Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

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Winter arrived with such force this month it feels as though we’ve spun forward right into January. Such a transition brings on a lot of changes in the natural world, so I headed out to the Homer Lake Forest Preserve one day last week to investigate, and see if I could get some photographs.

As I left the U of I campus I spied a red-tailed hawk atop a power pole on Windsor Road, and was reminded what an excellent time of year it is for raptor watching. Winter brings us an influx of hunting birds from the north, and the lines of sight are wide open so you can see birds of prey from a long way off, even in urban and forested areas.

Driving east through farm country, I slowed now and then to look at flocks of smaller birds along the roadside where the snowplow had exposed patches of gravel and soil. I saw only common birds, juncos and horned larks, but at this time of year arctic-breeding birds such as snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are not uncommon in the fields of east central Illinois.

Stopping at the north end of Homer Lake to check ice conditions, I was reminded that birds aren’t the only things that become especially visible in winter. In plain view there hung a Baltimore oriole nest that would have been entirely obscured by leaves in summer when it was occupied. In a nearby tree, a bulky gray hornet's nest is equally plain to see.

At the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s Environmental Education Center, I stopped to ask for tips from the friendly, knowledgeable staff. They suggested that people take advantage of the snow to investigate tracks and other evidence of animal activity, or to get kids out on the sledding hill. “And remind people,“ they added with emphasis, “dress for the weather!”

I set out on the Flicker Woods Trail, happy to hear ahead of me the calling of a pair of pileated woodpeckers. They’re crow-sized, black birds with sturdy, chisel-shaped bills and brilliant red crests, wonderful targets for a guy out with his camera. Each time I closed in on them, however, they moved away another fifty yards into the woods.

In a mature stand of oaks and hickories, I changed tactics, and hid myself in the shadow of a large tree to see if they’d come back. Soon they did, announced by an emphatic knocking as they whacked away at dead wood in search of beetles and ants. If only they would have come around a little farther, I wouldn’t have had to photograph them against the bright sky.

Tracks along a bluff overlooking the Salt Fork River showed a coyote had traveled the path ahead of me. I paused where he had stopped to dig under the trunk of a fallen tree. Leaf litter and soil were strewn atop the snow, but whether or not he had caught a meal I couldn’t tell. Following his track took me down through a dry ravine and into the river bottom, where I lost him among the maze of deer trails.

Too soon, it was time to head back, but as I made for the wide path that would take me to the car, I was arrested by a frantic scrambling in the brush ahead. It was the coyote, driven from his sheltered spot under a log by my approach. I was ready with my camera, and took advantage of his curiosity to get a shot—he just couldn’t’ run off without a look back to see who had disturbed his rest.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Retelling tales of the famously extinct passenger pigeon

Retelling tales of the famously extinct passenger pigeon

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[Author's note: this post is a follow up to "The case of the louse and the passenger pigeon" from November 18, 2010.]

For me, the retelling of stories about passenger pigeons, which were extinguished as a species after having been one the most abundant birds on Earth, is like the rehearsal of tales about a loved one at a memorial service: necessary, pleasurable and painful at the same time.

By all accounts individual passenger pigeons were striking birds. Males, which were slightly larger and more colorful than females, measured about 16 inches from beak to tail tip. They were blue-gray on the back, with scattered black markings and iridescent neck feathers that could flash pink, violet, gold and metallic green. Underneath, their throats and chests were colored with mixed shades of orange, red and tan, which faded to dull white on their bellies. An orange-red iris gave their eyes an arresting quality. [Illustration depicting female, above, and male, below, is plate by John J. Audubon.]

But passenger pigeons were even more remarkable en masse. They occurred in hard-to-comprehend numbers; somewhere between three and five billion are estimated to have lived in eastern and central North America when Europeans first arrived here. According to Arlie W. Schorger, who wrote the definitive book on them, passenger pigeons once constituted one-fourth of all birds on the continent.

Passenger pigeons flocked in staggering numbers, too. In an often cited passage from his pioneering work, American Ornithology, Alexander Wilson described a flight near Frankfort, Kentucky in 1806 in these terms: “from right to left as far as the eye could reach, the breadth of this vast procession extended; seemingly everywhere equally crowded.” He estimated the column of birds flying over to be at least a mile wide and, since it passed by at nearly 60mph for more than four hours, a stunning 240 miles long. By Wilson’s calculation the flock would have included nearly two and a quarter billion birds.

Passenger pigeon flocks could be so dense they eclipsed the sun as they passed, and the roar of their wings was likened to thunder, or the approach of a tornado.

In fall, winter, and spring, passenger pigeons fed on the nuts of forest trees, known collectively as mast: primarily beechnuts, acorns and chestnuts. The movement of a feeding flock of passenger pigeons across the ground was like a rolling wave, with the birds at the rear continually flying up and over to take a place along the front of the line.

Mast-producing trees overcome the problem of having their seeds eaten up by producing a superabundance of them at intervals, so there are leftovers to sprout even after consumers have had their fill. The survival strategy of passenger pigeons was similar; individuals were, in many circumstances, easy prey. But flocks were so large that local predators could be sated without diminishing passenger pigeon populations over time.

Passenger pigeons nested in enormous colonies, which were often be measured in square miles. The largest nesting ever recorded, which took place in central Wisconsin in 1871, occupied most of the southern two-thirds of the state.
Scientists still contend over the relative importance of factors that caused the extinction of passenger pigeons. But at the top of the list are market hunting, which intensified to shocking degrees after the mid-nineteenth century, and the wholesale destruction of the eastern forest.

The pain in contemplating passenger pigeons comes from the fact that we will never know them directly. As the great Aldo Leopold wrote, “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights . . . They live forever by not living at all.”

From my perspective, whether people living today can transform their concern for “book-pigeons” into effective action on behalf of the plants and animals remaining to us is the most important question we face.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Champaign 8th Graders team up with UI students to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species

Champaign 8th Graders team up with UI students to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species

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Today’s Environmental Almanac comes to you courtesy of students from Whitney Stewart’s class at Franklin Middle School in Champaign. This Fall, some of Stewart’s eighth graders have been working with University of Illinois students enrolled in a service learning program called Community Stewardship through Environmental Education, which is offered cooperatively by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, the UI Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Through this program, the university students have taught the school children about some of the invasive species that are disrupting aquatic ecosystems in Illinois, and collaborated with them on stewardship projects designed to create public awareness about these creatures.

Some of the students from Franklin chose to communicate their messages in songs, which were recorded for radio thanks to WILL audio producer Jason Croft. First up, a Zebra Mussel rap:

Clogging up my drain,
nothing up my brain,
they keep reproducing,
they all look the same.

They clogging up the shower,
reproducing to the tenth power.

Killing all the natives, this is an invasion,
they're unstoppable like terminator salvation

Black and white stripes looking like a clam,
Can we get rid of them? Like Obama, “yes we can.”

Sitting on the beach, razor sharp and thin,
Step on me and imma cut yo skin.

Make sure to clean your boat,
Hose them down make them drown in the moat.

Next, a Zebra Mussel song to the tune of "Single Ladies."

All the Zebra Mussels (all the Zebra Mussels)
All the Zebra Mussels (all the Zebra Mussels)
All the Zebra Mussels (all the Zebra Mussels)
All the Zebra Mussels (Now put your clams up!)

Jump on the boat, clog up them pipes then
turn off them lights. Acting up, salt in my cup,
something that I like. Even though we small,
we can clog them all, and you can't get rid of us.

Chorus: We came from Eastern Europe, and now we're in America!
And you can't even STOP us & if you don't like us wash your boat.
HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! (Wash your boat)

So how do you stop us? You may ask. For there are many ways.
Wash your boat with hot water, 104 degrees and let it dry 5 days and nights,
it will kill us all.

- Chorus –

Other Franklin students involved in the Community Stewardship program crafted visual messages to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species, including the four-panel cartoon and the illustration of a sea lamprey reprinted here.

Pat Weatherhead the lead instructor for the course in which the UI students are enrolled, has been pleased with the results of the partnership with local schools. "I'm delighted that the kids incorporated the science content they learned from the UI students and developed such creative and innovative approaches to educate the public about this important issue."