Thursday, May 25, 2006

Catching Snakes and Illinois Wilds Institute for Nature

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As kids growing up in suburban Cincinnati, my brother and sister and I had easy access to some pretty nice places. There was a woods with a pond behind our house, and a creek that wound through a pasture on a farm nearby. In retrospect it sounds kind of funny to me, but one of our favorite activities was catching snakes.

We had reliable spots in the creek for catching queen snakes, and we would naturally pick up anything else we found under the rocks there: salamanders, crayfish, tadpoles, just about anything that moved.

Sometimes we would fan out and walk the woods looking for black rat snakes or racers, bigger snakes that were harder to find but much cooler to have. Occasionally the rat snakes we caught were longer than we were tall. We also picked up a lot of box turtles as we went. On our record day we collected eighteen of them, more than I’ve seen altogether in the thirty-plus years since that time.

My parents were surprisingly accommodating. We didn’t get in trouble for coming home wet and dirty, and my mom tolerated snakes in the basement as long as they were contained. My dad even made a pen in the yard from garden fencing, which he and the guy at the hardware store called “turtle wire.” About the only rule that applied was to let things go where you caught them, and we were pretty good about that.

This trip down memory lane was prompted by a more recent experience I had, a three-day workshop on reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans conducted by the Illinois Natural History Survey at the Cache River Wetlands Center in southern Illinois.

There I again found myself walking the woods with others who ran towards the person who called out “snake,” rather than away. Between the workshop participants and our guides from the Natural History Survey we found and identified eight species of salamanders, ten types of frogs and toads, six kinds of turtles, two kinds of lizards, and eleven species of snakes. On top of that, we netted a variety of crayfish, darters, and minnows—really we took a look at just about anything that moved.

I should emphasize that the workshop took us beyond finding and identifying critters in the field. We enjoyed presentations on the life history and conservation of the animals we studied by professional scientists from the Natural History Survey. Chris Phillips, who wrote the Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Illinois and Chris Taylor, one of the region’s foremost experts on crustaceans, were the primary instructors for the class.

The workshop I attended is part of a program called the Illinois Wilds Institute for Nature, which aims to help people from all walks of life connect with the natural wonders of our state, and which you can learn more about through the Illinois Natural History Survey’s website. In an age when many people experience nature by watching a guy on TV catch snakes on the other side of the world, we’re extremely fortunate to have access to such programs right here in our state

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Keeping Bighead and Silver Carp Out of the Great Lakes

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[Click this link to see Illinois Natural History Survey video of silver carp leaping out of the water in response to boats.]

You know that old story of the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike to prevent a flood? Well, his task was easy compared to the task facing researchers from Illinois and neighboring states who are trying to prevent an invasion of the Great Lakes by two species of carp native to Asia, the bighead and silver carp.

This story dates back to the 1970s, when bighead and silver carp were imported to the southern United States from China in order to control aquatic vegetation and plankton blooms in fish-rearing ponds. Whether they then escaped during floods or were released intentionally, they began showing up in the Mississippi River Basin by the early 1980s.

Since then, bighead and silver carp have made their way steadily north, up through the Illinois River system toward the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Created in the late 1800s to divert sewage from Chicago, the twenty-eight mile long canal provides the only direct aquatic link between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins. Blocking passage of the carp through the canal is a crucial element of the fight to keep them out of the Great Lakes.

The first defense against the movement of bighead and silver carp into Lake Michigan has been an experimental electric barrier, which was constructed near Romeoville, and began operation in Spring of 2002. This barrier uses electrodes deployed in a cross-section of the canal to create a wall of electric current. The electricity irritates fish as they approach and causes them to turn around.

A new, more permanent barrier using two electric arrays is in the final stages of installation, and should be fully operational this summer.

Working with funding from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, researchers have also been investigating the potential for using an acoustic barrier to prevent the movement of fish through the Chicago Canal. The system they have developed uses sound projectors that emit chirping noises which repel fish, combined with an air line that generates a wall of bubbles. The bubble-wall amplifies the projected sound and causes additional disturbance to fish.

The design for the acoustic barrier is relatively simple, which means it might be an affordable way to augment the electric barrier. In addition, since it requires little electricity it could be run with a generator during a power outage.

Of course effective barriers can only stop fish from swimming into the Great Lakes on their own. It is equally important that people, especially anglers and boaters, not move invasive species from one body of water to another. This is a great concern with bighead and silver carp, since the young of both species closely resemble gizzard shad, a native North American fish commonly caught for use as bait. If you fish or boat I would encourage you to check out the educational materials Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant puts out on invasive species, to help ensure you don’t inadvertently contribute to the problem. [Scroll down to the "Featured Products" section at this Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant link.]

Researchers are still assessing the impact of bighead and silver carp on ecosystems and fisheries in the Mississippi River drainage, and it is hoped that the high productivity of that system will blunt the damage they cause there. There is little hope that Lake Michigan would fare so well, since it is a less productive system to begin with, and it has already been hit hard by zebra mussels and other invaders. By committing resources to stop the spread of bighead and silver carp now, we can prevent one nightmare from becoming a reality for the Great Lakes.

A special thanks to Irene Miles and Pat Charlebois of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and Phil Moy of Wisconsin Sea Grant for help with this program.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

*Native Plants in the Home Landscape* and Grand Prairie Friends Native Plant Sale

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Have you ever heard people talk about the ecological importance of using native plants in home gardens and felt out of the loop—like maybe everybody else got the native plant memo when you were out sick? Or maybe you got the message, but you’re concerned the neighbors might think you’re cultivating weeds? If so, I’ve got a couple of suggestions for you.

First, check out the book published by University of Illinois Extension in 2004 called, Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest, written by Keith Nowakowski. [Available in bookstores and via the web at the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences' Publications Plus. Click here to open the page in a new window.] This book gives you everything you need to know to make good use of native plants without bogging down anywhere. It’s the kind of resource my wife wishes I’d had when I started replacing turf with Prairie Dropseed and Yellow Coneflowers seven years ago.

Of course this book makes the case for using native plants that you may be familiar with from other sources: that they require little or no irrigation once they’re established, that they need neither fertilizers nor pesticides, that they provide visual attractions year round, and that they are beneficial to insects, birds, and other wildlife.

Perhaps more importantly, Native Plants for the Home Landscape offers specific plans for how to incorporate native plants into a variety of settings. Are you ready to try something different where the turfgrass just won’t grow under a shade tree? There’s a woodland garden plan featuring plants that put on a spectacular show in spring and early summer, and that offer something of interest to the eye year round. Have you got a sunny spot that cries out for a prairie garden? Nowakowski emphasizes that you can put in a prairie garden that’s attractive to both wildlife and neighbors by complementing the use of flowers, such as Butterfly Milkweed and Pale Purple Coneflowers, with grasses and sedges.

Nowakoski’s book is also notable for showcasing the variety of native plants that possess the characteristics prized in home landscapes, with specific entries on more than eighty different plants. On top of that, it features some photographs of flowers you might be tempted to cut out and frame.

Now that you know of a resource that helps you plan how to use native plants, you may be wondering where to get them. The book provides specific information for a number of sources in the Midwest, but the best opportunity for buying native plants in the Champaign-Urbana area takes place this Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana. It’s the annual Native Prairie Plant and Woodland Wildflower Sale conducted by the Grand Prairie Friends, a local group that works to conserve prairies and other natural areas.

At the sale you can purchase some forty species of plants, from easy-to-grow staples like Little Bluestem and Orange Butterfly Weed to less widely know plants like New Jersey Tea and Cream Wild Indigo. The plants available at the sale are grown by volunteers from seed collected locally, or they are donated by individuals who grow native species in their gardens.

Beyond offering you the opportunity to buy interesting plants at reasonable prices, the sale provides a way for you to support native plant conservation and restoration in our area. Proceeds from it are used to fund summer internships for college age students to do hands-on natural areas management, and to buy equipment that the Grand Prairie Friends use to maintain natural areas.

So, if you’ve been thinking maybe you’re ready for some native plants in your yard, now really is the time to grow a little wild.

Urbana's Wild Turkeys and Priorities in Wildlife Conservation

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**Click here and select "View Slideshow" to see a series of six photos taken by Bernie Sloan of Urbana as two of the turkeys come after him. And Bernie is a fan of the turkeys!**

It looks like the turkeys that have roamed Urbana over the past year are going to be relocated soon, if they can be caught. Since I take great pleasure in observing urban wildlife, I’ve enjoyed the fact that they chose to move in among us. But I’ve also come around to the position that these turkeys are out of place in the city, and really ought to be moved.

The fate of the Urbana turkeys isn’t really a conservation issue, if we understand conservation to be about maintaining the various species of plants and animals indigenous to a region.

Turkeys were absent from Illinois by the early decades of the twentieth century thanks to habitat loss and over-hunting. But efforts to reintroduce them in our state and elsewhere, which began in the 1950s and continued up until about six years ago, proved very successful.

Illinois currently boasts turkeys in just about every habitat that will support them, and recent estimates put the state population at 135,000. Harvests by turkey hunters break records from one year to the next, with last year’s spring take statewide surpassing 15,000 birds.

The question raised by the Urbana turkeys is more one of how we balance an interest in sharing the landscape with wildlife against people’s tolerance for threats to their safety. Wild turkeys are imposing birds, with adult males often weighing twenty pounds or more. They’re fast too, capable of running at speeds of up to twenty-five miles an hour.

The trouble with the Urbana turkeys is that they have been using their speed to chase people, rather than run away from them.

I should admit here that I was skeptical when I first heard reports of the Urbana turkeys’ aggression, since I had never seen wild turkeys doing anything other than trying to get away from me. At the time I also suggested to my wife that it’s a disservice to children to simply remove from their lives any wild creature that might be perceived as a threat. And I’m still wary of that.

But at least two of Urbana’s most wanted have engaged in sustained efforts to peck physically capable adults, individuals who had done nothing to provoke them and who had some trouble getting away. I think it’s unreasonable to ask that people put up with wild turkeys that act that way in town. (Outside of town I’m thinking birds that act that way wouldn’t last very long, either.)

In the long run, it’s more useful for those of us who value wildlife to direct our attention to the preservation and restoration of habitat, rather than the fate of individual animals.

Take a look at a map of east central Illinois sometime and consider where wild turkeys might live without getting into trouble with people. There aren’t many places.

For my part, I’d rather see a little more turkey habitat in Champaign County instead of turkeys adapted to life in the city.