Thursday, May 13, 2010

“River Discovery Day” to put people in touch with aquatic life

“River Discovery Day” to put people in touch with aquatic life

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A male rainbow darter is a jewel of a fish, especially during the spawning season, when he is at his most colorful. On top he sports a row of small, dark saddles. On the sides he is marked by alternating bars of vibrant blue and orange, which are also the colors of his fins. Below he may be yellow, green or red, and there’s another splash of bright orange around his gills. This handsome creature is one of 27 species of darters that occur in Illinois, and it’s not uncommon in suitable habitat. [Photo by Lance Merry.]

But I bet you’ve never seen one, even if you fish the waters where they live.

Rainbow darters occupy the zone right along the bottom of the stream, and they grow to a maximum length of only about three inches. Like many of the other highly varied organisms that inhabit Illinois waterways, they go unappreciated because they are not easy to observe.

Of course, I mention this as a way of introducing an opportunity. This Saturday, the Illinois Natural History Survey and Prairie Rivers Network will co-host a river discovery program on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River at Kickapoo State Park near Danville. The purpose of the program is to put people directly in touch with the life of the river, enabling them to better understand what makes it so special.

Headquarters for River Discovery Day will be the Natural History Survey’s Traveling Science Center. With support from Prairie Rivers Network, this facility has recently been outfitted with new displays and hands-on educational materials dedicated to the biodiversity of rivers.

Weather permitting, much of the activity of River Discovery Day will take place outdoors, and focus on the creatures that inhabit the Middle Fork.

One group of scientists from the Natural History Survey will use seines to catch darters, minnows and other small fish, which will be held in tanks for people to see, and then released. Other scientists will set up a temporary display of turtles from the river. This will likely include painted turtles and red-eared sliders, with the possibility of map turtles, softshell turtles and snapping turtles, too. A display of mussels will give people a chance to observe firsthand the characteristics that give rise to the quirky common names of these creatures: pocketbook, pistolgrip, pigtoe, and wartyback.

Having led you on with a sexy description of the rainbow darter and the promise of seeing an assortment of turtles and mussels up close, I have to admit that there will also be a lot of attention paid to insects at River Discovery Day.

But that’s not a bad thing.

Insects play a key role in the life of streams, and they possess their own set of attractions for people who come to understand them. Toward that end, stream biologist Edward DeWalt of the Natural History Survey will conduct two hands-on workshops to promote understanding of aquatic insects as part of River Discovery Day.

River Discovery Day is scheduled to run from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., and will be based at the parking area adjacent to the bridge over the Middle Fork near Kickapoo Landing. To register for an aquatic insect workshop (at 11:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m.) please email Jen Mui at For more information call (224) 234-0199.