Field Notes from Executive Director Alan Branhagen

On Friday, October 27, 2023 NLI Stewardship Director Zach Grycan, Restoration Ecologist Tyler Pellegrini, and NLI Volunteer Martin Kehoe led me through a site visit of the Richard Conklin Preserve and its adjacent Carleton Easements (John Carleton, Helen Carleton Trust & John and William Carleton). These are NLI protected lands in the Pecatonica River floodplain about 3-miles upstream from its confluence with the Rock River.

The morning was mild with a low above our normal high but it was gloomy with a bit of mist. We drove towards NLI’s two-parcel preserve via the easement lands crossing a beautiful oxbow of the Pecatonica River and Martin stated this would be a great place to have one of the Illinois Ornithologists Union’s “Big Sits” — a place where you spend a day and count all the bird species you see. The diversity of open water, wetlands and forest at the site offered premier birding habitats. We drove towards the east unit of the NLI preserve passing tree plantings on the easement that were NRCS sponsored “CP22” plantings that included local and regionally native trees. We talked about the river birch and pin oaks planted that are not locally native but indicators of this type of habitat. Human assisted migration for those trees!

Zach Grycan stands next to a giant swamp white oak. Photo: Alan Branhagen

We entered the Conklin east unit and I was taken aback by the old growth, open forest with magnificent swamp white oak trees dominating the canopy. Swamp white oaks are common along the Sugar River and Raccoon Creeks but uncommon in the areas of the Pec floodplain I was familiar with. Some of the trees were at least 90 feet tall with one exceptional tree having a girth of more than 4 feet in diameter (see image with Zach for scale). It was the biggest wild swamp white oak I have ever seen. There were many dead trees from the recent extreme flood events and a corresponding abundance of Red-headed Woodpeckers. We noticed carpets of silver maple seedlings and we discussed management needed to conserve this amazing oak woodland into the future and not let it become a dense thicket of aggressive species.



Wahoo fruits. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Wahoo! We also found wild eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpurea) our only locally native euonymus with brilliant fruits (it’s related to bittersweet) that are a bright fuchsia pink capsule with red seeds. The invasive European Spindle tree has taken over most local woodlands and is similar but becomes a larger tree to 30-feet and has paler fruits and green flowers – our native wahoo has dark maroon flowers and how it got its Latin name atropurpurea (which translates to dark purple). Tyler collected some seeds.




The eastern wahoo, showing fall color here, can be a shrub or tree than can grow to 25ft high. Photo: Alan Branhagen


We toured other components of the easement with amazing woodlands and wetlands and more CP22 plantings where I noticed another regionally, but not locally native tree: shellbark AKA kingnut hickory (Carya laciniosa). Shellbark hickory is like our shagbark hickory but on steroids: the nuts are the largest hickory, the leaves huge and with 2 extra leaflets (see photo of Zach holding a leaf). It prefers mesic floodplain forests so was right at home. At first, we thought these might be saplings from a wild tree but near the end of our visit realized they were part of the plantings. There are a couple wild trees at Nygren Wetland Preserve just downstream that are certainly hybrids and I suspect the indigenous peoples planted the tree locally long ago.

Zach Grycan holds an enormous leaf from a shellbark hickory tree. Photo: Alan Branhagen


Rose mallow from a dormant plant. Photo: Alan Branhagen

We entered the west unit of the Conklin Preserve after looking at some stands of Black Maple (Acer nigrum) – closely related to sugar maple but more apt to be in stressful sites like mesic floodplains. We talked about the accompanying carpets of Virginia bluebells that grace the woods around May Day each year – or are recovering from the record flooding having drowned them out. We walked across a river scar wetland and found another out-of-place plant – a Rose Mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpa) which was distinctive with its hairy seed pods. It can have large showy white or pink flowers. Where did it come from as it’s also not known locally? (see photo)




Alan Branhagen leaning on the red mulberrry tree at the Conklin Preserve. Photo: Tyler Pellegrini

The west Conklin Preserve had some amazing Kentucky Coffee trees (see photo with Zach) and major old growth had been cut for veneer logs earlier. There were many bitternut hickories (Carya cordiformis) decked out in butter yellow fall attire. Martin pointed out a massive swamp white oak that had uprooted and when I looked, I saw an odd understory tree in lime foliage and with my binoculars I thought it must be a red mulberry (Morus rubra)!  We went over to confirm the ID (see photo of Alan w the tree). Red Mulberry is a tree in trouble as it is being hybridized out of existence by the invasive white mulberry from Asia. It has become a rare tree in most of its former range and is now on conservationists’ radar. It is a dioecious tree so either male or female – we only saw one tree but Zach recorded its coordinates for future conservation. Tyler commented it was the first one he had ever seen in the wild.

Zach Grycan looks up at a Kentucky coffee tree. Photo: Alan Branhagen

So, the Conklin Preserve and adjacent Easement properties exceeded my expectations and I was so thankful Richard Conklin donated his special properties to NLI and that the connecting landowners committed to the preservation of their land as well. We flushed a group of over 100 Wood Ducks (a conservation success story) and also saw flocks of Rusty Blackbirds (a bird of conservation concern). We were grateful for the great tour by Martin who has been hiking this ground for many decades and sharing his insight and lifelong experiences there. I can’t wait to return in spring to see the wildflowers and migrating songbirds.

Martin Kehoe looks up at a towering swamp white oak. Photo: Alan Branhagen


The fallen giant swamp white oak Alan referred to in his story. Photo: Alan Branhagen



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