Volunteer

“Doctors” In Residency

Forest Preserves volunteers can often be spotted in plain sight. They’re out in the field cutting brush or collecting seed, monitoring trails or leading a craft at a nature center event. But there are also volunteers who work quietly behind the scenes whose contributions might not be so obvious. Two such volunteers are Ellie Shunas and Lee Witkowski.

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Fridays with the Branigans

There are many things to admire about the Branigans. They both had long careers as educators—Kathy with 34 years in various roles at Chicago Public Schools and Dave as a customer trainer for several software companies and as an application development teacher at DeVry. They are also the couple you want to talk to if you are looking to uncover the secrets to a happy marriage. They've been married 44 years and still go to a movie together every Wednesday morning.  

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Give it Back to the Birds

Near the far southeastern edge of Cook County nestled among a variety of habitats—marshes and ponds, prairies, oak savannas and woodlands on ancient beaches and sand dunes—you’ll find Sand Ridge Nature Center. If you walk around to the side of the building on any given Thursday, and look into the bird garden, there is a good chance you’ll see volunteer Jerry Hossli hard at work, often times by himself, sometimes with help from a volunteer or two.

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The Value and Management of Street Trees

By Elsa Anderson - Stewardship Program Aide   The majority of Cook County is residential land. The amount of green, unbuilt area in residential neighborhoods is almost double what we have in publically-owned natural areas. This vegetated area is split fairly evenly between tree canopy cover and herbaceous vegetation, which is mostly turf grass. With such an abundant coverage in direct proximity to people’s houses, residential nature is arguably the most common interaction people have with their environment. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is important for people to feel connected to their land, and ownership helps promote land care. On the other hand, this large land expanse is essentially the sum of individually-managed parcels. Individual households manage their land differently, which results in a fine-scale patchwork across the landscape. Aside from requiring that areas be up-kept, it is very difficult to manage privately owned land for environmental benefits on a large scale. Street trees, which are planned, planted, and maintained by the municipality, are an excellent method by which cities and townships can help connect individual land parcels by exerting some overarching environmental management.   Street trees are more than just beautiful additions to our urban landscapes. They are hugely beneficial to ecological, social, and economic function in cities. These three facets are the three pillars of sustainability; a major focus in urban development in light of climate change. While there are many other aspects of sustainability planning, street trees are generally a popular and well-received aspect of municipal land management.   Street trees are critically important to the ecology of urban areas. Trees in the parkway help ameliorate some of the most pressing environmental concerns that affect people, such as stormwater runoff. Unlike in natural areas where rainwater infiltrates rapidly, rain that falls in cities often lands on impervious surfaces. When this happens, the water must flow until it finds a low point or a storm sewer, picking up pollutants as it goes. Street trees—especially large ones with established canopies and roots—help prevent this from happening. Water that falls on leaves and stems is intercepted, where it will either evaporate back into the atmosphere or it will flow along the branches toward the stem, ultimately entering the soil at the base of the trunk. Below ground, a tree’s network of roots are simultaneously taking up soil moisture, which increases the infiltration rate and aids in preventing flooding.   Socially, street trees make areas safer. Interestingly, accidents—particularly those that result in incapacitating injury or fatality—are much less common on streets that are lined with trees. This is a complex social reaction to an inherent human preference for natural-looking spaces. Researchers believe that the reduction in serious accidents is a combination of several factors. Firstly, tree-lined roadsides provide a more definitive boundary for the road, which helps drivers maintain control and respond more quickly. Furthermore, street trees reduce the mental and physical stressors of drivers commuting in urban areas. People are more willing to take the slower, longer scenic route if it has beautiful trees along the roadside, which also alleviates traffic on main thoroughfares. The safety of an area doesn’t just increase for drivers. Neighborhoods that have higher vegetation and tree cover experience less crime than less treed neighborhoods; this trend is true for both property crimes and violent crimes.   Installing street trees has a fairly high return on investment, especially when we look at their capacity to provide economically-valuable ecosystem services. In the United States, trees in urban areas store over 600 million tons of carbon and sequester another 25 million tons annually. These benefits total over $50 billion dollars annually, just in terms of carbon mitigation. Street trees also dramatically increase residential property values. A comparison of sales of comparable homes on treed and un-treed streets demonstrated that homes on treed streets sold for approximately $10K more, and averaged two fewer days on the market. Businesses also benefit because customers are willing to travel farther and spend more time shopping in treed districts.   But, for all of their benefits, being a tree in the city is hard! Ambient heat, human-inflicted damage, anthropogenic pests, and soil compaction are a small sample of the challenges that trees in cities face. However, best practices in urban forestry can help alleviate these stresses. Increasing the size of new tree pits, selecting hardy native species, and constructing grates or fencing to protect vulnerable roots and trunks goes a long way to protect the planting investment and maximize potential benefits. As land managers and city planners in and around Chicago continue to plant and manage street trees, we all benefit.   If you love trees and want to protect them, consider becoming a Tree Health Monitor. Monitors assess tree health using a nationally recognized protocol developed by The Nature Conservancy and the USDA Forest Service. Reserve your spot at our next training for new volunteers on July 18th in Western Springs. 

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In Gratitude for the Exceptional Volunteerism of Joe and Marlene Nowak

During this season of Thanksgiving, it is appropriate that we express our gratitude for two very special volunteers that have dedicated their time to protecting, restoring and advocating for natural areas in the Forest Preserves of Cook County. The following testimonies have been gathered from partners and FPCC staff. The Volunteer Resources Team wish Joe and Marlene Nowak good health and happiness in a new phase of life as they have relocated to a new home in Texas.

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Meet Radhika Miraglia

Two years ago, a small group of Centennial Volunteers planted a tree in LaBagh Woods as a thank you to my son, Mateo, who 9 years old at the time.  Mateo had sold prints of his bird drawings and raised $700 for the LaBagh shrub planting project.  As I watched the young burr oak take its place near the river, I thought my heart was going to burst.   Mateo and I had been inspired by our friend Judy, and her involvement in restoring bird habitat so close to home. And the inspiration just kept flowing from then on. My young boys and I were embraced by the volunteer community at LaBagh.  Dennis helped Arav carry buckthorn to the brush pile and taught him about the fire blazing before them. Patricia showed Mateo the best way to cut those skinny little buckthorn stems, and why it was such important work. Linda warmly offered us homemade deliciousness during break time. Jeff thoughtfully engaged schoolmates in the arduous tasks of pulling garlic mustard and lily of the valley. Countless others were out working hard on their days off of work. It was all so inspiring, and I was happy to have found a place among other nature lovers in this kind and giving community.   There is a very important side effect of all that hard work performed by volunteers: while they are busy clearing brush or pulling weeds, they are also inspiring and fueling those who want – and need - to find their place in the fight to protect biodiversity.   As the new north-side field organizer with Friends of the Forest Preserves, I have the pleasure to help grow the network of people for whom restoration work brings that same sweet spot of enjoying nature, caring for the land and waterways, and being around others who want to do the same.   I have big shoes to fill. Josh Coles, who had this role before me, inspired so many of us to take the next step or two, or 15, in becoming restoration leaders.  We might not have known that we had the expertise or skills necessary, until Josh showed us otherwise. I’m hoping the fact that he and I both started our careers studying monkeys bodes well for my ability to carry his work forward.   The goal of the field organizer is to build a Centennial Volunteers network around specific sites. This year, we continue to focus on LaBagh, Forest Glen, Clayton Smith Flatwoods, and Blue Star Woods, while planning to expand our reach to others. The program is based on and supports the model of stewardship developed by the NBRP, as Centennial Volunteers will carry on the NBRP’s legacy of community-based conservation well into the future. Centennial Volunteers connect to restoration through site-specific work, but should always be encouraged to understand, explore and learn from the broader implications of their efforts within the NBRP, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the global ecosystem.   Please reach out with any questions or ideas about how you can deepen or expand your volunteer experience. Restoration work requires a team of varying interests, skills, and strengths, and I’m here to support whichever niche is yours. Thank you for inspiring and welcoming me. I’ll see you at an upcoming workday! radhika@fotfp.org.   Photo by Jeff Skrentny

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Volunteer Newsletter: Seed Q & A with Chip O’Leary

Chip O'Leary is the Deputy Director of Resource Management for the Forest Preserves of Cook County.   Why is seed so important in restoration? Seeds are of course the next generation of plants. For natural areas that are degraded, the first indication is a reduction in native plant diversity and cover. Some plants can shrink back and hold out until conditions improve. For example, wild lupine can live 30 years or more. However for most plants, this is not an especially long time. Annuals and biennials have particularly short life spans, but a typical non-woody plant lives only 5-7 years. Because of this, the recovery of natural populations of plants often relies on the availability of seed to re-establish. What do you mean by "Native Seed Bank"? How do you know if a newly restored site has a sufficient native seed bank? Although LaMarck was wrong and we can’t expect spontaneous generation of native plants, plants have many strategies to overcome bad times and persist. The most effective strategy is a very high production of seeds, many that remain intact in the soil for extended periods of time. Locally, we see plants in wet soils persist longer than those in drier soils. When good growing conditions are restored to a natural area, some native plants simply appear. These are the “stored” seeds in the soil that finally have an opportunity to germinate and grow. These stored seeds are referred to as a seed bank. Predicting the presence of a seed bank is a tricky business but it can be a very inexpensive and beneficial way to restore natural populations. We know there is a good chance for a healthy seed bank when restoration happens within a decade of degradation. After that, it becomes harder to predict. There have been amazing successes and failures gambling on a seed bank for periods longer than 20 years. One way to hedge bets is to restore around small intact pockets – that way if the seed bank isn’t great, there is the opportunity for expansion from the intact areas. This is the classic technique used by stewards over the years that has proven effective. For areas with little or no seed bank, a plan B for seed material is essential, which may include predictive seed collection.   How does a plant normally disperse their seeds? Like anything in the natural world, seeds are subject to predation and circumstance. Most plants produce a large crop of seeds each year to account for those eaten by birds, mammals, and insects as well as those seeds that fall in bad growing locations. As an alternative strategy, plants employ a wide range of dispersal mechanisms. Some encase their seeds in a fruity pulp so that seeds are eaten by more mobile animals and are then deposited (after digestion) in a new location. Some wetland plant seeds float – they are carried away by current or wave action to new locations. Others hitch a ride on fur (or clothing), such as the ever-annoying tick-seeds and nettles. Some are light and have a fluffy case that encourages floating through the air – think of the cottonwood seeds that have been netted out of the air from the top of Willis tower. Do all plants produce seeds in the same way and at the same time? Plants flower and then go to seed within timeframes unique to each species. The advantages to each are too long to list. For restorationists, locating, picking, drying, and planting seeds can be a challenge requiring patience, a sharp eye, and sinuses made of steel. Some species make it nice and easy with seeds clustered in bunches at waist height, showing their ripeness with an easy to detect color, and only allowing easy removal when ripe. Others can be maddeningly difficult to collect – those that ripen differentially or expel seeds shortly after ripening can be especially challenging. Who hasn’t fallen for the porcupine grass’ easy to find and pick seeds in the afternoon, only to discover a Gordian knot the next morning? Slowly and through trial, error, and ingenuity, native plant seed collectors have found ways around each trick, each challenge, and each pitfall. Who can’t appreciate the elegant use of a match to “de-fluff” milkweed seeds? If a site needs more seed, where do you get more? Seed collection - Seed policy For preserves with solid remnant areas, finding seed can be somewhat easy. A location may have a solid seed bank, in which case removing invasives and applying fire may be sufficient. A different location may not have much of a seed bank in places, but a solid remnant area adjacent to it from which to selectively collect and drop seed; a sort of “fill in the blanks” strategy. After that, for locations without the above options, it takes some careful thought and consideration on next steps. A good document that outlines considerations is the FPCC’s Seed Source Policy and Guidelines. This document covers questions to such as how to match species to natural communities, distance from collection site, genetic issues, historic records, documentation, etc. Seed Nurseries In more depauperate locations, seed can be obtained from native seed growers. This route can be very effective but must be used with care. The source of seeds can be a challenge to determine. Before taking this step, working with an FPCC ecologist is essential. Why is it important that a landowner have a seed policy? FPCC’s seed policy is an attempt to bring the current science to bear on how to best select seed sources and determine where seed material can be moved to so the resulting restoration is most effective. What can volunteers do to help? Many FPCC volunteer sites use seed collection as a strategy for restoration. Using the FPCC Seed Policy and Guidelines will help us all stay on the same page and remind us of what we are all trying to achieve. The care taken to collect responsibly will pay off for the next generations of both plants and restorationists. Volunteers interested can tap into locations where this activity is already happening as a way to learn and share knowledge.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Madame’s Butterflies

by Jane Balaban   Got Milkweed? If you do, you likely have noticed the beautiful Monarch butterflies visiting your plants as the females deposit eggs on the milkweed, the host plant for their caterpillars. While any plant in the genus Asclepias will serve as host plant, the Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, can usually be found in alleys, invading yards, and empty lots, if you don’t have milkweeds in your garden.   For a number of reasons, populations of this beloved species have been on the decline for the last two decades. With the increased awareness focused on their possible extinction, a summer project that has engaged many people is raising monarchs from egg to adult and releasing them. It’s a fascinating and fun thing to do, and especially great to get kids involved in. (We know of at least three such projects by North Branchers Steve and Linda, John and Marian, and John and Jane.)   A close inspection of the underside of a milkweed leaf may reveal a tiny cream-colored egg deposited by the female, usually one per leaf. Bring the leaves inside and wait for the miniscule caterpillar to hatch, after which it consumes its shell and starts munching on the leaf. As the cats grow, they need a constant supply of fresh milkweed leaves. For a couple of weeks, they eat and poop and grow, getting to be fat and a couple of inches long.   At some point, triggered by a signal known only to the caterpillar, they begin what might be called their walk-about. They stop eating and start searching for a place to attach to before entering the chrysalis stage. A good object that works well as a support is just a simple spray of plastic leaves.   Once they settle on a stem or leaf underside, they spin a small silk button, attach to it, and hang in a “J” form for a bit. When they’re ready, they shed their caterpillar skin and transform into a beautiful green and gold chrysalis. Life as a chrysalis lasts several weeks, during which there’s a miraculous internal transformation into the adult form.   Just before hatching, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the adult colors are visible. Soon the chrysalis splits along the back and the adult emerges. It hangs on to the old chrysalis for a while, letting its wings dry and harden. When it begins periodically flapping its wings, it signals that it will soon fly. That’s the time to keep a close watch lest it ends up flitting about the house!   Fortunately, at that stage the adult will walk onto your finger so that you can transport it outside. It’s tempting to utter bon voyage as you watch “your” monarch take off, fly a few circles, find a temporary resting spot then fly off! In late summer or early fall, millions of adults, including some of “ours,” will begin the long journey to their over-wintering grounds in Mexico.   Some links to more information about the Monarch: National Wildlife Foundation - Monarch Butterfly BugGuide.net - Species Danaus plexippus Center for Biological Diversity - Monarch Butterfly

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Volunteer Newsletter: Tales from the Trails

Story and photo by Robert Schwaan   People often ask me what I am going to do with my life now that I am retired. I respond by telling them that I volunteer and plan to continue doing so. Some respond to my answer with “Why?!” I volunteer because I feel that nature often affects people in a positive and lasting way. Recently, I had a few experiences that proved this to be true.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Nature in Focus

We talked with two of our volunteers and talented amateur nature photographers to learn what inspires them. Fidencio Marbella and Kris DaPra share their advice on how you too can give nature photography a try.

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Volunteer Newsletter: The Spirit of Volunteerism

By Amy Julian, Naturalist I at Little Red Schoolhouse   The spirit of volunteerism is felt throughout the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center thanks to the staff and clients from UCP Seguin of Greater Chicago “CHOICE” programming in Oak Park.  UCP Seguin of Greater Chicago is a nonprofit organization that provides adults with disabilities opportunities to develop living skills while encouraging community involvement. This group of committed individuals has been of service to the Nature Center on a weekly basis for more than a year now.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Remembering Neil McDermott

By Jan Pietrzak   For more than thirty years, Neil McDermott was a powerful force in habitat restoration. Whether squatting on the ground trying to coax flame from an incipient fire, or strapping on his brush cutter to mount an assault on resprouts, he was a fixture at workdays throughout our region.   When he began, he worked at as many places, with as many stewards, as he could. His stated purpose— to learn all he could from the best in the field. Then he employed that knowledge in his own work and shared freely with others he encountered.   Talk to people who knew him and the accolades come tumbling. “He was so good with the kids.” “A great guy. Very energetic.” “A hard worker in the early days of Palos.”   Kathy Garness writes: “Neil was a hero to me, always a gentleman, with his quiet, gentle humor, and always kind, persevering, tireless in his efforts to make Ted Stone more and more beautiful and buckthorn-free. [I have] many happy memories helping herbicide while he cleared the invasives from that north end of the prairie. Yes, you had to work hard to keep up.”   Keeping up with Neil is a common theme. Jean Dubach and Ann Petric, both herbiciders, describe themselves as “the women who have been chasing Neil the past couple years.” Bob Erck says, “We would run after him trying to clean up.”   Bob also notes Neil’s helping spirit. “When I first got a chainsaw it was the guidance that Neil provided, looking over my shoulder, to help me polish up my skills.”   Neil was soft-spoken, stoic, and tough. As Ted Stone steward George Birmingham said, “Many of you may not have known he has battled cancer for the last several years because it barely slowed him down.” That’s why, despite his advanced age, it came as a jolt to hear of his passing. He was someone you expected would keep on rolling, as he always had.   George also says, “I know we will all miss his enthusiasm and vigor at our workdays.” Yes, we surely will.   Photo by Bob Erck

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Volunteer Newsletter: Volunteer Impact of our Monitoring Partners

By Mary Busch, Volunteer Program Specialist   The Volunteer Resources team would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of our partner monitoring organizations and all of the volunteer monitors on the ground in the Forest Preserves of Cook County and beyond.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Unearthing the History of the Preserves

An Interview with Paula Porubcan Branstner, Field Station Coordinator, Northern Illinois Field Station, Illinois State Archaeological Survey

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Volunteer Newsletter: Master Naturalist Class of 2016

By Brigit Anne Holt, CIG, University of Illinois Extension Program Coordinator, Master Naturalist

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Visit two of the treasures of the Forest Preserves of Cook County