Outdoor Report

Read the Outdoor Report for the latest fishing conditions, wildlife sightings and nature news.

Outdoor Report Nov. 21

Winter doesn’t officially begin until Dec. 21, but it has certainly felt like winter arrived with the deep cold we’ve experienced this week. Ice has formed on many District lakes, and anglers should remember that no ice should be considered completely safe ice. All ice activities in DuPage forest preserves are done at the visitor’s own risk, and at least four inches of clear ice are recommended. Anglers should check for safety as they move around since ice conditions vary across a body of water. Some signs of unsafe ice include cracks, ridges or faults in the ice, gray or black ice, areas of open water, ice that looks rotten or porous, and objects protruding from the ice. Please also note that due to fluctuating water levels, ice activities are never allowed at Spring Creek Reservoir.

Even in chilly weather, there are still plenty of ways to stay active outdoors. There are still three Forest Fitness Walk programs left for 2014. See the schedule here, or call 630-850-8110 to register. And, look ahead to Volunteer Restoration Workdays as well. This time of year, volunteers help remove invasive brush. Workdays are scheduled on Dec. 6 and 13 at several locations. Learn more about volunteering here, or call 630-933-7681 to register.

It’s been a pretty quiet week for animal sightings, but we have had a few notable visitors. Flocks of dark-eyed juncos have been seen at several locations, including at Danada near the headquarters building. A naturalist at Fullersburg Woods reported a yellow-bellied sapsucker in the woods near the staff offices. At Mayslake, a naturalist went through the unusual experience of seeing an American mink climb up a tree when it saw him. Though considered a common species, you’ll probably need to spend a bit of time around a wetland area before seeing one. They are fierce hunters and go after fish, frogs, crayfish and even small mammals including cottontail rabbits. 

This week’s snapshot is of a dark eyed junco, a common winter visitor the size of a sparrow. The arrival of these charming round birds at feeders and in the forests in winter is much heralded at the start of the snowy season. They form large flocks, sometimes with other species, and eat seeds and berries. Juncos generally start their migration back to their summer breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska in mid-March, but a few may stay in the area until as late as May.

Image © Jeanie Klein

Outdoor Report Nov. 14

Prescription fires are only carried out by specially trained crews.

Have you taken our trail survey? If you’ve used a forest preserve trail in the past six months, we’d like to hear from you. Whether you’re a hiker, biker, roller skier or birdwatcher, we want to know how we can help you navigate along the trails and improve your experience. Take the survey online here, or request a paper copy by calling our Planning office at 630-871-6404.

Our prescription burn crews got off to a good start in the past two weeks, but the cold weather that has settled in put a pause on the season now. Several weather conditions impact the safety of a burn. Too much wind is a concern and could make a fire difficult to manage. The ground must be dry so that the burn is effective. And, air temperature must be above freezing so that water pumps work well. So when the weather is better for burns, watch for our crews to return to the task.

And with that cold weather settled in, visitors should take some safety precautions when enjoying the outdoors. Dressing in warm layers and staying dry offers the best protection from hypothermia. An outer layer that blocks wind and moisture, an insulating inner layer that retains heat and a base layer that wicks away perspiration is the ideal combination. Wool, silk and synthetic fleece retain body heat better than cotton for winter clothing. Waterproof boots, thick socks, a hat and gloves or mittens help to keep extremities warm. And, be cautious around any ice forming on lakes and ponds. This early in the season it will be very thin and unable to support any weight.

Recent fishing reports include a 16-inch northern pike and a few walleye caught at Silver Lake at Blackwell. A few mute swans stopped by Silver Lake recently, too. Red-tailed hawks have been seen at Blackwell and a few other locations. Rangers also report a few northern cardinals at Springbrook Prairie and several deer, a group of does with a buck, seen near the picnic area at McDowell Grove.

This week’s snapshot is of a bald eagle. A visitor to Herrick Lake sent in a report of seeing one of these large raptors perched in a tree near the lake this week. The bird pictured was photographed by a District staff member on the West Branch of the DuPage River at Blackwell a couple seasons ago. Though they once were only visible along large rivers such as the Mississippi, in recent years they’ve been frequent visitors to the Des Plaines River near Waterfall Glen and have been spotted at several other forest preserves. Winter is a good time to watch for them as they search for food along open water.

Watch for bald eagles near open water this winter.

Outdoor Report Nov. 7

A wooly bear caterpillar crawls along the underside of a stem.
Image © Carl Strang

November is a time when fall winds to a close and winter sets in, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see outdoors. Some of the area’s cold-blooded animals are heading to hibernate. Toads dig down in the ground, as deep as three feet, to find moist surroundings and protection from the coldest of temperatures. Many of our native species of turtles spend the winter at the bottom of a lake, pond or river. There they are insulated from the coldest above-ground temperatures and can absorb oxygen from the water surrounding them.

This time of year trail users may also see a few snakes basking in sunny spots. They are also headed to secluded areas for winter, often underground burrows called “hibernacula.” These locations may be small spaces under large rocks or fallen logs or larger spaces where many snakes gather together underground to share warmth. These burrows may be dug near the foundations of buildings so the animals can take advantage of the warmth radiating from the heated structures.

Another creature that visitors may see on the move to seek shelter is the wooly bear caterpillar. These caterpillars hatch from eggs in fall and spend the season eating many varieties of plants. They spend winter curled up in a sheltered spot, perhaps under a litter of fallen leaves. In spring they begin to eat again and spin cocoons to pupate. They emerge as Isabella tiger moths.

At Willowbrook Wildlife Center, some of the resident animals are getting ready for the cold season. The woodchuck has been gathering leaves and twigs to create his preferred nest inside a structure in his enclosure. And the foxes’ coats are growing think and fluffy for warmth.

November can be an active time for our crews carrying out prescription burns. Unlike a wildfire, a prescription burn is a deliberately set, controlled, natural-resource-management tool that our crews have used for over 25 years. These fires not only remove invasive, exotic plants but also break down organic materials, returning valuable nutrients to the soil. Prescription fires generally take place in spring before the growing season starts and in fall when plants have died back for the year and are dry enough to burn well. Burn days aren’t scheduled in advance because crews must take in to consideration safety factors such as wind conditions, but crews are ready to go on any day that the weather would be favorable. 

This week’s snapshot is of a short-eared owl. Winter is a great time to watch for this grassland hunter at locations such as Danada, Springbrook Prairie and Pratt's Wayne Woods as individuals from the north spend the season in our relatively warmer area. Short-eared owls may be active during day or night but bird-watchers are most likely to see them as they search for food around dawn and dusk. The species swoops low to the ground to listen for small mammals to catch.

Winter is the best time to see short-eared owls in DuPage County.

Outdoor Report Oct. 31

Fall and winter are great times to look for hawks perched in trees since the absence of leaves makes them easier to see.

This week brings a farewell to fall colors on trees for the most part. There are still some oaks with rich russet leaves and maples showing golden tones. The windy and cold weather predicted for the weekend may make quick work of those leaves, though. Sumac plants have bright red leaves on display at several locations including McDowell Grove and Herrick Lake.

A trip through a prairie will reveal wonderful displays of colors among the grasses. Little bluestem has turned its fall red, and prairie cord grass has turned bright yellow. Indian grass and big bluestem are filling in with orange hues as well as some beautiful blends of paler colors. Good places for prairie grasses are Springbrook Prairie, Danada, West Chicago Prairie, the north portion of Churchill Woods and the Back 40 nature area at Willowbrook Wildlife Center.

The relatively wet and warm fall we’ve had up until now has been great for fall mushrooms. Hen of the woods and elm oysters have produced beautiful displays. Both have been seen in recent weeks at Fullersburg Woods. Elm oysters grow on box elder trees and often have their white stems topped with light-colored round caps appear near the site of wounds on the tree, such as a break in the bark where a branch has broken off. Hen of the woods grows low to the ground near the base of oak trees in clusters that may reach 3 feet wide. Its appearance blends in with surrounding leaf litter and also resembles the ruffled feathers of a hen.

Recent bird sightings include a sure sign that winter is on its way, dark-eyed juncos have been noted by a few staff members. Rangers have seen red-tailed hawks perching in trees at several locations and noted a red bellied woodpecker near the picnic area at Warrenville Grove. Willowbrook Wildlife Center has taken in several American bitterns recently and admitted a young trumpeter swan brought in by volunteers with Chicago Bird Collision Monitors.

This week’s snapshot is a tree squirrel. These animals are busy stockpiling food to eat throughout winter. They dig many small stores, a familiar behavior to anyone who has watched squirrels for any length of time. The scatter placement of smaller caches makes it less likely for everything to be stolen but takes a lot of work to maintain. Squirrels have excellent memories to find their hidden caches – one animal may make thousands of caches in a season! Thanks to preserve visitor Eric Schwister for sharing the photo.

Image © Eric Schwister
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