Mark Hurley grew up fishing and spent most of his free time outdoors. He continues to spend a great deal of time outside working for the Lake County Forest Preserves, where he has built a 30-year career so far.
Serving as an environmental educator and volunteer coordinator, Hurley says he enjoys the diversity of habitats in the forest preserves and sharing his knowledge with others. Within the industry, and among his peers, Hurley is considered a birding expert.
"My eyes were really opened to birding when I started working here. I taught myself, and spent a lot of time with experts in the field," Hurley said.
In most cases Hurley is able to identify birds solely by their sounds or songs. When leading bird walks, he instructs participants to first look for movement and then listen for the bird's vocalization. He estimates that he has seen at least 500 bird species during his career, adding that he has spotted about 300 in Lake County, including those that migrate through this area.
He admits it's tough to pick just one species as his favorite, adding that the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) and the ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) are at the top of the list.
"My favorite bird group would have to be the Eastern wood warblers (Phylloscopus sibilatrix). It has about 30 different species in our area."
While the stay-at-home order has forced the temporary cancellation of all in-person education programs, Hurley and his colleagues have been developing virtual nature and history programs and digital resources for at-home learning.
Program series feature virtual wildflower walks, scavenger hunts, citizen science opportunities and viewing items from the Dunn Museum's collections and archives.
Additional activities will be offered soon and featured on the Lake County Forest Preserves website, LCFPD.org, and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram @LCFPD.
Hurley has launched a virtual program to assist people with detecting the species they see while bird-watching in their own backyards.
"It's fun, educational and a nice diversion," said Hurley about sharing his photography and educational facts about birds visiting his home feeders on the Lake County Forest Preserves social media outlets.
"As it gets warmer, I'll move the operation to the rocking chair on my back deck, situated nicely under two mature oaks," he said. From that vantage point, he said he saw about 65 bird species last spring.
Hurley has developed a following over the years for his programs, in part because of his knowledge and approachable manner in his education style.
I asked Hurley about his job and the new virtual birding program he's leading this spring.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your role at the Lake County Forest Preserves.
A: I am an environmental educator. I teach nature programs for school groups and adults in the form of field trips to forest preserves, school presentations, guided walks in our preserves, and youth fishing camps.
Our school programs are designed to address Illinois Learning Standards.
When the public has a nature-related question and calls our office, I am one of the staff members to respond.
Q: You also lead volunteer efforts?
A: Yes. I am a volunteer coordinator and oversee the environmental education division made up of 130 volunteers. I work with staff to schedule events and programs. I coordinate and train volunteers for their assignments, which may include leading nature walks, teaching school programs, or helping with summer camps.
I communicate with people who reach out to us about volunteering, and I help determine what would be the best fit for their needs, as well as ours.
Last year, 867 volunteers donated more than 20,425 hours of their time to a variety of educational programs, and to projects at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville, at our Native Seed Nursery at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake, and at various other forest preserves across the county.
Q: Tell us a little background about yourself.
A: I grew up in Wisconsin, spending much of my youth fishing the backwaters of the Mississippi River. My family liked to spend time outdoors and that contributed to my interest in nature.
With this, I went to University of Wisconsin Steven's Point and received a degree in natural resources management, with an emphasis in environmental education. I graduated in May of 1989 and began working at the Lake County Forest Preserves that summer.
Q: Tell us an early memory you have related to your career.
A: At one point early on in my second year of college, I was not sure if environmental education was the right fit for me. In one of my classes, I spent a week developing activities for school groups at Central Wisconsin Environmental Station, a 200-acre teaching and learning center located 17 miles east of Stevens Point on glacial Sunset Lake. Soon after, I began teaching my own classes and it all seemed to click. At the end of the program, they asked me back to fill a vacancy.
Q: What is one interesting fact about Lake County's forest preserves?
A: The diversity of habitats within the forest preserves is compelling. The receding glaciers left us with Lake Michigan, the dunes, prairies, oak savannas, other types of oak woodlands, bogs, fens, and the mixed hardwood forests along the river.
Q: The statewide stay-at-home order prompted you to start a new virtual program, "Backyard Birding."
A: Yes, this program follows an initiative of the Lake County Forest Preserves to "bring the outside in" for people who are home and want to engage with or learn about nature. I am capturing photos, facts and videos of birds in my backyard and sharing them on our organization's social media pages. Since people are spending most of their time at home, monitoring birds is an enjoyable and easy activity for everyone.
Q: Why is now a good time for this program?
A: Despite the pandemic, birds are beginning their migration through our area. Most of the waterfowl are already through. And sparrows, thrushes, warblers and flycatchers are on their way. We will have steady movement of these birds through neighborhoods and forest preserves until the last week of May. I'm keeping track of the number of different species seen in my yard or from my yard. My list currently stands at 40 bird species since Jan 1.
Q: What do you like about your job?
A: What I enjoy most is learning about and observing plants, animals and the subtle changes to habitats as we progress throughout each year. Obviously, I like to share this information with the public.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I enjoy working in my yard and on small home projects. I also enjoy taking my kids to their various events, and going on walks with my wife.
Q: Tell us about your passion for fishing.
A: When you grow up on the Mississippi River, fishing is a natural. I spent so much time fishing with my dad and grandpa. I also spent a lot of time in Canada angling. About 20 years ago, I started teaching fishing camps here at the forest preserves, now one of our most popular youth summer offerings. Some participants return year after year.
Q: What is your favorite forest preserve?
A: I would have to say I enjoy Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods the most. It's also where my office is located. I know that preserve so well from my time spent there observing nature, teaching school groups and restoring it through buckthorn removal. In my opinion, it's one of the best forest preserves in the state.
Note from the Lake County Forest Preserves: In an effort to align with Centers for Disease Control guidelines regarding the spread of COVID-19, we have canceled all in-person educational programming, volunteer workdays, picnic shelter rentals, open area reservations, and special use permits through Sunday, May 31. To date, all public buildings, restrooms, playgrounds, visitor centers, model airplane field and dog exercise areas are closed until further notice. Preserves will remain open 6:30 a.m. to sunset as long as visitors adhere to the 6-foot social distancing rule and other public safety and health guidelines.
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.