Thursday, September 27, 2012

Counting mussels with the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy

Counting mussels with the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy

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Last weekend I celebrated “It’s Our River Day” with more than 30 other people at the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve in Mahomet. Among our group were children as young as 10, college students from the UI chapter of the Wildlife Society and volunteers from the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program.

“Celebrated” may seem like a funny word to describe our activity when you consider what we did in more specific terms. We waded into the murky water of the Sangamon River and squatted or got on hands and knees, then raked our fingers through the sand and gravel of the riverbed. Our goal was to collect all of the freshwater mussels we could find in a stretch of river just downstream of the covered bridge.

And collect mussels we did—314 of them altogether, including representatives of 14 different native species and one introduced one.

Our most massive specimens were plain pocketbooks, some of which probably would have tipped the scales at more than two pounds (although weighing them wasn’t on the agenda). Our biggest specimens for shell circumference were pink heelsplitters, which grow to the size of a small dinner plates. The addition of a hatchet shaped “wing” on the shells of heelsplitters accounts for their name.

[Photos by author: top to bottom--the whole group; "grubbing"; Sarah Bales and Daniel Bernstein examine a specimen; Chuck Berschinski (left), Bruce Colravey, and another volunteer at the sorting table.]

The names for many other species we encountered are equally colorful and descriptive; among them were pistolgrip and pimpleback, threeridge and deertoe, Wabash pigtoe and fatmucket.

Who knew there was so much going on down there in the streambed?

The scientific aspect of our survey was overseen by Sarah Bales, who is a field biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, a Division of the Prairie Research Institute at the UI, and she was pleased with what we found.

Our species list included all but one of those that were found in a 2000 mussel census in that stretch of the Sangamon, and the one we missed is rare, so that’s not really a surprise. On top of that, the mussels we collected looked to be in good condition, and they represented a wide range of ages. That indicates they’re living well into maturity and reproducing.

Bales pointed out that our findings also provided other important indications about the health of the river. The continued presence of mussels there suggests the habitat has not been significantly degraded in recent years, and mussel reproduction in the stream also signifies that certain fish species are thriving there, since the larvae of freshwater mussels parasitize specific fish early in their development (with no harm to the fish).

Our day in the river was organized by Bruce Colravey, Chuck Berschinski, Alan  Weith and others. They’re active members of a relatively new conservation group you might want to check out, the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy (USRC).

The mussel survey fits in with the USRC’s goal of helping people—everyday citizens and scientists alike—to better understand and enjoy the Sangamon River. Along those lines, the USRC also participates in River Watch, a statewide program that monitors stream health by an annual survey of aquatic insects and other invertebrates.

Beyond that, USRC sponsors river clean-ups and educational displays at community events. Most importantly, perhaps, the group provides free access to canoes for members and it helps people get out on the river with regular paddling events.

You can find the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy on the Web at

Volunteer outdoors for National Public Lands Day
Saturday, September 29 is National Public Lands Day, billed as “the largest single-day volunteer effort for public lands in the United States.” Local events are being coordinated through the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program. A list of local events and contacts is available at

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Spurlocks’s collections manager pioneers use of IPM at museum

Spurlocks’s collections manager pioneers use of IPM at museum

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You might not expect a person who works at a museum to have a lot of enemies, but Christa Deacy-Quinn does. She’s been the collections manager at the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois for the past 15 years, and she has been affiliated with the museum since her days as a graduate student, back in the early 1990s.

Her enemies? Powder post beetles, which can devour wooden artifacts, such as ceremonial masks. Hide beetles and their relatives, which feed on dry plant and animal matter, including fur, feathers and baskets. Clothes moths and other insects that attack natural fabrics. On top of that, she also contends with all of the typical pests that vex buildings, like cockroaches and mice.

“Most museums don’t want to talk about these things,” says Deacy-Quinn. She does, though. Pests are inevitable at museums, and over the past decade she has developed a thorough program of integrated pest management (IPM) that she’s enthusiastic to share with others who face the same foes.

[Photo: Christa Deacy-Quinn inspects a Serbian woolen skirt. By Heather Coit; reproduced by permission of The News-Gazette, Inc. Permission does not imply endorsement.]

In the past, it was common practice to combat museum pests with chemicals.  According to Deacy-Quinn, “If you see a hundred-year old animal mount in a display and it still looks great, you can be pretty sure it was treated with something really nasty.” Old standbys in the chemical arsenal included things like arsenic, lead and mercury.

Past methods of pest control also tended to be reactive, meaning chemicals were used to combat active infestations, but preventative measures were not especially well coordinated.

Deacy-Quinn’s approach is more holistic. It’s integrated pest management adapted to the special conditions of a museum—a facility that hosts thousands of visitors in a year, and one that regularly takes in new objects, some of which may have been held in less-than-ideal conditions.

Deacy-Quinn’s job has been made somewhat easier by the Spurlock’s move ten years ago from Lincoln Hall, where museum exhibits shared space with busy classrooms and offices, to its current stand-alone location on Gregory Drive in Urbana.

Integrated pest management relies heavily on the exclusion of pests. At the Spurlock Museum, this is accomplished with a three-foot barrier of inorganic material on the ground surrounding the building, and careful attention to all aspects of the building envelope.

Deacy-Quinn and her staff are also vigilant about preventing pests from being brought in. This means, for example, that no fresh cut flowers or live plants decorate the tables at catered events, and even the undersides of food service carts entering the building are inspected for possible insect stowaways.

Integrated pest management is also about maintaining indoor habitat that’s inhospitable to pests. Cleanup after a catered events at Spurlock is immediate and thorough. On a day-to-day basis, employees eat only in designated areas and keep no food at their desks.

All Spurlock employees also agree—in writing—to actively participate in IPM by recording and reporting any encounters they might have with pests. In Deacy-Quinn’s words, “IPM requires a team effort. We’re fortunate that the people who work here are really on board with it.”

Since the museum welcomes so many visitors and takes in new artifacts on a regular basis, some incursions of pests are inevitable. It’s in the treatment of artifacts that Deacy-Quinn is most engaged in the hunt for non-chemical approaches to pest control.

It’s not that she’s a stranger to chemicals. In fact, she holds a license to use them. She just seeks to limit their use, for the protection of both the artifacts themselves and the people who come into contact with them. “If you don’t need to use it, don’t” is her approach to chemical treatments.

Some artifacts, especially small pieces, can be rid of pests by keeping them in a freezer for a week or two. Others, such as a bison hide or a wooden piece infested with powder-post beetles, might not be treated effectively with cold, since they provide pests with a well-insulated refuge.

In cooperation with Susan Ratcliffe, who is director of USDA’s North Central IPM Center, Deacy-Quinn recently acquired a portable thermal chamber to treat items with heat, as an alternative to cold or chemicals. Since this is a novel approach, their work with the chamber will contribute to the scientific research on the possibility of conservation treatments using heat.

Ratcliffe also encouraged Deacy-Quinn to seek third-party certification of her IPM program through Green Shield, an independent, nonprofit initiative based in Wisconsin. Just last week, Deacy-Quinn learned the Spurlock had earned the award, which is a real testament to the strength of the program she has built at the museum.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Appreciating nature near at hand

Appreciating nature near at hand

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Even though there’s time on the calendar before Autumn begins officially, we’ve passed some important marks on the cultural calendar. Labor Day is a memory, the new school year is in full swing, and the season of traveling to outdoor destinations is over. For me, that means it’s a great time to renew appreciation for the undramatic nature that surrounds us every day.

Birds are on the move. The peregrine falcon that has spent the past four winters on the U of I campus arrived ahead of the students this year. If you’re on campus, you can sometimes spot him perched high on side of the tall buildings near Fourth Street.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating, too, and you can attract them to your own backyard by hanging out a nectar feeder. Some hummingbirds linger into late October, and fall occasionally offers the opportunity to see species that don’t typically inhabit the Midwest.

[Photos by author: a ruby-throated hummingbird in the garden; male widow skimmer at the Boneyard; emerging cicada on a backyard tent.]

Birders who really want to take advantage of the season can come out for Sunday morning bird walks led by members of the Champaign County Audubon Society. These walks depart from the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana at 7:30 a.m. and head for Busey Woods or Crystal Lake Park, depending on where the birds are. Birders of all skill levels are welcome.

At our latitude, the peak abundance of migrating monarch butterflies typically occurs during the second or third week of September, so keep an eye out for them. When you catch sight of one, call to mind this mystery. The monarchs we see heading south in the fall are generations removed from the ones that started north from Mexico in the spring. Yet they’ll somehow navigate to the very same stands of mountain forest where their great great great grandparents overwintered last year. And we think GPS is cool.

More humble insects also abound now. It’s astonishing to me to think about how many crickets must inhabit the yards in just my own neighborhood. My dog snaps at every one we encounter on the sidewalk, which means our walks take longer as their population booms late in the summer.

Over the prairie at Meadowbrook Park and other natural grasslands, hordes of dragonflies rule the air. But you can also see dragonflies near the margins of just about any pond or creek, even the Boneyard where it flows through town and campus. Learn to identify the male widow skimmer, with his powdery blue body and distinctively marked wings and you may find you’re interested in identifying some of the other dragonflies you see, too.

If you’re near the Boneyard Creek, or any other creek, pluck a berry from a nearby bush and toss it into a deep spot. You might be surprised by the number of fish that bolt out to investigate. Even the derided Boneyard now hosts more than 20 species of fish, thanks to the Clean Water Act.

Late in the day Cicada song still fills the air. Most of this year’s adults have already come and gone, but now and again you can still find one just emerging from the exoskeleton that it wore while living underground. If you’re so lucky, make time to watch the process.

As evening gives way to night and cicadas rest from their singing, bats take wing to feast on the insects that fill the air. You can see the first act of that nightly drama by sitting quietly and training your gaze on a single patch of evening sky.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

What happens in the Arctic doesn't necessarily stay in the Arctic

What happens in the Arctic doesn't necessarily stay in the Arctic

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Between the drought and record-setting heat being experienced in so much of North America this summer, it’s unsurprising that few people here are thinking about sea ice in the Arctic. But we’re now entering the two- to three-week period during which the extent and volume of Arctic sea ice are typically at their minimum.

One thing is already certain--the previous record minimum for arctic sea ice has been broken. With half a month left in the melting season, the only question that remains is, how low can it go?

I checked in last week with William Chapman to contemplate that. Chapman is a senior research programmer in the U of I Department of Atmospheric Sciences whose work involves analyzing climate data from a variety of sources and teaching about arctic climate and meteorology.

Figures by William Champan/
University of Illinois Department of Atmospheric Sciences
As part of his work, he created and maintains a Website called, “The Cryosphere Today,” which brings together information from a variety of sources about weather and climate in the frozen parts of the world. The site is designed to provide information for anyone who might use it, and those who do include professional scientists, journalists and everyday people. It gets about 10,000 page views per day from all over the world.

To my disappointment—hey, I’m a writer—Chapman explained that record-setting events are not especially important in thinking about how weather and climate are changing in the Arctic. “That does not matter to me,” he said. “The key to thinking about what’s going on in the system is the long-term trend in summer sea ice.”

The satellite record tracking arctic sea ice dates back only to 1979. Up until about 2000, the trend is a fairly slow decline, but that decline gets steeper over the past decade.

 As you probably already know, the decline in sea ice matters immediately to both the people who inhabit the Arctic, and Arctic wildlife, including polar bears.

But the decline in Arctic ice also warms the Earth system as a whole, because open ocean absorbs so much more of the sun’s heat than ice and snow. (Ice and snow absorb only 20-30% of the sun’s energy, while ocean absorbs about 90%.) In winter, the blanket of sea ice that insulates the relatively warm ocean from the very cold air temperatures covers a smaller area. This allows even more heat to escape to the atmosphere.

Moreover, more warm ocean water in the late summer leads to slower regrowth of ice over the following winter. Says Chapman, “This is a very persistent system.”

Work done for a U of I Master’s thesis by Sara Strey suggests that changes in arctic sea ice might affect weather at the mid latitudes in the short term, too. She ran models comparing average arctic ice conditions with the extremely low conditions of 2007. Under the modeled 2007 conditions, the jet stream shifted, bringing colder-than-usual conditions to the U.S. in fall and early winter—exactly what we experienced.

While this line of research is young and the results are somewhat counterintuitive, there are strong indications that the Midwest may experience cooler autumns for the next few decades as sea ice continues to melt in the Arctic. That’s because, as Chapman said to me, “What happens in the arctic doesn’t necessarily stay in the arctic.”