Thursday, March 17, 2011

Red-tailed hawk seen on U of I campus subject of O'Hare study

Red-tailed hawk seen on U of I campus subject of O'Hare study

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Back on the morning of January 21st, I was dutifully pecking away at my keyboard when I got a phone call from a coworker one floor below. “Quick,” she gasped, “look outside, there’s a huge bird!” I was at the window in a flash, and there, perched atop the nearest streetlight, was a first-year red-tailed hawk.

Now, a red-tailed hawk is an everyday bird in Illinois, and I wouldn’t mention this one had it not been for something I noticed as I photographed it; it was wearing on its wings great big tags, marked with the number 80.[ Photos: 080 on streetlight on Dorner Drive in January; pursuing grey squirrel in Illini Grove earlier this week.]

Thinking Red-tail number 80 must be involved in a local study, I contacted U of I avian ecologist Mike Ward to get the story, but neither he nor any of his colleagues knew anything about it. A query to birdnotes, the Champaign-Urbana birders listserv, brought a more unexpected answer. Red-tail number 80 was tagged by researchers at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Schedules being what they are, it took some time for me to connect with investigators, but last week I spoke by phone with one of them, Craig Pullins. He is part of a team of biologists and technicians employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division and based at O’Hare. In general, the mission of Wildlife Services is to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife. At airports, this means deterring animals from taking up residence or hanging around, because of the dangers they pose to aircraft.

So Pullins and his colleagues manage the airport landscape to make it inhospitable to wildlife, and that greatly reduces there the numbers of larger animals, such as Canada geese, white-tailed deer and coyotes. But what’s poor habitat for one animal is often good for another, and the airport’s expanses of short, well drained grass support healthy populations of small mammals, such as voles, and these, in turn, attract birds of prey.

Since 1992, Wildlife Services has worked to keep down the number of owls, hawks and falcons at O’Hare by trapping and relocating them. And that brings us back to Red-tail number 80. It is part of a study begun by Pullins and company last year to determine how the rate of birds returning to the airport is affected by the distance they are moved from it.

Red-tail number 080 was trapped at O’Hare on September 21, 2010, and was among the birds in the study released 120 miles to the west, just five miles short of the Mississippi River. Other hawks in the study are being moved shorter distances--50, 75 and 100 miles.

Why 080 showed up in Urbana nobody can say for sure, although it is common for red-tails to migrate some ways south during winter. Some red-tails tagged for the study have been reported elsewhere around the state, from downtown Chicago to Springfield, Rockford, Decatur and Albany. Others have shown up further away, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Iowa, Alabama, and even Florida.

Of course, the real question with regard to these birds is not how far away from the airport they go, but whether or not they return. And it will be some time before Pullins and his colleagues learn much about how relocation distance affects rates of return. As of this week, Red-tail number 80 is still on campus. I, for one, would be happy to have it stay.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Elephant Rock" brought to attention of Illinois State Geological Survey

"Elephant Rock" brought to attention of Illinois State Geological Survey

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In some parts of the world, a 100-ton boulder composed of pink granite is an unremarkable thing, but that’s not the case in the Prairie State. So when scientists with the Illinois State Geological Survey in Champaign were contacted last year by Mike Waite of Jefferson County with photographs of such a beast, they made a point of going to see it when another job brought them to the area.

The boulder Waite showed them now rests in a creek bottom, about half a mile’s walk from the house where he and his wife, Sarah, live, on property that has been in her family since 1918. It measures approximately 22 feet x 10 feet x 11 feet, which makes it the biggest rock of its kind in the state, at least as far as anyone concerned knows. [Photo by David Grimley depicts ISGS geologist Dick Berg atop the Elephant Rock, with Mike and Sarah Waite alongside it. The segment of the rock above the dark band is the part that was visible above ground before the movement of the creek exposed the rest.]

Its kind is “glacial erratic:” “Erratic” because it is unlike any rock that occurs near the Earth’s surface where it lies, and “glacial” because a glacier is the only force powerful enough to have put it there.

Sarah Waite’s family has enjoyed Illinois’ largest glacial erratic as a curiosity for as long as anyone can remember; her mother, who was born in 1926, recalled being taken to it as a child. They name it the “Elephant Rock” because up until recent years only a part of it protruded from the ground, and that part reminded them of an elephant lying on its side. Since the 1930s they have gathered at Elephant Rock for family photos, in a group that now includes up to 35 people.

The full size of the “Elephant Rock” became clear only when the meandering of the nearby creek scoured away the soil around it, allowing it to roll down into its present position.

Where did the Elephant Rock originate? Probably somewhere in northeastern Ontario, according to David Grimley, one of the geologists who went to look at it. That area is part of what’s known as the Canadian Shield, a vast region of igneous and metamorphic rock around Hudson Bay, an area where granite like that comprising the Elephant Rock may be found at the surface.

Imagine that. A 100-ton boulder riding as much as a thousand miles on top of or inside a vast sheet of ice, passing right by us on its way to the southern part of the state. The farthest south any glacier ever advanced in the Northern Hemisphere was only 50 miles beyond where the Elephant Rock landed, so it traveled just about as far as it possibly could have.

Grimley pointed out that geologists understand something about the timing of the Elephant Rock’s journey, too, since the last glaciers that could have moved it extended into southern Illinois some 150,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, the Elephant Rock is not situated where people can go see it for themselves, but Sarah Waite pointed out to me there is an accessible natural attraction nearby. It is the state’s largest flowering dogwood tree, certified by the Illinois Big Tree Registry, which grows in the Union Chapel Cemetery, about seven miles east of the town of Dix.

Closer to home, the University of Illinois Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability, of which the ISGS is a division, will host its annual expo, Naturally Illinois, on Friday and Saturday of this week. The expo will feature more than 50 science-based exhibits, activities and demonstrations for all ages. Further details available at

Thursday, March 03, 2011

U of I faculty collaborate on paradigm changing effort to understand winter storms

U of I faculty collaborate on paradigm changing effort to understand winter storms

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Just last month, the haunting images of stranded vehicles on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive and the harrowing accounts of the people who were trapped there provided Illinoisans with an emphatic demonstration of the power of winter storms to disrupt human life, even in cities, where the forces of nature are normally kept at bay so effectively.

And disruption from winter storms is not an anomaly, notes Bob Rauber, who is head of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois. He points out that adverse road weather, mostly in winter, plays a role in nearly 7,000 deaths, six million injuries and 1.4 million accidents per year in the United States. Beyond that, as we have seen this winter, the costs associated with a single blizzard can strain even the most carefully crafted state and municipal budgets.

For the record, Rauber does not see a future in which people can manipulate winter storms to mitigate their effects. He is, however, confident that atmospheric scientists can come to a much better understanding than they now possess of how winter storms work. Toward that end, he and two colleagues are conducting a multi-year research project called “Profiling of Winter Storms,” or PLOWS.

The first stage of the project, a massive data collection effort, was conducted during the two winters preceding this one. This effort involved both undergraduate and graduate students from the U of I, as well as cooperation with scientists and students from the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Missouri and the National Weather Service.

Much of the data for PLOWS was collected by teams using mobile, ground-based equipment, whose job it was to set up in the projected path of a storm and take measurements as it passed over them. The ground teams operated on standby, and aimed to be in place ten to twelve hours before a storm hit. They collected all of the standard weather data, such as temperature, air pressure and wind velocity. But they also deployed an array of specialized instruments, including a vertically oriented RADAR unit to gauge the speed of updrafts, and a video imager that makes it possible to see the structure of snow particles.

The PLOWS group also collected data from within storm clouds, thanks to use of a specially equipped C-130 aircraft, supplied by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Unlike the ground-based teams, which had to count on storms moving over them, the team in the air was able to move through storms and target the components of greatest interest. (Of course, this also meant they were collecting data at 250 miles per hour.)

Analysis of the data collected during the two field seasons of the PLOWS project is still in the early stages, and likely to continue for years. But already meteorologists who have seen it have labeled it paradigm-changing for the insight it provides.

Ultimately, the understanding of winter storms developed through the PLOWS project will enable meteorologists to more accurately interpret what’s happening within storms as they occur, so that they can provide the public with useful information, such as where and when the heaviest snow in a storm will fall. Such information could one day be transmitted to commuters via a phone alert, enabling them to avoid a route that’s about to be pummeled by a storm.