Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A quest for wild animals close to home

A quest for wild animals close to home

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This past week the Boy Scout at my house was busy finishing up a few last requirements to earn the rank of Second Class before heading off to Camp Drake with his troop. It took only a little creativity for me to figure out how I could help him, and at the same time accomplish some of my own work.

Rank Requirement #5 for Second Class Scout reads as follows:

Identify or show evidence of at least ten kinds of wild animals (birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, mollusks) found in your community.

Together, the scout and I decide he could fulfill this requirement by an outing in our own neighborhood in southwest Champaign, with bikes for transportation. We wear river sandals on the chance we might need to wade, and carry just a few tools for making and recording observations: binoculars, a camera, a pencil and a 3 X 5 notebook.

We ride first to a nearby retention pond, where we had come across the remains of a crayfish (1) on the sidewalk the evening before. They are still there: a claw, the hard exoskeleton of the head and thorax, and a bit of tail. Identifying crayfish to species can be quite complex, and requires body parts we didn’t have, so we just leave this one at “crayfish.” [Photos by Will Kanter: Crayfish parts, toad underwater, northern water snake.] Nearby a Canada goose (2) honks, so we count it, too. (As you might imagine, we see much evidence of Canada geese on the sidewalk.)

As we continue riding, we hear the high pitched trill of an American toad (3) and head in its direction. To my ears it sounds a long way off, but the scout suggests we check a nearby fountain. enough, the toad calls again as we approach, and we are able to find it by moving a few rocks around.

Our next and saddest find is the upside down body of a painted turtle (4) that has been killed by a car in the street. Painted turtles are adaptable enough to live in highly developed landscapes, but they have no defense against drivers who are too distracted or too mean to avoid running over them.

The scout wonders if we can count some of the insects we observe—a sulphur butterfly, a lightning bug, and others--toward our total, but I point out they are not “wildlife” according to the common use of the term, or the scout manual. That said, I can’t resist the urge to lecture him about how crucial insects are in most food webs, but I’ll spare you.

At our next stop, a couple of ponds where willows and other vegetation have been allowed to grow up, red-winged blackbirds (5) dominate the scene. They’re disturbed because we’re close to their nests, and keep up a steady racket until we move on.

Just over an embankment, the Copper Slough is running high and muddy from the rains of the night before, so there will be no fish or mollusks observed on this day. But three mallard (6) bachelors loaf on the opposite bank, and a green heron (7) stalking the edge of the stream takes flight as we approach.

On the wire-bound rock used to stabilize the creek bank, we see a northern water snake (8) sunning, our first live reptile. Better still, after a pause we realize we’re seeing two snakes, partly intertwined, both of them 18-24 inches long.
The most exciting moment of our excursion occurs when the scout turns and spots a great blue heron (9) flying behind us. The enthusiasm in his shout tells me our quest has been a success far beyond our tally of species.

Wild animal number ten is an American robin. We have passed many since starting out, but it counts only after the scout makes a note of one as we head home.
If you need extra motivation for a wildlife excursion of your own, you should know that June is “Leave No Child Inside Month,” by proclamation of Governor Pat Quinn. For a list of associated events visit dnr.state.il.us/youthprograms.