Thursday, March 30, 2006

Prairie Fire, Now and Then

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[Note: A technical glitch kept this spot from airing on WILL at 4:45 on March 30, so it is set to run at 4:45 and 6:45 on April 6.]

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I joined up with thirty other volunteers to set a fire. Our goal was to burn three years worth of dried growth on part of a restored prairie owned and managed by the Barnhart family south of Urbana. [Click to visit the Barnhart Prairie website.] Actually, it took only one person armed with a kerosene drip torch to light the fire; the rest of us spread out along the line where he passed. Our job was to make sure no flames or sparks crossed the mowed path that served as a break to contain it.

The vegetation we were burning was dry as could be, and a steady breeze pushed the fire along right where we wanted it to go. Where the plants lay down the fire rippled over the ground like waves on a burning lake. Where the dry stalks stood upright the flames roared skyward, a tower of heat and light. In the wake of the fire, the smoke cleared quickly, and the thin layer of ash that remained smoldered very little. Looking on the newly cleared ground was like looking at a newly planted garden, with all of the hopeful anticipation that involves.

What the Barnharts are working to restore is tallgrass prairie, a relatively small patch of the ecosystem that dominated central Illinois from about eight thousand years ago until the coming of European settlers and the advent of modern agriculture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since the 1820s, more than ninety-nine percent of Illinois’ prairie has been converted to cropland or urban uses. [To learn more about prairies, visit The Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois by Ken Robertson, botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.]

Historically, the flora of the tallgrass prairie was characterized by a tightly packed mixture of more than three hundred species of grasses and flowers, many of which grew ten feet tall, or more.

In combination with climate and grazing, fire was one of the primary factors that accounted for the existence of prairies where forests might otherwise have dominated the landscape. Sometimes caused by lightning and other times ignited by Native Americans, prairie fires are estimated to have burned any given parcel of land once every one to five years.

Prairie fires moved quickly, so their heat did not penetrate deep into the soil. Thus they killed the saplings of encroaching trees, and favored instead the growth of herbaceous perennials, plants that die back and store their energy below the ground in winter.

By removing thatch and speeding the return of nutrients to the soil in the form of ash, prairie fires enabled dormant seeds to germinate. The spring and summer following a burn were marked by a profusion of flowers and reinvigorated forage.

Prescribed burns are used now in the management of prairie remnants and restorations to achieve similar effects.

Although fire has proven an effective tool in efforts to maintain and restore prairies, it should be emphasized that we’re still learning how best to use it. For example, some seventy-five percent of all the species of organisms found in a prairie are insects or their close relatives. Many of these creatures overwinter in the dead stems of prairie plants, and are thus wiped out in a burn. This loss may not have constituted a disaster back when the size and make-up of prairies guaranteed sufficient insect populations to re-colonize burned areas. But in today’s highly fragmented landscape, where prairie remnants and restorations are small and disconnected, it takes careful planning to ensure that there are bugs enough nearby to truly bring a prairie back to life.

And bringing the prairie back to life—even if it’s in a small way—is the goal of the prairie fires we set today.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Urbana's Big Grove Oaks

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When we think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement we tend to think “prairie:" tall grasses and wild flowers adapted to life in unevenly drained soil subject to burning on a fairly regular basis.

And prairie is most of the story. But it is not the whole story.

Groves of trees intruded on the prairie here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well.

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game, shelter, and respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for Native American villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was called by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s the cool thing. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand in Urbana today.

You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a Bur Oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises more than eighty feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage. This tree’s limbs spread as wide as it is tall, which tells us that it grew up in a relatively open area, the meeting zone between woodland and prairie.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger Bur Oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Quaker Meetinghouse that was completed last year. We know this tree to be roughly two hundred forty years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.”

The “bicentennial tree” and the oak at Long’s Garage are both commemorated with stone markers and plaques that were set up by the Urbana Tree Commission in 1976.

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at Urbana Park District sites. The oldest and largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are ten or so of the trees at Weaver Park, now being developed on East Main.

Special thanks for assistance with today’s piece to Bob Vaiden of the Illinois State Geological Survey, Derek Liebert of the Urbana Park District, and Mike Brunk, City Arborist for Urbana.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

East Central Illinois Is an Active Place in Early Spring (But It's Not Florida)

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The past couple of years I’ve spent spring break with my wife and children at state parks on the Florida Gulf Coast. There we’ve enjoyed fantastic birding, pretty good fishing, and the opportunity to explore the seemingly infinite life of tidal areas. This year, however, we’ll be sticking closer to home, which has gotten me thinking about the outdoor attractions our part of the world has to offer at this time of year. When you stop consider it, early spring really is an active time here.

It is the time of year to find members of the mole salamander family above ground. These are creatures that live most of their lives farther down in the soil, but that travel overland in early spring, to and from the seasonal ponds where they breed. You can often find such salamanders by rolling over decaying logs in the vicinity of vernal pools, like the ones at Busey Woods in Urbana, or Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County.

Vernal pools, which are defined by the fact that they dry up completely later in the year and thus do not hold fish, are also home to quite a bit of other activity in March. This activity is signalled by the calls of spring peepers, wood frogs, and other amphibians out to reproduce. And it’s evident in the graceful movement of fairy shrimp, inch-long crustaceans that row themselves along with eleven delicate pairs of legs. A dip net and a plastic pan are all the equipment you need to spend an afternoon exploring a vernal pool.

A mid-March walk in the woods provides a great opportunity to witness the early development of spring wildflowers, which have to make the most of this time before the trees leaf out and block the sunlight. Bluebells and spring beauties have already begun to emerge, as has bloodroot, which may even be blooming next week. Perhaps a hike along the Sangamon River at Allerton Park near Monticello is in order.

March means “move” for a lot of birds, and that opens up myriad possibilities for birdwatchers. You can see more waterfowl than you can count along the Illinois River right now, but you may also see a surprising variety of ducks and geese on just about any body of water at this time of year. Large impoundments like Clinton Lake, Lake Decatur and Lake Vermilion offer great possibilities. But so do subdivision detention ponds, farm ponds, and flooded fields. If you’re up for a day trip, there are still some seven to eight thousand northbound sandhill cranes stopping over at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana. The sight of these magnificent birds coming in to roost can be well worth the two-and-a-half hour drive from Champaign-Urbana.

March is also the time to witness the mating display of the male American woodcock, a long-billed, stout-bodied oddity of a bird who performs twice a day, at dawn and dusk. You can see his highly choreographed mix of strutting, sound and flight at any natural area with the right mix of open ground and brush, including Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve, near Homer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, even with all of the spring activity there is to enjoy in our part of the world, I still wouldn’t mind a March trip to Florida. But with a break or two in the weather, we’ll get by here, won’t we?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Keeping Bighead and Silver Carp Out of the Great Lakes

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[Click this link to see Illinois Natural History Survey video of silver carp leaping out of the water in response to boats.]

You know that old story of the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike to prevent a flood? Well, his task was easy compared to the task facing researchers from Illinois and neighboring states who are trying to prevent an invasion of the Great Lakes by two species of carp native to Asia, the bighead and silver carp.

This story dates back to the 1970s, when bighead and silver carp were imported to the southern United States from China in order to control aquatic vegetation and plankton blooms in fish-rearing ponds. Whether they then escaped during floods or were released intentionally, they began showing up in the Mississippi River Basin by the early 1980s.

Since then, bighead and silver carp have made their way steadily north, up through the Illinois River system toward the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Created in the late 1800s to divert sewage from Chicago, the twenty-eight mile long canal provides the only direct aquatic link between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins. Blocking passage of the carp through the canal is a crucial element of the fight to keep them out of the Great Lakes.

The first defense against the movement of bighead and silver carp into Lake Michigan has been an experimental electric barrier, which was constructed near Romeoville, and began operation in Spring of 2002. This barrier uses electrodes deployed in a cross-section of the canal to create a wall of electric current. The electricity irritates fish as they approach and causes them to turn around.

A new, more permanent barrier using two electric arrays is in the final stages of installation, and should be fully operational this summer.

Working with funding from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, researchers have also been investigating the potential for using an acoustic barrier to prevent the movement of fish through the Chicago Canal. The system they have developed uses sound projectors that emit chirping noises which repel fish, combined with an air line that generates a wall of bubbles. The bubble-wall amplifies the projected sound and causes additional disturbance to fish.

The design for the acoustic barrier is relatively simple, which means it might be an affordable way to augment the electric barrier. In addition, since it requires little electricity it could be run with a generator during a power outage.

Of course effective barriers can only stop fish from swimming into the Great Lakes on their own. It is equally important that people, especially anglers and boaters, not move invasive species from one body of water to another. This is a great concern with bighead and silver carp, since the young of both species closely resemble gizzard shad, a native North American fish commonly caught for use as bait. If you fish or boat I would encourage you to check out the educational materials Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant puts out on invasive species, to help ensure you don’t inadvertently contribute to the problem. [Scroll down to the "Featured Products" section at this Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant link.]

Researchers are still assessing the impact of bighead and silver carp on ecosystems and fisheries in the Mississippi River drainage, and it is hoped that the high productivity of that system will blunt the damage they cause there. There is little hope that Lake Michigan would fare so well, since it is a less productive system to begin with, and it has already been hit hard by zebra mussels and other invaders. By committing resources to stop the spread of bighead and silver carp now, we can prevent one nightmare from becoming a reality for the Great Lakes.

A special thanks to Irene Miles and Pat Charlebois of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and Phil Moy of Wisconsin Sea Grant for help with this program.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Peregrine Falcon(s) in Champaign-Urbana

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Post Script: The following is from an e-mail received from Diana Grunloh, who works on the UIUC campus, the day after this story ran.

It is rare indeed for me to have what I call a "Marty Stauffer Moment" and then have it confirmed on radio. This happened last evening as I was leaving work at the Illini Union. While walking down the Quad I saw what appeared to be a falcon fly into an oak tree there. I really did not believe my eyes, so I moved closer to see...YES a Peregrine Falcon sitting on a low branch preening his feathers. I snapped many "not really close enough" pictures (see below right) to compare with my Audubon Guide at home. And then, an even more amazing thing...on my drive home what should come on AM 580 but Environmental Almanac and you, sir, talking about the very falcon I had just seen.

If you think of wildlife as something that exists “out there,” away from buildings and streets and the bustle of human activity, I’d like to call your attention to a bird that might prompt you to reconsider.

It’s a peregrine falcon, for my money, one of the coolest birds in the world. This is the bird that reaches speeds of up to two hundred miles an hour in its spectacular hunting dives.

And let me clarify here, I don’t just want to introduce you to peregrines by telling you some interesting things about them as a species, although I am going to do that. I want to introduce you to an individual peregrine that many listeners should be able to see without going far out of their way.

Back in late November, birders in and around Champaign-Urbana began spotting a peregrine, mostly as it hunted pigeons near the U of I South Farms. (I first saw it there on Thanksgiving Day with my brother, who introduced me to birding twenty years ago, and who was visiting from New Hampshire. Thanks, John.) More recently, birders who work on the U of I campus have noticed a peregrine, presumably the same one, which shows up pretty regularly at a highly visible, central campus location.

If you’d like to look for the peregrine yourself, here’s what you need to know: late in the afternoon, he often perches on the cross atop the spire of the Wesley United Methodist Church, at the southeast corner of Green and Mathews. (Photo above by Greg Lambeth, birdman extraordinaire, taken February 5, 2006.) He usually arrives sometime between 4:15 and 5:00 o’clock, and stays for anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour or more.

The bird you’re looking for is perhaps sixteen inches long from bill to tail tip, and the spire he perches on stands a hundred eighty four feet tall. When he’s up there, you can tell from blocks away. But to see any detail on our peregrine you will need to be much closer, and to use binoculars.

In good light you should be able to make out the dark, helmet-like markings on his head, and the wide lines that extend down over his cheek like exaggerated sideburns. People with better eyes than mine are able to see a green leg band, which indicates this peregrine comes from a breeding program.

As you may or may not remember, peregrines were extirpated from most of their range in the United States by the pesticide DDT, before it was banned in 1972. They were protected under the Endangered Species Act until 1999, when, thanks to extensive breeding and reintroduction programs, their numbers had recovered to sustainable levels.

The peregrine’s robust recovery depended on its tolerance for life among people, a trait not shared by some other endangered birds. Prior to urbanization, most North American peregrines nested on cliffs. But they now also thrive in habitat created by humans, nesting on the ledges of tall buildings and bridges, even in densely populated cities.

Of course there’s no guarantee that the U of I peregrine will show up at his late afternoon perch on any given day—and I’m a little anxious that he’ll never be seen again, now that I’ve talked about him on the radio. But he has been observed fairly regularly since December, and I urge you to keep an eye out for this magnificent bird.

Note: After this story was recorded for radio I learned of another peregrine (or peregrines) spotted in Spring 2005 and again this winter at the Presidential Tower, 302 East John Street in Champaign. The photo right was taken last April by Jackie Roy, who works in the State 4-H office, looking south from the 19th floor. The bird in the photo is an adult, so it's not the same as this year's spire bird, which is a juvenile.