By Jack MacRae
Here’s what’s debuting on nature’s stage in Chicago Wilderness
I eat all kinds of nuts. Of course, some taste better than others. Hickory nuts aren’t bad, acorns are a bit bland, and black walnuts can be downright nasty. The best-tasting local nuts are from the American hazel. Hazelnuts ripen during September, changing color from creamy white to hazel brown (of course!). Ideally, ripe hazelnuts should dry in the sun, but jays and squirrels usually reap the harvest too quickly, leaving little for us humans to enjoy. These days, it’s much easier to purchase the California-grown, Asian variety of hazelnut for Thanksgiving feasts and harvest festivals.
American hazel is a wonderful little shrub, usually less than ten feet tall full-grown. It forms thickets in open areas, alongside old fencerows, and near woodland edges.
In autumn, woodchucks don’t have time to chuck wood; they’re too busy trying to get fat before their food runs out. After six months of daily grazing, these large familiar rodents can tip the scales at a hefty ten pounds, twice their summer weight. Woodchucks are considered true hibernators. Our chubby chucks will waddle into their underground sleeping chamber during the colder days of October. Over the next few months, they’ll fall into a deep sleep and decrease their heart rate from 100 beats a minute to less than 10.
Photo: Rob Curtis/The Early Birder
Many arachnids — the original web designers — are at their biggest and boldest during early autumn. One spider-fan favorite, the common marbled orb weaver, can be pumpkin orange and nearly three-quarters of an inch long. They live in the long grasses of our meadows and fields, usually adjacent to trees and shrubs. In October, the female will lay a silk egg sac in a protected spot, often within a dry curled leaf. The sac is a delicate, translucent white structure and contains several hundred orange eggs. The young won’t crawl out of the sac until the spring.
Ornithologists seem to know a lot about dark-eyed juncos, the cute little gray-and-white snowbirds that visit us from the north. Adult juncos typically begin returning to our neighborhoods in the last week of September, with the juveniles arriving a little later. Male juncos tend to spend the winter slightly farther north than the females. Over the next few weeks, they’ll be forming small flocks of 10 to 30 birds that will maintain mutually exclusive foraging territories from other junco flocks. Their pecking order is simple: males are dominant over females and the old are dominant over the young.
Fall woods-walkers enjoy coming across white snakeroot, a handsome, late-blooming woodland wildflower with dark foliage and bright white flowers. Their fluffy, fragrant florets persist well into October, making them one of the last plants to continue blossoming in our wooded areas.
White snakeroot was the source of milk sickness, an often-fatal 19th-century malady caused when hungry cows ate the toxic leaves of the plant and people subsequently drank the tainted milk. Nancy Hanks Lincoln, little Abraham’s mother, died in early October 1818 from this illness.
Photo: Rob Curtis/The Early Birder
As Halloween nears, watch the lakes of Chicago Wilderness for a visiting company of small, metallic, black-and-white diving ducks. These buffleheads will have traveled far from their summer homes in the boreal forest ponds of western Canada. Most buffleheads will stay briefly and continue in a southeasterly direction, landing along the Gulf of Mexico. A few intrepid individuals will stick around our region for an extended holiday. They can be seen at large lakes, flying low and fast over the water.