Into the woods with the family. Willow Springs Woods in South Cook County. First time here, and I’m learning that it’s important to go and scope these places out ahead of time, or else you find yourself wandering aimlessly trying to decide on a place to sit.
Which was what happened my first morning at Salt Creek Woods. I had parked the car at Bemis Woods, pulled the bike off the rack, and after riding about 7 minutes West on the paved trail, pulled off onto an unpaved path that I had seen a few days earlier. On that morning, I rode a short ways farther before tethering my bike to a tree and continuing on foot. All told, I probably spent a good hour tripping over hidden branches and pushing through briars, sitting here and there, before finally walking out in a field and coming across the small cluster of oak trees where I have spent several mornings since.
So, this initial reconnaissance tends to increase the “demands” of the project somewhat, in that there are now pre-excursions before the actual “sitting”. This sounds absurd, and whether sitting, standing, or hiking, there shouldn’t be anything complicated about spending some time in the woods. And, when it comes down to it, this is just another great reason to get the wife and kids out there with me to see something new.
Finding where the trail actually begins at these places can be a challenge. Willow Springs is no exception; and, once underway, I have to admit that I was initially underwhelmed. The path was lined with buckthorn, which I really wish I didn’t know anything about, as it invades everywhere, chokes out the understory, and it’s about all you can see once you know what you’re looking at.
But you can’t be discouraged on the few first steps, and we ended up making some great discoveries.
After about fifteen minutes, the narrow trail from the parking area through the woods opened up to a wider, gravel path. Walking along we come to a small, L-shaped, marshy lake. With grasses and reeds lining the muddy banks, the first bird we encountered was a Greater Egret, standing white and poised, filching fish from the shallows. Hiding behind some brush, we passed the binoculars and saw the silver flash and spasm of a minnow in the egret’s beak just before disappearing down into his gullet. It took flight once we appeared and flew croaking to another visible section of the lake and landed a short ways from a Great Blue Heron.
We continued to pass the binoculars, watching the two birds wade slowly along when suddenly the shoreline erupted in a multitude of small explosions as frogs fled the bank into deeper water. At least we think it was frogs..could’ve been minnows, but pretty sure it was frogs. Regardless, it was impressive, watching these small creatures flee the banks, and something none of us had ever seen before. We hung around long enough to see another wading bird, what may have been a Green Heron, make his way up the opposite side of the bank and take up position equidistant from the other two. We never got a close enough look at this one to tell for sure, but it was pretty cool nonetheless watching them stand spaced along the edge of the water.
As we departed I heard the call of a what may have been a Red Shouldered Hawk somewhere over the water. As we moved away from the water and back into the woods, I heard her again somewhere in the trees, hidden deep and invisible.
Later, we took a small trail off the main path through the woods and into a field filled with grasses, wildflowers, and a smattering of trees placed in small clusters here and there throughout.
A closer examination of the black specks in an Ironweed’s fuchsia blooms revealed an abundance of shiny beetles. The lighter purple florets of a Rough Blazing Star served as a frilled suite for two yellow soldier beetles as they mingled their genes to form yet another generation in an ancient lineage.
We looked up and noticed how, when we’d stop moving for a moment, the one dragonfly hovering above would suddenly be joined by a host of others, materializing out of the blue sky.