Thursday, August 30, 2012

An educational walk through a first-rate prairie reconstruction

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An educational walk through a first-rate prairie reconstruction

Each summer, the local conservation group Grand Prairie Friends employs two college-age interns to help maintain the natural areas under its care. The interns learn much about how difficult it is to control invasive plants and how exhausting it can be to work outdoors all season long.

But the job also offers some less strenuous educational opportunities as well.

One of those is a tour with Grand Prairie Friends board president Jamie Ellis of a prairie reconstruction established and maintained by Don Gardner in northern Ford County. Gardner’s prairie is one of the oldest, finest and best-monitored reconstructions of native habitat in the state.

I never made it out to help the interns pull garlic mustard or cut bush honeysuckle on a 100-degree day this summer, but they and Ellis allowed me to tag along on their visit to Gardner’s prairie earlier this month anyway.

Gardner is a friendly, open person who clearly enjoys sharing the wealth of knowledge he has developed in nearly four decades of work on the site. It’s situated on a small portion of the farmland his family has owned for generations, land that had always been pasture until 1974.
Gardner with compass plant.

What motivated Gardner to do something different with it?

He remembered the native flowers he had seen along the railroad rights-of-way as a child, and he wondered if he could reproduce something of the landscape in which they had originally thrived.

The original part of Gardner’s prairie reconstruction covers just over seven acres, but it wasn’t all planted at once. He established it in smaller sections because he used only seed that he and others had hand-collected from native plants growing within a short distance of the site. The last section of this original reconstruction was planted in 1990, with exception of a plot that was purposely left unseeded. This plot serves as a control for studies monitoring the population dynamics of the plant community of the reconstruction over time.

In 2001 Gardner added another 7-plus acres from an adjoining cultivated field to his prairie, bringing the total size to the approximately 15 acres it now occupies.

During our walk through the prairie, Ellis occasionally quizzed the interns about the identification of plants they could be expected to know on sight after a season in the field, including yellow coneflower and his favorite grass, prairie dropseed. In addition, he and Gardner both called attention to novel species as well. By the fourth time we encountered it, even I could distinguish between Sullivant’s milkweed and common milkweed.

Ellis and interns Sarah Menning and Jenna Amis.
Much talk also focused on what Gardner termed the “amazingly complex ecology of individual plants.” He showed us, for example, where a certain kind of weevil had damaged the flower stalk of a compass plant, and explained that without some “pests” to check it, compass plant would crowd out some other plant species.

In a similar vein, we observed how the growth of big bluestem, a signature plant of the tallgrass prairie, was stunted by the presence of wood betony, which “steals” nourishment by attaching to the bluestem’s roots. Where big bluestem is stunted, other plant species can stake a claim.

The care and expertise that has gone into the making of Don Gardner’s prairie reconstruction is evidenced by the diversity of its native flora--the original portion is now characterized by more than 150 species of plants native to the grand prairie--and the scarcity of exotic plants there. In these regards it is comparable to the highest quality prairie remnants in the region, sites like Loda Cemetery Nature Preserve, where the native plant community has remained intact through the years.

One can only hope the memory of Don Gardner’s achievement remains with this year’s Grand Prairie Friends interns along with their recollections of long hot days in the field.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels (not chipmunks, not gophers)

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels (not chipmunks, not gophers)

[This spot is from the archives, August 11, 2011.]

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My encounters with ground squirrels in the west this summer reminded there’s a common, yet fascinating animal closer to home I’ve been meaning to profile, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Do you know the one I mean?

If you’ve had a small squirrel dash in front of you as you drove on a country road bordered by crops, or you’ve seen a chipmunk-looking critter darting about in a cemetery, you’ve probably encountered a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Some people call thirteen-liners gophers because they live in the ground, but in scientific terms, they’re members of the squirrel family.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are among those animals that have benefited from human development because they thrive in the close-cropped landscapes we create, from roadsides and pastures, to cemeteries, golf courses, parks and other lawns. Their geographic range, which encompasses much of the central U.S. and Canada, has actually expanded over the past two centuries.

If you were to draw a thirteen-lined ground squirrel based on its name, you would produce a picture that left out a notable characteristic of the original. Yes, they are marked by about thirteen alternating stripes of dark brown and light tan fur that run from neck to tail. But what’s equally striking is that the wider, dark lines are decorated along their entire length with evenly spaced light dots, giving them a star-spangled appearance. There’s a golden tinge to some of the lighter fur on thirteen-liners, and they’re the creature on which the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gopher mascot is based.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels eat just about anything they can get their little paws on, from insects of all sorts to the occasional small vertebrate (including carrion), to grasses, flowers, seeds and crops. They have pouches in their cheeks that they use to transport food to their burrows for eating later. (If you have trouble with thirteen-lined ground squirrels eating from your garden, University of Illinois Extension’s “Living with Wildlife” Website provides suggestions for dealing with them:

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are, in turn, food for a wide range of other animals, including coyotes, foxes, weasels, dogs, cats, hawks, owls and snakes.

One way thirteen-liners avoid being eaten is by excavating short, shallow escape burrows throughout their territories, so they’re never far from a hole to dive into. They also create deeper, longer burrows for nesting and hibernating.

And thirteen-lined ground squirrels hibernate like champions. After fattening up in the Fall, they retreat to a chamber that’s below the frost line, plug the entrance with soil, and curl up for about four months. During hibernation—which begins in late October or early November and lasts until late March or April—their body temperature nearly matches the temperature of the burrow, dropping as low as 37 degrees F. By the time thirteen-liners awaken, they have lost up to half of their body mass.

During the months thirteen-lined ground squirrels are active, you need not get up early to see them, nor do you need to brave inclement weather. They are most active on warm, sunny days, and they don’t even bother coming out of their burrows in the rain.

To learn more about thirteen-lined ground squirrels, or any of the other mammals you might see when you’re out and about in the Prairie State, let me refer you to the source for much of the information in today’s commentary, the Field Manual of Illinois Mammals by Joyce E. Hofmann. It’s published by and available through the Illinois Natural History Survey, which is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the U of I in Champaign.