Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fire helps to maintain Prospect Cemetery Nature Preserve

Fire helps to maintain Prospect Cemetery Nature Preserve

***Information about tomorrow's presentation on Prospect Cemetery below***

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People who work to preserve and restore natural areas employ a wide range of tools, from handsaws and loppers to much larger mechanical equipment. But none of these can take the place of the oldest and most powerful implement humans use to manipulate the landscape, fire.

Yesterday morning I joined up with a group of volunteers from the Urbana-based conservation group Grand Prairie Friends as they put fire to work at the Prospect Cemetery Nature Preserve in Paxton. Like many other cemeteries established by early white settlers in Illinois, Prospect Cemetery has served dual purposes over the past two centuries. It has been a burial ground for people, as was intended by those who established it. But it has also served as an unintentional refuge for the rich variety of plant life native to central Illinois. In effect, by setting aside land that had never been plowed, those nineteenth-century settlers made it possible for us to see a glimpse of the prairie they encountered.

The tallgrass prairie that dominated the landscape of central Illinois from about 8,000 years ago until the advent of modern agriculture was characterized by a tightly packed mixture of more than 300 species of grasses and flowers, many of which grew to heights of 10 feet or more. The importance of refuges such as Prospect Cemetery is underscored when one calls to mind just how little original tallgrass prairie remains in the Prairie State today: less than one-tenth of one percent.

In combination with climate and grazing, fire was one of the primary factors that accounted for the existence of prairies here, where forests would otherwise have taken over. Sometimes caused by lightning and other times ignited by Native Americans, prairie fires are estimated to have burned any given parcel of land once every one to five years.

By removing thatch and speeding the return of nutrients to the soil in the form of ash, prairie fires enabled dormant seeds to germinate. The spring and summer following a burn were marked by a profusion of flowers and reinvigorated forage. Prescribed burns are used now in the management of prairie remnants and restorations to achieve similar effects.

The prescribed burn I took part in yesterday was directed by Mary Kay Solecki, a field representative of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and it was a tightly organized affair. [Photo: burn workers use a small backfire create a firebreak.] Backfires were used to create a firebreak around the perimeter of the burn unit, and there were more than enough capable hands available to monitor the fire’s progress on every side. A favorable wind and the dry condition of the plant material fueling the head fire combined so that it swept through the target area within 15 minutes. In the fire’s wake a thin layer of ash covered the rich black soil and bits of low vegetation that were too moist to burn.

If you would like learn more about the history of Prospect Cemetery, you are invited to attend a public presentation on that subject tomorrow evening (Friday, March 28, 2008) at 7:00 p.m. at the PBL High School in Paxton. If you wish to witness for yourself the dramatic regrowth of tallgrass prairie after a fire, make time to stop by Prospect Cemetery in Paxton this summer. You can access it from South Vermillion Street near Green Street at the south end of Paxton.

Bob Reber, a managing editor and staff photographer for The Illinois Steward magazine will present a slide show and talk entitled “Prospect Cemetery Prairie – A Part of Ford County’s Natural Heritage” on March 28th, 2008 at the March meeting of the Ford County Historical Society. The meeting will be held in the Little Assembly at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School at 700 West Orleans St. in Paxton. All are encouraged to attend. Refreshments will be available.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Making the most of March

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Making the most of March

At this time of year the fickle Illinois weather can make a person want to crawl into a cave and sleep until June. But for people who are willing to brave the elements—or enjoy the sunshine, depending on the day—early Spring affords unique opportunities to connect with the natural world.

It is the time of year to find members of the mole salamander family above ground, including our state amphibian, the tiger salamander. These are creatures that live most of their lives farther down in the soil, but that travel overland in early spring, to and from the seasonal ponds where they breed. You can often find such salamanders by rolling over logs in the vicinity of vernal pools, like the ones at Busey Woods in Urbana, or Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County.

Vernal pools, which are defined by the fact that they dry up completely later in the year and thus do not hold fish, are also home to quite a bit of other activity in March. This activity is signalled by the calls of wood frogs, spring peepers, and toads seeking mates. And it’s evident in the graceful movement of fairy shrimp, inch-long crustaceans that propel themselves through the clear, icy water with eleven delicate pairs of legs. An aquarium net and a plastic pan are all the equipment you need to spend an afternoon exploring a vernal pool.

A mid-March walk in the woods provides a great opportunity to witness the early development of spring wildflowers, which have to make the most of this time before the trees leaf out and prevent sunlight from reaching the forest floor. You won’t see them blooming just yet, but in the weeks to come trout lilies, snow trillium, spring beauties, and a host of other flowers will emerge from the soggy ground. Perhaps a hike along the Sangamon River at Allerton Park near Monticello is in order.

March means, “move” for a lot of birds, and that opens up myriad possibilities for birdwatchers. You can see more waterfowl than you can count along the Illinois River right now, but you may also see a surprising variety of ducks and geese on just about any body of water at this time of year. Large impoundments like Clinton Lake, Lake Decatur and Lake Vermilion offer great possibilities. But so do subdivision detention ponds, farm ponds, and flooded fields. If you’re up for a day trip, there are still some five thousand sandhill cranes stopping over at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife rea in northwest Indiana. The sight of these magnificent birds feeding in the fields during the day and gathering to roost in the evening can be well worth the two-and-a-half hour drive from Champaign-Urbana.

March is also when you can witness the mating display of the American woodcock, a long-billed, stout-bodied oddity of a bird who performs twice a day, at dawn and dusk. You can see his highly choreographed mix of strutting, sound and flight at natural areas with the right mix of open ground and brush, including Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve, near Homer.

Now, don’t get me wrong—even with all of this activity, I’ll be glad when better weather arrives to stay and the world is green again. I just mean to emphasize that the progress of Spring has already begun, and we don’t need to wait to enjoy it.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bobcats in the Prairie State

Bobcats in the Prairie State

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Early one recent morning Urbana resident Roger Digges was out for his regular sunrise walk at Meadowbrook Park. He was listening for the first migrating birds of the Spring and following the tracks a pair of coyotes had left in the slushy snow next to the path. Then he saw something unusual, an animal he thinks was a bobcat.

He described the animal this way:
It seemed relatively short in length for the size of its body, and it had a stubby tail, which stuck up. Its fur was patterned, although the light was too dim to see the pattern clearly. It had a large head with a wide face that seemed “squashed,” and prominent tufted ears. When it paused to look at me I could see a hint of yellow in its eyes. I could have been fooled by the low light, but it certainly moved in a feline rather than canine fashion, and it was much larger than any domestic cat.

As a long-time birder, Roger Digges is accustomed to the questions that arise when someone reports an improbable observation, but the features he describes characterize a bobcat very well. [Photo by Michael Jeffords. A captive bobcat at Wildlife Prairie State Park rests on a branch during the day. Bobcats are most active at night, when people are least likely to see them.]

You might be surprised to learn that bobcats are not really a rarity in Illinois anymore, at least not where suitable habitat exists.

Bobcats inhabited the entire state prior to 1820, but their populations declined dramatically over the course of the following century as a result of habitat loss and unregulated hunting and trapping. They were added to the state list of threatened species in 1977. Scientific studies conducted during the 1990s, however, found that bobcats had become widely distributed in suitable habitat and that their numbers were continuing to grow, and they were removed from the state list of threatened species in 1999.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, there have been reliable reports of bobcats in 99 of the 102 counties statewide in the past two decades. By far the greatest numbers of Illinois bobcats are found in the southern third of the state, where the greatest amount of wooded habitat exists, especially in the Shawnee National Forest. Population estimates based on available territory suggest that perhaps 2,200 bobcats may now be living in Illinois south of Interstate 64. Consistent reports of bobcats in Jo Daviess County indicate the presence of another population in the northwestern corner of the state. Bobcats also occur at lower densities in the wooded corridors along the Mississippi, Illinois, and Kaskaskia rivers.

Like other animals that coexist successfully with humans, bobcats are adaptable creatures. They feed on a variety of small prey and use whatever suitable structures are available for dens, anything from fallen trees and hollow logs to rock piles, caves and abandoned buildings. In addition, bobcats are most active when we are least likely to see them—at dawn and dusk, and during the night. Because they are small and inclined to avoid us, bobcats normally represent no threat to people.

Unfortunately for anyone who might hope to see bobcats in Champaign-Urbana, they are probably not adaptable enough to take up residence here, where so little forest exists. But it is exciting to think that Roger Digges might have seen one passing through here, all the same.