Wild Birds, Blooms And Insects In April’s Midwest LandscapeMar 31, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Blood root blooms in April next to spring beauty. Photo by Steven D. Bailey
Though May and June are the months northern Illinois residents think spring is at its peak, April can be equally magical. Woods, wetlands and grasslands in the Chicago region are bursting with nature in April if we know what to seek and where to find it.
The forest floor isn’t completely covered with spring ephemerals in April, but plenty are shining, ready to be enjoyed and photographed. For example, at Messenger Woods, in Homer Glen, “You can see one of the most beautiful and vast displays of Virginia bluebells in April,” reveals Andy Morkes, founder and author of Nature in Chicagoland. “They blanket the woodlands and banks of Spring Creek for as far as the eye can see.” In April, pink buds on bluebells open into soft blue flowers. Another place to see copious Virginia bluebells is at Reed-Turner Woodlands, in Long Grove.
Large stands of marsh marigolds also bloom in wet areas in the woods in April, looking like thousands of golden stars emanating from the forest floor. “In sunny wetlands, marsh marigold is one of the first wildflowers to bloom during the spring,” writes John Hilty in his Wildflowers of Illinois blog. “The flowers are showy and conspicuous because of their bright color and relatively large size,” he writes. Places to find marsh marigolds in April include Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area, in Riverwoods and Pilcher Park Nature Center, in Joliet.
“April is early for butterflies in northern Illinois,” acknowledges Doug Taron, curator of biology and vice president of research and conservation at the Chicago Academy of Sciences Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. But he does find a few species in woodlands that include the eastern comma and the mourning cloak, which are often out even earlier. Other butterfly species overwinter as eggs, caterpillars or chrysalises; the various stages before adulthood. “But the eastern comma and mourning cloak overwinter as adults,” says Taron. So when it warms and the sun is out, these adult butterflies are ready to mate and lay eggs in April.
The mourning cloak has a three-and-a-half-inch wingspan, with brownish-maroon wings bordered by yellow. When it rests on a tree with folded wings, it can look like part of the bark. The smaller, eastern comma, which has orange wings dotted with brown, prefers moist woodlands and also is good at camouflage, resting in bark with folded wings that look like leaves. Their wing marks look like bird droppings and they hibernate in hollow trees and log piles, while the mourning cloak hibernates in loose bark on trees and in cavities.
When the sap starts flowing, they emerge. Mourning cloaks particularly like tree sap from oaks. “They walk down the trunk to the sap and feed head-downward,” according to Butterflies and Moths of North America, an organization that collects, stores and shares information about lepidoptera.
The mourning cloak can be found not only in woods, but also parks and suburbs, especially riparian areas where their host plants are growing. Mourning cloaks lay their eggs in tree species such as willows, cottonwood, paper birch and hackberry. Eastern commas lay eggs in American elm and common nettles, among other host plants.
Birdsong also rings in the woodlands in April from avian creatures that live here year-round and are already setting up nesting territory. Northern cardinals and black-capped chickadees are singing full force in the woodlands well before April, but migrants are here by March and April, including the eastern phoebe, a flycatcher with a brown head and black and white underparts. Look for a bird sitting on a somewhat low perch wagging its tail and listen for it singing its name, “Phoebe.” This species builds mud nests on bridges, barns and houses, and often nests underneath the eaves of a cabin at Ryerson Conservation Area.
Dragonflies and damselflies typically fly later in the season. “But it’s not unusual to see green darner dragonflies in April,” Taron says. “One of the reasons that green darners are so early is because some of them are migrating up from the Gulf [of Mexico] and get here as soon as it warms up,” he explains. Common green darners are one of the most abundant dragonflies in North America. They are three inches long and have a three-and-a-half-inch wingspan. Both males and females have bright green thoraxes (middle body segment). This species is a migratory, as well as permanent resident, and often returns from migration before overwintering dragonfly species, including its own, emerge, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Many wetland bird species are back setting up territories in cattails and other vegetation in April. Listen for the “Onk-a-lee,” three-syllable song of the red-winged blackbird near a wetland or even a wet prairie. The killdeer is back, too, calling out its name as it flies over wet areas and shallow ponds in parks.
Cindy Crosby, of Glen Ellyn, enjoys nature in April by walking grasslands. “A lot of what you see and what is in bloom depends on the weather in a given year, so it can be different from place to place even on the same site,” says Crosby, author of The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press), Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Ice Cube Press, with Thomas Dean), and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (Northwestern University Press).
“April is a wonderful time to hike the Illinois prairies and savannas, and also a mercurial time,” Crosby advises. “Days of sunshine alternate with snowfall or torrential rains. Spring ephemerals adjust their blooming schedules from year to year, which makes each April stroll a new adventure.”
“The prairies in the Chicago region may be subject to
prescribed fire as late as April, depending on the weather patterns earlier in
the year, so it’s always an adventure to see what stage of growth the prairie
is in,” says Crosby, who serves as a steward for the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, in Lisle.
“If a prairie has recently been burned, you might see the first green shoots of prairie dropseed across the prairie looking like UFOs had landed with their circular patterns, or the crinkly early leaves of wood betony, which remind me of tiny rhubarb leaves.”
She explains, “Many of the emerging prairie plants are identifiable by their leaves in April.” One of these is the compass plant. “At the bottom of the plant, the leaves are huge—up to 16 inches long—but the leaves are progressively smaller toward the top of the stem. In full sun, the upright lower leaves turn their edges toward north and south, with the flat surfaces facing east and west, giving compass plant its common name,” according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Their leaves are often prettier and as distinctive as the blooms that follow later in the year,” Crosby says.
“Toward the end of April, depending on the weather vagaries of the year, you may spot the first blooms of the prairie violet and if you’re lucky, the birdfoot violet,” Crosby continues. “Bloodroot pops up on the prairie edges, with the plant’s unusual leaves wrapping around the stems of the bloom as it emerges. Their pollinators, the bumblebees, are out and about lending their buzz pollination to the grassland melody.”
Crosby also suggests looking for the clustered, magenta and green leaves of shooting stars all April, that bloom with nodding flowers in May. One place to see shooting stars is at Thelma Carpenter Prairie, at the Nachusa Grasslands.
Crosby suggests wearing waterproof boots and layers to be ready for April’s finicky weather. “Then prepare for endless adventures as you hike outdoors in April,” she says.
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at SherylDeVore.Wordpress.com.
Free April walks in the woods offered by local nature
Here are some scheduled in April. These below are all free, but registration is required via phone or website. Also, check a favorite forest preserve or nature center to see what is planned for outdoor nature hikes in April.
Signs of Spring, 1 p.m., April 2. Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, Lemont. Call 630-257-2045.
Early April Bird Walk, 8 a.m., April 5. Dan Ryan Woods Visitor Center, Chicago. Bring binoculars, or some may be available to borrow. Call 312-415-2970.
April Bird Walk, 8 a.m., April 7. Crabtree Nature Center, Barrington Hills. Call 847-532-5764.
Wetlands and Waterfowl Walk, 8 to 10:30 a.m., April 15. Glacial Park Conservation Area, Ringwood. Call 815-338-6223.
Sunday Stroll at Ethel’s Woods, Antioch, 9 to 10 a.m., April 16. Call 847-367-6640.