Photo Caption: Try a visit to Pure Kane! Illinois is known as the Prairie State and has as much to offer as the state of Michigan, which has benefitted from Pure Michigan, a long-running ad campaign championed by actor Tim Allen. (Photo credit: Jeanette Joy)
Visit Pure Kane!
September 29, 2017
If you listen to the radio or watch TV much, you’ve probably noticed that tourism officials for the state of Michigan have picked 2017 as Another Year to Spend A Lot on Advertising. You may even have noticed that a famous resident makes the sales pitch-Tim Allen, of Last Man Standing, Home Improvement and Santa Clause fame. (I’ll admit, I didn’t make that connection until my friend Lisa pointed it out. But, boy, if they’d used a western chorus frog or eastern screech owl, I’d have been all over it…)
Anyway, for the last nine years or so, the ads have been touting all that Michigan has to offer-snowy winter wonderlands, endless sandy shorelines, challenging but breathtaking golf courses, lush vineyards, world-class wineries…and now, drop-dead gorgeous fall colors. Just this morning I heard Mr. Allen cooing about “when Mother Nature puts on a whole new wardrobe” and “life moves a little slower.” He encouraged us to “pull out that favorite sweater and grab yourself a piece of Pure Michigan.”
Allen’s voice is so soothing, and the ad copy so smooth, it was all I could do to not run to the computer and start my trip, as he suggests, at Michigan.org. Because I’m a big fan of Michigan. I spent part of every summer of my growing-up years at our family’s cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Tucked away from the tourist towns, nestled along the Menominee River, the cabin is indeed a place that “can flood our minds with memories of the greatest times we will ever know,” to quote another Michigan ad. It’s surrounded by woods and water, and wildlife so abundant we sometimes had to chase it out of the cabin with a broom (something you probably won’t hear in any ad campaign).
It’s also about a six hour drive from here. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that many hours to spend every time I get the urge to see Mother Nature’s new wardrobe while wearing my favorite sweater.
What I do have, though, are a lot of magnificent natural areas only a few minutes from my front door. And guess what? You do too.
For one, there’s Norris Woods in St. Charles. The red, white and bur oaks in this Illinois Nature Preserve are ready to burst forth with rich hues of russet and bronze, a palette of earth tones new and exciting, yet warm and familiar all at once. Peppered between them are shagbark hickories, whose glorious compound leaves soon will turn the sort of gold that positively glows when warmed by the autumn sun. Walk on a day when the wind is calm and boat traffic is minimal, and you’ll get a double feature-colors overhead and again down below as they reflect off the glassy surface of the Fox River.
A little farther west, at Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve in Elburn, sugar and black maples are the stars of the seasonal show. The bold yellows meld together to form a radiant saffron canopy that brightens the woods-and your mood-even on gloomy days.
Tim Allen says that Michigan’s fall color show has free admission, and great seats are available everywhere. We can say the same thing about our own dazzling displays, waiting nearby for you to come out and enjoy. Say yes to pure Michigan, if you’d like, but be sure to give a nod to pure Kane too.
Along with fall color comes cooler temperatures. What better way to stay warm than with a crackling fire? The St. Charles Park District Naturalist Department is selling mixed hardwood (oak, hickory, cherry) firewood for $110/face cord delivered. A face cord is a 4-ft. by 8-ft. stack consisting of approximately 220 pieces 14 to 18 inches in length. To place an order, call natural areas manager Denis Kania at 630-513-4367.
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.Autumn, Insect, Natural Area
Photo Caption: Do you see monarchs mating? Look again! These two butterflies are viceroys, distinguished from monarchs by the dark line across the hindwing. Look for this species in moist areas where willows grow.
September 22, 2017
A couple of weeks ago we took a look at the current darling of the butterfly world, the monarch, Danaus plexippus. It is in the midst of some trials and tribulations, but also has legions of supporters helping it stage a comeback.
This week, though, I’d like to introduce you to another very similar, yet distantly related cousin to the monarch, the viceroy, Limenitis archippus. Often mistaken for one another, the two actually lead very different lives.
The monarch, as we’ve learned, incorporates migration into its fascinating life cycle. Right now the so-called super generation is preparing to make a migration of thousands of miles to the mountainous fir forests outside Mexico City. Meanwhile, the viceroys are preparing to hunker down and ride out our Midwest winter.
Now, even if we have the mild winter the forecasters are predicting, don’t expect to see viceroys fluttering by. Their overwintering strategy is to hatch from an egg, grow a wee little bit as a larva, then snuggle up inside a willow leaf and enter the stage of insect hibernation known as diapause. They’ll remain in that state until the daylight periods start to lengthen and temperatures start to warm, usually in late April or May.
So even though that’s a really cool strategy that’s interesting in its own right, there’s even more amazingness to the viceroy’s life story. Their likeness to monarchs is more than just coincidence. It’s part of a survival strategy known as mimicry.
Open any entomology book dating back to the 1970s or before and you’ll read that viceroys are the safer-to-consume of the two species because they lack the cardiac glycosides, or toxic heart chemicals, that many monarch acquire by eating milkweed. The books describe how the two types of butterflies exhibit Batesian mimicry, the phenomenon whereby one nontoxic species evolves to look like another toxic species in order to avoid predation.
But-and it always seems like there’s a but when it comes to nature-the story isn’t quite that simple. As it turns out, viceroys aren’t that tasty after all. More recent studies have shown that the species can be just as unpalatable, and potentially dangerous to consume, as monarchs.
Viceroy caterpillars’ main food supply is willow leaves, and willow is a plant that is rich in aspirin-like compounds. As we know, a little aspirin can be a good thing, but too much causes lots of problems. So, really, viceroys are potentially as problematic to predators as monarchs are.
Instead of Batesian mimicry, monarchs and viceroys are examples of Mullerian mimicry. Without getting too complicated, the definition of this form of imitation describes two toxic species mimicking each other, thus enjoying double the protection from predators.
To complicate things just a little bit further, some milkweed plants don’t produce toxins, so the caterpillars that feed on them aren’t toxic at all. They retain this non-toxicity into adulthood.
I’ve not actually witnessed any type of wildlife predator going after a monarch or a viceroy, but have seen a fair share of monarchs with bird bill-shaped chunks missing from their wings. And I also, many years ago, watched my baby brother eat a dead monarch I’d pinned as part of an insect collection. Was it the orange color that attracted him to the butterfly? Was it scientific research? The world may never know. But, for the record, he’s pushing 49 and seems just fine.
(For the curious, Batesian mimicry is named for the 19th century British naturalist Henry Walter Bates. Mullerian mimicry is named for Johann Friedrich Theodor “Fritz” Muller, a German naturalist of the same time period. Both men spent considerable time in Brazil, and formed their theories while watching butterflies.)
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.Butterfly, Good Natured, Insect
The critters picked their favorite books to share with the kids tonight! What a fun program with cookies, stories and animals to pet.
Photo Caption: Talk about a tough nut to crack! Lacking sharp rodent incisors, humans usually need to resort to hammers or other such tools to open and enjoy the sweet taste of the shagbark hickory nut.
Shagbark Hickory Nuts
September 15, 2017
I’ll admit it. I’m a cookie-dough freak. Even though I know full well that baked cookies taste really good, I just can’t resist digging into the bowl with a spare spoon and letting a gooey glob, gritty with sugar, slide down my gullet. If the dough happens to contain chocolate chips, look out; the oven’s optional when those babies are around.
Squirrels, I suspect, are the same way. Only instead of cookie dough, their downfall is nuts.
Walk in the woods these days and it’s easy to find evidence of the furry critters’ foraging-especially underneath shagbark hickory trees. Shagbark hickory nuts, it seems, are the chocolate chip cookie dough of our local woods.
It appears that 2017 is a big year for hickory nuts, and already it’s difficult to find one that’s not been nibbled. The thing is, the nuts aren’t quite “done” yet. They still need a few more weeks on the tree.
Over time the bitter green husk, which tastes a little like a really bitter green apple, tinged with hot peppers, will darken, harden and split. Inside lies the shell that protects the nut’s ultimate prize: a protein-rich, fat-laden nutmeat.
I’m not much of a connoisseur (clearly! I eat raw dough and sample green nuts, for heaven’s sake) and I can’t speak for squirrels’ taste buds, but to me a hickory nut is among the finest flavors our woods have to offer. It’s reminiscent of pecan, which makes sense as both trees belong to the genus Carya.
But the hickory nut seems more buttery-probably because of its high fat content. According to one source, 1 oz. of hickory nuts contains 186 calories, 152 of which come from fat. If my math is right, that translates to a fat content of more than 80%. It’s cholesterol free, but still…
With our pampered suburban lifestyles, we tend to recoil at such a high number (raw chocolate-chip cookie dough, with nuts, has 46% fat). But for squirrels, and other woodland creatures that have to work hard for every calorie they consume, finding a nut-laden shagbark hickory is like hitting all five lottery numbers, plus the Powerball. It’s literally fat city; a few thousand of these babies, stashed away in tree cavities, crevices and underground, means survival will be a lot simpler this winter.
But wait, there’s a catch. When it comes to survival, there’s always a catch.
If every delicious, nutritious shagbark hickory nut was eaten, there’d be no baby hickories sprouting next spring. And really, flavor and nutrients aside, the next generation is really all a mature hickory tree is about.
And so the nut comes packaged in one of the toughest shells around. You’ve heard of the phrase, “a tough nut to crack?” I have a feeling whoever coined the term may have been referring to hickory nuts.
Humans usually have to resort to hammers to open a hickory nut. Squirrels and other rodents have it a little easier, provided their incisors are in good shape, but they still need to invest considerable effort into opening each shell. It’s a given that some nuts will go uneaten, thus ensuring at least a few new hickories coming up next year.
As summer transitions into fall, I’ll probably snack on a hickory nut or two, unless the squirrels beat me to them. If that’s the case, though, I suppose won’t be too upset. There’s always cookie dough.
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.Good Natured, Plant
Photo Caption: A member of the monarch super generation lets its wings fill with fluid after eclosing, or emerging, from its chrysalis. Barring any unforeseen difficulties, it should arrive at its overwintering grounds in Mexico in November. (Photo courtesy of Jill Voegtle)
September 8, 2017
A few week s ago we alluded to the fact that monarch butterflies are having a hard time. Human activities combined with inclement weather in Mexico, where the insects overwinter, has resulted in some pretty severe declines in their overall numbers.
As a result, many people have taken on the task of raising monarch caterpillars and then setting the adults free.
I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t know what to make of this new practice. To me, a healthy animal is most at home in its natural environment. Once humans get involved, there’s always a risk of introducing pathogens foreign to the critters, which they then may pass on to others in the population.
There’s also the potential problem of neglect. What happens when you want to get away for a weekend, or a week, and your little ones need fresh milkweed leaves daily? Sometimes it’s easy to find a willing “babysitter,” but sometimes it’s not.
After considering these pitfalls of monarch raising, I started to take a look at the positives. And you know what? There are many.
For one, monarch caterpillars are just as vulnerable to predators and parasites as other caterpillars. It was long thought that these larvae were basically bulletproof, due to the toxins present in the milkweed sap they ingest daily. But hazards arise even before the caterpillar phase begins. Critters like ants and spiders eat monarch eggs-I’ve seen this myself, on the milkweed in my yard. Then, once the eggs hatch, parasitic wasps and flies can move in, laying eggs on the little cats. From then it’s not long before the larvae get eaten from the inside out.
These perils, combined with a series of bad weather events and continued deforestation in the monarch’s overwintering grounds, have resulted in the butterfly being considered a candidate as a federally endangered species.
Thankfully, monarch caterpillars have lots of fans-heroes, even-that have rallied around the cause. They raise monarchs from eggs to adults, then set them free to face their fate in the wild world.
This time of year is especially important, as it’s the time of the monarch “super generation,” that group that will make the amazing trip from their natal grounds to their overwintering site in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. They don’t pass Go, they don’t collect $200 (yes, that’s an obscure monarch-Monopoly reference). Heck, they don’t even take time or energy to breed prior to starting their journey, which can be as far as 3,000 miles. On wings as thin as paper.
The butterflies of this generation are quite a bit different, physiologically, than their predecessors. For one, the combination of shorter day lengths and cooler temperatures causes the new adults to emerge from their chrysalises in a state of reproductive diapause. Whereas previous generations started breeding within days, the super generation delays this activity until spring.
Super monarchs also have an increased ability to store fat, which is essential not only for their magnificent journey but also to their surviving winter in an area that has very little in the way of food sources.
Although we have yet to see large groups of monarchs heading south (a phenomenon that has become rare as the butterfly’s population has dwindled) the migration nonetheless has begun. Over the next two months the insects will travel as many as 50 miles a day before reaching their destination, the Oyamel fir forests in the mountains west of Mexico City, in November.
Nectar, not just from milkweed, will be essential to a successful flight. It’s the monarch’s jet fuel as they make their way across the plains. Cool temperatures in Mexico this winter will be important too, as such conditions help monarchs conserve the energy they’ll need for the return trip next spring. The Oyamel firs offer shelter, but no food for their winter guests.
Don’t get me wrong, the monarchs that overwinter in Mexico will not make it back to Kane County. They’ll fly a distance, then enact their delayed breeding drive. Those offspring will continue the trek, creating descendants that will move farther along, heading toward the natal grounds of their super generation forebears. In our area, we usually see arrival in June.
Time is short for raising and releasing monarchs this year, but it’s never too soon to start planning for the next. The internet offers some wonderful resources for potential butterfly raisers. A great place to start learning about monarchs, and migration in general, is Annenberg Learner, which hosts a fabulous set of pages called Journey North. Written in easy to understand language, these pages can be accessed at learner.org/jnorth