Get Geeked About Creeks!

The forest preserves have lots of different types of water flowing through the woods and prairies. Some preserves are named after these waters. Whalon Lake, Monee Reservoir and Rock Run Rookery are examples of preserves with big bodies of water. Others, like Hickory Creek Preserve, Forked Creek Preserve and Sugar Creek Preserve, all are named after smaller waterways. Can you guess which kind of waterway? Creeks, of course!

Plum Creek. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

Rivers, Streams and Creeks, oh my!


Waterways can be all shapes and sizes. There is no scientific difference between rivers, streams and creeks. Rivers tend to be the largest, streams are in the middle, and the smallest are often called creeks.


Rivers, streams and creeks are all full of fresh, flowing water. The water that fills these waterways can come from rain or runoff. Runoff is the water that doesn’t get soaked up by the plants and the ground.


Most waterways are connected, creating a watershed. Watersheds are usually named after the largest body of water near your town. For example, Chicago’s watershed is called the Lake Michigan Watershed. The water in most watersheds eventually travels to the oceans. Take out a map. Can you find your nearest creek and trace it as far as it can go?


Creatures of the Creek


Creeks may look shallow, but they are full of life! Naturalists at Plum Creek Nature Center led adventurous families through a section of Plum Creek last month. They were all thrilled to find so many different types of animals. This high diversity is a good sign that the creek is a healthy ecosystem.


Here’s a look at some of the animals found in our local creeks:

A snail. (Photgo by Suzy Lyttle)
  • Snails: Snails move very slowly and are the easiest to catch. If you are quick enough, you will see a snail retreat into its shell. It will close its door until it feels safe.

  • Frogs: Frogs are great at camouflage. The best plan is to step back and see if you can spot any from a safe distance. Then, once you see one, try to get closer as quietly as you can. Once you are in netting distance, act quickly before they jump away!

A tadpole. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)
  • Tadpoles: Tadpoles are baby frogs. They can look different depending on what type of frog they are. The biggest tadpoles are bullfrogs. They like to rest on sticks and leaves, so search there if you want to see one up close.

  • Fish: Smaller fish can find safety in smaller waterways before heading out to bigger ponds and lakes. In Plum Creek, we found small bluegill and bullhead catfish.

  • Crayfish: A crayfish is like a lobster, but smaller. They have sharp pinchers, so be careful handling them!

  • Macroinvertebrates: These are small water insects. Dragonfly larvae were a popular find in Plum Creek. Larvae is another name for the baby form of an insect. Dragonfly larvae can spend four years in the water before turning into an adult dragonfly.


Creek Cautionary Tales


Creeks can have different kinds of bottoms. Sometimes they can be really rocky or really mucky. Be careful where you step! If you are in areas with sinking mud, you may lose a shoe! There could also be spots that are great fishing areas. Where people fish, there are hooks. This is another reason to watch where you walk!


Water levels in creeks can be low or high. Pay attention to the weather. Creeks get their water from the rain. If there has been a lot of rainfall in your area, the water can turn your small, babbling creek into a raging river. If you see a creek with a fast current carrying leaves and sticks, don’t explore it. That current can sweep you down too.


Life in a creek can be hiding under logs. Be careful when using logs as cross ways or steppingstones. Critters such as snails, frogs and tadpoles use logs as hiding places. Snails can be easily found slowly crawling around a rock. You don’t want to squish anything. Keep your eyes on the look out before you step.


Get Creekin’


Here are some equipment suggestions to start your own creek adventure:

Take a creek adventure of your own! (Photo by Angie Opiola)
  • Rain boots or water shoes: Make sure you have footwear to protect your feet. Unfortunately, some creeks may have trash or glass hidden in the rocks or muck. Make sure your shoes fit tightly on your feet. You may find yourself in mucky spots!

  • Dip nets: Nets come in all shapes in sizes. Find a net that is lightweight and easy for you to manage. Use the net to poke in the rocks, sand, soil or muck to find the smaller macroinvertebrates. To catch a frog, use your net quickly before it jumps away.

  • Critter containers: Once you catch a critter, it is nice to take a good look at it. Critter containers can be big or small. You can make your own by saving glass jars or plastic food containers. The important thing to remember is that all your found critters live in the water. Make sure all the containers have water so your new friends will stay comfortable. Once you got a good look, make sure you return all the critters back to the creek. These animals are from the wild and should stay in their habitats.

  • Magnifying lenses: Some creek critters are very small. A magnifying lens can help you see the small things up close and personal. They can also let you see details our eyes might miss. For example, check out a fish’s scales, or look at a frog’s toes.

  • Garbage bag: Sometimes our trash doesn’t make it to the trash can or landfill. Litter is not good for all the plants and animals that live in our creeks. If you happen to find pieces of trash while exploring, help out the critters that live there by throwing it away.

  • Friends and family: Adventures are way more fun when you have people to share them with! Grab all your friends in the neighborhood and find a creek near your home to explore. But be sure to check with your parents first.