Thursday, February 28, 2013

Naked Tree Walk at Hessel Park a great way to welcome March

Naked Tree Walk at Hessel Park a great way to welcome March

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“You don’t know a tree until you know it naked.” So says Sandy Mason, whose job title, “horticulture educator with U of I Extension,” does scant justice to her wide knowledge of and appreciation for the natural world—to say nothing of her sense of humor.

But how do you know one tree from another when they’re naked, which is to say, without their leaves?

You could pick up a book or two for yourself and learn some naked tree ID that way. Illinois Extension publishes one called Forest Trees of Illinois that can be quite useful for this purpose, and which costs only ten dollars. And there are other resources you can pick up fairly cheaply on the Web, including one from the Missouri Department of Conservation called A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter, which is also applies widely here in the Prairie State and costs only three dollars (plus shipping).

[The unmistakable seed pods of Kentucky coffeetrees hang on through the winter, making identification of females of this species easy, leaves or no leaves. Photo by author.]

But leaves or no leaves, if you’re new to tree identification you’ll progress faster and enjoy it much more if you learn from experts in the company of other people.

So make time tomorrow to attend the Naked Tree Walk, which will be led by Sandy Mason, along with arborist and Master Naturalist Jean Burridge and Craig Kempher of the Champaign Park District.

The walk, which is also free and open to the public, will take place tomorrow afternoon, from 2 – 4:00PM at Hessel Park in Champaign.

I spoke recently with Mason, who pointed out that the amazing diversity of trees at Hessel Park makes it an ideal spot for such an activity. There are no fewer than 28 different species represented there, including seven species of oaks.

Among the highlights are trees that are native to Illinois but fairly unusual in our part of the state, such as yellow buckeye and black gum. In addition, truly magnificent examples of more common trees grow there—big, beautiful specimens of Kentucky coffeetree, scarlet oak and red maple.

The trees at Hessel Park are also quite accessible, thanks to the wide concrete sidewalk there. Participants should, of course, dress for the weather, since this is an entirely outdoor event. All who attend will receive a copy of the “Hessel Park Tree Walk” put out by the Champaign Park District, which features stunning hand drawings of tree features by Jean Burridge.

While I’m on the subject of trees, I’d like to return to a tree story I told on this program.

A forester’s stock answer to the question, “How can I tell how old my tree is?” is “Cut it down and count the rings.” That’s because dating trees any other way involves varying levels of uncertainty.

Back in November, I called attention to the large bur oak in front of the Natural History Building on the UI campus. At that time, I said it was 180-some years old, referring to calculations that were based on borings done in summer 2011. More recently, a number of people have referred me to photographs from the 1890s that show a much smaller tree where the bur oak grows, a tree that looks recently planted. Based on this evidence, it seems unlikely my tree is more than 120-some years old. It may still be the oldest living thing on campus, but it’s not a relic of the pre-campus landscape.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What bugs entomologists? Illinois grad students sound off

What bugs entomologists? Illinois grad students sound off

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Saturday on the University of Illinois campus the Entomology Graduate Student Association will host the 30th Annual Insect Fear Film Festival. Since this year’s festival calls attention to the way entomologists suffer at the hands of television screenwriters, I thought it might be interesting to hear what organizers had to say about the way entomologists are portrayed in a couple of popular current shows.

Andrea Walker took a swing at the long-running crime drama “Bones.”

Oh, Bones, we do love that you feature Dr. Jack Hodgins, a handsome man with a personality as an entomologist—what a contrast to the nerdy antisocial entomologists living in a museum basement in “Silence of the Lambs.”

But sometimes your entomological errors are atrocious.

Exhibit A, “The Twist in the Plot,” which aired just a few weeks ago. In this episode, the crew investigates a burial site containing two corpses, one of which is covered in beetles. It’s hard to say for sure which of the beetles are CGI and which of them are real, but one thing is certain—they’re from the ground beetle family, Carabidae.

Why does Dr. Hodgins identify them as rove beetles?

Ground beetles and rove beetles look nothing alike to us! This guy is supposed to have a Ph.D. in entomology; you’d think he would know the difference.

Michelle Duennes weighed in on “The Big Bang Theory.”

TV-land has finally decided the life of a scientist can be exciting and zany enough for a network sitcom—hooray!

While the physicists on the show have faaar more free time than most working scientists, many of us have embraced it. One entomologist has even named an orchid bee Euglossa bazinga in honor of Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s catchphrase.

Really, though, the episode called “The Jiminy Conjecture” makes us wonder.
That’s the one where Sheldon and Howard fight over whether the cricket found in Sheldon’s apartment is a snowy tree cricket or a field cricket.

How do they settle the question?

By consulting one Professor Crawley, played by the continuously furious comedian Lewis Black. In true Black fashion, Crawley is irritable and enraged, here because his research program on dung beetles has just been slashed and he is being forced to move in with his daughter.

Near the end of the scene in which Sheldon and Howard meet him, Dr. Crawley shows them a creature he has supposedly discovered, “Crawley’s Dung Beetle.” But it’s really just a Madagascar hissing cockroach squirming on its back in a plastic cage.

If Dr. Crawley can’t tell the difference between a cockroach and a beetle, maybe there’s good reason his program is being cut.

Of course, the mother of all campy portrayals of entomologists on television is an episode of the X-Files that first aired in 1996, one that will be screened at this year’s Festival. It’s “War of the Coprophages” featuring a character called “Bambi Berenbaum,” inspired by UI Department of Entomology Chair, May Berenbaum.

As an added bonus, X-Files creator/writer/producer/director Chris Carter will be the special guest at the Insect Fear Film Festival, which will take place on Saturday in Foellinger Auditorium on the UI Campus. Admission is free, and doors open at 6:00PM. Further details are available at 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Contemplating courtship rituals for Valentine’s Day

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Whether or not you planned well for it, Valentine’s Day is here. I won’t comment on the human behavior associated with this holiday, but I can provide a bit of diversion and give suggestions about where to see animal courtship spectacles in Illinois.

Consider, suggests May Berenbaum, who is head of the UI Department of Entomology, the bizarre (to us) behavior of some pyralid moth males. In the process of courtship they beat females over the head with the tip of their abdomen. This behavior may look like abuse to us, but in reality its purpose is to transfer aphrodisiacs. Or think of how good your gift ideas look when compared to the offerings certain male insects present to their prospective mates: hangingflies, for example, which proffer dead flies, or certain empid fly males, which court females with empty balls of saliva.

Makes a box of chocolate look pretty special after all, doesn’t it?

Chris Phillips, who is a herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, points out that in the world of amphibians it’s not unusual for courtship to involve a communal aspect, because mating requires frogs, toads, salamanders and others to come together at bodies of water. (Forget cozy dinners for two at candlelit restaurants!) That’s where their eggs will be laid so their young, which must live in water, can develop before going off to breathe air live on land and as adults.

Barring unusual weather, the rains that fall in late February and early March will get Illinois amphibians moving. Male spring peepers and wood frogs will vie for mates by singing (or calling if you prefer, beauty being in the ear of the beholder) in a chorus that can be uncomfortably loud for human observers.

[Spring peeper and prairie chicken photos by author.]

A male wood frog that lands a mate grasps her in an embrace called “amplexus,” which may look much like a human hug. But he is apt to hang on for hours, or even days, his grip secured by rough pads that develop on his thumbs during the breeding season just for that purpose.

If you’re more interested in birds, UI avian ecologist Mike Ward calls attention to two courtship spectacles that can be witnessed in Illinois.

One is the performance of male greater prairie chickens in the lek, a daily gathering during the breeding season where they compete for the attention of females. Males spar with each other to occupy the best positions in the field, and then put on a highly choreographed performance that puts the funky chicken to shame.

Prairie chickens hang on in only a couple of very small isolated populations in Illinois, within the confines of the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area southeast of Effingham. If you want to witness their courtship it’s best to make arrangements through the office there.

It’s much easier to catch the hardly-less-impressive courtship of American woodcocks, which takes place throughout the state, including a number of sites in Champaign and Vermilion counties. Beginning sometime in March, at dawn and dusk male woodcocks put on a display that culminates in the “sky dance,” famously described by Aldo Leopold in “A Sand County Almanac.”

A number of groups, including the Urbana Park District, the Champaign County Audubon Society and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, lead “woodcock walks” in March.

Maybe you could make a date to join up with one.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Farmers south of Homer explain opposition to proposed coal mine

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Last week, I took the opportunity to sit down with Keith and Brenda Rohl, who live and farm south of Homer. I had sought them out because I was told they represented opposition to the proposed coal mine nearby, despite not fitting into the category of "environmentalists" as it is commonly understood.

Both started out by emphasizing how much they value their friendships and ties to the community, and how fervently they wish to prevent damage to those relationships. “Whatever the outcome of this,” Keith said, “I want people to know I am still their friend and neighbor. I am fighting the coal mine.”

When they were approached about selling the rights to the coal under their land, the Rohls were initially inclined to go along. “Seeing the numbers,” Keith said, “it seemed like in might not be such a bad deal.” But there were questions they wanted to answer first.

They wondered about subsidence, whether the land they farm might sink in places once coal from the seam beneath it was removed. The method of mining proposed at the site, called room and pillar, is intended to minimize subsidence. But in their research into the impacts of such mining elsewhere in the state, the Rohls learned there were no guarantees. Keith pointed out that if parts of a field do sink, a farmer may wind up spending the money he gained by selling mineral rights trying to fix the resulting drainage problems, and so wind up worse off than he was before.

In the course of their research, the Rohls also developed concerns about how the proposed mine might affect the local community’s water resources, which others have voiced as well. Those concerns include whether the large amounts of water required for the proposed mine could be supplied to it without impacting other users, and whether the polluted water created by mining processes can be safely contained on the site. Nobody wants to see the nearby Salt Fork River contaminated with pollutants from a mine.

In addition to their concerns over what might go wrong with a coal mine in their community, the Rohls came to recognize that a mine could do a great deal of damage even if everything went right.

That damage would begin with the footprint of mining operations on the surface of the ground. “We’re a farming community, and we’re looking at 400 acres or more of land being taken out of production forever,” Brenda pointed out.

Beyond that, she said, it’s not something you would want to live next to, with piles of mine waste that could be eighty or ninety feet tall. That’s especially unfortunate for the neighbor whose home and five-acre property is bounded on two sides by the land intended for surface operations.

The Rohls also voiced concern over how coal would be moved from the site of the surface operation to the main rail line some distance away. They are unwilling to have a branch line built across their property, and they suspect mine operators might intend to truck all of the coal over existing roads, creating a constant flow of traffic unlike anything the community is used to or would ever want.

The remark that probably best summed up the attitude of the Rohls toward the proposed mine was one they attributed to Sue Smith, who is part of another local farm family who opposes it: “We’ve already have a thriving industry here,” they agreed, “that’s farming. The last thing we want to do is jeopardize it.”