Thursday, January 24, 2008

UI to participate in national teach-in on global warming

UI to participate in national teach-in on global warming

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It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when scientists and others concerned about global warming had difficulty drawing attention to the issue.

That’s certainly not the case anymore.

With the popular success of the film An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change receiving the Nobel Prize last year, and constant media attention to one aspect of the problem or another, there can be no doubt that people are generally aware of the issue. Indeed, if awareness of the problem were enough, we would be more than halfway home on this one.

But simple awareness cannot provide a foundation of public support strong enough for effective action on a problem as large or complex as global warming.

In order to promote a deeper public understanding of the issues associated with climate change, next week members of the campus community at the University of Illinois will take part in a nationwide teach-in dubbed, Focus the Nation. In the words of the event’s organizers, the goal of the teach-in here and at other schools is “to move America beyond fatalism to a determination to face up to this civilizational challenge, the challenge of our generation.”

At noon on Tuesday, January 29, U of I professor Clifford Singer will give a brownbag lecture titled, “Inconvenient Truths about An Inconvenient Truth.” Singer’s goal is to correct some of the mistakes in the way global warming has been presented to the public because he believes sound public policy regarding climate change must develop from a sound understanding of the science related to the issue. In his talk, Singer will also analyze some of the more popular and palatable approaches that have been put forward for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and explain why he thinks the best solutions to the problem are not among those.

Two other events that are part of Focus the Nation will take place on Wednesday, January 30th. That evening, the Center for Global Studies at the U of I will sponsor a panel discussion in the auditorium of the Urbana Free Library. The purpose of the discussion will be to present an overview of the current science on global warming along with some consideration of the range of proposed solutions to the problem. Panel members include Michael Schlesinger, a professor of atmospheric sciences and member of Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s Climate Change advisory board, Andrew Leakey, a researcher who studies the links between plants and climate change, and William Sullivan, Director of the U of I’s Environmental Council.

Also on the evening the 30th, the U of I student chapter of the organization, Engineers Without Borders will host a free screening of An Inconvenient Truth, along with a moderated discussion to follow.

All three components of the Focus the Nation teach-in are free and open to the public. More information is available through the U of I Environmental Council’s website at

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

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Do you think you can name the largest native predator that currently lives and breeds in Illinois? I bet you can. It’s a member of the dog family, larger than a fox, but smaller than a wolf—that’s right, the coyote.

As you spot a coyote trotting away through a field of corn stubble you may feel like you’re looking at somebody’s dog heading home, and indeed coyotes are related to domestic dogs closely enough to interbreed with them. But unlike a dog, the coyote points its bushy tail to the ground as it runs. When it casts a wary look back to gauge your intentions, you see a wild predator that inhabited central Illinois long before cornfields came to dominate the landscape.

The lines of the coyote’s face and head further distinguish it from a domestic dog. They curve and taper into a long, narrow snout, which forms the bottom point of a triangle that’s completed by its tall, alert ears. [Photo courtesy of Illinois Natural History Survey.]The coyote’s fur—a mix of cream, yellow, tan, brown and gray, tipped with black—helps it remain unnoticed in the many varied habitats it occupies. And it occupies just about every habitat available in Illinois, from the streets of Chicago in the north to the Shawnee National Forest in the south. Standing at about two feet tall and weighing around 30 pounds, the coyote is just small enough to get away with living among humans.

The coyote’s success is also attributable to its flexible eating habits. Rabbits, mice, and other small mammals make up the bulk of the diet for coyotes in the Midwest. But coyotes are opportunistic. Depending on circumstances, they will eat road-killed deer or deer fawns, insects, reptiles and amphibians, grass, fruits and berries, rats, or unlucky house pets. One key to coexisting with coyotes is keeping small pets and pet food indoors overnight, when coyotes are most active.

A coyote on the move may cruise along at speeds of 20 to 30 miles an hour, which is why one that seems to be just trotting away from you is out of sight so fast. And for short bursts coyotes can hit 40 miles an hour or more. If need be they can also leap a distance of 14 feet, and they’re capable swimmers, as well.

Coyotes mate in late winter or early spring, so the weeks to come afford better-than-usual opportunities for seeing them out and about. Coyote pups are born in litters of four to nine sometime in April or May, and both mother and father care for them. The pups remain with their parents learning the skills they need to survive until late summer or fall, when they disperse to begin life on their own. The bonds between coyote pairs are strong, and they may mate together over many years.

As social animals, coyotes are great communicators, expressing themselves through the sorts of facial movements and body positions that are familiar to dog owners. They also keep track of one another by means of howls, yips, and barks—at least 11distinct vocalizations. The coyote’s latin name, Canis latrans, translates as “barking dog.”

For some people, the coyote’s howl will always be an emblem of nighttime in the desert west. But you need not travel far from an urban center to hear that howl as an Illinois sound, too.

Click to listen to IDNR's recording of a coyote howl.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Weather doesn’t stop Christmas Bird Count at Clinton Lake

Weather doesn’t stop Christmas Bird Count at Clinton Lake

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Seven hours into 2008, I was standing by the side of an isolated road near Clinton Lake with three other guys, two of whom were whistling like screech owls. The air temperature hovered around 18 degrees and a 20 mile-an-hour wind whistled through the trees. This wasn’t the tail end of a wild New Year’s Eve party, but rather the beginning of a day of counting birds. My companions and I were participating in the 108th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The count at Clinton Lake is one of about 60 counts that take place in Illinois during the official Christmas Bird Count period, which runs from December 14 to January 5. These are part of a national effort that dates back to 1900, when a Christmas bird count was conceived of as an alternative to the tradition of the holiday “side hunt,” in which teams competed to see who could shoot the greatest number of birds in a day. Currently some 50,000 people participate in Christmas Bird Counts each year, and collectively they observe more than 600 species of birds.

In conducting a Christmas Bird Count, volunteers follow specific routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, making note of every bird they see or hear for as much of the day as possible. The idea is to record not only how many species are observed, but roughly how many individuals of each species are present on the count route that day.

Given the variability in the way individual counts are conducted, the information gathered from the Christmas Bird Count is most useful for assessing general trends in populations of wintering birds over time, and short term fluctuations in data are expected.

Unfortunately for this year’s count at Clinton Lake, the horrendous weather that marked the start of the day persisted, with the addition of periods of heavy snow, which tended to whip through the air horizontally more than it fell. [Left: Steam rises from Clinton Lake in the background as Christmas Bird Count participants pursue another sighting. Photo by Dave Lambeth.] The meteorologist in our party would not permit use of the term “blizzard” in any form, however, pointing out that technically a blizzard is defined by 3 hours of sustained winds of 35 miles an hour or more.

Even so, the 11 people who participated on the Clinton Lake count observed 8,340 individual birds, including members of 73 different species. Among these were large numbers of ducks and geese, which we struggled to see through the clouds of steam that rose from the lake.

For me the highlight of the day was seeing a northern saw-whet owl, which was roosting in a dense stand of cedar.[Right: This well-camouflaged northern saw-whet owl was one of the more notable birds observed on the Christmas Bird Count conducted at Clinton Lake on New Year's Day. Photo by Greg Lambeth.] On my own I would never have found this bird, which is only the size of a tall coffee mug, and so well-camouflaged that it can escape notice even at very close range. Fortunately, the leader of our group, Greg Lambeth, one of our area’s most energetic and expert birders, knew right where to look for it, having found it already as he scouted the area the week before.

If the idea of participating in a Christmas Bird Count next year appeals to you, you can make contact with local coordinators through the Champaign County Audubon Society. Until the, you’ve got 11 months to brush up on your bird identification skills."Steam rises from Clinton Lake in the background as Christmas Bird Count participants pursue another sighting."