilliums and bloodroot are not far behind. And spring beauties, star-flowered isopyrum, and cardamine, also called bittercress. Within a few weeks, depending on the weather, forest floors will be carpeted with wildflowers, courtesy of the sun streaming onto the earth before the trees leaf out and block it.

Skunk cabbage isn’t conventionally pretty. What you see are the claw-like pointed red-striated hoods called spathes surrounding a nub studded with blossoms. The plant creates its own heat, even amid snow and ice. The temperature inside the hood can be 95 degrees hotter than outside.

Thermogenesis is the goal for skunk cabbages, titan arums, and other “warm-blooded” plants.

The heat creates the plant’s signature smell, a cross between a skunk (hence the name) and rotting meat. This turns skunk cabbage into a paradise for flies, which seek out rotting meat where they can lay their eggs.

“It’s kind of got the rotten vegetation look going on,” Tankersley said. “It’s warm, which means there’s something decomposing, from a fly’s perspective. And then of course it smells bad. So there’s your triple play: ‘You need to come here.’”

And flies do come to skunk cabbage. They flit inside the hood looking for rotting meat, then emerge covered with pollen. Then they fly inside another skunk cabbage, and pollinate it.

Honeybees are the plant’s other major pollinator. They are attracted to skunk cabbage because it is a rare, early source of pollen, on which they feed. You can see a honeybee in pollen-coated action inside a skunk cabbage in the video below by the Illinois Natural History Survey: 

Watch the Skunk cabbage video on YouTube.

Skunk cabbage is picky about where it grows. You can only find it in fens, wet woodlands, and other places where water is moving beneath the soil’s surface. At the Garden, they’re alongside the path through the McDonald Woods. Outside the Garden, a good spot is the River Trail Nature Center, a Cook County forest preserve in Northbrook.

And while you can see skunk cabbage now, the other wildflowers are still holding back. That’s because they’re smart.

“They’ve seen these warm temperatures and then had the weather snap on them,” Tankersley said. “Genetically, they know if they hope to survive, they can’t come out with the first warm weather.”

Which is why native wildflowers are almost never felled by a sudden freeze.

PHOTO: Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum).
The elegant—and less smelly— prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum) is our next bloom to look for in the woods. Keep an eye out!

In the next weeks, the wildflower show will be on in full force. In addition to the McDonald Woods, you can catch it at forest preserves, where invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard are regularly removed, as they are at the McDonald Woods. Some of my Forest Preserves of Cook County favorites not far from the Garden are Harms Woods near Glenview and LaBagh Woods near Cicero and Foster Avenues on the city’s Northwest Side.

But the previews are open now. And it’s a real stinker.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Reshape the way you think about winter

Are you feeling winter blue? Do you feel trapped in cold and ice? Has your mood gone south, leaving you wishing that you could, too?

What, with the world’s best antidepressant right out your front door?

The magic elixir is a winter walk. And the Chicago Botanic Garden awaits with a prescription-strength dose—miles of trails through the Garden, almost all of them kept clear of snow and ice, with a number of mapped-out walks ranging from 1 to 2.3 miles.

PHOTO: Spider Island in winter.
A hidden gem, the path along Spider Island is just the place for a peaceful winter walk.

I love a brisk walk any time, anywhere. But never is it as urgently necessary for my mental health as in winter.

A winter walk is the cure for cabin fever. And more than that, it’s the way to reshape the way you think about winter.

PHOTO: Birches in winter.
Elegant in winter, birches line the Sensory Garden path.

Winter doesn’t have to be a sentence to months of suffering. Once you start walking in it, you see it as a time for a brisk spins through snow-frosted landscapes; an opportunity to see trees in their dramatically revealed architecture; a chance at that perfect winter moment when a bright sun in a blue sky makes a new snowfall glitter like diamonds.

The Garden’s winter regulars need no convincing.

“I love the freshly fallen snow,” said Paul Wagner, who was here on a recent blue-sky day when snow frosted the hills and chunks of ice floated in the Garden’s waters.

He regularly drives 40 minutes from his Northbrook home to walk a 4½-mile circuit here.

“The Garden is really pretty. And it’s certainly less crowded,” he said. “It’s just peaceful. I listen to music…you’re deep in thought—and at the end of it, you’re just so relaxed you wonder where the time went.”

Cookie Harms, of Wilmette, treasures the quiet and solitude. She also admires the birds, untroubled by winter and more visible in leafless trees. “I still see something different every time I come here,” she said.

And as a self-described “summer girl,” she considers walking in winter an essential survival tool.

“It really lifts the blues,” she said. “It’s definitely a drug.”

PHOTO: Linden Allee in winter.
The Linden Allée, newly plowed after a fresh blanket of snow

But is it a hard drug to take? Isn’t walking in winter cold?

Wagner was wearing a sweatshirt over a base layer. The air temperature was 25 degrees Fahrenheit. He was perfectly comfortable. Walking fast is like being surrounded by a bubble of heat.

Harms was downright toasty, but that might be because she was basking in the sun in the Garden View Café before setting out on her walk.

Still, she was certain she would still be warm outside. “Fleece base layers,” she said, pointing to her leggings.

I would add: Hat. Wind-blocking scarf or neck gaiter. Chemical hand-warmers. Mittens.

Add a route through trees and hills, whether at the Garden or your local forest preserve—and out you go!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org