Thursday, August 30, 2007

Loda Cemetery Prairie a Jewel Worth Saving and Expanding

Loda Cemetery Prairie a Jewel Worth Saving and Expanding

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By the time many people began to recognize the value of preserving intact natural ecosystems, the tallgrass prairie that had characterized the landscape of east central Illinois for more than eight thousand years had already been destroyed.

As recently as 1820, approximately 60 percent of the state—some 22 million acres—was covered by prairie. By 1900, nearly all of that land had been converted to agriculture or developed for other purposes. Currently, less than one tenth of one percent of the original prairie remains in Illinois—so little that most of us have never seen a bit.

As Jamie Ellis, board president of the Urbana-based conservation group Grand Prairie Friends puts it, “We live in the Prairie State, and we still live in a prairie landscape, but the unique vegetation that we call prairie is virtually nonexistent.”

The extreme scarcity of prairie in Illinois makes it all the more important that we value the places where it remains.

One such place is the Loda Cemetery Prairie, just 30 miles north of Champaign, off of Interstate 57. Prior to its purchase by the Nature Conservancy and official dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1983, this site was slated to be used for burial as the need for space at the cemetery grew. Because it had never plowed or used for pasture, the native plant community there had remained extraordinarily strong. In the initial study of the vegetation at the site, researchers catalogued more than 130 species of prairie plants, which was, in their words, “As many as one can ever hope to find in a single prairie community.”

Since 1983, the Loda Cemetery Prairie has been maintained by the Grand Prairie Friends, who took ownership of the site in 2004. Their mission is to preserve and restore natural communities in east-central Illinois and to promote an understanding and appreciation of natural resources.

At the Loda site, local stewards promote the ecological integrity of the prairie by removing nonnative weeds and cutting or pulling woody brush. Stewards also maintain the quality of the prairie by conducting prescribed burns on a limited basis. Compared to restoration projects where prairie is reestablished on land that has been used for agriculture, remnants of original prairie such as the one at Loda are fairly easy to take care of, since their long established plant communities are inhospitable to invaders.

People, however, are welcome to visit the Loda Cemetery Prairie, which can be seen in its full glory at this time of year.

Right now there is also a historic opportunity to enhance the Loda Prairie, as Grand Prairie Friends has entered an agreement to buy about nine acres adjoining the site. This purchase will allow the group to introduce native plants on additional land, and will serve to buffer the existing prairie from disturbances on its edges.

You can help make this purchase happen and bring back a little bit of prairie by donating to the effort with a tax-deductible gift. Checks should be directed to Grand Prairie Friends, P.O. Box 36, Urbana, Illinois, 61803.

[Would you like to learn more about the tallgrass prairie in Illinois? Click here to see web pages by Ken Robertson, who is a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.]

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Appreciating Hummingbirds in Illinois

Appreciating Hummingbirds in Illinois

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More often than not, when I try to point out hummingbirds to my wife and children, I wind up gesturing toward air. “Hey, guys,” I call, “come see the hummingbird at the . . . oh, never mind.”

That said, the months of August and September provide some of the year’s best opportunities for observing hummingbirds in Illinois. That’s because individuals that have been farther north during the breeding season collect here on their way south.

When I say, “hummingbird,” here I mean “ruby-throated hummingbird,” which is the only species from this family of birds that breeds east of the Mississippi, and the only one commonly seen in Illinois.

All ruby-throats are an iridescent green on the back, and whitish in front, with only adult males sporting the ruby red throat that gives the species its name.

Hummingbirds are perhaps most remarkable for how small they are compared to other birds. Ruby throats are shorter than 4 inches from bill to tail tip, and weigh just three and a half grams. That’s comparable to three and a half grapes, or about midway between the weights of a penny and a nickel.

Despite their small size, many hummingbirds migrate over long distances. Ruby throats heading south may travel 2000 miles to reach their winter territory in southern Mexico and Central America, including a 500-mile nonstop leg of the trip over the Gulf of Mexico.

Hummingbirds are also remarkable for their agility in flight. With wings that beat 53 times a second, they can hold themselves perfectly still in front of a flower, then zip off in any direction—up, down, sideways, or even backwards.

Most people are aware that hummingbirds feed on nectar, which they obtain with their elongated bills. But nectar represents only half of the ruby throat’s diet. The other half is insects. Ruby throats most often catch bugs by “hawking” them, which is to say they wait on an open perch for prey to come by then fly out to grab it from the air. Ruby throats also pick insects and spiders off of trees and flowers, a behavior known as “gleaning.”

People who observe hummingbirds are often struck by how combative they are, despite their delicate appearance. Even where there are multiple sources of food and plenty of perches, hummingbirds chase each other off like lions at a kill.

The easiest way to attract hummingbirds to your yard is to provide food for them. In the long term, you can do this by planting native perennials such as columbine and bee balm, or, better still, trumpet vine, which is a hummingbird favorite with its 3-inch long scarlet flowers. For a quicker fix you can simply put up a hummingbird feeder filled with either commercial imitation nectar or a 20-percent solution of sugar water, for which recipes are widely available in birding books and on the world wide web. [For directions at Hummingbirds Forever click here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Environmental Impacts of Increasing Corn Production

Environmental Impacts of Increasing Corn Production

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You don’t have to be a farmer, or even pay attention to the news, to notice there’s something different about the agricultural landscape of central Illinois this year. Where in past years you might have seen alternating fields of corn and soybeans, this year you often see corn, corn, and more corn.

This observation is reflected in the Crop Acreage Report released at the end of June by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationwide, corn is being grown on 93 million acres this year, a 19 percent increase over last year and the greatest total number of acres in corn since 1944. In Illinois, the increase in corn acreage from 2006 to 2007 was a bit less dramatic but still substantial at about 11 percent.

Farmers are growing more corn because strong demand—driven largely by the rush to produce ethanol for fuel—has pushed corn prices far above the long-term average. While the boom in corn provides economic benefits to agriculture, it also entails a number of environmental costs.

One potential long-term impact of the current corn boom is pressure to move land out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Under CRP contracts, farmers receive cost-share assistance with conservation projects and annual rental payments on environmentally sensitive land for a specified period of time. In the best cases, CRP parcels help to mitigate the environmental impact of farming on rivers and streams by controlling soil erosion and reducing nutrient runoff. Taking such land out of CRP can, by eliminating the filtering action of streamside buffer strips, have a negative environmental impact far beyond the small additional crop income.

Conservation Reserve Program contracts contain penalties for withdrawing land early, since the up-front public investment in CRP land is designed to provide environmental benefits over time. But already this past spring, the USDA was facing pressure to allow farmers to withdraw from CRP contracts without penalty.

A more immediate potential impact of planting more corn is increased nutrient pollution in waterways, a problem that stretches from the upper Midwest all the way to the oxygen-starved, “dead zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico each summer. At some 7,900 square miles, this year’s dead zone is the third largest since monitoring began in 1985. Of course agriculture isn’t alone in the creation of this problem, which is also fed by discharges from industry and sewage treatment plants, as well as fertilizer in runoff from urban and suburban landscaping. But given conventional regimens for fertilizing corn and soybeans, an increase in corn acres would be expected to exacerbate the nutrient problem.

In computer modeling focused on the Embarras River watershed conducted for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this summer, University of Illinois researchers Wayland Eheart and Thomas Hu sought to estimate how an increased proportion of corn to soybeans would affect nitrogen runoff. Their study projected that going from half corn and half beans to two-thirds corn would lead to a 29 percent increase in nitrogen runoff. The beans, while they actually produce nitrogen, also act as a sponge to soak up excess nitrogen and store it in the soil more stably for later use by corn. Eliminating the beans disrupts the cycle, causing greater nitrogen runoff.

I suppose the upshot of all of this is to call into question whether public policy that favors expanded production of corn can really be said to benefit the environment.