Nature detectives at work

Tracking rare and unusual species in Will County preserves

|  Story by Cindy Wojdyla Cain |


A team of detectives is continuously combing Will County’s forest preserves looking for something new or rare.

This year, they found or identified a globally rare moth, a state-endangered orchid, a possible first sighting of a plant in Illinois and a mystery moth.

These species monitors are part of the Forest Preserve District’s Conservation Department. They spend countless hours in the preserves looking for invasive species or places that need work. But they also are always on the hunt for expanded diversity.

“We always try to keep an eye open for something unusual,” said Floyd Catchpole, the Forest Preserve District’s land management program coordinator.

Here are some of the more unusual finds or identifications from 2023:

Blazing star borer moth

Blazing star borer moth

Catchpole was collecting seeds from marsh blazing star plants recently when he found an unusual looking moth.

“I recognized the moth as a stem-boring moth by its size and the strange shape of its front end and suspected that it might be the blazing star moth,” he said. “Stem borer moths often hang out on their food plant.”

Catchpole quickly confirmed that his guess was correct with an app on his phone.

“I sent a text to the seed-collecting crew alerting them that I had found this very rare moth on the seed heads of marsh blazing star so they would be careful not to harm any they found,” he said.

Judith Wallace, a natural resource management crew leader for the Forest Preserve, called Catchpole to say that she had seen an odd-looking moth just a few minutes earlier, also on a marsh blazing star. She texted Catchpole a photo of an alternate form of the moth.

“Strangely, this moth has two rather different looking forms,” Catchpole said. “But experts still believe it to be one species. Before the day was over, we had found four blazing star borer moths.”

The moth gets its name from the way it feeds.

“The caterpillar actually bores into (the blazing star) plant stems and eats the inside,” Catchpole said.

Conservation crew members were excited with the find because the moth is “very rare and in big trouble,” Catchpole said. “Just to have it living in our preserves is a big deal.”

A quick check with NatureServe, the main site that tracks how species are doing, revealed that the Blazing star borer moth is ranked globally vulnerable.

“Experts believe no populations are healthy enough to last more than 30 years, even though there are over 100 populations believed to still exist.”

The blazing star moth is struggling because there are no longer massive Midwestern prairies filled with marsh blazing star plants.

But there is hope in the Will County area due to preservation efforts that include the U.S. Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie; the state-owned Des Plaines Conservation Area and Goose Lake Prairie State Park; and the 2,000-acre Braidwood Sands Area, which is made up of Will County preserves and state-owned land.

Oklahoma grass pink orchid

Oklahoma grass pink orchid

The blazing star moth isn’t the only exciting recent find in the preserves. One plant that was found a few years ago and was thought to be Eastern grass pink orchid was more recently correctly identified as Oklahoma grass pink orchid, a state-endangered plant.

“A botanist collected a grass pink orchid here before 1995 and the herbarium specimen was later identified as the Oklahoma grass pink orchid,” Catchpole said. “And we have been trying to find this very rare plant ever since. It was really exciting to find it this year because we’ve been looking for it for so long.”

Overall, the orchid isn’t doing very well, so seeing it again in the preserves shows that the District is managing the site correctly, Catchpole explained.

“It definitely seems to like prescribed fire,” he said. “So, that is one thing that does seem to help, getting the site burned. And it showed up in our higher quality patches of prairie.”

Seeds were collected from the Oklahoma grass pink orchid plants this year and there is hope that more specimens can be grown from the seeds at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

“We’ll find out this winter or next spring if the seed turned out to be viable,” Catchpole said.

Sessile water horehound

Sessile water horehound

Catchpole is waiting for confirmation from the University of Illinois that a plant found living in the Braidwood Sands Area in southern Will County is sessile water horehound.

“It’s a plant that’s never been known to occur in Illinois before,” Catchpole said. “It does occur in the grand marsh of the Kankakee River in Indiana where it is listed as state endangered. If it was going to be anywhere in Illinois, this is where you would expect it to be.”

The Kankakee River flows through the Braidwood Sands area.

“What’s really unusual about it is it’s a plant that is known primarily from the East Coast of the United States in coastal sand areas,” Catchpole explained. “There are small handfuls of populations in Indiana and now this possible one in Illinois are the only places where it’s not growing on the East Coast.”

The Braidwood Sands Area also is home to the state-endangered shore St. John’s wort, which also is a coastal plant that is normally found on the East Coast.

“The Braidwood Sands Area has places where the water table fluctuates,” he said. “It goes up and down like a shoreline.”

Catchpole said the seeds of such plants were most likely spread to noncoastal areas by birds and other animals transporting the seeds combined with water flowing downstream.

The specimen Catchpole preserved was picked up by state botanists on Nov. 2 and they will analyze it to see if it truly is sessile water horehound.

Spreading dogbane

Spreading dogbane

When Catchpole visited Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve in Cook County earlier this year and saw spreading dogbane in bloom, he lamented the fact that the plant was not found in the Braidwood Sands Area, which has a similar sandy soil.

““It seemed odd that I hadn’t seen this pretty plant on our sand preserves,” he said “Then, a week later, I was down in our Sands area and sure enough there it was. It’s really uncommon, but we obviously have it.”

The Forest Preserve’s database shows spreading dogbane also was seen in other preserves, but it wasn’t blooming because of a dense tree canopy. And the plant hadn’t been seen in the Braidwood Sands Area for a couple of decades.

“To see it flowering is another sign that our management is successful,” Catchpole said.

Mystery moth

 A caterpillar on vegetation.

Photo courtesy of Jim McCormac

In 2018, Catchpole was visiting a French grass patch in the Braidwood Sands Area.

“To my delight, I saw a striking yellow caterpillar with black spots feeding on the flower head and leaves,” he said.

He thought, perhaps, that it was a scurfy pea caterpillar, it looked similar, but not quite the same. (Scurfy pea is the name for a plant closely related to French grass.) But when he looked up a photo of the scurfy pea caterpillar, it was not quite right and nothing else Catchpole saw came close to looking like this caterpillar, he said.

Catchpole said he thought perhaps the caterpillar was a “slightly unusual” scurfy pea flower moth until earlier this year when he heard about a new-to-science moth species that feeds on French grass.

“It got me wondering,” he said.

So, he dug out the 2018 photo and compared it to the new discovery specimen described on the Ohio Birds and Biodiversity blog.

“There was my caterpillar, spot on,” Catchpole said when he saw the photo.

The newly discovered moth still doesn’t have a scientific name. But Catchpole said he will continue to do some detective work on this one in 2024.

“Now I need to go back next summer and look to see if I can find the caterpillars again.”


Photo credits: Flyod Catchpole and Glenn P. Knoblock

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