Tuesday, October 28, 2008

ROADTRIP: Chicago Wilderness & the Grove

Introduction: As a native midwesterner, autumn rarely feels official until I have breathed in the cool, crisp air of the north and feasted on views of golden sugar maples and russet burr oaks. This year was no different than most, my natural wanderlust led me back home to northern Illinois.

Historically, northeastern Illinois is home to the beautiful duneslands of Lake Michigan, wide reaching prairies, and open oak-hickory forests. Both little pockets (e.g., Sunbury prairie) and large expanses (e.g., Illinois beach state park, Fermilab prairie) of these habitats can still be found in and around Chicagoland. In fact, Chicagoans are so proud of their surrounding parklands that a quarterly magazine, Chicago Wilderness, devotedly highlights local hiking opportunties and natural phenomena.

The Grove: One of Chicagoland's natural and historic gems is the Grove, located north of Chicago in Glenview, IL. The Grove not only maintains an impressive interpretive center full of live local fauna and Native American artifacts, but also offers guided tours of two historic homes: the Kennicott House, built in 1856 and the Redfield House, completed in 1929. Moreover, the dedicated Grove staff offers family programs, natural history hikes, and living history tours of an 1830s log cabin and a recreated long house. These historic sites are surrounded by over 123 acres of savannah, oak-hickory forest and both permanent and ephemeral wetlands accessible by a network of hiking trails.

The Grove's two major historic attractions (the Kennicott House and Redfield House) both offer strong links to local natural history. The Kennicott House was home to area naturalist Robert Kennicott (1835-1866) who collected local natural history specimens for Spencer Baird at the Smithsonian Museum and helped establish the Chicago Academy of Sciences. Robert Kennicott got the entire family involved in his nature escapades -- his sister Alice was a great shot and helped collect avian specimens, Cora would walk in the tall grass and shake insects off her long antebellum skirts onto a sheet, while Robert's dad, Dr. John Kennicott, would publish a passionate defense of snakes in The Prairie Farmer. Robert Kennicott went on to explore Alaska, where he died of congestive heart failure at the young age of 30.

The Redfield House, a beautiful prairie style home designed by George Grant Elmslie and completed in 1929, was the hideaway of writers Donald Culross Peattie and Louise Redfield Peattie. Donald Culross Peattie, a beloved nature writer, is probably best known for his lyrical book, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, which poetically and practically describes each tree in turn. Another jewel among Peattie's numerous books is A Prairie Grove, which takes the reader on a journey through history at the Grove.

The Redfield House, The Grove, Glenview, IL

Conclusion: Need a little getaway? Want to enjoy a northern autumn? Take a trip to Chicago. Enjoy first rate museums, like the Field Museum, Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry, then explore Chicagoland's natural beauty. Visit oak-hickory forests, fascinating dunelands, and prairie patches. And, if you have the chance, visit the Grove -- bring along Peattie's A Prairie Grove or An Almanac for Moderns, bring along your own nature journal and explore.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Neighborhood Nature: Backyard Bryophytes in October

Introduction: The "Neighborhood Nature" segment of my blog is meant to reveal nature in our own neighborhoods and backyards. The natural areas near our homes may not always be pristine, but they often abound with fascinating plants, animals and natural phenomenon.

Backyard Bryophytes: Bryophytes, tiny non-vascular and non-flowering plants that first adapted to terrestrial environments about 500 million years ago, often go ignored as we tramp through our yards. These plants, consisting of mosses, liverworts and the elusive hornworts are surprisingly diverse (over 23,000 species have been described worldwide). In my own backyard, I was able to find and identify at least five different bryophyte species.

Brachythecium spp.

Bryoandersonia illecebra

Hydrohypnum spp.

Pottia spp. (?)

Thuidium spp.

Need more information? Bryophyte identification can be very challenging. If you're really interested in learning more about these fascinating plants, sign up for the bryophyte class offered at the North Carolina Botanic Garden in Chapel Hill.

You can also pick up Crum and Anderson's 2 volume Mosses of Eastern North America (1981) and Marie L. Hicks's Guide to Liverworts of North Carolina, both of which are excellent references.

Johnston Mill Nature Preserve (Orange County, NC)

Overview: Located in Orange county, near the Duke Forest, Johnston Mill Nature Preserve is a Triangle Land Conservancy property appropriate for a quick getaway from the urban grind of Durham and Chapel Hill. The preserve consists of two trails, called Robin's trail (1.5 miles one-way) and the Bluff Trail (1 mile loop) on the TLC map, but given different names once on the property. Robin's trail runs along New Hope Creek and its tributary, Old Field Creek, through bottomland forest and old mill remains. The Bluff trail explores mature hardwood forest on higher ground.

Directions: There are two parking areas at Johnston Mill Nature Preserve connected by Robin's Trail, located off Turkey Farm Road and Mt. Sinai Road, respectively. According to the TLC Johnston Mill Nature Preserve brochure, one can arrive at the the Turkey Farm Road lot by taking "NC 86 north from I-40 (exit 266) 0.1 mile. Turn right on Whitfield Road and follow it for 1 mile. Turn left on Turkey Farm Road and follow that road for 1.2 miles. The parking area is on the left."
One can arrive at the Mt. Sinai Road lot by taking "NC 86 north from I-40 (exit 266) 1.8 miles. Turn right on Mt. Sinai Road and follow it for 1.1 miles. The parking area is on the right just before the New Hope Creek bridge."

My observations & ponderings: As my husband and I explored Johnstill Mill Nature Preserve from the Turkey Farm Road lot on a quiet morning in the middle of the week, we were most powerfully struck by two things: 1) the amazing power of natural disturbance and 2) the surprising density of fascinating natural phenomenon that appears when one takes the time to look and listen.

The effects of natural disturbance is quite evident at Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. As we walked along New Hope Creek, it was easy to see the fresh sediments that had been deposited as far as twenty feet from the creek by recent flooding. Although the extent of the flooding is perhaps exacerbated by local land use change, the process is a natural one that replenishes the nutrients of North Carolina's bottomland forests.

New Hope Creek

Other forms of natural disturbance are also evident at the Johnston Mill preserve: hurricanes and ice storms. The impacts of these powerful storms can be seen in the tree falls on the bluff trail, which was affected by Hurricane Fran in 1996 and a severe ice storm in late 2002. The evidence of nature's power at Johnston Mill serves as humbling reminder of both our responsibility to care for the earth and our vulnerability to natural phenomenon.

Taking a slow walk - I'm over 6 months pregnant, so all our walks are slow now - through the woods at Johnston Mill gave us the opportunity to find some amazing organisms, that often go ignored. Due to the recent rains and cool weather, mushrooms have erupted throughout the bottomlands. We were lucky to find a beautiful crown coral (Clavicorona spp) at Johnston Mill. Fortunately, a group of mycologists and mycophiles recently found crown coral (Clavicorona pyxidata) nearby in the Duke Forest, making identification easier.

Crown coral (Clavicorona spp)

Besides observing beautiful mushrooms and ornate bryophytes, we were also greeted by an abundance of insects, still active despite the cooler whether. Butterflies and moths fluttered by as mosquitos hovered around our heads and crickets called in the distance.

Katydid at Johnston Mill Nature Preserve.

The flurry of insect activity drew our attention towards the wild flowers at Johnston Mill. Some flowers, like the small red morning glory (Ipomoea coccinea) though weedy, still managed to awe us with their vibrance. Others, like the downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) that blooms in summer and is now reduced to basal leaves or the crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) whose winter leaves only now emerge, served as an unignorable reminder that summer was over and autumn had arrived.

Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens)

crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor)