Nestled at the edge of 130 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands and prairies, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center offers a unique blend of rustic nature and contemporary comforts. The LEED-certified building features beautiful views and an open floor plan with rental and programming space. Live animal displays, including state-endangered Blanding’s turtles, offer vistiors up close interaction with reptiles native to Illinois. Nature programs for all ages, birthday parties and special events provide guests with many educational and social opportunities to connect to our local environment. Visit this premiere environmental discovery center in the Fox Valley today!
Photo Caption: Fox snakes are locally common and, this time of year, sometimes turn up in garages, basements and crawlspaces. When agitated, they may shake their tails, a la rattlesnakes, but nonetheless are nonvenomous and provide free rodent control.
Snakes in Fall
November 17, 2017
We all have our dreams, such as fame or fortune. Mine, go figure, have to do with snakes.
One of my earliest dreams goes back to the year I turned three. We were living in one of my grandmother’s houses, waiting for our new house to be built. Grandma’s house was quite old, in fact she was born there, and it had all features three-year olds find endlessly fascinating: narrow, steep stairs leading to a small, dark cellar; equally narrow and steep stairs leading to a tiny attic playroom; and, outside, a cistern, tantalizingly obscured by a round metal cover.
Of course Mom and Dad and even Grandma, who visited frequently, saw these things as most grownups would: hazards that are best avoided, especially by three-year olds. And so they told me stories, most of which I’ve only recently figured out were made up.
The cistern, they said, was full of snakes and should be avoided at all costs.
Well, they might as well have said it was full of toys or candy. My little naturalist ears perked up, and my little naturalist brain made a note to definitely check this cistern thing out.
I remember spending a lot of time that summer hanging out by that hole in the ground. Whenever my older cousins or the boys next door would come over, I’d have them help me move the metal cover to reveal the pile of rocks below. There I’d crouch, chin in hands, staring into the deep crevices and hoping, praying, for any kind of movement.
But every day…nothing.
Sad to say, those lackluster summer days in 1965 led to a pattern that repeats itself even now. Wherever I happen to be, it’s a sure bet that the snakes will be elsewhere.
But that’s not the case for everyone. Every year at this time I can expect to hear from a distraught someone, and sometimes several distraught someones, that their home has become “infested” with snakes.
As a naturalist with a passion for reptiles, it’s sometimes hard to be sympathetic to the concerns of these flustered folks, given that they are in essence living my dream. Usually, though, my training kicks in and I steer the conversation to focus on the facts.
Far from being cold-blooded killers, snakes actually perform several vital ecological functions. They help control rodent, bird and insect populations and in so doing also help keep down the numbers of fleas and ticks and other undesirables too numerous to mention. At the opposite end of the spectrum, snakes also serve as food for a number of other area predators including foxes, hawks and owls.
When snakes show up inside a house, they don’t behave like other common but unwelcome guests. They’re not there to destroy insulation and wiring, nor gnaw into boxes and bags. They don’t even need a place to go to the bathroom. They’re just looking for a quiet place to spend the winter.
Our local climate being what it is, snakes spend the cold-weather months in places called hibernacula. In the wild, these locations might include rodent burrows or the deep crannies on a rocky slope. But in suburbia, hibernacula might also include garages, crawlspaces and basements.
One snake species that has a particular penchant for human dwellings, and also causes quite a bit of consternation, is the western fox snake, Elaphe vulpine vulpina. Bedecked with dark brown splotches on a light brown background, this nonvenomous snake at first glance looks like a rattlesnake. To add to its charade this character, which can grow to be almost five feet in length, shakes its tail when agitated. In dried leaves or grass, or even against a piece of paper, that shaking tail sounds just like the clatter of a rattlesnake (which, I can say with bias, are amazing creatures in their own right, but also endangered in Illinois and very rarely seen in this part of the state).
In the past we’ve gotten calls from residents who have found fox snakes in their homes, businesses who’ve found them in storage areas, and even a local law enforcement agency. Used to handling bad guys, these latter folks were nonetheless thrown for a loop by the appearance of a splotchy, rattling snake in the front office.
Appropriately enough, the Bartlett Nature Center in James Pate Phillip State Park on Stearns Road occasionally is visited by fox snakes, who crawl between gaps in the doors to take advantage of the radiant heat flooring in the center’s vestibules.
Here at Hickory Knolls, we have habitat similar to what they have at Bartlett-open fields, prairies, and woods. And we also have radiant heat in our floors. Sadly, though, no fox snakes other than our captive pal Frankie have shown up here. Yet. But a girl can dream, can’t she?
Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or email@example.com.Autumn, Good Natured, Reptile
Photo Caption: These giant puffballs range from small, about the size of a 16-inch softball, to medium, about the size of a volleyball, to large, about the size of a basketball.
November 10, 2017
At first glance, this word seems like it is describing pompons, or at least something fluffy. For instance, I once knew a cat named Puffball. I also knew one named Meatloaf. But that’s another story for another time.
Actually, puffballs are the name of one of our area’s most common groups of mushrooms. They are distinguished from other groups by their lack of a stem, as well as a cap and gills-features many other fungi possess.
Puffballs are generally round in shape, and come in many sizes. But the one I’d like to focus on today is the King of All Puffballs, also known as the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea.
In a happy twist that is more than coincidence, Calvatia is derived from two Latin words: Calvus, which means bald, and calvaria, which means dome of the skull. Gigantea means just what you’d think-gigantic.
I have to admit, the first time I saw a giant puffball, I thought it might be a skull. Or maybe a large softball or small volleyball. It was lying in all its ivory-colored glory, in a clearing in the woods near Red Oak Nature Center in North Aurora. Amid the fallen leaves and assorted plant matter, it looked decidedly out of place.
Interestingly, as I was researching the species, rich woodland was not listed as a preferred habitat. Meadows are where giant puffballs like to grow, according to the fungi field guides. But around here, I’ve only found these massive mushrooms in woods-not just Red Oak’s, but also Delnor Woods and Norris Woods in St. Charles, as well as assorted forest preserves, state parks and other natural areas.
Giant puffballs typically appear in our area in September and early October. But at that time this year we were in the throes of a drought. And if there’s one thing most fungi can’t stand, it’s a lack of water.
I believe it was the deluge we received on October 14 that spurred the giant puffball spores into action. Deposited last year by the 2016 puffballs, these tiny bits of fungal material manage to produce mushrooms that, in some cases, are the size of basketballs.
I have to admit, I’m a bit of a mushroom freak. I may not be able to identify very many, but when I get to know one-the giant puffball being one of our region’s more unmistakable species-I literally can’t get enough. I even had one for dinner the other night.
That’s right folks, these large, globular fungi, when cooked, are edible.
I always hesitate to venture into the world of foraging-that is, finding food in the wild-for humans. Between food allergies and the threat of toxins, it’s usually just not worth it. But a true giant puffball is one of the mushroom world’s most identifiable species.
The thing is, though, you need to know when to pick them. Edible giant puffballs are an even ivory in color, with no spots or streaks of yellow or brown or any other color, for that matter. The puffball itself is the fruiting body of the fungus. Dining upon aside, this large entity’s main purpose is to produce spores and continue the species. Spore production triggers the discoloration and, hence, the time to not pick or consume these amazing organisms.
I’m not really a connoisseur (read: I’ll eat just about anything) but in my experience, puffballs have such a delicate flavor that they can go with just about anything. After peeling, I’ve fried slices in butter and eaten them with syrup, like a fluffy piece of French toast. I’ve sauteed them in olive oil and garlic, and basted them in oil and grilled them.
The texture is similar to a soft tofu and, as you can tell from the variety of preparation methods, equally as adaptable. Unlike tofu though, giant puffballs are loaded with moisture and shrink considerably during the cooking process. The other night, I sliced off a quarter of a soccer ball-sized puffball and had a perfectly sized individual portion after it was sauteed.
Giant puffballs have what I tend to think of as limited appeal. They don’t have the rich flavor characteristic of hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) or the gold standard among mushroom fanciers, the morel, Morchella esculenta. (The species name, esculenta, actually means edible.)
But for someone with adventurous taste buds, not to mention a taste for adventurous mushroom hunting, the giant puffball merits a meal or two. Just be sure to honor public land collecting laws (most forest preserve districts and park districts, for example, do not allow collecting) and check with private land owners before helping yourself.
Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Bird, Good Natured