By Jack MacRae
Here’s what’s debuting on nature’s stage in Chicago Wilderness
Photo: Michael Redmer
The newts that live in our woodlands’ permanent ponds usually don’t make a lot of waves. But during the earliest days of spring, it’s mating season for newts, and they’ve been known to splash a little. Newt sex begins with some serious underwater snout nuzzling and hugging. In due course, the male will drop a tiny packet of sperm, which the female picks up in her cloaca. The female lays 200 to 350 fertilized eggs, placing each egg on the leaves of the pond’s aquatic vegetation. The Chicago Wilderness has a few healthy newt populations in the Indiana Dunes, the Palos region, and in several other high-quality flatwoods ponds.
Rolling in the River
They sound like Mick Jagger groupies, but common stonerollers are actually local minnows named for their nest construction technique. During the first several weeks of spring, as our flowing waters warm into the 50-degree range, male stonerollers use their protruding lips and tubercle-covered faces to push gravel at the bottom of streams. They defend their excavations with tenacity until the females place their sticky eggs in the nests where they are fertilized. The parents abandon the nests; hatchlings will develop in the current alongside hundreds of other orphaned stonerollers. An interesting note: While the Rolling Stones idolized bluesman Muddy Waters, stonerollers don’t like muddy waters at all. They prefer clear-flowing riffles.
The Blue Jay Way
On early spring mornings, small flocks of blue jays scream raucously through the trees. Researchers have dubbed these flocks “courting groups”: one comely female leading up to nine young males on a merry game of follow the leader. The males will follow her every move, flying, landing, and even hopping from branch to branch. Wherever she perches, the jay boys start to show off by extending their legs and bobbing. Silly birds. Older jays usually maintain pair bonds for life and don’t have to go through the mating jazz.
Not Born to Run
The first 48 hours of life for a newborn fawn are fraught with danger. It can hide but it can’t run. Able to stand within hours of birth, fawns don’t have the strength or coordination to run just yet. So they lie in a secluded spot, motionless, with their legs tucked in and their heads and necks stretched flat on the ground. They can remain this way for hours, waiting patiently and hungrily for mom to visit. The fawns’ cryptic coloration completes the concealment. Parents keep twins in separate locations.
White-tailed deer learn the need or speed quickly. Though a fawn can outrun a man when it’s only a week old, it’s still in danger; it won’t be quick and agile enough to escape a coyote until it’s almost a month.
Photo: Jack Shouba
Shooting Star Star
Plant paparazzi love shooting stars. The camera lens captures the flower’s celestial appearance beautifully, with its upturned white, purple, or pink petals and fused yellow stamens. But like so many celebrities, shooting stars fade quickly. They bloom from mid to late spring, host a few bee pollination parties, and then fade away. They don’t come back for a summer encore. But the paparazzi hope the shooting stars will be on fire next fall—and they mean it literally, as this species seems to respond very well to controlled burns.
The bird’s foot violet is a sun-loving violet that lives in open black oak savannas, sandy prairies, and gravelly hillsides with acidic soils. It thrives in some dazzling patches along the Fox River Valley. The bird’s foot has a typical violet-shaped flower with five soft, lavender petals and a bright yellow center. In some locations, the flower of the bird’s foot violet is bicolored, a very attractive combination of light blue petals on the bottom and dark purple petals on top. The leaves are distinctively long, slender, and somewhat reminiscent of bird toes, hence the name.