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.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The 'why' and 'how' of gardening with native plants

The 'why' and 'how' of gardening with native plants

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As the green of spring replaces the gray and brown of winter in the Illinois landscape I imagine that even people who don’t consider themselves gardeners feel the itch to plant something. For me the impulse is to transform a little bit more lawn into garden, using plants that are native to east central Illinois.

Why garden with native plants?

Aesthetics are part of it. I anticipate with great pleasure the colors of prairie flowers in summer—the bright yellow of black-eyed susan, the subdued lavender of our native bee balm, the vibrant orange of butterfly milkweed, the plant that also guarantees I’ll have monarch butterflies in my yard. Interspersed with these, I see in my mind’s eye the slender, flowing leaves of my favorite native grass, prairie dropseed, as well as sturdier stands of little bluestem.

I’m also prompted to landscape with native plants by the value I place on conservation. I know that my new prairie garden will require the use of no pesticides or fertilizer, and that once it is established, I won’t even have to water it. Nor will I have to spend time mowing it.

Of course, I could achieve these goals of conservation by using perennial plants that originate elsewhere in the world. But it is only by landscaping with plants native to our region that I can accomplish an even more important purpose, which is to help sustain populations of native insects. [Photos: an adult pearl crescent butterfly and a monarch butterfly caterpillar both spent time on my butterfly milkweed last summer.]

“Insects,” you say, “why would anyone want to help insects—aren’t they the enemy?”

Well, yes and no.

The ones that eat your garden vegetables don’t make for very good neighbors. But other insects, the ones that are adapted to feeding on native plants and trees (which are, in turn, adapted to tolerate them) are worth our attention for their own sake, and they are the key to sustaining diverse populations of birds and other wildlife.

Indeed, remaking urban and suburban landscapes with native plants is crucial if we are to slow the continuing wave of animal extinctions that began with the arrival of Europeans in North America.

In basic terms, the land we set aside from development is not itself sufficient to maintain a healthy level of biodiversity. We can compensate for that to a degree, however, by increasing the value of urban and suburban landscapes for wildlife. That starts with native plants, which are the food for native insects, which are, ultimately, the food for so many other creatures up the food chain.

If you’re interested in learning more about the ecological importance of landscaping with native plants, let me recommend the book “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Douglas W. Tallamy, who is an entomologist at the University of Delaware.

If you’re ready to start landscaping with native plants, let me recommend two local resources. The first is a book published by University of Illinois Extension, called “Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest.” This book describes a wide variety of native wildflowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs that work well in home landscapes, and it provides specific plans for installing them in gardens that look great, too.

The second local resource you should be aware of is a conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends. Each Spring they grow and sell native plants to raise funds for efforts to conserve land and promote biodiversity in our area. This year’s Grand Prairie Friends Native Prairie Plant sale will take place from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 8th, at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana.

There you can get advice from members of the group about how and what to plant, and you can buy a wide variety of native plants at very reasonable prices.