Thursday, July 30, 2009

Make the most of opportunities for outdoor activity in August

Make the most of opportunities for outdoor activity in August

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August is here, the beginning of the end of summer. The thought struck me last Sunday when I observed a scattering of cottonwood leaves already on the ground. I was picnicking with family and friends prior to a short float on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River when I noticed them. The grass on which the leaves lay was uncharacteristically green for this time of year, thanks to the abundant rain we’ve enjoyed over the summer. But the cottonwood leaves were the gray-brown color of a paper grocery sack left out in the sun.

Why cottonwood leaves begin to turn brown and drop so early in the year I don’t know. But I take their appearance as a signal that it’s time to make the most of every opportunity for outdoor activity.

What can you do with August?

Some time on a river is always high on my list, since water levels are usually stable at this time of year. For the price of a forgettable hour at the county fair, you can enjoy a leisurely day in a canoe or a kayak or a float tube. If the river is low you may need to portage here and there, but shallow water has its upside, too. It allows inexperienced paddlers to practice maneuvering in a relaxed environment. And it affords access to small treasures of the river that are hidden by higher water, crayfish, mussels, and tadpoles among them.

On a river--and elsewhere--August offers its own opportunities for birding. Shorebirds, including plovers, sandpipers, and the like, can be seen probing for food on gravel bars, or along the edges of just about any body of water. They are on their way from the northern tundra, where they breed, to the Gulf Coast and points south, where they winter. Like cottonwood trees that begin to shed leaves so early, many shorebirds begin fall migration while other birds are still enjoying summer.

If you have been meaning to set up a nectar feeder for hummingbirds but haven’t gotten around to it yet, August is the time. You can enjoy seeing hummingbirds in great numbers between now and the end of September as individuals that breed further north collect here on their way south.

A visit to a prairie remnant or restoration in August offers opportunities to appreciate the plants that put the “tall” in tallgrass prairie. The seed stalks of Indian grass and big bluestem will bolt to their full height this month, until they wave in the breeze above the heads of people who venture out to see them. The tallest flowering plants will be blooming, too. Look for the disc-shaped yellow flower heads of prairie dock and compass plant on nearly leafless stalks that may be eight or ten feet high.

Among the prairie plants August is also a month of great insect activity, a time to appreciate the chorus of grasshoppers, katydids and crickets, whether or not you can identify the individual singers.

If you’re like me, you’ll run out of time in August before you run through the list of things you mean to do, but that’s okay. That’s what warm weekends in September are for.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cook County research provides perspective on coyotes among us

Cook County research provides perspective on coyotes among us

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I was saddened to learn recently that an Urbana family had lost a beloved pet dog to a coyote. As a father and a pet owner I understand the pain of such a loss. Unfortunately for our community, the news coverage of this incident tended to be heavy on sensational misperceptions and light on the sort of information that would help people make sense of it.

I took this as an opportunity to revisit the findings of the Cook County Coyote Project, the largest study of urban coyotes in the world. Scientists with the project have been gathering information about coyote behavior in the Chicago metropolitan area by a variety of methods for nearly a decade now.

One of the most important things they offer is perspective on the threat that coyotes pose to humans. They point out that although Cook County is home to large populations of both people and coyotes no case of a coyote biting a human has been documented there. The researchers compare this to the number of dog bites reported annually in Cook County, which ranges from two to three thousand. The point is not that coyotes pose no threat to people, but that from a broad perspective bites by domestic dogs present a far greater risk.

The researchers in Chicago have found that most urban coyotes are able to live among people without drawing much attention to themselves. Of the 175 animals they tracked using radio collars, only five were removed after being deemed nuisances by the local community. The trouble with these individuals typically began after they became habituated to human settings through food made available by people, whether it was intended for the coyotes or not.

Studies of what coyotes in Cook County eat suggest they play a positive role in urban ecosystems, where the shortage of predators otherwise favors undesirably large populations of some too-familiar creatures. Coyotes feed heavily on small rodents, and so help to keep their populations in check. Coyotes also help to slow population growth among white-tailed deer by taking fawns, and help to limit numbers of Canada geese by feeding on their eggs.

The Cook County researchers note that the greatest controversy over the presence of coyotes in an area is often generated by the fact that they kill free-ranging domestic cats, either for food or for the purpose of eliminating a competing predator. Where people stand on this issue is typically determined by whether they value cats being able to roam or the health of songbird populations, but I’m not going to go down that road today.

Whether people like them or not, coyotes are among us to stay. We can best coexist with them by recognizing the need to remove individuals that present an immediate threat, and the opportunity to appreciate the rest of them.

For more information:

The Cook County Coyote Project

U of I Extension "Living with Wildlife in Illinois"

Environmental Almanac: Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Out of the office, into a stream

Out of the office, into a stream

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Summer is here, but the people I want to catch up with for stories are not. Phone calls get me voicemail, and emails bring out-of-office replies. Perhaps some first-hand research into the health of local waterways is in order.

The equipment list for this foray is short: binoculars, check; camera, check; fly rod, fishing vest, and waders, check. Away we go.

First stop, a stretch of the Salt Fork in Vermilion County. On the drive there I’m reminded of the massive fish kill that occurred on the river back in 2002 when workers at the U of I released ammonia into the system. Note to self: find out what happened to the $450,000 the University finally paid to settle that case last year.

At the bridge where I intend to get on the river, I find it still high and muddy from the extreme rains of June. Is it worth a shot? Not likely. My enthusiasm for this spot is dampened further by some new posting. The roadside trees here bristle with signs: “PRIVATE PROPERTY” -- “Keep Out” -- “NO TRESPASSING HUNTING OR FISHING: VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” It seems to me computer games aren’t the only thing keeping kids from spending summer days down by the old fishin’ hole.

[Photos: Silt-laden water and heavy posting discourage a stop on the Salt Fork River.]

Maybe a smaller stream would offer clearer water and better opportunities. Up the road there’s access to a tributary I’ve always meant to fish but never gotten around to. I park in the lot at a high school with grounds bordering the creek and get into my waders.

As I cross the lawn toward the woods I catch the music of water tumbling over rocks before I am able to glimpse the creek through the trees. The emphatic calling of an Acadian flycatcher, which often nests over streams, assures me I’ve come to the right place.

The creek here is even more attractive than it appeared to be from the road. Water plunges from one well-defined pool to the next over rocky riffles and through deeper, narrow runs. It’s like the Pennsylvania trout stream I’ll be fishing soon on a smaller scale, although here the fish I’m after are smallmouth bass.

The pools I cast to first are shallow, and yield only a few shiners. But as I make my way downstream I get into waist-deep water now and then, and that’s where the bass hang out. Over the next couple of hours I catch four of them, none trophies, but all worth the effort.

For the angler who’s a birder, too, the intervals between fish hold their own pleasures. I enjoy listening to the rising, buzzy trill of a northern parula, one of those songbirds that’s so eagerly awaited by birders in the spring and then forgotten once the trees leaf out. A kingfisher barrels upstream intent on her own fishing. At the sight of me she banks sharply and climbs higher, then drops back down toward the water once she is safely past.

The only heart-stopping moment of this trip comes when I flush a doe from the streamside brush. She thrashes as she rises, springs across the creek and clatters among the loose rocks there before disappearing into the woods.

I’ve substituted coffee for the lunch I didn’t pack, and by mid afternoon the impulse to eat overcomes the urge to explore one more stretch of creek. It’s good to know there will still be water that’s new to me when I come back again.