Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Peregrine falcon hanging out near U of I campus

Peregrine falcon hanging out near U of I campus

[There's no audio version of this spot because it didn't run on the radio.]

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 200 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 will do that. I want to introduce you to an individual bird that has been hanging out in Champaign, and that many readers should be able to see without going far out of their way.

The peregrine in question was first observed earlier this month by a birder who works in the Tower at 3rd, the tall building at the corner of Third and John Street, just off the U of I campus. [The photo, right, was taken from inside the Tower at 3rd by Jackie Roy, who first spotted this peregrine.] It has been seen regularly on and around the tower since then, most often perched on the window-unit air conditioners that stick out from the upper floors on the southeast side of the building.

If you want to look for the peregrine yourself, your best bet is to scan the Tower at 3rd from a block or two away, say the corner of Fourth and Daniel, or somewhere in the 400 block of East John Street. (And please, if you’re driving or bicycling, park first, then look.) The bird you’re looking for is about 16 inches long from bill to tail tip, and the window units it prefers are on the 19th story. When it is up there, you can tell from some distance. To make out any detail, however, you will need to use binoculars.

In good light you should be able to see the dark, helmet-like markings on its head, and the wide lines that extend down over its cheeks like exaggerated sideburns. If you get a look at the peregrine’s front you will see that it is very heavily marked compared to the hawks more commonly seen in our area.

As you may or may not remember, peregrines were extirpated from most of their range in the United States by use of 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.

I would emphasize that the peregrine’s robust recovery depended on its tolerance for life among people, a trait not shared by many 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.

Since the peregrine I have written about here is a wild animal, there’s no guarantee that it will be around should you go looking for it. (And now that I have written about it, I’m a little anxious it will never be seen again.) But if you are even casually interested in birds, a seeing a peregrine falcon is a treat you don’t want to miss.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Urbana's plans to encourage bicycling

Urbana’s plans to encourage bicycling

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There are some people who just don’t bicycle, either because they are unable or unwilling to. For them, modifications to roads or changes in the behavior of drivers are immaterial.

There are other people who are so enthusiastic about bicycling that they’re now preparing for winter by making sure the studded snow tires for their bikes are ready to go. They will continue to bike with or without better accommodations for bicyclists on city streets.

Then there’s a third group of people. These are folks who would like to bicycle sometimes--either to work, or to run errands, or for recreation--but who don’t because they don’t feel secure navigating in traffic with cars.

It is with this third group in mind that Urbana’s City Council commissioned the development of a bicycle master plan this year. Working with suggestions generated at a large public meeting back in May, as well as an analysis of existing plans for bicycle facilities, the City’s consultant, the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, has recently completed a draft of the Bicycle Master Plan.

When the plan is fully implemented the casual adult cyclist should be able to travel from High Cross Road on the eastern fringe of town to Goodwin Avenue at the heart of the U of I campus by means of an easily accessed, continuous system.

Plan developers note that for the most part neighborhood streets in Urbana already allow bicyclists and other vehicle traffic to share the road comfortably, but that such streets are often not useful for travel between important destinations. They emphasize that the bicycle plan is more about facilitating travel by means of routes that have few stop signs, and that cross major arteries at traffic lights.

On streets where space allows but cars seldom park, the draft plan calls for a single white stripe that would separate a shared parking and bike lane on the right from travel lanes in the center. On streets with higher volumes of car traffic and more parking, a separate, 5-foot wide bike lane would provide bicyclists with a dedicated road space. (You can already see an example of such bike lanes on Illinois Street between Lincoln Avenue and Goodwin.)

On busier roads with higher speed limits and few crossings, such as Windsor and High Cross roads, the proposed bicycle plan calls for side paths separate from, but parallel to the main road, along with safety improvements at major intersections. The bicycle network would also incorporate existing trails, such as those at Meadowbrook Park, as well as rails-to-trails efforts in the future.

If you are interested in bicycling in Urbana you are encouraged to review the draft bicycle plan, which is available on the web through the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, and provide feedback on it.

A public meeting to discuss proposed revisions is scheduled for Thursday, December 6th from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Urbana Middle School.

I should add that planning for improved bicycling facilities is also underway on the U of I campus and in the City of Champaign. I’ll report back on those plans as they develop.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Honey bees and other pollinators in trouble

Honey bees and other pollinators in trouble

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When entomologists want to dramatize the critical role that bees and other pollinators play in our lives, they sometimes turn to descriptions that could provide the opening for an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Picture if you will a world without bees. It is a world without apples, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, melons, or squash--a world without scores of other fruit, vegetable and nut crops. It is a world where important forage crops like alfalfa don’t grow. Worst of all, for some, it is a world without chocolate or coffee.

The thing is, this nightmare scenario really isn’t so far fetched.

You may already know that times have been tough for honey bees since the 1980s. That’s when a parasitic mite that devastates honey bee colonies was accidentally introduced to the U.S.

You may also know that this past year has marked a dramatic turn for the worse. Beginning last winter, a phenomenon that came to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD, has led to steep losses of managed bees in more than 20 states. About one fourth of all beekeepers in the U.S. have been affected and, on average, affected operations have lost a staggering 45% of their bees.

Researchers have recently isolated a virus they think may lead to CCD by sorting through the genetic material of bees from afflicted colonies and comparing it to that of bees from healthy colonies. It may interest you to know that this genetic detective work was made possible by the sequencing of the honey bee genome, a huge accomplishment which was completed just last year and spearheaded by University of Illinois professor Gene Robinson.

Identifying the virus at the root of CCD does not mean a treatment for the disorder is around the corner, and continued losses of honey bees seem likely.

The large-scale loss of managed honey bees is cause enough for alarm on its own. Unfortunately, scientists believe the decline of managed honey bees is being matched by a decline in wild pollinators around the world. Chief among these are wild honey bees and bumble bees. But other wild pollinators in decline include many insects, such as butterflies and moths, as well as some hummingbirds, bats, and other animals.

A 2006 report on the status of pollinators in the U.S. issued by the National Academy of Sciences [report in brief] and headed by University of Illinois professor May Berenbaum emphasized that good information about populations of wild pollinators simply doesn’t exist, so it is difficult to even track declines.

Politicians may be waking up to this issue, as evidenced by the establishment of “National Pollinator Week” back in June. Ordinary citizens have a role to play as well. First, we can modify our gardening practices to eliminate any unnecessary use of pesticides, and favor the use of native wildflowers in our landscaping. Second, people who wish to be even more involved can join the Bee Spotter network just established at the U of I. The Bee Spotter network is designed to engage citizens in the scientific effort to establish baseline information about the numbers of bumble bees and wild honey bees that are out there.

Since most bees in central Illinois won’t be active again for some months, let me encourage you just to check out the Bee Spotter web site at Then as the weather warms up and bees become active next spring I’ll revisit this issue with more detail on what we all can do to help keep bees buzzing.