Thursday, October 31, 2013

Changing seasons, new outdoor pursuits

Changing seasons, new outdoor pursuits

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Just two weeks ago, I found a good-sized garter snake basking on a low rock wall behind Engineering Hall on the University of Illinois campus. It was taking advantage of the sun and seventy-one degree air temperature. I didn’t know it at the time, but now am reasonably certain it was the last wild snake I’ll see in 2013. That’s because garter snakes, like most other reptiles and amphibians, deal with the advent of cold weather by getting below the frost line and remaining inactive until spring.

Recent weeks have seen a number of other turning points in the cycle of seasonal animal activity.

Chimney swifts, the small, dark gray “flying cigars” that enliven our skies for six months out of the year are gone, with the last local sighting confirmed on the Birdnotes listserv on October 13. Chimney swifts winter in South America and return north in mid April, just as we’re filing income tax returns. (Do you think people in Columbia or Peru consider chimney swifts “their” birds and say, “They summer in North America”?)

[Photos by author: garter snake basking on rock wall on October 14; yellow-rumped warbler gleaning minute pirate bugs from a hackberry tree in my yard.]

Of course in the world of birds and birders fall is not just a time of departures but one of arrivals as well. Yellow-rumped warblers, which summer in Canada and northern tier states, have descended on east central Illinois in force. A person who is attuned to it their characteristic “chip” can hear it throughout the day all over town. A couple of weeks ago more than a hundred yellow-rumped warblers spent the afternoon feasting on the minute pirate bugs that swarmed around the hackberry trees in my back yard. Some swooped out from branches to catch the pirate bugs in the air (a feeding behavior known as “hawking”), while others picked them from the tree bark (known as “gleaning”).

Many different types of sparrows have also moved down from the north for the winter. Dark-eyed juncos, sporty gray birds with a distinctive white bill have arrived, so keep an eye out for them at feeders. So have white-throated sparrows, which you may hear singing now and again even in the fall, although they typically do only a half-hearted, shortened rendition of their Spring song.

For much of my life, these transitional weeks represented an end of consistent outdoor activity until the return of warmer weather, but that has changed with my adoption of new outdoor pursuits.

A few years back I bought myself a good digital camera and telephoto zoom lens, which enable me to do bird photography. I find photographing birds much more engaging than simply finding and identifying them. It’s extremely gratifying to return from outings with photos and be able to share them with other people via social media. And because birds are active throughout the year there’s really no off-season for bird photography.

Along similar lines—at least from my perspective—I’ve also begun hunting, mostly for deer. Because of that, I now anticipate fall and winter just as eagerly as I do spring and summer, maybe more. I realize some people don’t think of hunting as a pursuit that’s compatible with concern for the environment, but I do. I’ll come back to the topic in a future commentary to explain why.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Local clay worth more than gold?

Local clay worth more than gold?

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Although my interests generally favor living things, a few geological treasures occupy my desk at work: half a geode, dull on the outside but sparkling within; a thumb-sized chip of granite from the “elephant rock,” a giant boulder left by a glacier in southern Illinois; and a rounded, flat stone I’ve had so long I don’t remember where it came from—the shore of Lake Superior, where my wife and I stopped on our honeymoon?

To this collection I recently added a small bag of clay fragments, which I acquired on a field trip held in conjunction with the 50th annual meeting of the Clay Minerals Society on the University of Illinois campus.

Is it worth more than gold?

That’s what another participant on the trip was overheard to say as he received his sample bag.

The clay fragments aren’t much to look at. They were moist when we collected them and very dark gray, but in the process of drying they’ve lightened to the color of an elephant, and they crumble to a fine powder when they’re ground together.

I would like to be able to tell you more about the clay based on simple observation, but I can’t. That’s not a dismissal of my powers of discernment, but a fact of life for people who study clay.

[Photos by author: (above) U of I geology major Evan Gragg collects samples from the Fithian illite for field trip participants; (below) Steve Altaner (white t-shirt), directs field trip participants as they take turns examining the Fithian illite.]

Geologists can distinguish among other minerals by looking at them. Quartz looks like quartz, and mica looks like mica, even without any kind of magnifying lens. But clay grains are too tiny to be classified that way.

Geologists gained the ability to distinguish among different types of clay only in the early decades of the twentieth century, when they developed a process for analyzing it using x-ray diffraction. This process enables them to observe distances between planes of atoms in crystal structures. Since the set of these distances is unique in each mineral, taken together they can be thought of as a fingerprint.
And that brings us to the value of the clay fragments on my desk. They are composed of illite, which is one of three (or four, depending on who is counting) recognized groups of clay minerals, and one with a special local connection—as you may have gathered from the name. Illite was first described by Ralph Grim, who was a faculty member in the UI Department of Geology from 1948 to 1967, and who is widely recognized as the “founding father” of the scientific discipline of clay mineralogy.

My illite holds extraordinary value for a clay specialist because it was collected from the Fithian illite, a deposit on the south bank of the Salt Fork River in Vermilion County that our field trip visited. The Fithian illite is what geologists call a “type locality,” which is to say it’s the very place Grim and his collaborators collected the samples they used to analyze and describe it.

The intrinsic value of illite is much more modest. As Steve Altaner, a UI professor of geology and organizer of the field trip said to me when we spoke, it’s really the “average Joe” of clays—useful for making bricks, perhaps, but not very sexy from a broad perspective. Illite, he explained, lacks the moldable quality of kaolinite, a type of clay most people come into contact with regularly—it’s the main component of porcelain. And it lacks the super absorbing power of smectite, or “swelling clay.” Smectite’s power to absorb and swell can be useful, as in cat litter, or destructive, as when it deforms and breaks concrete structures that are anchored in it.

Altaner went on to point out that illite does matter to geologists, in part because it is the second most abundant mineral in sedimentary rock after quartz. In addition, it plays a key role in a process used they use to gauge the timing of events that happened long ago (which for them means millions or even billions of years), events such as the formation of mountains or movements along geological faults. But hat may be a story for another day.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Rain Garden Ramble" organized by Prairie Rivers Network combines recreation, education

"Rain Garden Ramble" organized by Prairie Rivers Network combines recreation, education

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The weather on the afternoon of Saturday, September 21st was perfect for a bike ride—blue skies, a light breeze, and temperatures in the low 70s. Still, I wondered how many people would turn out for an event billed as a “Rain Garden Ramble,” in which participants would pedal from the Prairie Rivers Network office in Champaign to four sites around town. I need not have been concerned.

By the time we set out our group included nearly thirty people. Among them were two small children, conveyed by their father, some active retirees, students from the U of I, people who already had rain gardens of their own, and people who were new to the concept but wanted to learn more.

[Photos by author: above, Stacy James stands on a rock to explain the creation of her neighbors rain garden; middle, participants en route to next site; below, at the Eppichs.]

Our first stop was the least garden-like site on the tour. In a heavily shaded place at the back of his yard where water from his own home and the homes of two neighbors once ponded, Bob Hudson pointed us to a bed of rocks. Below that, he explained, vertical shafts had been dug to detain water until it could soak into the surrounding soil.

Next on the tour was the home of Stacy James a water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers, and the leader of the rain garden ramble. In order to reduce water seeping into her basement, James explained, she extended a downspout away from the the house and created a shallow depression where water can pool before soaking into the ground. This small rain garden is planted with sedges, grass-like plants that grow in attractive clumps and tolerate occasional flooding.

Before moving on, we also crossed the street to look at a rain garden James helped her neighbor create in the right of way, which features a variety of flowering plants native to our area. I found it especially striking to see how much life was associated with the these flowers—in the form of bees, butterflies, and other insects—compared to the adjoining lawn.

Stop number three on our tour was South Willis near John Street in Champaign, where the city finished installing very large rain gardens between the street and sidewalk last year. At this site, Leslie Mitchell, who is an engineering technician with City, explained the idea is actually to move some water off the street and into the rain gardens by means of openings in the curb.

While we were at this site Mitchell took time to outline the incentives Champaign is currently offering that encourage residents to adopt measures to alleviate flooding. [Click here for details on the City's Website.]  These include cash reimbursements for the purchase of rain barrels, and larger payments to help cover costs associated with putting in rain gardens.

The last stop on the Rain Garden Ramble was the home of Doug and Mary Eppich, just “upstream” of Hessel Park. Their rain garden, which they installed themselves ten years ago, occupies a 400 square foot area that was formerly lawn. It’s a foot below the surrounding grade at its deepest point, but you don’t see that from the street. What you do see is an artfully designed garden that’s bursting with native flowers.

The Eppichs rain garden was designed to accommodate all of the water that would come off the roof of their entire house in a 100-year storm. When such an event occurred in 2005, Doug Eppich happily reported to me, the rain garden performed just as intended.

If you’re considering a rain garden of your own start with a visit to the rain garden pages at Website of Prairie Rivers Network.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Efficiency, solar power enable family to achieve “zero net energy” in 1929 home

Efficiency, solar power enable family to achieve “zero net energy” in 1929 home

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Last November, Champaign resident Scott Willenbrock learned through Environmental Almanac the story of another local man and U of I faculty colleague, Phil Krein, who was installing solar panels on the roof of his garage.

For Willenbrock, a professor of physics, the timing of that segment was perfect. That’s because he was in the midst of a project to make his own family’s two-story colonial home, a conventional structure built in 1929, “zero-net-energy.” In other words, they would generate on-site as much or more energy than they would use over the course of a year.
“It’s one thing to build zero-net-energy from the ground up,” Willenbrock said to me, citing a number of local examples. In that case, he pointed out, you can take advantage of a whole range of opportunities to insulate and weather seal, and maximize the benefits of direct sunlight. The question he wanted to answer was what people who live in older houses can do?”

Willenbrock’s question was motivated by the conviction that individuals have an ethical duty to join the battle to limit global warming. And he hopes his approach to answering that question will provide a rational model for others to follow.

The most economical way to reduce fossil fuel consumption in homes is to reduce demand for heating and cooling. So Willenbrock began his zero-net-energy quest by hiring a contractor certified with Ameren’s Act-on-Energy program to evaluate the insulation and weather sealing of his home.

That evaluation turned up numerous opportunities for improvement, and Willenbrock took full advantage of all of them. According to his calculations, weatherization alone resulted in energy savings of roughly 30 percent.

Willenbrock’s zero-net-energy quest also coincided with the need to replace an aging furnace and air conditioner. He and his spouse considered the options together and decided on a geothermal system, which is by far the most efficient way to heat and cool with electricity.

The last step in this zero-net-energy quest was to add some renewably generated electricity. And that brings us back to solar panels. Previously, Willenbrock had gotten quotes from a couple of professional solar installers that discouraged him from making the investment. Reading about Phil Krein’s DIY project, however, prompted him to investigate ordering panels online and installing them himself.

He began where Krein had, on the roof of his garage. He designed a configuration to make the best use of the space available, and then worked by phone with the same Arkansas-based vendor Krein had used, to order panels. After they arrived, he installed them with help from a handyman who had done other work at the house, and hired an electrician tie them into the grid.

Willenbrock then decided to go a step further and cover the south-facing roof on his house with solar panels. Since he did not want to work on a second-floor roof, he hired a local building contractor, New Prairie Construction, to do that installation, again using panels he had ordered himself. Even with the added cost for labor, he still spent about 40% less than the quotes he had gotten to start.

I mention above that Willenbrock was motivated to pursue this project by a sense of personal responsibility for limiting global warming, and I suspect many listeners share that conviction. I do, too. The Act-on-Energy contractor is working at my house this week.


Scott Willenbrock has created a Web site that provides the full details of his home project, which you can see at:

Better still, you can visit it on Saturday, October 5, as part of the National Solar Tour day sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society. It’s at 1017 West White Street in Champaign, and it will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

A number of other locations in east central Illinois are part of the tour, including the Brickhouses Road development in rural north Urbana—new homes that are all zero net energy—and the Geil home in Mahomet, as well as two the houses built by UI students for competition in the U.S Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.

You can see details about the tour on the Web at: