Runner Up: Dave Coulter, Thatcher Woods near River Forest
2010 Photo Contest Runner Up: Dave Coulter, Thatcher Woods near River Forest

Archive for the ‘Plants and Animals’ Category

The endurance of the midland brown snake

Posted: April 3rd, 2017

By Joey Cavataio, Amateur Herpetologist

It’s 1925. Somewhere in the vast-but-ever-shrinking prairie located northwest of downtown Chicago, a brand new batch of bungalows stands out against the tall grass and endless horizon to the west. A few years earlier, the beginnings of a subdivision were born, when rough roads and paved sidewalks were installed in anticipation of a new way of life for many – rural living in what was technically Chicago by that point. The development of all of the homes, roads, and sewers necessitated the destruction of prairie. Virtually all living things died; plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and most mammals quickly vanished in short order in favor of human sprawl.

One species that endured the invasion of humans was Storeria dekayi, or the midland brown snake. This tiny, innocuous serpent, long as a nightcrawler and about as secretive, decided that it was going to use its adaptive nature to its advantage. Naturally a creature of open woodland, the edges of woodlands, savanna, and prairie, it handled the park-like environment well enough to persist. Craving slugs and worms, it never faced a shortage of its prey among the lawns and gardens it frequented. And giving birth to live babies, independent from birth, was a huge plus – eggs are sensitive to weather extremes, predators, and all sorts of human activities. It seemed destined to cling to its former haunts despite profound disturbance.

In my backyard, I have found these snakes a number of times over the last few years. I assumed there was a hibernaculum – a protected space where the snakes congregate during the winter months. I searched around my house and garage but never reached a conclusion. Today, I think I found the entrance to a hibernaculum, a small crevice which leads to the house’s foundation. Just outside the crevice was a young adult male brown snake, torpid, but slowly warming itself as it lay coiled underneath a flower planter I placed there two years ago with hope that I might someday discover just what I had discovered today.

I’ve searched high and low for reptiles and amphibians in every corner of this country and even abroad, and have found and studied rare and striking (no pun intended) taxa that may seem to deserve more mention than some small, plain looking snake. But I’m afflicted with this passion for a snake that ekes out a living in the streets of Chicago, contends with mesopredators such as skunks, and somehow survives living in and on surfaces contaminated with road salt and chemicals, all the while trying very hard to avoid detection. I have a ton of respect for these animals. And call me crazy, but I think I’m darn lucky to share my house with them, if even only during the winter. 

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Joey Cavataio found a midland brown snake warming itself underneath a flower planter at his home on the Northwest side of Chicago. Near the planter, Joey discovered what he believes to be a hibernaculum, a small crevice leading to the house’s foundation.

Pitch in to help Dan Ryan Woods

Posted: February 21st, 2017

Spending a few hours regularly to volunteer at the Dan Ryan Woods is a great idea, too. Not every community has such a natural jewel.

Powderhorn recipient of support for major restoration project

Posted: January 24th, 2017

By Douglas Chien, Powderhorn Site Steward

Contained within Powderhorn Lake Forest Preserve is a very special and rare place, a place with an exciting ecological restoration project happening soon. A project that myself and a team of volunteers have worked towards for the past 10-years.

Powderhorn Prairie Nature Preserve is the only Illinois Nature Preserve within the City of Chicago and is a rare dune and swale ecosystem; low sand dunes separated by wetlands. Dune and swale once covered much of the southern end of Lake Michigan before European settlement and subsequent industrialization. At Powderhorn, you can experience a landscape utilized by Native Americans but then seen as wasteland by later residents. Today, one can stand on a dune and be in a high quality sand prairie then walk 20’ and be knee deep in a high quality wetland.

Along the first sand dune, past soil disturbance, the absence of ecological stewardship, and especially the lack of prescribed fire, allowed eastern cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides) to get established and grow to maturity. With a canopy of large cottonwood trees, the once rich layer of grasses, sedges, and flowers died out. Fortunately the remaining six sand ridges remained healthy and continue to provide homes for a variety of insects, butterflies, and other animals.

Thanks to support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Management Program about 300 large cottonwood trees will be cut down. With proper structure restored, the area will be seeded with flowers, grasses and sedges collected on site. Over the next several years we expect to see a healthy mix of native plants and corresponding wildlife return. We’ll also be vigilant about stopping invasive plants from gaining command of the area.

This is a highly visible project as the area being cleared is along Brainard Ave. A well traveled route between Indiana and the Hegewisch neighborhood. The Forest Preserves of Cook County have been a valuable partner in this project, providing technical support and additional funding.

Volunteer stewardship days are the 3rd Saturday of the month from 9 am till Noon. Drop me a line if you’ve any questions or would like to come out and help. Special thanks to my fellow Site Steward Alice and our regular crew: Matt, Jay, Oliver, Tom, and Nik.

Somme Winter Solstice Bonfire & Celebration

Posted: December 1st, 2016

This annual tradition in the woods will include a GIANT bonfire and a bagpiper!

Please bring snacks to share.

Festivities start at 2pm at Somme Woods East and is completely FREE!

See map.

Contact Josh Coles at for more information.

One Of City’s Wildest Places Becoming Wilder With Planting of 1,000th Shrub

Posted: October 28th, 2016

Keeping one of Chicago’s wildest places truly wild is a year-round effort conducted by dozens of volunteers.

Encounter Spears Woods

Posted: October 6th, 2016

Palos Restoration group explores what lies beyond the trail.

Friends of the Forest Preserves grow, naturally

Posted: June 16th, 2016

Friends of the Forest Preserves number more than 3,000 committed volunteers and members, but more are always welcome to join.

Changing Perspectives on Camping

Posted: May 16th, 2016

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about camping? Take a second to really think. Did you think about a nice pristine lake? Or did you think about a set of mountains that light bounces right off of into the meadows? If you’re like Dyrell Williams, Friends of the Forest Preserves Palos division Advanced Crew member, when you hear camping you think of raccoons, possums, and other late night raiders. Though now, Dyrell would be the first to tell you how exciting and impactful camping can be. All thanks to the initiative of The Chicago Park District Front Country Leadership Training. Dyrell attended a two day field training that taught him how to safely lead hikes in the wilderness; set up a tent properly; prepare, cook, and safely store food; as well as operate in the safest way possible while away from civilization. The experience changed Dyrell’s perspective of camping as a whole to a brighter and maybe more desirable journey that he can take.

Dyrell Williams, Calumet Conservation Corps crew member, Friends of the Forest Preserves    Displaying IMG_0920.JPGDisplaying IMG_0920.JPGCamping

By Dyrell Williams, Palos Division Advanced Crew Member

7th Annual Photo Contest Exhibit

Posted: May 9th, 2016

Ambassador to the Chicago Botanic Garden (1)

Please join Friends of the Forest Preserves for an informal evening of art, inspired by nature.

Refreshments will be served.

Friday June 17th, 2016
6 PM – 8 PM
Franklin Framing
13019 S. Western Ave.
Blue Island, IL 60406

This event is free. Donations will be accepted at the door.
You can make a donation in lieu of attending, on our website.

To RSVP email or call (312) 356-9990

The Green Brick Road: My journey as an environmentalist

Posted: January 6th, 2016

It all started with a stuffed polar bear. That is how my journey as an environmentalist began. It was gifted to me as a child and I still have it to this day. I became so attached to that stuffed polar bear that I remember watching those commercials about dying polar bears on melting icebergs and feeling like I personally needed to save my stuffed polar bear. But it was later when I took Environmental Science in high school that my love for the environment really took off. I remember collecting data on crawfish and exploring prairies during our field trips. It was during that time that the enormity of our planet’s environmental problems hit me. The sense of doom that a lot of us who care about protecting the environment feel became real to me in high school. I knew at that point that whatever I would end up studying in college and later pursuing as a career would revolve around protecting the environment.

Growing up in Lemont I also had access to a lot of Cook County’s forest preserves. Exploring the forests and going camping in Wisconsin became a pastime of mine. All this greatly shaped the goals and dreams of my life, but it was when I studied Sustainable Development in India that my day to day really changed. Living in a culture that wasted so little has affected my trash output enormously. Now I am very conscious of all the trash I produce and try to be intentional about using reusable cups and bottles. Buying secondhand clothing and eating less dairy have also become habits of mine. Currently, as the Research and Office Management Intern for Friends of the Forest Preserves, I have gotten the opportunity to interact with nature within the city’s limits. I am more than thrilled to continue my journey of exploration and curiosity as an environmentalist for the rest of my life.

Kathy MachajBy: Kathy Machaj, Research and Office Management Intern