Archives For Nature in View

It’s time for a visit to the Dixon Prairie to savor late spring flowers and the pollinators visiting these plants.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla)

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla)

A standout plant, looking almost like a small shrub, is white wild indigo (Baptisia alba). This is the white-flowered cousin to blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis); this plant, not native to the Chicago region, was historically a source for blue dye. Both species are in the pea family. Many prairie plants belong to the pea family; other important families of the prairie are sunflower, sedge, and grass. Queen and worker bumblebees primarily pollinate white wild indigo. Their large size allows them to push down the lower part of the flower (the keel) and thus expose the pollen producing anthers. 

A rich palette of blue flowering plants from the Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) surrounds the white wild indigo plants. A variety of bees and butterflies might be seen visiting these plants, bumblebees being the primary pollinator. Butterflies, in their quest for nectar, will not be rewarded for their visit, however, since Ohio spiderwort doesn’t have nectar.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate') and coneflowers bloom on the Prairie.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’) and coneflowers bloom on the prairie.

The prairie also currently hosts numbers of white tubular flowers, foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). On the lower half of the flower is a large hairy sterile stamen (the part of the flower that produces pollen); perhaps this feature is the origin of the plant’s common name. Pollinators, primarily bees, must work their way past this sterile stamen to reach pollen. This effort increases the likelihood of pollen being deposited on the stigma, the organ that is receptive to pollen. Those willing to observe these flowers for a while might be rewarded with witnessing some territory defending. The male of an introduced bee, the European wool carder bee, with sharp spines on their abdomens, will attack other males who come in the vicinity of the female when she is foraging for nectar. 

Pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

Pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

Just opening on the gravel hill prairie is the pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida). The narrower leaves of this plant distinguish it from the commonly planted purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) (sometimes called broad-leaved coneflower). Like other members of the sunflower or aster family, the coneflower has what appears to be a singular flower but is actually a head of many flowers. This species has what are called ray and disc flowers. Some sunflower plants have only disc flowers while others, such as dandelions, only ray flowers. This plant is a preferred nectar plant of both bees and butterflies. 

Moving into summer, this palette will change and reveal a new tapestry of grasses and wildflowers. To witness the full bounty of the prairie, a prairie visit should be a weekly affair.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A great blue heron watched as I glided past. Dragonflies tumbled and hovered just above the water, which was throwing reflections of sunlight onto the tree trunks along the shore. And the air was filled with a characteristic sound of kayaking in the Skokie Lagoons—the roar of traffic on the Edens Expressway.

But so what? The Edens does nothing to detract from this little Garden of Eden, where paddling a kayak through narrow waterways ringed with trees or across wind-swept open water is a magical way to spend part of a sunny day.

And, once a year, you can paddle at the Chicago Botanic Garden. On June 18 to 19, you can canoe the lakes of the Garden in the annual Father’s Day Canoe Adventure. Held in conjunction with Friends of the Chicago River, the hour-long paddles regularly sell out.

Still, there are plenty of other opportunities to get on the water. Canoe and kayak rentals are available from the Garden’s partner, the Forest Preserves of Cook County: Busse Lake in Elk Grove Village, Maple Lake and Tampier Lake in the Palos Preserves, and here at the Skokie Lagoons.

PHOTO: Kayaking the Skokie Lagoons.

Kayaking the Skokie Lagoons

At the Skokie Lagoons site, you rent your boat from Chicago River Canoe & Kayak, which operates a trailer on Tower Road, just south of the Garden. No experience necessary; kayaking is easy, and the staffers will give you a quick lesson and offer suggestions on a route.

You can paddle around the island in the middle of one of the lagoons, right across from the launch spot, which takes about 45 minutes. Or you can head under the Tower Road overpass and into the long system of lagoons to the north.

“A family of badgers has been seen there,” said Angela Williams, who helps run the Chicago River Canoe & Kayak rental station, as she picked out a paddle for me.

That was tempting, but the island looked plenty inviting. And John Hage, the outfitter’s manager here, said he recommends the island because the narrow waterways keep you closer to shorelines where you see birds.

Grab your camera and a paddle to #birdthepreserves from the water this summer.

PHOTO: A great blue heron fishes from the shoreline.

A great blue heron fishes from the shoreline

Williams assigned me a kayak—there are three kinds, with different levels of speed, maneuverability, and tippiness—and I lowered myself in and put my feet on the foot rests. She handed me the paddle, pushed me into the water, and I was off.

And immediately having a grand time. Gliding swiftly—you can go pretty fast with just a little effort—and skimming along only inches above the lagoon’s surface, you feel like some kind of water creature, as comfortable paddling as the Canada geese you see.

In fact, you can paddle faster than the geese. I came upon a line of Canada goslings following one parent at the front of the line and followed by another at the back. I caught up and glided alongside, so we were a double line paddling quietly beneath the overhanging trees, the little goslings’ heads bobbing. Even for one who despises the park-fouling birds, I thought it was sweet.

I rounded the island, the highway hum fading enough that I could hear the plops of fishing lines being cast by guys fishing from kayaks. A deer wandered through the woods on the island. A great blue heron soared overhead, its shadow crossing over my kayak. And then, after flushing one last great blue heron along the shore, I crossed the water back to the launch.

Back at the trailer, Hage recommended the Maple Lake location too; Chicago River Canoe & Kayak rents the boats there and at the Busse Lake launch. And for those who would like to paddle but would like company, the outfitter is planning to organize monthly networking paddles.

PHOTO: Kayaks on the shoreline of Rosewood Beach in Highland Park.

Parking at Rosewood Beach in Highland Park for a quick breather during a paddle

Bring dry shorts to change into; in a kayak, the water drips off the paddle and into your lap as you paddle.

But go. The waterways are lovely to explore the preserves—and once a year, the Garden. Out here, it’s just you, the herons, and your swift path through the water, and you haven’t left Cook County. 


Photos by Amy Spungen and Bill Bishoff.
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The elegant flight and bright white plumage of the great egret (Ardea alba) belie its harsh croak when it takes off from a marsh. It was this bird’s beauty that nearly led to its demise at the turn of the twentieth century, when these and other waders were hunted for their feathery plumes that women wore in their hats.

Since then, the great egret, standing more than 3 feet tall with a nearly 5-foot wing span, has become the symbol for the National Audubon Society, founded in part to stop these birds from being killed to extinction.

Great egrets spend winter as far south as the West Indies, Central America, and South America. In spring, they migrate in small flocks during the day, eventually choosing a place farther north to raise young in nests close to trees and shrubs called colonies, often with other large waders including the great blue heron.

PHOTO: Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret (Ardea alba) fishes; in the background is a great blue heron. Photo © Carol Freeman

During breeding season, a patch of skin on the bird’s face turns green, contrasting with the bright yellow bill. Males perform fancy courtship displays, opening up and fluffing their white plumes that grow to extend beyond their backs.

Both male and female build a platform-style nest of sticks in a tree or shrub often toward the top and above or near water. The female lays three to four greenish-blue eggs and gets help from her mate during incubation. 

When the young hatch in about 24 days, the nestlings begin their incessant croaking—getting louder as they grow older—and beg for regurgitated food from their parents.

PHOTO: Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret in flight over the lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

The great egret mostly eats fish, but it also dines on frogs, snakes, and aquatic insects such as dragonflies, and even grasshoppers and rodents in fields near their nesting territories.

The egret wades slowly through the water up to its belly looking for prey. Suddenly, it will stop and stand still, its motionless legs likely looking like branches to a fish, which will come closer, and then get snatched up by the hungry wader. The bird swallows the prey head first, sometimes having to flip it up in the air and catch it so it will be in the right direction to go down smoothly.

Come late summer and autumn, great egrets gather in loose feeding flocks, sometimes creating a sea of white in a wetland and a stunning spectacle for observers.

PHOTO: Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret wades in the Skokie Lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

Once on the state endangered species list, the great egret is doing well in Illinois; however, habitat loss and water pollution may threaten its future. Visit Baker’s Lake in Barrington to watch the great egret during breeding season and McGinnis Slough in Palos Park late summer to watch large feeding flocks as they head south for the winter.

The great egret is the June bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Want to help monarch butterflies? Be careful when selecting your milkweed. Not all plants that go by the common name of “milkweed” are the food that these butterflies need. 

Want to save the monarch butterfly? Plant milkweed. Pick up a free milkweed seedling at World Environment Day this Saturday, June 4.

Danaus plexippus (Monarch) egg on the underside of a leaf.

Danaus plexippus (Monarch) egg on the underside of a leaf. Photo by Bfpage [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Milkweed is both a food source and a host plant on which the monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed foliage.

After hatching, the larvae consume the foliage, which is high in cardiac glycosides—a poison that interferes with the heart functioning of vertebrates (animals with a skeleton). Butterflies are insects with an exoskeleton, and so are not affected by the toxin.

Within the Chicago region, the following milkweed species (Asclepias) are native:

  • Asclepias amplexicaulis is native to our prairies and is suitable for planting in sunny perennial flower gardens. The flowers are described as “eraser pink” in color and are fragrant (honey).
  • Asclepias exaltata is native to our woodlands and is suitable for planting in partially shaded gardens. The flowers are white and also fragrant.
  • Asclepias incarnata is native to both prairie and woodlands and can be planted in a variety of garden locations. The flowers are pink and fragrant. Gardeners may also be interested in three cultivars of this species:
    • ‘Cinderella’ has light and medium pink flowers
    • ‘Ice Ballet’ has white flowers
    • ‘Soulmate’ has medium and dark pink flowers
  • Asclepias tuberosa goes by the common name of Butterfly Weed. It features bright gold and orange flowers—and is fragrant. A native of sunny prairies, it also has cultivars that have been selected for specific colors:
    • ‘Hello Yellow’
    • ‘Western Gold Mix’
    • ‘Gay Butterflies’ (orange, red, yellow)
  • Asclepias purpurascens has fragrant pinkish-purple flowers and can tolerate both sun and shade locations in the home landscape.

Cultivars may be easier to find in your local garden center or nursery, but specialist nurseries do carry both potted plants as well as seeds.

Asclepias syriaca

Asclepias syriaca

Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa

Download the Chicago Botanic Garden Milkweed Map and take a tour of our native milkweeds.

The Bad Seeds

The bad actors, unfortunately, also go by the common name of milkweed, and are in the same plant family but a different genus: Cynanchum. Three species are reported in the upper Midwest and should not be planted by gardeners. All have fragrant flowers and wind-dispersed seeds:

  • Cynanchum louiseae goes by the name of Louise’s swallow wort, or milkweed. It is native to southeastern Europe.
  • Cynanchum louiseae goes by the name of European swallow wort or milkweed. It is native to southern Europe.
  • Cynanchum vincetoxicum goes by the name of white swallow wort or milkweed. It is native to Europe and Asia.

So, why will monarch larvae die on the wrong milkweed? 

Hmmm, perhaps an illustration. Both mango and poison ivy are in the same plant family (Anacardiaceae) and contain similar biologically active compounds. My daughter and I can’t get enough mango in our diet, but both break out in poison ivy rashes if we touch poison ivy plants. The compounds are similar but not exactly the same.

Likewise with the “bad” and “good” milkweeds: Both have fragrant flowers, the flower shapes are similar, the leaf shapes are similar, both have milky sap. But there is an insecticide compound in the “bad” milkweed in addition to the cardiac glycoside.

“Bad” milkweeds evolved in Europe, where there are no native monarch butterflies, but plenty of herbivores, both animal and insect. “Good” milkweeds evolved in North America in conjunction with monarch butterflies.

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar

Somehow, the monarch larvae are able to ingest and retain cardiac glycosides in their tissues without dying. It is a very unique adaptation between these two species. If other species of butterflies were to lay their eggs on milkweed, the larvae would not survive. Each organism has these sorts of “monarch-like” relationships with other, sometimes drastically different organisms that give them a survival advantage. Monarchs just happen to be a wonderful example of mutualistic relationships.

Learn more:

The Monarch Joint Venture lists a number of national and regional partners; each of them will have information about monarch butterflies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is partnering with the National Wildlife Federation and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is also a source for information on milkweed and monarchs. Get free milkweed plants at monarchwatch.org.

Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

Add your garden to the Million Pollinator Gardens project this summer. Learn more at millionpollinatorgardens.org.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

“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