Volunteer Newsletter: Blooming Now: Prickly Ash

Question: When is an ash not an ash? Answer: when it’s an orange.   Common name notwithstanding, one of our woodland shrubs—prickly ash, Zanthoxylum americanum—is not an ash. Rather it’s one of just two species in our local flora representing the orange family, Rutaceae.   A crushed leaf emits a tangy citrus-y smell. Prickly it is, as anyone who has tried to navigate through a Zanthoxylum thicket would agree. This species is dioecious—that is, its male and female flowers occur on different plants. Blooming in the woods now, the flowers are far from showy and are easily overlooked. A closer look identifies the male flowers by the exerted anthers and the females by the single pistil.   Prickly ash and our other citrus family species—wafer ash, Ptelea trifoliate—are the host plants for several butterflies, including the giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes. The adult swallowtail deposits its eggs on the leaves or twigs of the host plant. The caterpillar emerges and feeds on the leaves until it is ready to pupate and form a chrysalis, its overwintering form. The tiny caterpillar looks much like bird droppings on a leaf.   The mature caterpillar looks remarkably like the head of a snake!   The adult butterfly emerges in the spring, so look for adults of this impressive butterfly in the coming weeks.   —Jane Balaban, North Branch Restoration Project     Photos: Jane Balaban

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Volunteer Newsletter: On the Trail with Trail Watch

Learning the landscape, Introducing dogs to horses and keeping people from swinging on poison ivy vines. It’s all in a day’s work for Trail Watch volunteers.   Sharon Bowen was on her Trail Watch route one day when she encountered a teenage couple “swinging on a vine like Tarzan.” She was concerned the vine might break. But more importantly, she says, “the vine they were swinging on was a heavy, hairy poison ivy vine! I told them they should wash thoroughly as soon as possible including their clothing. I don’t think they believed me right then, but I knew they would understand later, to their dismay.”   Sharon is one of 15 volunteers receiving a “100-Visit Pin” to recognize their 100th trip into the Forest Preserves wearing the neon-green shirt and whistle of a Trail Watcher. This dedicated group is part of the 183 volunteers currently enrolled in the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Trail Watch program and regularly appearing in preserves across the county.   Revived two-and-a-half years ago by FPCC Police Chief John Roberts, the Trail Watch program recruits and trains volunteers to serve as extra eyes and ears for Forest Preserves police across the system’s more than 300 miles of trail. They call in anything unusual and lend a hand with things like directions. But their most important role is to be a friendly and regular presence in the Preserves.   Most Trail Watch volunteers say they’d be out on the trails anyway. “I was looking to volunteer with the FPCC in some way, and being out on the trails seemed really cool,” said Andi Rizzo, who estimates she’s logged at least 200 Trail Watch walks. “What drew me to Trail Watch was the flexibility of the program. I can go when I want and where I chose. Since I work full-time, that was important.”   Volunteer Peter Gayford calls the typical day on Trail Watch “relaxing and peaceful,” adding that it “clears all my stress away.” According to Andi Rizzo, “A typical day would just be to decide where I would walk and just go do it. I make sure I greet everyone I see and am ready to answer any questions they may have. I also make sure I have my camera. I have taken thousands of pictures.” Volunteer Roy H. says a typical day involves walking about six miles, greeting people, offering directions, being watchful of safety needs and observing anything amiss.   Sharon Bowen’s typical day is somewhat atypical: she does her Trail Watch patrol on horseback. “I usually ride three days a week and, more often than not, wind up helping folks who just aren’t sure where they are, where they parked their car, or just how much farther they have to go to get back. Helping people is something I really enjoy.” She even lets dog walkers bring their dogs near to get over their fear of horses.   The most interesting thing volunteers report seeing is also what they say is the best benefit of Trail Watch—the Preserves themselves. Peter says he likes “simply being able to explore and enjoy nature.” Sharon says she loves “watching the different plants and flowers come up in each season.” And Andi reports that the “coolest things I've seen would have to be the forest preserves themselves. Believe it or not, before I joined Trail Watch I had limited knowledge of the FPCC trail system. I am in total awe of how beautiful it is out on the trails.”   Roy offers this simple advice for those looking to join Trail Watch: “Always say hello to visitors on the trail. Many become friends...some become Trail Watch volunteers!”   With Share the Trail Day and National Trails Day coming up on June 4, now is a perfect time to sign up for Trail Watch. The next new-volunteer training is July 9.     Collage photos, left to right, from top row to bottom: Chuck Scannel, Sheila Roos, Fred Feurbach, Bobby Considine, Lori Williams, Andi Rizzo, FPCC Volunteer Resources, Ron Gutowski, Erica Engel, the Considines, Joe Schlau, Vanya Castle, Sharon Bowen, Beverly Carroll, Bill Krivanec, Lynn Gaziano and Joanne Deuter, Bob Schwaan

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Volunteer Newsletter: Next Century Needs Volunteers

An update on the Next Century Conservation Plan by Laurel Ross and Jane Balaban

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Volunteer Newsletter: Leek Poaching Ramps Up in Spring

Each spring, wild leeks push up from wet woods across Cook County. Unfortunately, these fragrant, wild onion relatives attract poachers who uproot them for culinary uses, often severely degrading large areas of the woodland floor.

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Volunteer Newsletter: Centennial Volunteers Expand to Four New Sites

Two sites along the North Branch of the Chicago River in northern Cook County, Clayton Smith Flatwoods and Forest Glen (both highlighted in red), are opening to new volunteer stewardship as part of the Centennial Volunteers initiative.

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Welcome to the Volunteer Ecosystem – A newsletter for volunteers

For many of us, volunteering in the Forest Preserves of Cook County for the first time was an experience that blew open the door to a new world. While out repairing a trail, we looked around and saw plants and birds we’d never noticed before. After joining a group to pick up litter, we became familiar with an otherwise hidden corner of a preserve. Standing around a brushpile fire after a workday, we discovered a surprisingly large community of people who deeply love nature, know a lot about it and are eager to share that wealth of knowledge.

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