Early Spring Nature: What’s Happening Now

Spring has sprung in northeastern Illinois, and nature in our neighborhoods is beginning to wake up. From bird migrations to the first appearances of woodland flowers, these spring happenings don’t last long. So, grab your boots and binoculars and head outdoors to see them before they’re gone!

1. Sandhill Cranes

You know spring is kicking off when you hear the familiar call of sandhill cranes and rush outside to spot them overhead! Sandhill cranes spend the winter in Florida, New Mexico, or Texas. Come springtime, they head to their breeding grounds up north. As they pass by or stop for a rest at our preserves, they are not shy to announce their presence with a loud, rattling call.

Did you know? Sandhill cranes are one of the oldest living birds on the planet!

2. Skunk Cabbage

One of our earliest ephemeral wildflowers, skunk cabbage is remarkable for a few reasons. For one, just look at it! In the spring, a reddish brownish horn-like spathe emerges and encloses a fleshy, flowering spike. Later, this unique flowering structure shrivels away and is replaced by large, green leaves that resemble a cabbage plant.

Skunk cabbages also are, well, skunky and emit a foul-smelling odor. Their stink attracts carrion-insects that pollinate its flowers. Finally, skunk cabbage flowers produce their own heat that allows the plant to melt through snow that may still be on the ground in late winter or early spring. Skunk cabbages like wet ground, so look for them in wetlands and along bodies of water.

3. Maple Sugaring

Maple trees can be tapped during specific weather conditions—when it’s below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. The freeze-thaw cycle gets the sap moving through the tree. The maple sap is then boiled for hours until it is reduced to the sweet syrup we know and love.

Maple tapping season started earlier this year due to the warm weather in February. Be sure to catch a maple sugaring demo (and a taste of pure maple syrup!) at a heritage preserve or nature center this month before the season is over! A few local options include Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago, Creek Bend Nature Center in St. Charles, Red Oak Nature Center in North Aurora, and Plum Creek Nature Center near Beecher.

4. Woodcocks

American woodcocks are a national treasure—well, not really, but they should be. These plump, meeping, and wobbly walking birds are very endearing. Woodcocks live in brushy young woods and nest on the ground, which makes them more vulnerable to predators. However, their feather color helps them camouflage into leaf litter on the forest floor. 

Although they are typically timid, woodcocks don’t mind showing off on occasion. In fact, male woodcocks pull out all the stops to attract a mate in the spring. We can’t represent their elaborate courtship ritual better than Aldo Leopold, who described the woodcock’s “sky dance” in A Sand County Almanac:

“Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.”

5. Prescribed Fire

When conditions are right in the early spring, restoration crews set fire to natural areas. While it might seem destructive at a glance, prescribed or controlled burns are used as a restoration technique to improve the quality of the landscape. Fire controls invasive plants, stimulates native plant growth, and restores nutrients to the soil. Native plants evolved in an environment that was often disturbed by fire and grazing, so they tolerate—and even thrive in—these conditions.

We conduct regular controlled burns at McDonald Farm, Dayton Bluffs, and other natural areas we manage.

6. Chorus Frogs

As you walk through preserves or even drive along roadside ditches this spring, you are likely to hear a symphony of chorus frogs. Woodcocks aren’t the only ones looking for love! It’s also mating season for chorus frogs. Males call out to female frogs to attract them to breading sites.

Chorus frogs need a special kind of habitat to lay their eggs: ephemeral wetlands. These wetlands or ponds are temporarily filled with water in the springtime and are home to a diversity of wildlife for a short time. These fleeting ponds can’t support fish, so frog eggs and tadpoles are less likely to be eaten.  

It's Time to Head Outdoors!

Whether you’re a seasoned nature lover or just looking for a reason to get outside, now is a great time to venture into our local natural spaces and witness the wonders of the early spring. Need ideas for places to explore? Check out our local hike guide!

Like this article? Share it!

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Winter Chloride Watchers Training Registration

Training Date(Required)
Which training session would you like to attend?
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.