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Thursday, September 7, 2023

Biodiversity Discoveries in the Dunes

Discoveries like: a baby endangered turtle, Pitcher’s thistles, the meaning of life, and other revelations. 

We are adventurers. We work, celebrate victories, and make obscure discoveries. 

There's the rare baby endangered Blanding’s turtle (below) … happily sighted while a dozen of us were pulling malignant sweet clover. We picked it up and moved it away from trampling feet. Adult Blanding’s turtles may be rare, but babies are Super-Rare. On most sites, eggs and hatchlings are eaten by over-abundant meso-predators – raccoons and opossums. 


Thus, this toddler is a mini-miracle. Its success can be credited to this prairie’s health, diversity, and size. Coyotes patrol it. We hear them howl and harmonize. Because raccoons and opossums know what’s good for them, they tend to stay closer to edges and trees. Most high-quality prairie remnants today are less than five acres in size. This one ranges from a mile to half-a-mile wide and eight miles north to south. Here baby Blandings have a chance here. 


Blanding’s turtles live up to 80 years. They mature enough to breed only after reaching 14 to 20 years old. According to Lake County Forest Preserves, this now rare species was once common and known from 17 places in Lake County. Most are gone. The only currently viable habitat is the eight-mile Chiwaukee-Spring Bluff-Hosah-Illinois Beach complex. That’s the miracle where we work. For this turtle, like nearly all threatened biodiversity, the main threat is loss of healthy habitat. 

(Important note: it's illegal to handle or move Endangered species without authorization. They are vulnerable to diseases that people can spread. Moving this one, so it wouldn't get stepped on, made sense. But generally, it's best and important to leave them alone.) 

Pulling invasive sweet clover from sand prairie.


Intensive Care for Pitcher’s Thistle

We found the rare beauty below while GPS-ing populations of crown vetch – a malignant plant that can wipe out acres of habitat. We’ve eliminated it from large areas of this preserve and plan to get to the rest.

This Endangered, yellow-flowered thistle was a surprise – near an advancing patch of the dangerous vetch. Once common around the Great Lakes, the dune habitat of Pitcher’s thistle is largely gone. The Chicago Botanic Garden, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and others launched a recovery plan for this thistle in 1991. When we reported our find to the Garden, we were told that they were “surprised and delighted” to know it was still here. They hadn’t had reports of it here for a decade. 


We found two plants in one area and seven in another. This blog will give only vague locations for endangered species. None were blooming during this drought year. This species is a “monocarpic perennial” – it lives for a few years without blooming, all the while increasing the resources stored in its roots. Then, when it finally feels bullish enough, it blooms, sets seed, and dies.  


Studies show that alien beetles then eat from 10% to 90% of the seeds of unprotected plants. Goldfinches may eat the rest. But, if we give it extra care for a few years, protecting and spreading seeds in good potential habitat, we can sometimes build up populations robust enough to then make it on their own. We’ve done that with other populations of endangered species. We hope to do it next for Pitcher’s thistle.


Good News. Bad News. Good News.

In August as we battled crown vetch and clovers, we regularly saw this pair of sandhill cranes. As a breeding species, it was extinct in Illinois for decades. A dramatic recent conservation success has been their resurgence. 

But two cranes poking around wetlands and savannas in August means that this year’s colts didn’t make it. Cranes nest on the ground. Hatchlings look for food as they follow their parents, walking. As they get bigger, coyotes want to eat them. The parents are tough customers and fight off the coyotes, at least most of the time. Cranes live for twenty years, so they don’t have to reproduce successfully each year. This year, this pair failed.


But later, working along Dead River, we looked across to see the family seen below. Parents and at least one colt survived in this off-limits-to-most-people sanctuary. Bless them.  

The Long View

Illinois Beach isn’t mostly beach; it’s better called a “dunesland.” Parallel to each other, up to twenty long, low, parallel sand dunes stretch back a mile from Lake Michigan. They’re ancient, now vegetated and stable, created as Glacial Lake Chicago retreated ten millennia ago. Those parallel dunes once also covered much of the city of Chicago, where of course, they’re now mostly bulldozed, though some survive (minus their biodiversity, except for some old oak trees) in Chicago city parks. 

How bad are cities? Consider this fact: Visionaries from Chicago, Champaign, and Rockford did the major work of discovering the concept of the ecosystem, inventing biodiversity conservation, and establishing a world-model nature preserve. Illinois Beach Nature Preserve is a key jewel. Cities did it. Agriculture is good, but it didn’t. And after years of seeming safe and protected, more recently the growing Nature Preserve System has suffered fearsome degradation from invasive species, lack of fire, and diminished resources


Vigorous empowered volunteer communities have made life-and-death differences to many preserves. Stewards and constituency are needed. As we restore habitat and make discoveries, we also discover how human communities grow and change the world. Not everyone can do everything. 

The general public is not allowed in the square-mile expanse of prairie and black oak savanna south of the Dead River. We stewards are allowed because we’ve been trained and authorized … because we work for the preserve’s benefit. Trained? Let’s make that clear: You’re invited to come and learn and work. We train you on the spot. And next time, you may train somebody else. We authorize you to pull sweet clover after being trained for just that. It’s not hard to learn. Next time we may gather and disperse the seed of an endangered species “that don’t get around much anymore.” Some of us are trained to use chainsaws or apply herbicide sensitively. In time we all learn a lot from each other.


While doing the good of pulling sweet clover, we may meditate, discover, or have conversations. A thriving community is both varied and unified, in a comfortable way.


Sweet clover, too, dies after it makes seeds. The point of pulling sweet clover is to get rid of those baleful seeds. Here Harrison collects armloads of them and hauls them to a habitat where they won’t grow. Just rot. Serves them right. 

In the process we experience. We find endangered species and such treasures that perhaps others wouldn’t notice. Our perceptions are expanded and multiplied by so many good minds. Turtles have belly buttons? Who knew? New volunteer Regina taught us on her first day. Thanks, Regina. 


For more about Blanding's turtle threats and recovery efforts, click here

From the sublime (little turtle) to the ridiculous (cinder blocks in the dunes?): In the landscape below, you see sand prairie on the dunes in the foreground, and behind are oak savanna and a glimpse of Dead River.

But look closer, and in the dune blowout you see cinder blocks. Really? They’re not doing much harm, but should they be in this hallowed place?

We lugged them out to the main trail, and the staff came with a vehicle to haul them to oblivion, which they deserve. Bit by bit, better and better. 

We invite you (or perhaps someone you know?) to help expand and help lead this fledgling group of new biodiversity conservation stewards. 

Please spread this post and the flyer below.  
Following that kick-off, the new group is now organizing stewardship work initiatives every Saturday at 9 am. Meet at the Illinois Beach nature center parking lot. 


Thanks to Jo Sabath for taking those Blanding's turtle photos and to Jo, Eriko Kojima, and Amy Doll for edits to this post. 


  1. Illinois Beach has been a battleground from the very beginning, first it was used to film movies, than the city of Waukegan wanted to put a golf course in the south end, then an airport, marina, invasive pines, beach erosion, dune buggies and now volunteers fight against invasive plants! It is a battle well worth fighting to save the first and one of the best natural areas in Illinois. Thank you volunteer stewards and keep up the good work.

  2. Good job finding the baby Blanding's turtle. I could see female turtles being tracked and the nests protected like the effort to help Monty and Rose.