Volo Bog, Illinois

Volo Bog is the only "quaking" bog in Illinois with an open center, which you can see here.   It's only 45 miles from the center of Chicago, so it makes a pleasant trip, which I made twenty or thirty times.   The entire bog is about 50 acres in size, but since the time it was formed in the last ice age it's gradually filled up with dead vegetation, and eventually it will fill up entirely.   At present there's a floating boardwalk which during recent dry periods has sat on the dried bottom of the bog, and a three-mile path around the entire bog and through some of its adjoining forest and grassland.   Wet or dry, the bog and another 1100 acres of surrounding prairie and forest is a fantastic habitat for all sorts of life, and it's a great thing that it's been preserved and made available for people to see.

the open center of Volo Bog

Bogs are usually very poor in nitrogen because of all of the water which leeches away this vital element.   That's why most of the world's carnivorous plants come from bogs, like this pitcher plant which flowers alongside the boardwalk.   Most carnivorous plants live in the tropics, but this one somehow manages to survive being frozen for several months of the year.

pitcher plants

I'm not sure what species of mushrooms these are, but the pores under the caps identify them as belonging to a family called "boletes".    It's great how the red of the caps contrasts with the green of the spaghnum moss.   The little tears on the caps are probably caused by slugs, which love to eat fungi of various types.

bolete mushrooms

These large "chicken of the woods" mushrooms look much weirder to most people's eyes than the boletes, which at least have a classic "mushroom" or "toadstool" shape.   The spectacular yellow and salmon colors of the "chicken of the woods" certainly isn't common, but as the name implies this is actually an edible fungus, which by all accounts tastes like its name.   It comes in two shapes, fleshy as you see here and much flatter; you can see both forms by clicking on this photo, which will open a new window with my Fungus Wallpaper page.   As well as having different shapes, there are also two color variations, one yellow like this and the other whiter, which leads some people to believe that there are actually two similar species which should be distinguished.

chicken of the woods mushrooms

The open water areas are ideal both for migrating birds and for residents, like this Canada goose which is washing its feathers by vigorously beating the water with its wings.   Canada geese are quite attractive, but their large numbers and messy habits make them something of a nuisance.

Canada goose washing
sandhill crane

Here's a much more exciting avian inhabitant of the bog, a sandhill crane.   They can be seen here quite often, and you can hear their prehistoric-sounding squawk even more often.   They are, in fact, the oldest surviving species of bird on the planet, having been around for about six million years.

Like other cranes, mating pairs do elaborate dances where they both leap into the air with their wings extended, before bowing to each other and repeating the show.

They range far north during summer before flying south in winter, often flying in groups which are so high that they can't be seen from the ground.

I was lucky to see sandhill cranes quite a few times while I lived in Illinois, you can see some older photos taken before I went digital on this page of adult sandhill cranes, and you can see a sandhill crane doing bad things to a Canada goose on this page about a juvenile sandhill crane.

OK, you'd better take the children out of the room before they start thinking that this sort of behavior is natural, normal and healthy.   A pair of common water striders make time out from their busy schedule of eating mosquito larvae and other insects for some quality time together.   Water striders are "true bugs", which means that the front half of their front wings are leathery, and they have a sucking tube called a rostrum under their head with which impale their prey.   Many water striders actually have no wings, and one family even lives on the ocean, which makes it the only truly marine insect.

water striders mating

Here are some more aquatic predators, but this time they're not bugs, instead they're beetles with hard "elytra" covering their wings.   These large whirligig beetles get their name from the way they gather together and spin around in circles when agitated.   They can dive and see underwater, and even when they're on the surface half of each divided eye is looking underwater and half above water.

whirligig beetles

This American Lady butterfly was enjoying the pleasures of the butterfly garden near the visitor's center.   American Lady butterflies look similar to Painted Ladies, but the eyespots on the rear wing are larger; for this reason naturalists use the expression "American ladies have big eyes" to remember the difference.   Like monarchs, American Ladies migrate south in Fall and north in Spring.   These are just three of the many species of butterflies you can see at Volo Bog.

American Lady butterfly

You might be surprised to learn that some butterfly species are territorial and will attack intruders.   I've been buzzed and attacked by several types of butterfly, including commas and mourning cloaks.   I didn't notice the butterfly below, a red admiral, until I was almost on top of it and it flew away.   However, since I knew that this species is also strongly territorial, I waited and in a minute or two it came around again, flying back and forth and checking me out to see if I was a threat.   After deciding I wasn't it landed back in the path and I started very slowly maneuvering towards it on my stomach to get some closeup photos.   It flew away several times, but each time came back and I finally managed to get to within a few inches to get this photo.   On one of its forays it even started chasing a hapless bumble bee which stumbled into its airspace, and I was surprised by how quickly the red admiral flew, and how it was able to twist and turn to follow the intruder through the bushes.   Quite what it would have done if it had caught the bee I don't know, but I have been repeatedly struck by butterflies doing ramming attacks!

If you look closely you'll see that it's only standing on two pairs of legs, but if you look even closer you'll see that the third pair is hooked up behind its eyes.   This is a fairly common feature of several butterfly species, but one which most people don't know about.   You can also see how hairy this butterfly is, which allows it to tolerate quite cold weather; mourning cloak butterflies are an excellent example of this adaptation, they actually stay right through the incredibly cold and snowy winters and are often the first butterflies that people see in Spring.   Red Admirals and American Ladies also overwinter, but both species will migrate and Red Admirals in particular spread very rapidly northward during Spring.   The Red Admiral caterpillar mostly eats nettles, but it will also eat hops and a few other plants.   Like most caterpillars, they're quite specialized in what they will and won't eat.

closeup of Red Admiral butterfly

This smartweed caterpillar, the juvenile version of the smeared dagger moth, was right out in the bog, hanging on to some reeds beside the boardwalk.   Notice the little hairs at the front, which are characteristic of this species, which is just as well, because the coloring can be highly variable - I've seen others with white or tan spines, and without the red "warts" carrying the spines.   The upside-down yellow "w" marks along the side are also characteristic, as are the white "spiracles" or breathing holes, just above each "w".

smeared dagger moth

This is the caterpillar of Henry's marsh moth (Simyra henrici), which is fairly common near wetlands all the way from Canada down to Texas.   The spines on caterpillars like these two often carry irritating chemicals, so you'd be smart not to pick them up!   You can see many more different species on the caterpillars of Northern Illinois page.

Henry's marsh moth caterpillar  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Here's a male white-faced meadowhawk; the female looks quite different, most of the time she's yellow and doesn't have the white face.   You can see photos of them side by side by clicking on this shot, which will open a new window with my Dragonfly Wallpaper page.

white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly

Eeeuw yuck, a fly!   And not just any fly, but a long-legged fly.   Many flies are actually quite attractive looking creatures, and they often have wildly colored eyes.   As you can see, this one also has rainbow colored wings and a beautiful metallic green body - even if it is somewhat hairy!

long-legged fly

If the last photo was bad, then this one must be even worse - unless you're a ten year old boy!   This is a seething mass of large milkweed bug nymphs.   As the name implies, they mostly feed on milkweed, and it's quite common to see them in groups like this, though I'm not sure why.   Milkweed bugs ingest the same toxic chemicals from milkweed that monarch butterfly caterpillars use as chemical protection both before and after becoming a butterfly.   This probably explains why milkweed bugs also have the bright orange warning coloration.

This black and yellow argiope is one of many spiders keeping the insect population in check.   You'll see them particularly around the end of summer, with their large webs strung up amongst the grasses.

black and yellow argiope

Finally, we have another predator, a tiny gray tree frog with its hungry eyes on all of these tasty insects and spiders.   I've only seen three of these frogs in all the times I visited the bog, but you're certain to see bullfrogs along the boardwalk and in the water-filled borrow pit near the visitors center.   It's a mystery to me how frogs and reptiles can survive the long and bitter northern Illinois winters, but in fact their range extends all the way north through Wisconsin and Minnesota to Canada.

gray tree frog