Trio of wild turkeys in a snow dusted field

From turkey hands made by schoolchildren to presidential pardons at the White House, November is turkey time. And while we may think we know a lot about these birds, here are a few things that might be new to you.

Fast Turkey Facts

Wild turkeys, (Meleagris gallopavo) are one of only two domesticated birds that are native to the Americas. The Muscovy Duck is the other. In fact, turkeys have been around for a long time. Turkey fossils found in the Southern U.S. and Mexico have been dated back to 5 million years ago.

White man with dark beard in blue shirt and hat hiking with backpack

Illinois has some of the most beautiful areas to hike across the state. State parks alone have over 270 trails that total more than 700 miles. Each area of the state offers many different landscapes to enjoy. You may encounter rugged bluffs with waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park in northern Illinois, wooded ridges at Fox Ridge State Park in central Illinois, and huge bluffs of sandstone at Giant City State Park in southern Illinois. I’ve never been disappointed during the many hikes I’ve taken throughout the state.

black and white skunk in straw bed

When people get excited about supporting wildlife on their property, they are usually referring to charismatic wildlife. The ones that bring us joy or whimsy or that serve a function such as pollination. Or even the ones that encroach on our lives the least.

The Illinois Master Naturalist program recently welcomed Duane Friend as its new coordinator earlier this year. Duane Friend has been with Extension for more than 30 years and is excited to share some new updates to the program that will expand training opportunities, reach youth, and give volunteers continued education opportunities.

trees woodland area

Walking through the woods, you will notice that not all forests are the same. The plant composition, elevation in the land, geography, and soil composition all make for a variety of forest types. One of my favorites and most unique is the flatwood forest.

A flatwoods is a level area with a hardpan underneath that keeps water from draining. This unique feature creates distinctive biodiversity opportunities and a forest composition for the most adaptive species.

dark eyed junco bird perches on snowy branch

Spring is a mere 90 days away, and every year sightings of the first American Robin (Turdus migratorius) are hailed as the spring weather harbinger, but did you know we have a winter weather welcoming bird, too? It is that funky, fidgety, little member of the sparrow family — the dark eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).

crows roosting in tree tops at dusk with moon rising in background

When I sat down to write this blog, I didn’t have a clear topic in my mind. So, I did what I usually do when I want to think and looked out my office window. Through this window, I can see just the tops of three oak trees which today were covered with crows. I counted more than two dozen with more constantly coming and going. And I knew fall was well and truly upon us.

green leaves, black berries, red/purple stems

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a showy plant that makes you stop and ask questions about it whenever it is stumbled upon - whether in your garden or along a hike. From its impressive height, sometimes up to 10 feet tall, to its distinctive reddish-purple stems - you stop and ask yourself: “what is it?” To me, this is the least interesting question you could ask. By observing this showy species, you can ask more interesting questions that tell you so much more about this plant’s ecology and history.

grackle bird perching on bird feed cage

The email came in sometime in May of this year. A colleague in Northern Illinois contacted me with a wild bird concern. A woman had found a dead bird in her yard for a second day in a row and was wondering if something was wrong that she had not heard about. 

I gave the standard answer: 

brilliant red fall color of Eastern Wahoo shrub

You feel it, don't you? Sunrise coming later, sunset earlier, and the roller rink of acorns underfoot. The change of seasons is well underway. And just as you are pulling out your flannel shirts, wool socks, and warm gloves the trees and shrubs are also pulling out their fall wardrobe.

green wavy leaves with acorns

As the summer progressed and the news filled with increased extreme weather events came across our screens, it became even harder to ignore the impacts of climate change on our lives. Especially when those impacts hit hard at home from increased vector diseases to the flooding in Northeastern Illinois.

Many Monarchs roosting in an oak tree

It was early on a hot September morning that I turned into Goose Lake Prairie. I had arrived too early for a program and thought I would spend a few minutes in the picnic area listening to those sweet early morning sounds of nature. And then there it was — an unfamiliar, subtle sound — a strange flutter, repeating...almost like a heartbeat. 

Yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia by James Braselton, Bugwood.org

There's a social media meme that says, “There is no better karate instructor than a spider web in the face.”

I don’t know about the karate skills, but nothing makes you swat, rub and dance quite like walking into a web. Just imagine how an insect feels. Growing up in the woods, I have walked through my fair share of webs and while I too, practice my karate skills when I do, I have grown to appreciate these fascinating creatures and their webs.

animal scat on a gravel surface

We call anything an animal leaves behind a sign. It could be a broken branch, a footprint, a scrape on the ground or tree, a nest or other home, their own fur, or even animal parts from their last meal.

Of all the signs scattered for our inquiry as to what or why, the scat is my favorite and a most appreciated indicator as to who has been there. You need not have anything but a firm stick from the ground to investigate it fully.

Prescribed fire sign with smoke in the air

As we transition to fall here in Illinois, you may see smoke in the air or see the grasslands or forests burning.  These could be signs of a prescribed fire being conducted intentionally to manage our natural ecosystems.  The use of prescribed fire is increasing throughout Illinois.  To understand why fire is being used as a management tool, let’s take a look at the role fire has played in the development of ecosystems in Illinois

adult gypsy moth on hand
Forest canopy defoliated
A view from our campground looking up.

My family and I recently t

Opossum walking on plants and rocks

Vacuous dark eyes, scaly rat tail, 50 pointy teeth, and oh, that hiss! What is not to love about the opossum?

Photos of mushrooms, Celendine poppy and Luna moth by Chris Evans

Many nature lovers take photos while they are out in the field. But not all of them come away with quality photographs. Why do some individuals always seem to get the best shots? And what are they doing that you might not be? Read more to discover five ways to bring new life to your photographs.

The spiral in a pincone.

Of all the natural shapes, spirals are considered one of the most common in nature. We find spirals from giant galaxies down to the smallest gastropod shells. 

Spirals shape who we are in our DNA double helix and appear in weather patterns as in hurricanes. One spiral giving us incredible potential and the other able to take it all away.

American Robin male bird

Spring has sprung! What nature-lover doesn't like to engage in a friendly little competition with their friends and family each year over who sees the first robin?

Bird lovers often keep detailed notes year to year comparing when the first robin was seen and hypothesize why they were early or late. I remember one cold, snowy New Year's Day in the concrete and limestone of downtown Joliet, I was shocked to see crabapple trees loaded with robins munching away on the frosty fruits. 

Naturalists have a mental checklist running year-round:

Japanese stiltgrass growing in a forest

I am sure that most of us are familiar with the concept of invasive species - non-native organisms that are introduced into a new environment and take advantage of the lack of natural checks and balances to run amok and impact our native species and natural ecosystems.  My first introduction to invasive species was when I was a kid, growing up in the southern United States, seeing the invasive vine kudzu swallow entire trees.

Green insect emerging from it's brown shell

The cicadas are coming! In May 2021, Periodical Cicada Brood X (Brood 10) also known as the Great Eastern Brood is expected to emerge in four eastern Illinois counties - Vermilion, Edgar, Clark, and Crawford.

Vickie Hansen knew that when she retired, she didn’t want to “retire.”

She had heard the stories. A person retired, didn’t have a plan on what to do with the time, and quickly wasted away. And she knew the science. Continued mental stimulation and problem solving are good for maintaining thinking skills. Maintaining social engagement is associated with staving off chronic disease, and staying physically active, even if it's just walking, can lead to both better health and sharper thinking skills.

Three morel mushrooms

“Forty-two pounds of Edible Fungus
In the Wilderness a-growin’
Saved the Settlers from Starvation,  
Helped the founding of this Nation.”

                - Robert McCloskey, 1943

Cottonmouth snake coiled

Illinois is world famous for its snakes. This week, a road in Southern Illinois – Snake Road to be exact – closes to vehicles as it does every year so migrating reptiles and amphibians can safely cross.

Forest path with second year garlic mustard growing in it.

Garlic mustard, just two little words can bring a groan from naturalists across the Eastern United States. But garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, also known as Poor Man’s Mustard, Hedge Garlic, Garlic Root and Jack-by-the-Hedge didn’t start out in this country as a menace.

Harbinger-of-spring plant in bloom

By the time February rolls around, many of us are longing for springtime.  Spring brings a renewal of plant life in our forests, the arrival of the first batch of neotropical birds migrating back from their southern winter homes, and the awakening of reptiles and amphibians that have been long dormant during the frigid temperatures of winter.  Skunk cabbage’s emergence out of the soil, the first calls of spring peepers, red maple buds bursting into bloom, and woodcock displaying in the meadows at dusk are all proof that spring is on its way.  But for me, the most

clockwise from upper left: tree of heaven, amur honeysuckle, garlic mustard and oriental bittersweet

When we think of the bawdy, overbearing characteristics of alien invasive species, often what first comes to my mind is their early-to-rise, late-to-bed season of growth. By emerging earlier than our natives, invasive species leaf out, scoop up all that precious sunlight and moisture, then quickly shade out the natives under their canopy that are still waiting for their time in the sun, which may never come.  

Piebald Robin

A couple of months ago, a Master Naturalist sent in an interesting photo of a bird. It was dark brown on the back with a reddish-brown belly but with white discoloration all over its body. Almost like nature’s printer was having ink issues as our bird was printed. Upon closer inspection, our Master Naturalist found the bird was a robin, but a special kind called colloquially: “piebald.” Some search on this topic found that this bird is not albino, but a term called leucistic.

Rime ice accumulating over a hoar frost.

I distinctly remember being in a car with my parents one early morning.  My father, an agronomist, knew endless amounts of nature information. He knew more than just everything about soil and creating high bushel numbers for our local farmers. He knew secrets, at least that is what I believed, and he often described the simple wonders of nature to me from the front seat.

open book with light and stars coming out of the pages

Welcome to winter. During this cold and snowy time, many American Indian cultures use the time for traditional storytelling. Storytelling serves two main purposes, entertainment and education. And the really good stories do both. Hearing a story or reading a book is like receiving a gift from the storyteller or author.  In Native American cultures, a gift of tobacco is offered to the storyteller before the story begins as a sign of respect. The storyteller will often take the tobacco outside and place it on the earth as an offering to the spirits of the story.

Ice formations at the base of plants

Late fall and early winter provide an opportunity for a rare glimpse at a fascinating phenomenon, if you are willing to get up early!  Frost flowers, also called ice flowers, are thin, often undulating ribbons of ice that form at the base of certain plants.  This happens when the air temperature drops below freezing, but the soil temperature remains relatively warm.  Frost flowers usually appear in late fall as the temperatures drop below freezing at night but can also form in spring sometimes or in warmer stretches of winter.

When I chose the shrublands habitat to cover for this blog post, I thought a great way to start would be to interview my Master Naturalists who are extremely active and well-versed in local restoration work. They know the natural areas of Will County like the back of their hand. So, I was surprised when they said, what shrubland?

Master Naturalist, Rhonda Brady on school bus full of kids

A big white school bus decorated with colorful flowers and butterflies pulls into the parking lot. Ms. Mariposa has arrived! The doors of the mobile classroom opens and out comes the “Butterfly Lady”. Smiling and energetic, Rhonda Brady alights from the driver’s seat and nimbly comes down the stairs, drawing children and adults alike.

Crawfish frog adult

Imagine you are five years old and playing in the tall grass, feeling the spongy wet soil beneath your feet, when suddenly the quiet is interrupted by shockingly loud, deep guttural calls all around you.   You are startled beyond your wits and leap out of the grass in a rush back to the house thinking some huge predator must be close at your heels.  That was my daughter’s introduction to crawfish frogs

Sandhill Crane in a wetland

Growing up in central Illinois, I was familiar with swaths of Canada Geese migrating across the sky and their characteristic HONK!, but after moving to Northeastern Illinois, I have discovered the joy of a slightly more charismatic bird that captures the hearts of naturalists and nature enthusiasts alike with their Gurrooo-gurroo-gurroo calls and large migrating flocks.

Tree Identification

September blue is not a paint color option at the home improvement store, though it should be.

September blue is the distinct color of the sky in that imperceptible month between the last heated days of August and the ever so popular start of fall in October. In land management and conservation work, it is the breath between constant labor-intensive work, with all volunteers on deck, and winter when work is at the mercy of the weather. 

Upper branches of white oak tree

The mighty white oak tree, Quercus alba, has long been the subject of folklore and legend. Sometimes called the “King of Trees,” the oak is often associated with titans in the pagan pantheon, Zeus and Thor to name just two.

In Illinois, we recognize its importance and have named the white oak our state tree. We celebrate the month of October as Oak Awareness Month or Oaktober fest.

Hill Prairie overlooking river

Illinois is the prairie state, but don’t think all prairies are the same.  While deep-soil, tallgrass prairie dominated much of the landscape, other prairie types found niches too.

Kids walking on log over shallow creek in local park

Will County Master Naturalist Amy Gibson points to deep, heart-shaped tracks in the soft mud of a leaf-covered ravine in Pilcher Park. She asks the fourth graders clustered around her, "what do we have here?"

Two boys zig-zag through the group and eagerly shout, "don’t you remember, you taught us. These are deer tracks, and it looks like they are heading this way. Come on!" 

Header image of Local OPAL creator Julie Robinson in a Kayak with the Local OPAL Logo

Illinois Master Naturalists want to experience as much of the natural world as possible and share that passion with their fellow citizens. Peoria County Master Naturalist, Julie Robinson, took this mission to heart when observing students spending less and less time outdoors and more time in front of a screen. Throughout her life as a teacher and a community member, people would always come to her to for a place to go for nature and outdoor exploration, and after becoming a Master Naturalist is 2018, she became inspired to make this wealth of information public.

Our first Master Naturalist profile is a man with a heart for conservation, Joe Richardson

Joe doesn’t claim to be anything more than a retired man who loves nature. That stated, on average he volunteers 289.5 hours annually with our conservation partners at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands. Joe read an article about the return of the bison to Nachusa in 2015.

Did you ever splash in mud puddles as a kid? How about climb a tree or catch lightning bugs in a jar? If so, you just might be a naturalist.

Illinois Master Naturalists are individuals who continue to explore, wonder, and enjoy nature in all of her glory, warts and all. Truth be told, they are individuals who never stopped learning about the world around them and seeing the wonder that is everywhere. They volunteer to help others connect with the more-than human world and build strong, resilient communities based on high-quality scientific information.