Volunteer

Volunteer Newsletter: Batty for Bats

Bats have a pretty bad reputation, largely because they are feared and misunderstood.  These fears and misconceptions about bats have only been perpetuated by scary movies and sensationalized reporting in the media, but the reality is that bats are passive. They actually play an important role in our local ecosystems, mainly in controlling insect populations. In fact, a single bat can consume 3,000 insects in one night including the pesky ones like mosquitoes. You’re welcome. They are also a great barometer of the conditions of our environment because where there are bats, there are insects. And where there are insects, there is less toxicity, greater biodiversity and so on.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Pin this!

By Jane Balaban, North Branch Volunteer Steward   In this month of “Oaktober,” we celebrate the magnificent trees that dominate the canopy of many of our woodlands of the Forest Preserves here in northeast Illinois. White Oak (Quercus alba), our state tree, is one of at least a half dozen or so different oaks found throughout the Preserves. One of the less well-known species is the Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), identified by its straight towering trunk and straggly lower branches. Donald Culross Peattie poetically describes this feature in his A Natural History of Trees: “In outline, as it stands winter-naked, the Pin Oak is remarkable for having…a single, mast-like shaft of a trunk going right up through the center of the tree.”

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Volunteer Newsletter: Burning with volunteers – a learning experience!

By John McCabe, Director of Resource Management   The Forest Preserves’ burn program, in many respects, began with volunteers. While I don’t have a detailed history around this issue, volunteers have been burning at the Forest Preserves for many years. Whether it was an all-out prescribed burn or letting a brush pile creep across a few acres, the benefits of fire were well known to these stewards of the land.  While Forest Preserves staff at some of our Nature Centers were using fire as a management tool as early as the 1960s, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Forest Preserves really started to formalize a “burn program.” 

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Volunteer Newsletter: Kids Say the Darndest Things About Nature

Through the Calumet Is My Back Yard (CIMBY) program, students from Chicago’s South Side spend a year learning and volunteering in a natural area close to home (including many Forest Preserves), getting to know it through the seasons and helping to restore habitat.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Birds of Schaumburg Road Grasslands

By Steve Flexman   The final 2016 bird monitoring numbers are in, and it was a record year for our grassland birds. Most impressive was the number of bobolinks seen. Previously the most we had seen in one day, since 2010, was six. This year the most was 24, including one point where we had 12 of them sitting right in front of us! Henslow’s sparrows were also numerous and vocal this year, tying our one-day high of 14. Especially notable was that we saw or heard a total of 36 in the three days of monitoring. This far exceeds the old high of 26. And almost all of the Henslows are males. The males sit up on vegetation and sing, while the females are rarely seen. So the assumption is that there are twice as many Henslows out there than we are seeing. 

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Volunteer Newsletter: Volunteer Pooch Patrol

Last September, the off-leash dog area at Miller Meadow in Maywood held its grand opening, to the delight of frolicking dogs and their owners. A year later, it’s still going strong. But it takes a dedicated and largely unrecognized group of volunteers to keep everyone at the Forest Preserves’ three off-leash dog areas wagging their tails.

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Volunteer Newsletter: FPCC Prescribed Burns on the Rise

The Forest Preserves of Cook County has worked hard to increase the acres it burns using prescribed fire, an important tool for managing fire-dependent ecosystems. As shown in the chart below, the change over the last 20 years has been dramatic. The addition of dedicated staff, contract burn crews, partners and increased volunteer participation has contributed to much higher numbers in recent years, with the most dramatic spikes in just the last few.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Harms Flatwoods to Become Illinois’ Newest Nature Preserve

By Jane Balaban   In the village of Glenview, east of the Chicago River’s North Branch, Harms Flatwoods is dominated by huge old bur and swamp white oaks, with an understory of black ash, winterberry, hazelnut and other native trees and shrubs. This 95-acre Forest Preserve just got the go-ahead to become Cook County’s newest Illinois Nature Preserve.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Big Changes at Cranberry Slough

by Kristin Pink, FPCC regional ecologist   If you visited Cranberry Slough in 2016, you undoubtedly noticed some big changes. A stroll down Old Country Lane, the main north-south trail, reveals a rolling landscape previously hidden by invasive brush. Some areas are almost unrecognizable—in a good way.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Back to School Means Back to the Prairie

Betsy Grace gets to see the moment many students from the West and South Sides of Chicago set foot on a forest preserve for the first time for a habitat restoration workday. As you might imagine, that first reaction is not always one of pure awe and wonder. “There are those few moments of kids wearing their strappy sandals or their nice Nikes,” says Grace. “They don’t realize we’re here to work. They bring their city attitudes. There are usually a few moments of hesitation, like “I’m using this to cut that?”

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Volunteer Newsletter: Thank you, Lee Ramsey!

After 18 years of extraordinary commitment as volunteer coordinator for the Bird Conservation Network, Lee Ramsey is retiring. Spearheading the influential BCN Survey, Lee organized volunteer monitors in the Forest Preserves of Cook County and beyond to make scientific observations and collect nearly two decades of data about trends in Chicago-region bird populations. He has served as record-keeper, problem-solver, ambassador and cheerleader.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Dispatch from McCormick Woods

In his monthly e-mails to McCormick Woods habitat restoration volunteers, site steward Bill Marszalec waxes poetic about upcoming workdays in a way that reminds volunteers why we love this work. His style is informative and inspirational, and many volunteers look forward to reading his notes. This version has been shortened and edited.   "The world's favorite season is the spring. 
All things seem possible in May." —Edwin Way Teale   May 26, 2016   This e-mail is to inform all that there will be a volunteer restoration workday out at the McCormick Woods on Saturday, May 28, 2016 starting at 9 AM and running until about 12 noon. This month we are returning to the southern portion of the site where we will start cutting the mass of honeysuckle, brambles and buckthorn resprouts that have reappeared in the southeastern portion of the site over the last five years. We were hoping to get a prescription burn in the area but it just wasn’t possible. We’ll start work on it this weekend and continue it over the next couple of months. If anybody happens to have an extra brushcutter and knows how to use it, please bring it to the site this Saturday. If any of the “chainsaw people” wish to bring your equipment, we will find a place for you to work as well.   It’s been a rather cool and wet May 2016 in the Midwest USA. However, the past weekend of May 21-22 was picture perfect. It was perhaps the first “tee-shirt” weekend of the year. Being in the McCormick Woods over the weekend was so wonderful. It was late enough in the year to appreciate the flowers among the lush native greenery, and yet early enough to avoid the mosquitoes that will appear over the next month or two.   I was out at the McCormick Woods on Sunday and stood in the dappled sunlight as it filtered through the emerging tree canopy looking northwest out into our open savanna. It literally sparkled in a verdant sunlit green. The view reminded me of one of those scenes in those large Ukrainian Easter eggs—you know the ones made of sugar. You hold them up to the light and look in a hole at one end to gaze upon a cheery miniature scene created inside. Being at McCormick was like being in the scene inside that egg.   The second wave of spring wildflowers is upon us. The color at this time of the month seems to be purple—wild hyacinth, wild geranium, wild phlox and Virginia waterleaf. Unfortunately this same color wavelength seems to attract the attention of the ravenous white-tailed deer that inhabit these same woods—just like a kid to brightly colored candy. This is evidenced by a wire cage that was set up to protect a group of native Michigan lilies that bloom in July. Right now, however, this enclosure is full of the largest wild hyacinths on the site. On the outside of the cage the only hyacinths present are those low-stature ones that are hidden by the growth of the grass and sedges.   This speaks to the destructive nature of the white-tailed deer and what might be if only their numbers were kept in check by the natural predation that once existed. I think we should set up a few more cages to observe the extent of the plant growth when the deer are excluded.   Speaking of predation, the two colonies of the woodland poke milkweed have sprung up within the same wire enclosures that have protected them from the deer over the last two years. Unfortunately, this enclosure did not protect them from the hundreds of tussock moth caterpillars (Euchaetes eglei) that devoured nearly every square centimeter of leaf of every plant contained within the two wire enclosures, each about 10 feet from the other. We have been searching this spring for signs of their tiny eggs or newly emerged grub-like first instars.   I’m not sure of how to effectively rid the plant of these early larval forms. Does anyone have any suggestions of any effective home-made sprays that can be concocted that will not harm the plants? Soapy mixes? Vinegar mixes? Oil-based mixes of capsaicin (i.e., hot-pepper extract)?   One interesting thing was pointed out to me from my literature search on this creature, namely how much the coloration pattern of the tussock moth cater pillar’s fluffy hairs resemble the black, white and yellow striped pattern of the monarch butterfly caterpillar. In addition, both caterpillars are seemingly immune to the toxic milkweed latex sap, which makes them unpalatable to birds. This is Müllerian mimicry, where two or more insects with the same toxic chemicals display similar color patterns to warn off predators—the distaste of one species wards off predation of another species without the need for predator “sampling” of both.   Book Corner: I would like to recommend a book I just finished reading, My Weeds: A Gardener’s Botany by the late Sara Stein. Some may know her by a later book, Noah’s Garden, where she was one of the first to advocate the use of native species in home gardens. In this earlier work she uses her home garden as a springboard to expound on the biology, the biochemistry, the evolution and the ecology of “weeds.” She readily acknowledges a begrudging admiration for these species and accepts them as the true champions of the botanical world.   Although Ms. Stein is not a professional botanist per se, she is a top-notch writer with a knack for the bon mot and a turn of the phrase. Her similes and metaphors are right on. She can be very funny, but her research on plant physiology is quite admirable. I believe that naturalists and restorationists will find this book fascinating. After all, many of the weeds she speaks of are those that are quite comfortable in any of our local forest preserves.   So again I strongly recommend this book to both the backyard gardeners and the forest preserve restorationists, as both groups engage nature (and weeds) on a personal level. However, whereas the gardeners battle against the forces of natural succession, we the restorationists struggle to preserve them.     I have also attached to this e-mail a few photos taken over the last few weekends by our current restorationist/photographer-in-residence Fidencio Marbella. We hope to document the flora and workday activities at McCormick over the next couple of months. I have no specific comments to make on these as their beauty speaks for themselves. I would simply say that it is such floral wonders that keep us volunteers coming back year after year after year—through the off-seasons and the rain, the sleet and the snow.   Speaking of rain, I hope it holds off hold this Saturday so that we can get in a decent workday. As usual, our co-steward Liz Cozzi will provide a snack or two as we enjoy a break under the oak leaves, during which one can expect the usual lively banter about matters of nature or otherwise. Be it birds, plants or fish, we have a very eclectic group of experts who can answer all your questions. So hopefully we will find some of you there. Or if not, then some other time.   Best Regards, Bill Marszalec Co-Steward, McCormick Woods North Riverside, IL   To join a McCormick Woods workday, visit fpdcc.com/volunteer.   The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Photos by Fidencio Marbella—Top: Spring Beauty; Middle: Wild Hyacynth.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Restoring Deer Grove at 100

One hundred years ago this weekend—way back in 1916—a committee of the fledgling Forest Preserve District of Cook County officially recommended the acquisition of some 1,000 acres in Palatine Township. The measure set in motion the purchase of the very first forest preserve in Cook County, what we know today as Deer Grove West. As we enter this historic summer for the preserve, we asked Pete Jackson, one of Deer Grove West’s two volunteer site stewards, what it’s like to be a caretaker of such an important place 100 years on.

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Volunteer Newsletter: The Greeters at Poplar Creek

The start of a restoration workday can be a little hectic. Volunteers dash here and there, sometimes as many as 30 or 40 people, signing in, gearing up, organizing the day’s work, lining up snacks for break. The site steward or workday leader is often unloading tools, conferring with other leaders, doing a final weather check and responding to the last-minute issues that always crop up. To reduce this chaos and ensure that new volunteers don’t get lost in the fray, the Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards developed our Greeter Program.   Our “greeter” arrives at least ten minutes early. We usually have one at each workday, drawing from a rotating pool of eight. As volunteers start trickling in, greeters intentionally welcome them with a smile and hand them our sign-in sheet on a clipboard. (We suggest signing in with pencils during cold weather.) We ask first-time volunteers for their email address (so we can send them our latest newsletter), ask how they discovered us and try to get a sense of their prior restoration experience, if any. Beginning volunteers get assigned a “buddy,” who will work nearby to answer questions, offer friendly tips and conversation if desired. Volunteers often ask what the activity of the day will be so they can put on the proper footwear and layering. (Have you ever noticed how many volunteer car trunks have become mini closets?)   Several minutes prior to start-up, greeters gather the group into one big circle and verify that everyone has signed in. Workday leaders introduce themselves and make general announcements. They discuss the work to be done, the tools needed and off we go. A greeter often lags behind for about ten minutes to gather and equip any latecomers.   Partway through the workday, we take a break. We provide water (and cups) for those who don’t bring their own. Greeters bring a mix of cookies, carrots, nuts or granola bars to share. Homemade cookies or breads cause a big wave of excitement. Beyond allowing volunteers to rest from hauling brush or pulling weeds, break time enables volunteers to mingle and bond. Environmental current events, scientific discoveries, animal tracks and upcoming vacation plans are often topics of discussion. We also share thoughts on the work we are doing and any challenges we’ve encountered. Every volunteer with a question or comment is made to feel valued.   At the end of the workday, the greeter touches base with new volunteers. They also find out if the “buddy” has any pertinent information to share and relays this to the steward. The greeter also gets the sign-in sheet to whoever is responsible for entering group hours on the FPCC webpage.   Having dedicated greeters allows the leaders to get the group to work efficiently, making volunteer hours as productive as possible, and ensures that volunteers feel welcome and supported throughout the workday.   If you feel some version of the greeter concept could help your group, we would be happy to share our outline and answer any questions you might have. We feel this program has become not only an aid but a requirement for smoothly running workdays. Being intentional about welcoming volunteers and building the community is just as much a part of the workday plan as having enough tools and supplies. Efficiency, friendliness and snack—all keys to help retain volunteers!   —Jill Flexman, co-steward, Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards

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Volunteer Newsletter: Dick Goes West

This spring Bartel Grassland steward Dick Riner hung up his steward hat after 12 years guiding countless volunteers and serving as chief ambassador of this expansive, inspiring landscape. A teacher in Midlothian for 36 years, most of that time teaching junior high science and photography, Dick decided to move to Colorado last year.   As Bartel’s site steward—the volunteer who provides leadership in carrying out ecological goals of the site, leading workdays, inspiring and coaching leaders, and much more—Dick’s creativity, positive attitude and nuanced understanding of complex systems enabled him to become a star volunteer in the Forest Preserves of Cook County and in the local community.   Along with other dedicated volunteers, Dick founded Bartel Grassland Volunteers to protect and restore native prairie and other grassland ecosystems at Bartel Grassland. The site’s 585 acres provide rare habitat for grassland birds—less than 1 percent of original tall grass prairie and .02 percent of original oak savanna remain in Illinois.   The Forest Preserves and partner agencies performed the large-scale restoration work to transform the old farm fields and degraded landscape to native ecosystems. But after this transformational work, the grassland needed a dedicated person to continue to heal the land and gain community support. That person was Dick. Dick leads numerous volunteers to do the restoration, monitoring and maintenance of the site. These once degraded areas are now thriving, teeming with biodiversity, grassland birds and prairie flowers, thanks to the efforts of Dick and his fellow volunteers.   Over his decade of volunteer leadership, Dick has also worked to connect the human community to the natural world. He has exposed countless volunteers, students, and civilians to the beauty and harmony of Bartel’s grasslands. Dick’s innovative approach and charisma have captivated partners from all over—from high schools, to religious and civic organizations, to non-profits. Whether someone was a lifelong volunteer or holding a pair of loppers for the first time, Dick went out of his way to make every person feel included and appreciated. He has touched many people who otherwise would not be interested in nature and motivated them to join him on his quest of healing Bartel.   It certainly didn’t hurt that Dick’s wife, Peggy, dubbed “the Mad Baker of Bartel,” baked countless batches of cookies to keep volunteers well nourished.   Dick’s volunteer commitment to ecological restoration and connecting people to nature has been vitally important. Not only did he care for his fellow volunteers, he encouraged them to learn as much as they can about grassland restoration. Dick organized monthly meetings with environmental professionals—botanists, birders, ecologists—who come to share their knowledge. Volunteers have benefitted so greatly from these gatherings that many have taken leadership roles such as becoming bird monitors and workday leaders.   It is plain to see that Dick has made many meaningful and important contributions to the sustainability and continuity of the Volunteer Stewardship program in the Forest Preserves of Cook County. What’s even more incredible are the meaningful contributions he has made in the lives of other volunteers. As a steward at Bartel Grassland, Dick has taken young, aspiring stewards under his wing and instilled in them an environmental ethic, a concern for the land and a love of the natural communities. He has helped build a community for the next 100 years.   Chuck Scannell, who has worked closely with Dick over the past few years as an apprentice steward, now has the tough job of filling Dick’s shoes as the new site steward at Bartel.

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