Thursday, December 15, 2011

Anticipating Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Champaign County edition

Anticipating Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Champaign County edition

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Recently I took some time to do a bit of scouting in the territory my group covers for the Champaign County edition of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which will take place this Saturday, December 17. Our area includes Urbana’s Meadowbrook Park, as well as the University of Illinois Forestry Plantation on the other side of Race Street.

My first objective was to determine whether any owls have been roosting at Forestry, where there’s a small block of cedars they like. A great horned owl is a possibility there, but in winters past, long-eared owls, which come down from the north, have been found there, too.

The easiest way to locate roosting owls is to search for whitewash at the base of likely trees, so that’s what I did for starters. Finding none, I moved to strategy two--in this case, tipping my head back and scanning the densely growing upper branches of 25-foot tall trees spaced less than ten feet apart. Patient birders with sharp eyes sometimes find owls this way, but I never have, so after a short time I shifted gears.

I quietly made my way into a block of scrub, drawn by the calls of a loose flock of winter songbirds. Cardinals, robins, and juncos were there, as well as a single yellow-rumped warbler. They can be difficult to find on Christmas counts, so I was happy to locate this one.

The trunks of dying trees in the vicinity were alive with the tapping of woodpeckers, and all three of the species most common in our area were represented: downy, hairy, and red-bellied. White-breasted nuthatches probed the bark for insects, sometimes clinging sideways or upside down to access a choice crevice. Not so a tiny brown creeper, which picked its way directly from the bottom to the top of one tree, and then flitted to the base of another to begin ascending again.

A flash of color on a bird in flight provided a welcome surprise, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker landed on a nearby pine. Like yellow-rumped warblers, they can usually be found for local Christmas counts, but not always.

I moved next to edges of the prairie reconstruction at Meadowbrook Park, hoping to find an uncommon raptor, a red-shouldered hawk or a goshawk, perhaps, but that was not to be.

Little birds were there in abundance, though. Goldfinches in their drab winter feathers scattered before me, their undulating flight confirming identification even at a distance. The squeaky calls of goldfinches are unmistakable, too, but there other bird music in the air gave me pause.

American tree sparrows? Pine siskins?

First it seemed to be one, then the other. As it turned out it was both—a mixed flock feeding on the seeds of dormant prairie plants. At my approach, sentinels popped up from the ground to perch atop last summer’s growth of Indian grass and goldenrod. I took another step and the whole group was gone, leaving the scene so quiet I could hear the cold breeze sweeping in from the north.

I suppose there’s no point in hoping for warm weather on count day.

Are you interested in participating in an east-central Illinois Christmas Bird Count this year? Check out the Website of the Champaign County Audubon Society for dates and contact information:

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Symposium to showcase efforts supported by U of I Environmental Change Institute

Symposium to showcase efforts supported by U of I Environmental Change Institute

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When University of Illinois professor Bill Sullivan first offered a course called Environmental Sustainability in Fall of 2009, only 11 students were enrolled, and they came from just two departments.

The following year, 27 students signed up, representing a somewhat wider range of majors.

This fall, Environmental Sustainability was supposed to be opened to a maximum of 50 students, but, as Sullivan told me, somebody working at registration forgot to shut the gate. As a result, he’s teaching a group of 98 undergraduates from all across campus.

What is it that students taking Environmental Sustainability are so eager to learn? The first two-thirds of the course focus on some of the harsh realities of the world they stand to inherit: global warming, ecosystem and biodiversity loss, the threat of pandemics, pockets of persistent and severe poverty, the depletion of resources essential to human well-being.

Sullivan wants students to develop greater capacities for thinking critically about these issues, but he emphasizes that in order to do so, they must first gain a clear understanding of the facts.

The latter part of the semester is devoted to the study of how human creativity and innovation can enable people to create a more sustainable world.

Ultimately, Sullivan hopes that what his students learn in Environmental Sustainability will shape how they approach the work they do beyond school, whether they go on to design energy-efficient buildings, teach English, practice medicine or create art.

I tell this short story about the interest in and aims of Bill Sullivan’s Environmental Sustainability class for two reasons. First, to illustrate just one of the ways undergraduate education is thriving at the U of I. Second, to call attention to how much good can be accomplished with a little bit of extra support at the right time.

Sullivan received a grant to help develop his Environmental Sustainability course from the Environmental Change Institute, or ECI, which is the campus unit where I’ve held an appointment for the past couple of years.

ECI was created in 2008, thanks to a generous gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family fund and matching funds from three U of I colleges: Business, Law, and Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Its mission is to advance understanding of global environmental change and offer solutions that enable society to avoid, mitigate or adapt to its effects through the support of scholarly research, innovative teaching, and public outreach initiatives.

On Wednesday, December 7, ECI will host its third annual symposium, where members of the campus community and the general public are invited to learn more about the wide range of efforts it supports.

Speakers at the symposium will include Bill Sullivan, as well as others who have developed courses with help from ECI. In addition, there will be presentations on the wide range of other activities ECI has fostered.

For example, plant biologist and ECI fellow Andrew Leakey will describe his ongoing quest to identify the knowledge needed to adapt tropical rice to tolerate the range of warming predicted in the 21st century. And Karen Decker of ECI will give an overview of the Illinois Energy Dashboard project. This project, which involves collaboration between ECI, the Student Sustainability Committee and U of I Facilities & Services, will provide usable information about energy consumption to students and staff of chosen University buildings.

The Environmental Change Institute’s annual symposium will be held from 9:00 a.m. to noon at the Beckman Institute on the U of I campus. Further details follow:

9:00 am Coffee and Refreshments

9:15 am Welcome: Wesley Jarrell, Interim Director, ECI

Robert Easter: Interim Associate Chancellor

9:25 am Mr. Joel Friedman: Alvin H. Baum Family Fund

9:35 am Robert Hauser: Dean, College of ACES

Pradeep Khanna: Associate Chancellor

9:45 am ECI-Supported Courses

Bill Sullivan: Landscapes, Sustainability & Human Health

Bruce Litchfield & Katherine Halm: Grab-a-Bike @ Illinois

Scott Willenbrock: Science and Sustainability

Jesse Ribot & Poonam Jusrut: Democracy and Environment

Brian Deal: Sustainability and the Built Environment

10:15 am ECI-Partnerships

Emily Cross: Reflections from COP 16

Michelle Wander: Change and the Heartland

Karen Decker: Curriculum for Change and the Heartland

Willie Dong & Nick Glumac: Effects of Soil Water and Bulk Density on Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy of Soil Organic Carbon

Jonathan Tomkin: Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation

Karen Decker: Energy Dashboard

11:00 am ECI Fellows

Catherine Blake: Text Mining Environmental Change Literature

Andrew Leakey: Basic Research to Enable Adaptations of Rice Production to

Rising Temperature

11:20 am ECI Funded Research Reports

Andrew Leakey: Environmental Change-induced Alterations in Crop Rooting

Andrea Martens: The Impact of Gasoline Prices on Internet Purchases

Jennifer Fraterrigo: Terrestrial Carbon Loss to Aquatic Ecosystems

Courtney Flint: Agricultural Landscapes and Decision Making in the Context of Climate and Policy Change

11:50 am Closing Remarks: Wesley Jarrell

Join in for conversation and refreshments