Thursday, May 31, 2007

Master Naturalists Volunteer for Conservation

Master Naturalists Volunteer for Conservation

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In his day job, Doug Mills helps University of Illinois instructors make good use of computers and the World Wide Web in their teaching. At home, he’s a husband and father who is heavily involved in the lives of his children, with the soccer games, swim meets and youth group activities that entails.

But on certain evenings this Spring, Doug has been listening to the call of the wild. Well, the mating calls of frogs and toads, actually.

You see, in addition to his family and work, Doug is keenly interested in the natural world. And in the past year he has found a way to pursue that interest through the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist Program.

Sponsored cooperatively by University of Illinois Extension, the Urbana Park District, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the Master Naturalist Program aims to educate a corps of volunteers to provide support for the conservation, management, and interpretation of natural resources in our area.

Doug Mills was among the participants in the first Master Naturalist training course, which was conducted last Fall. From early on, he knew that he wanted to devote his volunteer hours to conservation efforts involving reptiles and amphibians.

In cooperation with Dan Olson, Director of Natural Resources for the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, Doug initiated frog call surveys to establish some baseline data about the frogs and toads that inhabit Forest Preserve sites. Such surveys are a standard method for gathering information about these critters, since they can be difficult to see, but are readily identified by their vocalizations during the mating season. [See Doug's frog blog at]

Doug is conducting his surveys at the Homer Lake and River Bend County Forest Preserves. So far he has visited each site twice and has plans to return three more times.

He begins listening at about sunset, walking a predetermined circuit and recording information about the numbers and species of frogs and toads he hears. So far he has found two species of toads and five species of frogs, including grey treefrogs, which are of particular interest because they seem to be declining in central Illinois.

Beyond establishing a baseline for future investigations, the information about frogs and toads provided by Doug’s surveys will also help the Forest Preserve District gauge the quality of the sites it maintains, since the presence or absence of frogs is an indicator of ecosystem health.

Now, having said so much about frog call surveys, I should emphasize that most of the people who participated in last Fall’s Master Naturalist training have not been tramping around after dark listening to amorous amphibians.

Some have become trail stewards with the Forest Preserve District, while others have volunteered for workdays at Urbana Park District sites. Many have also assisted with the Grand Prairie Friends Spring plant sales, as well as volunteering for stream clean-ups, prairie burns, and numerous other conservation efforts.

If you would like to explore the possibility of becoming a Master Naturalist yourself you can learn more about the program by contacting University of Illinois Extension’s Champaign County office. Applications for Fall 2007 training are available via their website [click here] or by phone (217.333.7672), and are being accepted through July 27.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

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Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

For many of us, the arrival of summer means the beginning of the lawn care season, especially when the weather cooperates. It’s probably not news to you that conventional lawncare has a significant negative impact on the environment. But that is not to say people can’t enjoy the benefits of a yard without compromising their own health, or the health of the planet.

Before I get into what’s wrong with conventional lawn care, I should emphasize that I like turf in my yard. My children play waffle-ball and run around there. I play waffle-ball and run around there. We have picnics, we wash the car, we catch up with the neighbors, we hang out laundry now and then. I even like the way grass looks.

But to maintain grass for these purposes does not require that we participate in the ongoing environmental degradation caused by conventional lawn care.

According to the US EPA, Americans spend $25 billion a year on lawn care. Residential lawns and gardens are doused with 80 million pounds of chemical pesticides and 70 million tons of fertilizers annually, with far reaching environmental impacts.

A portion of that fertilizer runs off into local streams, degrading those waters immediately, and eventually causing harm as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. The insecticides used to fight pests in the yard typically kill all bugs, not just the ones we mean to target, and they pose health risks to those who apply them as well as children and pets who come into contact with them.

An additional negative impact stems from the impulse to keep lawns perfectly green throughout the summer by watering them. Excessive lawn watering represents a misuse of fresh water, already a scarce resource in some parts of the U.S., and one that we’re just beginning to value properly in the Midwest.

I mean to outline here some of the changes individuals can make toward creating a more sustainable home landscape, but for particulars let me also encourage you to explore the resources linked below.

For high impact change, nothing beats cutting down on the amount of your yard kept as turf. Most of us maintain more grass area than we need, or even want, out of inertia. Our yards are covered in grass when we get them, and we’re not highly motivated to change that. But if we make the initial investment of time and energy to replace part of a lawn with native perennials, we liberate ourselves from some part of lawn care forever, and benefit the environment at the same time.

We can also cut down on the environmental impact associated with our yards by some basic changes in our practices: watering grass less frequently but more deeply, mowing to a height of three inches rather than pursuing that fairway look, and using organic alternatives to the ubiquitous commercial products--dry compost for fertilizer, or corn gluten as a weed preventer, for example.

A lawn managed according to sustainable principles may not meet the aesthetic standard set by pictures advertising conventional lawn care products. But it can serve our needs and contribute to the long-term health of our environment.

Ecology Action Center (Bloomington IL) Yard Smart pages:

National Audubon Society "Healthy Yard" pages:

National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Pages

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Students in University of Illinois Environmental Studies Workshop Identify Practical Ways to Conserve Energy

Students Identify Practical Ways to Conserve Energy

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This Spring, seniors in the Environmental Fellows Program, an undergraduate minor administered by the Environmental Council at the University of Illinois, investigated energy use on campus as part of a workshop course in environmental studies. [Click to view Course website.] With support from U of I Facilities and Services and faculty members from Engineering, Urban Planning, and Environmental Science, students in the workshop sought to identify realistic ways for the University to conserve energy. By adopting new energy-use policies and practices, these students now suggest, the U of I campus can save significant money, and at the same time mitigate the negative social and environmental impacts of energy waste, chief among them climate change.

Students from the course worked in six teams, each with a different focus. One group examined lighting and computer use, another, green building practices, and another how accountability might be instituted, so that individuals and departments might have a more direct stake in conservation efforts. Other teams investigated the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and programs for building awareness of energy issues on campus.

The group whose project really hit home for me explored the potential for energy savings with adjustments to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system in the National Soybean Research Center, the building where I work.

The students began their investigation by surveying occupants to understand how the space in the building was used, and by studying the current heating and cooling system to identify potential upgrades. They noted that a large portion--40-50%--of the energy consumed by this and other campus buildings is used for heating and cooling. The students found that the majority of the energy waste associated with this system in the National Soybean Research Center stems from the fact that it operates at full tilt 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether or not spaces are occupied.

Based on this finding, the team recommended three changes. The easiest change to implement and the one that would result in the greatest savings would be to upgrade to digital thermostats. This would make it possible to reduce the heating and cooling in offices at night and on weekends, while allowing lab systems to continue running. The team estimated that this upgrade would pay for itself in savings in 2 to 3 years, and they project that it would yield $560,000 in savings over a 15 year period.

The second recommendation would go a step further toward reducing unnecessary heating and cooling by installing occupancy sensors to shut off systems when building users are not in their offices. This is a smaller scale project with a 1-year payback and 15-year savings of $174,000. A third recommendation, which calls for more sensitive controls on fume hoods in labs, would result in similar savings, although at a higher initial cost.

In all, students from the environmental studies workshop estimate the University could reduce energy use in my building by 20%, and that it could do so using current technology at a cost that would be recovered in less time than it takes earn an undergraduate degree.

If you imagine the impact of extending this approach to the 600-some facilities on the Urbana-Champaign campus, you come to understand how great the opportunities for energy conservation are. And you’re reminded, too, that the campus can be what Environmental Council Director Bill Sullivan calls a “living laboratory,” a place where students and faculty work together to address today’s most pressing environmental concerns.

Special thanks to Dr. Rumi Shammin, instructor for the Environmental Studies Workshop, for the enormous help he provided on this piece.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Spring Warbler Migration and International Migratory Bird Day

Spring Warbler Migration and International Migratory Bird Day

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Have you noticed friends or coworkers looking a little sleep-deprived lately? Perhaps these same people complain of a sore neck, and look past you into the trees while you’re talking. You may be encountering birders caught up in the excitement of spring migration.

Sure, a variety of birds have been migrating through central Illinois since February. During the late winter and early spring approximately 240 species of birds belonging to 39 families pass this way. But for most birders, the highlight of spring is songbird migration, and that becomes most intense in the next couple of weeks.

There are great numbers of birds and a great variety of species represented in this wave. According to Dave Enstrom of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, hundreds of thousands of individuals belonging to over 120 species move through or into central Illinois at this time.

Most exciting among these are members of a family of birds known as warblers. [The hooded warbler, right, was photographed at Busey Woods in Urbana by Greg Lambeth. Click here to see Greg's other bird photos.] These are strikingly beautiful little birds that average only about a third of an ounce in weight. Although they are small, warblers migrate long distances, from wintering ranges in Mexico, Central, and South America to breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada.

As they move north, warblers feed on insects, especially the caterpillars, bees and wasps that populate the crowns of trees as they flower and leaf out. (This habit of the birds accounts for “warbler neck” among birders who spend too much time looking up at them.)

Although 20 species of warblers breed in Illinois, only 7 species nest in Champaign County. Most individuals of the 37 warbler species that occur in Illinois are just passing through on their way further north.

Ironically, the highly fragmented nature of the central Illinois landscape makes for great warbler watching. Migrating birds that need trees to feed in when they stop are concentrated in urban areas and the isolated woodlands that remain here.

It seems almost foolish to try to describe in words the vivid beauty that prompts birders to get out before sunrise day after day. Some warblers are all about color. The blackburnian warbler’s throat and head, for instance, exhibit such a bright combination of orange and yellow that it looks to be on fire. [Click here to see photo and species account at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" website.] And the cerulean warbler—well, if you’ve only experienced “cerulean” as the color of a crayon, you’ve got to see this bird.

Other warblers are about patterns. The aptly named black and white warbler, for example, makes up for its lack of color in the same way a zebra does, by sporting stripes so bold they appear to be painted.

If you’re interested in catching up with spring migration, you might want to check out the observance of International Migratory Bird Day this Saturday, May 12, at the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana. Among the many activities scheduled, ornithologists from the Illinois Natural History Survey will be on hand to net and band birds in Busey Woods, allowing people to see how they work and providing very close up looks at some wild birds. [Further details available from the Urbana Park District at 384-4062.]

You can also enjoy spring migration with the Champaign County Audubon Society’s Sunday morning bird walks at Busey Woods, which run from 7:30 until about 9:00 a.m., and continue through the end of May.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Pleasures of Commuting by Bicycle

The Pleasures of Commuting by Bicycle

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Between three-dollar-a-gallon gas and mounting concern over climate change, more and more people are looking for ways to burn less fuel as they commute. In this quest, we often plow straight ahead to new technologies—hybrid cars now, hydrogen powered cars in the future. But you know, I bet you’ve already got a vehicle in your garage that can “out-green” any new car, a vehicle that’ll get you from point A to point B quickly and efficiently using century old technology. I mean your bike, of course.

I’ve been commuting by bike in Champaign-Urbana for just over twenty years now, and I’ve found that there are really very few days when taking the bike to work isn’t my best option. I don’t ride in thunderstorms, or when snow and ice make the roads hazardous. Otherwise, the weather doesn’t present many obstacles that can’t be overcome with the right clothing. And the flat terrain means you never have to pedal all that hard.

Sometimes when I’m biking I’ll stop to talk with friends or colleagues who comment on the environmental virtue of not driving. But you know what? I don’t bike because it’s virtuous. I bike because I like to.

On my bike I am able to listen for birds all the way to work, and if I hear something interesting, I can pull over to take a look. I don’t need to make time in my day to “exercise” because I do that as I commute. When I get to work on the U of I campus, I park right outside the door to my building and pay no money for the privilege. Aside from other bicyclists, who else does that?

I suppose there are plenty of reasons for people not to use bikes for commuting, but I suspect that the most significant one is automobile traffic. People fear being hit by a car while riding a bike . . . so they hop into a car, instead. The thing is, with well-designed roadways bicycle commuting need not be dangerous. And cyclists can do much to promote their own welfare. [A great place to start is the "Bicycle Commuting" page at the League of Illinois Bicyclists website.]

In order to enjoy commuting by bike, you need to claim for yourself a place on the road. There are plenty of web pages and books that provide detailed instructions about how to do this, but the main idea here is really not that complicated.

As a bicyclist you are not in the way of traffic, you are traffic. You should operate your bike as a vehicle and expect others using the roadway to treat you as one. This means you use lights when lights are needed, you signal your turns, and you obey other traffic laws as you do in a car. You turn left from the left turn lane, you don’t pass on the right, and you don’t ride on the sidewalk. In short, you assert yourself and behave predictably.

Now, asserting yourself need not include riding on the busiest streets in town at the busiest times of day. One of the great pleasures of bicycle commuting is developing routes that allow you to enjoy the journey.

If you’re interested in touching base with others in our community who want to promote bicycle commuting, check out Their goal is to make Champaign County the most bicyclist friendly county in the Midwest. This coming Sunday, May 6 they will host their first ever bicycle festival at Hessel Park in Champaign, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Details about this event are available at