Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bat Time of Year

Bat Time of Year

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As Halloween approaches I like to make time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house, my children, Jane and Will, have joined me today to celebrate bats.

I suspect most young people of the present have grown up without being exposed to the kinds of myths about bats that previous generations grew up on. After all, these are kids who have read books with positive bat characters like Stellaluna and Silverwing.

But it can still be fun to bring up old myths, if only to contradict them.

Rob: Guys, are bats blind?

Jane and Will: Nooo.

Rob: Do bats like to get tangled in people’s hair?

Jane and Will: Oh, Please.

Rob: Are bats flying mice?

Jane and Will: Daaad.

Okay, okay. Scientists classify bats in their very own order, chiroptera. Worldwide there are around 1,000 species of bats, and they constitute a quarter of all mammal species alive today.

What’s so cool about bats?

Will: Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. Other mammals, like so-called flying squirrels, can jump from a perch and glide. But bats can propel themselves through the air, and stay up for a long time. The wings of bats are made of very thin skin stretched over very long fingers. [Photo of little brown bat courtesy the Illinois Natural History Survey.]

Jane: Another thing that’s really cool about bats is how they use echolocation to find prey and avoid obstacles as they fly. This built-in sonar allows them to detect insects the size of gnats and objects as fine as human hair.

Will, I know you’re interested in those vicious vampire bats, the ones that suck people’s blood. What can you tell us about them?

Will: Well, vampire bats do drink blood and they can only go a couple of days without eating. But they try to feed on humans only as a last resort. Vampires, which live in Central and South America, prefer to feed on cattle or other wild animals.

Jane: Aside from vampire bats, there are bats that eat lizards, bats that eat birds, and bats that eat other bats. Even more bats feed on fruits and their juices. But 70% of all bats, including all of the species from North America, are insectivores.

Will: And bats can eat a lot of bugs. A male little brown bat eats about half of his body weight in mosquitoes and other insects per night.

Jane: And a female little brown bat that is nursing a pup eats more than her own weight nightly. By eating so many bugs bats perform an important service for people.

Dad: So, since you guys like bats so much, if you found one would you pick it up?

Will: No way--bats are wild animals, and we know they can bite.

Jane: Besides, although very few people in the U.S. get rabies anymore, those who do usually get it from the bite of an infected bat.

Dad: It’s best to consult with the state department of public health or a local animal control agency if you’re faced with the task of getting a bat out your house.

Will: In reality, bats have more to fear from people than people have to fear from bats.

Rob: About half of all bat species worldwide are threatened or endangered, including 4 of the 12 species that occur in Illinois.

Jane: To learn more about bats and what you can do to help protect them, check out the links at the Environmental Almanac website.

Homepage of Bat Conservation International

Articles from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports online:

Indiana Bats in Illinois

Species Spotlight: Little Brown Bat

Thursday, October 18, 2007

As Clean Water Act turns 35, Congress can reaffirm original intent

As Clean Water Act turns 35, Congress can reaffirm original intent

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Today the Clean Water Act, often heralded as one of the most effective sets of environmental laws ever enacted, turns 35. I’d like to report that in the 35 years since passage of the Act, all of the waters of the United States have become fishable and swimmable. I say I’d like to report that, but I can’t.

Today more than 45% of rivers and lakes in the U.S. remain too polluted for people to safely fish in them, swim in them or take their drinking water from them.

I suspect many people are actually comfortable with this state of affairs because they can remember when things were even worse. Point source pollution—ugly stuff running out of pipes—has been greatly reduced, thanks to the permitting system instituted by the Clean Water Act. And we haven’t witnessed anything as dramatic as the Cuyahoga River burning in recent years.

But the Clean Water Act doesn’t prompt us to ask whether we can see pollution flowing out of pipes, or whether our waters are so degraded they’ll catch fire. It prompts us to ask, “Can I fish there?” and “Can I swim there?”

Further progress toward the ultimate goals of the Clean Water Act is possible, but it won’t be easy.

In part, that’s because progress toward cleaner water will require that we come together to reduce nonpoint source pollution. That includes the nutrients and pesticides that run off of farm fields, lawns and golf courses, as well as the oil, antifreeze, and other contaminants picked up by rainwater as it flows over pavement.

Progress toward cleaner water has also been hampered in Washington in recent years. Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent administrative activities by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have served to exclude certain wetlands and smaller, sometimes intermittent, streams from the protections afforded by the Clean Water Act.

If you measure the streams of Illinois in miles, more than half of them are small enough to now be at risk of losing Clean Water Act protections. Also vulnerable are some 150,000 acres of Illinois wetlands, which could now be considered “isolated” and thereby outside of Clean Water Act safeguards.

I don’t claim expertise in the legal arguments at play here, but I do understand that big rivers result from lots of smaller streams coming together, and that you can’t expect to have clean water in the Mississippi unless you also have clean water in the Illinois, and the Wabash, and the Ohio, and the thousands of smaller waterways from which these rivers arise.

Thirty-five years after passage of the original Clean Water Act, Congress has returned to this crucial issue. A bill introduced this summer called the “Clean Water Restoration Act” (HR 2421) would, according to supporters, reaffirm the original intent of the 1972 law, which was to protect all “waters of the United States.” Their hope, which I share, is that the Clean Water Restoration Act will make it possible to move forward again to turn the promise of clean water into a reality.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celebrating the Urbana Park District’s Natural Areas

Celebrating the Urbana Park District’s Natural Areas

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As the Urbana Park District celebrates its 100th anniversary this week I’d like to recognize its ongoing efforts to protect and restore natural areas. While each of the sites I talk about here is a story in it own right, taken together they give evidence of the Urbana Park District’s recognition that good habitat for plants and wildlife is also good habitat for people.

Let’s start at Busey Woods, the 59-acre tract connected to the Anita Purves Nature Center on North Broadway. Saved from development as an industrial park in the 1960s, this remnant of the Big Grove (the10-square mile forest that once encompassed much of present day Urbana) was formally acquired by the park district in 1992. The mix of mature oak and hickory trees that makes up Busey Woods provides a home for nesting birds in the summer, and an important stopover for migrants in the spring and fall. Busey Woods is also the only nearby place where residents of Champaign-Urbana can witness the awakening of life in vernal pools in early spring, and enjoy the show put on by woodland wildflowers.

In recent years the park district has made great strides in promoting a robust and diverse understory of native plants in Busey Woods by removing the invasive species that had begun to crowd them out.

People are accommodated at Busey Woods by a system of well-maintained trails, as well as a boardwalk that makes the woods accessible to those with physical restrictions. The boardwalk features overlook areas with benches, and signs that help visitors understand and appreciate what they see there.

A visit to Meadowbrook Park, just three miles south of Busey Woods, provides area residents and others with the opportunity to experience an 80-acre restoration of the tallgrass prairie that dominated the local landscape prior to European settlement. Prairie restoration efforts at Meadowbrook date back to the late 1970s, and have benefited greatly from the help of the Champaign County Audubon Society. In recent years the park district has added a 15-acre savanna restoration to the prairie at Meadowbrook Park. Named the Walker Grove in honor of park board president Michael Walker’s parents, this area is meant to recreate the transitional zone that existed where tallgrass prairie and woodlands met.

Toward the eastern edge of town, the Urbana Park District is integrating natural areas with the development of athletic fields at one of its newest sites, Weaver Park. The natural areas at Weaver Park include a 10-acre remnant of the Big Grove with trees that date back 200 years or more, as well as a brand new watershed management project. This project uses native plants in a naturalized basin to create wildlife habitat and at the same time alleviate flooding on the site and in the surrounding neighborhood.

An even more ambitious wetland project is taking shape at an 86-acre site not yet open to the public, adjacent to the district’s dog park on Perkins Road. The best way to experience what, for now, is called the Perkins Road site before it’s officially open is to participate in one of the regularly scheduled workdays there.

Would we be able to get by without access to woodlands, or prairies, or wetlands? I suppose so. But our community is far richer for the opportunities we have to experience natural areas thanks to the Urbana Park District.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

October promises dramatic changes for the natural world in central Illinois

October promises dramatic changes for the natural world in central Illinois

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Although this week’s daytime high temperatures in the 80s make it tempting to think otherwise, the month of October promises dramatic changes for the natural world in central Illinois.

In urban areas, the acorns and walnuts that have already fallen add new challenges walking and cycling. Grey squirrels are in a constant frenzy, trying to figure out how to store the surplus of food available to them now. If you find walnuts stuck in your flower pots or wedged into odd places around your house or even on your car, blame the squirrels.

For now, chimney swifts still enliven the skies throughout the day, chipping to one another as they swoop and glide in pursuit of insects. But somewhere around the middle of the month they’ll head for South America, not to be seen here again until mid-April.

Over in Indiana migrating sandhill cranes have begun to arrive at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. As of now there are some 400 hundred of these magnificent birds at the site, but their numbers will increase over the next six weeks until they peak at more than 10,000 in mid-November.

The cranes will move on to spend the winter in Georgia and Florida, but the smaller, cold-hardy birds that come down from the north to stay in Illinois for the winter will also arrive in October. If you keep an eye out you’re likely to see the season’s first dark-eyed juncos at your feeder before the month is over.

Insect life, which is so abundant now, will also be scarce in a few short weeks. Migratory species, including monarch butterflies and assorted dragonflies, will have moved on by the time November arrives. Adults of other species will die off with the coming of frost, to be survived by eggs or larvae capable of withstanding the winter.

Frogs and toads will continue to fatten up on insects while they can, but over the course of the month they’ll be moving toward the edges of lakes and ponds. After a cold snap or two, they’ll burrow into the mud for protection from freezing as they hibernate through the winter.

In places where prairie remains or has been restored, this year’s flower show is mostly over, save for goldenrods and asters. Now is the time for the seeds of most plants to ripen and disperse. Adapted as they are for long life, the perennial grasses and flowers of the prairie will send the energy they have produced through the growing season below ground. It’s a good time to recall that much of the life of the prairie exists beneath the surface, where a deep, dense tangle of roots rhizomes and other structures mirrors the growth aboveground in depth and complexity.

Sure, it may still feel like summer today, but October means change for central Illinois.