Archives For Ecology & Wildlife

The Chicago Botanic Garden is actively maintaining, restoring, and recreating four natural areas at the Garden: woodlands at McDonald Woods and the Brown Nature Reserve, the Dixon Prairie, the Skokie River Corridor, and the 60-acre Garden Lakes. These activities teach restoration ecologists a great deal about habitat management, which can be applied in other regions.

Coming of Age for the Garden’s Cygnets

Two juvenile trumpeter swans transported to Iowa last week to join wild populations

Bob Kirschner —  September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

In early June, the Garden’s resident pair of adult trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) gave birth to two offspring, called cygnets, in their nest near the Visitor Center. Much to the delight of Garden visitors, over the ensuing months the proud parents have enjoyed showing off their family as they paddle about the Garden Lakes.

Trumpeter swans on their nest near the Garden's Visitor Center in spring 2013

Trumpeter swans on their nest near the Garden’s Visitor Center in spring 2013

A little background on trumpeter swans: the trumpeter swan is North America’s largest waterfowl, with a wingspan of more than 7 feet.  Famed for their French-horn call and immortalized by author E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, by the late 1800s the swans were nearly hunted to extinction in much of the United States and Canada for their meat, feathers, down, and quills. By the 1930s, just 69 trumpeter swans were known to exist in the continental United States. But thanks to the ambitious conservation efforts in our region and beyond that began in the 1980s, trumpeter swan populations are making an incredible recovery.

The Garden’s two adult trumpeters are flightless, so cygnets born here at the Garden aren’t able to learn important skills. For quite a few years, the Garden has been a partner with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program. More than a dozen cygnets born at the Garden have been brought to Iowa, where they’re assimilated with wild populations of trumpeters.

Just last week, our two cygnets (together with five born at the Lincoln Park Zoo this spring) were transported to Iowa, where they’ll be kept in a safe area over the winter. Come next spring, they’ll be able to interact with wild populations and begin the journey of becoming proud parents themselves one day.

Mom, dad, and the kids going for a paddle around the Garden Lakes

Mom, dad, and the kids going for a paddle around the Garden Lakes

While it may be with some sadness that we bade farewell to our cygnets, we can take comfort knowing that they are helping to bring renewed hope for a species that, until recently, seemed headed for extinction.

Interested in learning more about trumpeter swans?  Check out The Trumpeter Swan Society, and read more about the successful restoration programs in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Migration is Here!

Many species we don't normally see are moving through our area

Carol Freeman —  September 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

Twice a year we are blessed with the migration of birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Many species that we don’t normally see (or don’t see in large numbers) are now moving through the Chicago area. Each day is a mystery as to what I might come across.

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries. ©Carol Freeman

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries.
©Carol Freeman

Today I chose to head over to McDonald Woods. Before I could even get to the path, I was greeted by red-eyed vireos. I stayed there and watched them for some time. One thing I have learned is to photograph birds wherever I see them, and to avoid the impulse to assume I’ll find more birds, or better birds, elsewhere. Just because the birds are hopping here doesn’t mean they will be hopping everywhere: best to take advantage of the birds wherever they are, even if it’s just the parking lot.

Only when the activity slowed did I head into the woods to see what else might be there. Right away, I saw some movement up high. Yep, warblers. I could tell by the flash of the tail feathers that these were redstarts. My instinct is to try to focus on any bird that moves. However, another thing I have learned is to resist the urge to photograph birds up high and backlit. The best photos are taken at eye-level. I look for movement and listen for bird calls to help me find a likely place to get some good photos. When I do, I relax and wait. Yes, wait. It might take 15 or 20 minutes for the birds to filter down. It is tempting to try to find the birds, or to follow them, but all that tends to do is send the birds higher up.

I was ready when this little one came back to it's favorite perch. ©Carol Freeman

I was ready when this little one came back to its favorite perch.
©Carol Freeman

After just a few minutes, I see a young warbler hopping in the lower branches. I get a few shots before it takes off. Then, in zooms a hummingbird. The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they will often come back to the same perch over and over again. So I slowly move toward where this little one is sitting. Just as I get close, it takes off. So I position myself with a good view of the perch, and wait. Yes, there is that word again. Trust me, the “wait” will be worth it! Soon the hummingbird is back, and yes, it lands right on the same perch, and I’m able to get some really nice shots. Learning about the habits of birds comes in handy. If I did not know that the hummingbird would be back, I would not have been ready to take the photo when it got there. One way to learn about the habits of birds is to hang out and chat with birders. I like to go on bird walks with them and read bird books when I can.

When I’m waiting for warblers and other migrants, I like to practice my photography skills on the more common and perhaps slower-moving birds. It’s a way to make sure that my camera is set properly, and it helps me get comfortable with my equipment choices for the day. If I can’t take an amazing photo of a common bird, it is unlikely that I will take an amazing shot of a tiny, quick-moving rarity. Practice is key! For bird photography, I like to use my 80-400mm lens, but anything over 200mm will work. I keep my shutter speed at 1/400 of a second or faster. Sometimes that means upping my ISO to get the faster shutter speed. Otherwise these little birds will be big blurs.

What a treat to see so many of these buzzing around the garden today.  ©Carol Freeman

What a treat to see so many hawk moths (also called sphinx moths) buzzing around the garden today.
©Carol Freeman

I have to keep an open mind. Even though I might really want to photograph a yellow-winged warbler, what I might get instead is a blue jay, or not even a bird at all. Sometimes my best “bird” shot of the day is a butterfly. Or like today, I was treated to dozens of hawk moths! I’ve never seen so many in one spot, and what amazed me most was how many people walked right past them! They were so focused on something else, they missed what I thought was the coolest migrant of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with one intention and came back with shots of something I could have never predicted—all because I kept an open mind to all the wonders that are out there to discover. There will be a stream of migrants visiting Chicago through November, and I hope you can get out and enjoy the amazing wonders that the autumn migration will bring right to you.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Foraging for edible mushrooms is a treasure hunt that always yields a reward. You never know what you’re going to find. At the least, you’ve spent enjoyable time outdoors in nature.

PHOTO: Closeup of Mueller examining a mushroom.

Examining a woodland specimen

My tools are simple: a hand lens, knife, and a flat-bottomed basket that prevents any mushrooms I’ve collected from scrunching together. I like to wrap my finds in wax paper or wax paper bags. Paper bags can work too, but mushrooms tend to dry out after a while. (At the other extreme, mushrooms wrapped in plastic tend to sweat and can develop undesirable molds.) I typically head out in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt—protection against the poison ivy and bugs abounding in the woods.

I also carry knowledge that helps me discern among the more than 1,200 types of mushrooms identified so far in the Chicago metropolitan area. For more than 30 years, I’ve researched the vital role that fungi play in ecosystems around the world (but my interest in mushrooms and love of nature extends well beyond the laboratory).

Great finds: black trumpets, and more importantly—chanterelles!

PHOTO: Black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides)

A delicious find: black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides). Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont

Summertime is the fruiting season for two of my favorite edible mushrooms: chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides). Chanterelles are one of my very, very, very favorite things to collect.

I look for chanterelles in oak woodlands because chanterelles and oaks need each other to survive. The long fibrous root system of the chanterelle’s mycelium—the long-lived part of the mushroom comprised of microscopic filaments that grow through the soil—forms a protective sheath around the roots of the oak and provides the tree with water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. The symbiotic relationship allows the chanterelle to take up excess sugar the tree has produced through photosynthesis. We wouldn’t have a forest without mushrooms like chanterelles, and we wouldn’t have chanterelles without a forest.

PHOTO: Chantarelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius)

My favorite discovery: chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius)

Chanterelles have a yellow-gold color that makes them somewhat easy to spot on the woodland floor, and they offer up a fruity, apricot-like smell when picked. They do, however, bear a resemblance to the toxic jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), the second-most common mistakenly eaten mushroom in the United States. (The green-spored lepiota [Chlorphyllum molybdites] is the most common.) We can tell chanterelles from jack-o-lanterns when we turn them over and look at the underside of the cap: chanterelles are nearly smooth to strongly ridged, while the jack-o-lantern has well-developed gills like a grocery store mushroom.

Chanterelles are also getting a closer look from the scientific community. Until fairly recently, we assumed that the chanterelles growing around the world belonged to a single species. Subtle differences in color and size were attributed to normal variations within a species. DNA analysis suggests that the chanterelle genus contains myriad distinct species. My team of researchers has found three different types growing in the Chicago area alone, and we believe this is just the tip the iceberg. The findings have important implications for plant conservation. What are the threats to individual species of chanterelle? What will happen to local ecosystems if a unique species is lost?

PHOTO: A group of chantarelles found in the woods.

A group of chanterelles found in the woods

In early August I discovered my first chanterelles of the season growing in a nearby oak woodland. I won’t harvest these—it’s illegal to collect mushrooms in forest preserves in counties surrounding Chicago—but I can imagine the delectable mushrooms sautéed in butter or a little olive oil, and minimally seasoned (so I can enjoy the pure chanterelle taste). For a more substantial dish, a chanterelle omelet is just to die for. You can learn more about the mushrooms growing throughout the region at the upcoming Illinois Mycological Association Show. Maybe I’ll see you there.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Jewel of the Forest

Kathy J. —  August 10, 2013 — 1 Comment

When you walk through natural wooded areas like McDonald Woods, you may find this plant:

PHOTO: Spotted jewelweed blooms and developing seed pod.

You can’t miss the orange flowers of this jewelweed, but look closer to find the seedpod hanging below and to the right of the third blossom.

Its scientific name is Impatiens capensis, and jewelweed has some interesting features that make it worth getting to know. Its common names, jewelweed and touch-me-not probably come from the characteristics of the flowers and seeds. The bright orange blossoms have a jewel-like quality and stand out against the green foliage.

PHOTO: Closeup of a ripe jewelweed seed pod.

The swollen seedpod on this plant looks ripe and ready to pop.

You might expect a plant called “touch-me-not” to be toxic or irritating to the skin. This is not the case. The name comes from a little seedpod surprise. When they are ripe, a slight disturbance will cause them to pop open and squirt their seeds out.

We have to assume that someone called it “touch-me-not” after touching a seedpod and having the seeds shoot at him. Maybe it seemed as if the plant was reacting negatively to his touch. Rather than a defense mechanism, shooting seeds is an effective dispersal strategy, as it sends the seeds away from the mother plant where they might have a better chance to sprout and grow.

PHOTO: Spotted jewelweed (nonblooming) shows the leaf shape and seed pods.

Viewed from above, the characteristic oval leaf shape and a seedpod growing from the center stem are evident.

Finding jewelweed in the forest right now may be a little tricky because there aren’t many flowers remaining. Get to know the leaves—they are oval-shaped with a gently pointed tip, and have slightly toothed edges. The stem is thick and a translucent light green.

Jewelweed has some other interesting qualities. Native Americans squeezed the juice from the stem of jewelweed and applied it to poison ivy rashes and other skin ailments for a very soothing treatment. It is ironic that “touch-me-not” is a cure for “leaves of three—let it be,” don’t you think?

Folklore tells us that wherever you find a toxic plant, you will find its remedy growing nearby. It’s a nice idea, but it may not be true. That said, you will probably find poison ivy growing near jewelweed, so use caution and be careful not to touch when you are searching for this plant.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Battling Buckthorn

Garden and local partners join forces to fight plant invader

Amy Spungen —  July 6, 2013 — 2 Comments
PHOTO: Ecologist Joan O'Shaughnessey

Garden ecologist Joan O’Shaughnessey wields her weapons of choice.

Our weapons: saws and loppers.

Before our might, the foliaged foe fell along a stretch of the Green Bay Trail near the Braeside Metra station.

That’s where a group of 50 of us gathered to vanquish thickets of invasive buckthorn (Rhamnus sp.) on Wednesday, June 19. The removal was initiated by the City of Highland Park and the Park District of Highland Park in partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden. Ravinia Festival also provided volunteers and space for parking and picnicking afterward.

“This was an ideal place to demonstrate what buckthorn control could accomplish through taking back our beautiful natural surroundings, even in very busy settings,” said Rebecca Grill, natural areas manager for the Park District. The area links two major cultural institutions serving the community, the Garden and Ravinia. It is also near a planned bike path for cyclists and pedestrians that eventually will extend to the Garden, connecting the North Branch and Green Bay Trails. 

PHOTO: the Park District team.

The Park District team included (left to right) Rachel Cutler, Dianna Juarez, Dan Malartsik, Liz Ettelson, Rebecca Grill, Ted Baker, Steve Meyer, and Chris Wilsman.

 

PHOTO: Sophia Siskel and helpers.

Sophia Siskel, the Garden’s president and CEO, brought her sons to help.

From 9 to 11 a.m. we sawed, chopped, cut, tugged, pulled, dragged, and stacked so much buckthorn that by the time a break was called, some piles were as high as me (5 feet), extending in an impressive line down the trail. Joggers, walkers, and cyclists made their way past the activity, occasionally cheering on the workers, including Garden President and CEO Sophia Siskel and her sons.

Why has buckthorn become such a problem in the Midwest? It’s the story of a plant species imported for perceived benefits that runs amok, crowding out less aggressive native plants and altering the landscape. Buckthorn arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s, brought from Europe as an ornamental plant admired for its thick, long-lasting foliage and fast growth. Native birds relished the fruits of the tall shrub and helped to disperse them. Once scattered, the seeds could remain dormant for as long as six years. In contrast to native plants, buckthorn supports almost no native invertebrates, like butterflies and moths, many of which are either food for native animals or serve as important pollinators. Soon buckthorn expanded far beyond its original boundaries of home landscapes and farms—where it was used as a windscreen—crowding out native plants, changing nutrients in the soil, and threatening native habitats. 

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Participants work to clear buckthorn near the Braeside Metra station and Ravinia Festival.

Buckthorn on Green Bay Trail

The cut buckthorn was dragged out of the way of cyclists and pedestrians using the Green Bay Trail.

How much buckthorn did we eliminate? Rebecca estimated that our group cleared 1,500 feet of trail—more than a quarter-mile. At 2:30 p.m.,  she and her crew were still feeding the cut plants into a wood chipper, making sure the chances of reseeding are minimal. They also selectively applied herbicide to the remaining stumps. In the future, they plan to monitor the area for the return of native wildflowers, seeding if necessary.

I live near the trail and run along it often. Already I have enjoyed seeing how the sunlight filters into this new clearing, reaching areas that will soon flourish with returning “natives.”

Rebecca Grill, PDHP, and Bob Kirschner, director of Aquatic Plant and Urban Lake Studies

Rebecca Grill of the Park District and Bob Kirschner of the Garden pause before tackling the buckthorn.

Learn more about invasive species on the Garden’s website. For information about future buckthorn workdays, contact Liz Ettelson at the Park District of Highland Park  (eettelson@pdhp.org). 


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org