Thursday, February 19, 2015

Urbana Park District balancing needs of people and wildlife

Urbana Park District balancing needs of people and wildlife

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One sure sign that winter won’t last forever is the spectacle of geese high overhead, flying north. They’re common, I know, but it still brightens my day when I walk out and hear them, and have the opportunity to watch their loose v’s form and re-form. These high-flying geese migrate as their forebears have done for millennia.

Would that we could enjoy all geese from a distance.

Other geese are active now, too, our “resident” Canada geese. You can usually tell resident from migratory geese because they fly much lower as they commute from resting areas to feeding spots around town. It’s resident geese I’m thinking about today.

Photo by: The News-Gazette
Kyleigh Steenbergen, 5, of Fisher kneels on top of a picnic table 
on May 23, 2010, as she watches geese at Crystal Lake Park in Urbana.
If you could ask a flock of resident Canada geese for their thoughts on an ideal landscape, here’s what they would probably tell you. “Start with a water feature, preferably a pond, and to make it really perfect, put an island in the middle. Surround that pond with level ground that slopes gently to the water’s edge, and plant that area in a monoculture of turf grass. We like to eat that, and it also allows us to move about freely and see any would-be predators before they can sneak up on us.”

If you were to explain to these geese that such a landscape supports very little other native wildlife, they would not care. They’re geese. If you were to point out that the prodigious quantities of poop they produce make that landscape unpleasant or even unusable for people, they would not care. They’re geese. If you were to ask these geese not to multiply so effectively, they’d say, “It’s the business of geese to make more geese. We geese do not think in terms of ecosystems, and we couldn’t care less about human needs.”

You may recognize the landscape described by our geese around town—at subdivision detention ponds, golf courses and corporate parks, as well as sites under the management of local park districts. These sites were not created for the purpose of supporting a Canada goose population explosion, but they have made it possible.

That population explosion has put people who manage such places in a pickle. Take Crystal Lake Park in Urbana, for example. The goose poop there now renders much of the park unpleasant for a walk and unusable for children to play or families to picnic. Even my friends who are hardcore birders complain.

Urbana Park District personnel—who do think in terms of ecosystems, and who care very much about the needs of people for outdoor recreation—have run through the gamut of creative devices intended to deter geese without making any significant headway.

Over the long term, they plan to make landscape changes that will increase biodiversity and promote a more natural aesthetic, which will at the same time reduce the amount of ideal goose habitat. But in the near term, they also plan to make the park more usable for people again by more active management of the goose population. That means interfering with goose nests and eggs to limit reproduction. And they want the public to understand what they’re doing and why from the start.

Toward that end, the Urbana Park District will conduct a public meeting regarding Canada geese on Wednesday March 4, from 5:30-6:30pm at the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana. The meeting will cover the life history of the Canada goose, goose impacts on Crystal Lake Park, a history of management efforts, and recommendations from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Learning to see trees through “new eyes” at Allerton

Learning to see trees through “new eyes” at Allerton

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If you were scheduled to lead a lightly advertised tree identification hike on a frigid Saturday morning in January, you might anticipate working with a small group. That was the case last month for Nate Beccue, Natural Areas Manager at the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park near Monticello.

“I printed 20 copies of my handouts” he said, “and I thought I’d have extra.” As it turned out, some participants would have had to share even if he’d printed 100.

Hike participants at state champion 
swamp white oak, by author.
Most people who can tell the difference between a maple and an oak in summer have difficulty in winter because they’re naked—the trees, that is, not the people. Beccue’s goal was to equip us to use other cues to tell them apart. He said it was okay to look around on the ground for leaves to confirm other evidence; that is, the presence of white oak leaves can tell you there’s a white oak nearby. But in a forest where fallen leaves are mixed together, you can’t use them to tell which tree is which.

At our first stop, Beccue spent some time explaining how the pattern of buds on twigs helps to begin sorting trees into groups. In Illinois, trees that put out leaves in pairs on opposite sides of the twig are either maple, ash, dogwood or horse chestnut. That’s a group he suggested we could remember by thinking MAD Horse when seeing opposite leaf buds on a twig

All of the rest, including oaks, hickories, walnuts, and others, have leaves that grow from the twig in an alternate pattern.

Beccue also explained some of the ways the bark of trees can be used in winter identification. He cautioned, however, that the analogies commonly used to describe bark do not work equally well for everyone. That was evident in our group when he compared the irregular pattern of ridges and fissures in the bark of northern red oak with ski trails. Ski trails? That clearly didn’t conjure up anything familiar for some of us flatlanders.

The group had an easier time with Beccue’s point of reference for the dark, flaky bark of a wild cherry tree, which he compared to burnt potato chips. I think everybody got that one.

Bitternut hickory bud, 
by Nate Beccue.
To tell the difference between trees that are closely related, Beccue called our attention to some pretty subtle differences in terminal buds, which are the ones that grow at the ends of branches. I need to review those for myself and won’t try to explain them here. But I will tell you about the one I remember for sure. That’s bitternut hickory. If you’re looking at a bright yellow terminal bud—the color of mustard, or sulfur—the tree in question is a bitternut hickory.

Our winter tree hike at Allerton ended at the most spectacular specimen of the day, a towering swamp white oak in the bottomland forest along the Sangamon River. It’s the biggest one of its kind in the state, and will soon be added to the Big Tree Register maintained by UI Extension.

As we made our way back to the visitors center, a friend I met up with on the hike mentioned that he had just recently begun identifying the trees he comes across near home in Urbana. “It’s like seeing the world through new eyes,” he said.

I think that’s also the gift of a walk with a naturalist, new eyes. Such eyes enable a person to appreciate not only a swamp white oak in a bottomland forest, but also one that grows as a street tree.

Further opportunities for getting to know the natural areas of Allerton--and developing new eyes for the everyday world--are in the works for the months to come. The first, which is described as a “semi-rugged, three-mile, off-trail hike,” will take place on the morning of Saturday, February 21st. Details about that and future events can be found on the Allerton website at Or keep up with Allerton on facebook via “Allerton Park and Retreat Center.”

Tree ID Resources from UI Extension (and beyond)

Forest Trees of Illinois ($12)

Tree Identification Chart ($3.50)

A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter ($3)