Thursday, February 17, 2011

Waning of winter brings change, opportunities for engaging the natural world

Waning of winter brings change, opportunities for engaging the natural world

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Last week, we had low temperatures below zero; today, a high in he 60s. Here we are in February.

You might scarcely believe it, but great horned owls in our area are already sitting on eggs. This timing enables their young, which will hatch later this month or early in March, to fledge when the young of mammals they prey on become abundant, and it gives them extra time to mature before next winter. [Photos by author.] Within the next couple of weeks some of our early bird migrants will also be returning. Keep an eye on places where cattails grow for the year’s first red-winged blackbirds, the true harbingers of Spring in east central Illinois.

Birders who are itching for activity have some good opportunities this month. The Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, runs from February 18th through the 21st. This event encourages people to record their observations of birds over the three-day period according to a simple set of guidelines, and then submit them via the Web.

You can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count at home or in the company of other people. The Champaign County Audubon Society will be counting birds at the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana on Saturday, February 19th, from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, you might also be interested in an “Owl Prowl,” an evening program led by educators with the Champaign County Forest Preserve District that includes a chance to see wild owls. One is taking place this evening at Lake of the Woods in Mahomet, but at this point you might have better luck with the one set for next Thursday, February 24, at Homer Lake.

Absent truly unusual weather, the next four weeks will see the ice that still covers our ponds and wetlands retreat. As it does, amphibians will congregate to breed—more salamanders, toads and frogs than you would ever imagine if you’ve not gone out on a rainy March night to see and hear for yourself.

People who are interested in such creatures can participate in an ongoing local effort to conserve them, the frog call monitoring program conducted cooperatively by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and the Urbana Park District. After completing required training, volunteer frog call monitors keep records of which frogs they hear at assigned sites between the beginning of March and the end of July. They then submit their observations to the sponsoring agencies, which use the collected information to make decisions about how sites are managed. The two required training dates for frog call monitoring are March 8th and March 15th, with registration open until February 25.

Whether or not the current thaw continues, the first flower of spring, skunk cabbage, will emerge in woodland seeps by the end of the month, thanks to its capacity to generate heat and grow through frozen soil. Few people will go out of their way to see it, but doesn’t it do you good just to know that something will be growing soon?

If you’re dreaming up plans for your own garden this year, check out the one–evening program, “Eco-conscious Gardening and Landscaping,” that will be offered at the Champaign County Extension auditorium on Monday, February 21st. There, local experts will share advice on how people can help prevent ecological problems and promote biodiversity by the choices they make in designing home landscapes.

Great Backyard Bird Count
CCFPD Owl Prowls
Frog Call Survey Training
Eco-conscious Gardening and Landscaping