Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

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Winter arrived with such force this month it feels as though we’ve spun forward right into January. Such a transition brings on a lot of changes in the natural world, so I headed out to the Homer Lake Forest Preserve one day last week to investigate, and see if I could get some photographs.

As I left the U of I campus I spied a red-tailed hawk atop a power pole on Windsor Road, and was reminded what an excellent time of year it is for raptor watching. Winter brings us an influx of hunting birds from the north, and the lines of sight are wide open so you can see birds of prey from a long way off, even in urban and forested areas.

Driving east through farm country, I slowed now and then to look at flocks of smaller birds along the roadside where the snowplow had exposed patches of gravel and soil. I saw only common birds, juncos and horned larks, but at this time of year arctic-breeding birds such as snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are not uncommon in the fields of east central Illinois.

Stopping at the north end of Homer Lake to check ice conditions, I was reminded that birds aren’t the only things that become especially visible in winter. In plain view there hung a Baltimore oriole nest that would have been entirely obscured by leaves in summer when it was occupied. In a nearby tree, a bulky gray hornet's nest is equally plain to see.

At the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s Environmental Education Center, I stopped to ask for tips from the friendly, knowledgeable staff. They suggested that people take advantage of the snow to investigate tracks and other evidence of animal activity, or to get kids out on the sledding hill. “And remind people,“ they added with emphasis, “dress for the weather!”

I set out on the Flicker Woods Trail, happy to hear ahead of me the calling of a pair of pileated woodpeckers. They’re crow-sized, black birds with sturdy, chisel-shaped bills and brilliant red crests, wonderful targets for a guy out with his camera. Each time I closed in on them, however, they moved away another fifty yards into the woods.

In a mature stand of oaks and hickories, I changed tactics, and hid myself in the shadow of a large tree to see if they’d come back. Soon they did, announced by an emphatic knocking as they whacked away at dead wood in search of beetles and ants. If only they would have come around a little farther, I wouldn’t have had to photograph them against the bright sky.

Tracks along a bluff overlooking the Salt Fork River showed a coyote had traveled the path ahead of me. I paused where he had stopped to dig under the trunk of a fallen tree. Leaf litter and soil were strewn atop the snow, but whether or not he had caught a meal I couldn’t tell. Following his track took me down through a dry ravine and into the river bottom, where I lost him among the maze of deer trails.

Too soon, it was time to head back, but as I made for the wide path that would take me to the car, I was arrested by a frantic scrambling in the brush ahead. It was the coyote, driven from his sheltered spot under a log by my approach. I was ready with my camera, and took advantage of his curiosity to get a shot—he just couldn’t’ run off without a look back to see who had disturbed his rest.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Retelling tales of the famously extinct passenger pigeon

Retelling tales of the famously extinct passenger pigeon

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[Author's note: this post is a follow up to "The case of the louse and the passenger pigeon" from November 18, 2010.]

For me, the retelling of stories about passenger pigeons, which were extinguished as a species after having been one the most abundant birds on Earth, is like the rehearsal of tales about a loved one at a memorial service: necessary, pleasurable and painful at the same time.

By all accounts individual passenger pigeons were striking birds. Males, which were slightly larger and more colorful than females, measured about 16 inches from beak to tail tip. They were blue-gray on the back, with scattered black markings and iridescent neck feathers that could flash pink, violet, gold and metallic green. Underneath, their throats and chests were colored with mixed shades of orange, red and tan, which faded to dull white on their bellies. An orange-red iris gave their eyes an arresting quality. [Illustration depicting female, above, and male, below, is plate by John J. Audubon.]

But passenger pigeons were even more remarkable en masse. They occurred in hard-to-comprehend numbers; somewhere between three and five billion are estimated to have lived in eastern and central North America when Europeans first arrived here. According to Arlie W. Schorger, who wrote the definitive book on them, passenger pigeons once constituted one-fourth of all birds on the continent.

Passenger pigeons flocked in staggering numbers, too. In an often cited passage from his pioneering work, American Ornithology, Alexander Wilson described a flight near Frankfort, Kentucky in 1806 in these terms: “from right to left as far as the eye could reach, the breadth of this vast procession extended; seemingly everywhere equally crowded.” He estimated the column of birds flying over to be at least a mile wide and, since it passed by at nearly 60mph for more than four hours, a stunning 240 miles long. By Wilson’s calculation the flock would have included nearly two and a quarter billion birds.

Passenger pigeon flocks could be so dense they eclipsed the sun as they passed, and the roar of their wings was likened to thunder, or the approach of a tornado.

In fall, winter, and spring, passenger pigeons fed on the nuts of forest trees, known collectively as mast: primarily beechnuts, acorns and chestnuts. The movement of a feeding flock of passenger pigeons across the ground was like a rolling wave, with the birds at the rear continually flying up and over to take a place along the front of the line.

Mast-producing trees overcome the problem of having their seeds eaten up by producing a superabundance of them at intervals, so there are leftovers to sprout even after consumers have had their fill. The survival strategy of passenger pigeons was similar; individuals were, in many circumstances, easy prey. But flocks were so large that local predators could be sated without diminishing passenger pigeon populations over time.

Passenger pigeons nested in enormous colonies, which were often be measured in square miles. The largest nesting ever recorded, which took place in central Wisconsin in 1871, occupied most of the southern two-thirds of the state.
Scientists still contend over the relative importance of factors that caused the extinction of passenger pigeons. But at the top of the list are market hunting, which intensified to shocking degrees after the mid-nineteenth century, and the wholesale destruction of the eastern forest.

The pain in contemplating passenger pigeons comes from the fact that we will never know them directly. As the great Aldo Leopold wrote, “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights . . . They live forever by not living at all.”

From my perspective, whether people living today can transform their concern for “book-pigeons” into effective action on behalf of the plants and animals remaining to us is the most important question we face.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Champaign 8th Graders team up with UI students to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species

Champaign 8th Graders team up with UI students to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species

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Today’s Environmental Almanac comes to you courtesy of students from Whitney Stewart’s class at Franklin Middle School in Champaign. This Fall, some of Stewart’s eighth graders have been working with University of Illinois students enrolled in a service learning program called Community Stewardship through Environmental Education, which is offered cooperatively by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, the UI Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Through this program, the university students have taught the school children about some of the invasive species that are disrupting aquatic ecosystems in Illinois, and collaborated with them on stewardship projects designed to create public awareness about these creatures.

Some of the students from Franklin chose to communicate their messages in songs, which were recorded for radio thanks to WILL audio producer Jason Croft. First up, a Zebra Mussel rap:

Clogging up my drain,
nothing up my brain,
they keep reproducing,
they all look the same.

They clogging up the shower,
reproducing to the tenth power.

Killing all the natives, this is an invasion,
they're unstoppable like terminator salvation

Black and white stripes looking like a clam,
Can we get rid of them? Like Obama, “yes we can.”

Sitting on the beach, razor sharp and thin,
Step on me and imma cut yo skin.

Make sure to clean your boat,
Hose them down make them drown in the moat.

Next, a Zebra Mussel song to the tune of "Single Ladies."

All the Zebra Mussels (all the Zebra Mussels)
All the Zebra Mussels (all the Zebra Mussels)
All the Zebra Mussels (all the Zebra Mussels)
All the Zebra Mussels (Now put your clams up!)

Jump on the boat, clog up them pipes then
turn off them lights. Acting up, salt in my cup,
something that I like. Even though we small,
we can clog them all, and you can't get rid of us.

Chorus: We came from Eastern Europe, and now we're in America!
And you can't even STOP us & if you don't like us wash your boat.
HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! (Wash your boat)

So how do you stop us? You may ask. For there are many ways.
Wash your boat with hot water, 104 degrees and let it dry 5 days and nights,
it will kill us all.

- Chorus –

Other Franklin students involved in the Community Stewardship program crafted visual messages to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species, including the four-panel cartoon and the illustration of a sea lamprey reprinted here.

Pat Weatherhead the lead instructor for the course in which the UI students are enrolled, has been pleased with the results of the partnership with local schools. "I'm delighted that the kids incorporated the science content they learned from the UI students and developed such creative and innovative approaches to educate the public about this important issue."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The case of the louse and the passenger pigeon

The case of the louse and the passenger pigeon

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According to convention, detective stories begin with a dead body. But this one begins with a louse—a live louse. The trouble with this live louse? It was supposed to be dead, and not just sorry-he-just-couldn’t-pull-through, individual dead. This louse was supposed to be kaput as a species, absent from the face of the earth for nearly a hundred years.

The louse in question—whose status was even highlighted by his scientific name, Columbicola extinctus—was thought to have lived on only one host animal, the passenger pigeon. And the passenger pigeon’s time on earth ended with the demise of a bird named Martha at the Cincinnati Zoo, all the way back in 1914.

So what was Columbicola extinctus doing—very much alive—on another species of bird, the band-tailed pigeon, which occupies territory from Alaska to South America, on the eve of the twenty-first century?

That’s what Kevin Johnson wanted to know.

Johnson (pictured with museum specimen of a passenger pigeon, by L. Brian Stauffer) is currently an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois who studies the relationships between parasites, such as lice, and their bird hosts. But back at the time Columbicola extinctus was brought back from the dead, so to speak, he was working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah with one of the scientists who made the discovery.

The natural way to answer the question of why a louse that’s thought to be specific to one host is unexpectedly found on another is to look at how closely those host animals are related.

Previously, passenger pigeons had been thought to be most closely related to mourning doves, which are the doves you’re likely to know from seeing them in your yard. [Photo by author.] This association was based on shared physical characteristics, similarities in the coloring of their feathers and the length of their tails.

What Johnson set out to do, in cooperation with three colleagues from around the country, was establish how passenger pigeons were related to other species of pigeons and doves in terms of their genetic makeup.

I’d like to be able to portray the lab work and analysis they did as sexy and exciting, the way it is on CSI, but that’s beyond me as a writer. So I’ll give you the short version. Johnson and his colleagues compared genetic material from a museum specimen of a passenger pigeon with genetic material from 78 other species of pigeons and doves, a representative selection of the more than 300 species that occur worldwide today.

Using what they learned by comparing that genetic material, they constructed a revised evolutionary family tree for pigeons and doves, published as a scientific paper this year, which shows how far back you have to look to find ancestors that are shared by modern species.

On this tree, the now-extinct passenger pigeon occupies a branch much closer to the band-tailed pigeon than the mourning dove. So the louse, Columbicola extinctus, had gone on living after the demise of the passenger pigeon because the passenger pigeon was survived by an evolutionary cousin, the band-tailed pigeon. [USFWS photo by Gary Kramer.] And that cousin is also a suitable host for extinctus.

As we close the case of the louse that turned out not to be extinct, I realize I’ve said almost nothing about the life and death of the passenger pigeon as a species. So tune in next week for that story.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Campus composting: A step toward an integrated sustainable farm

campus composting: A step toward an integrated sustainable farm

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This week’s Environmental Almanac is a story in two parts.

Part one is the nitty-gritty tale of what happens to the vegetable scraps generated in the kitchen at Ikenberry Commons, the new, very green, student residence on the U of I campus.

To begin with, those vegetable scraps, which include all of the stuff you might expect, from lettuce stems to pineapple tops, are placed by Dining Services staff into bags that are kept separate from other trash, since they’re not headed for the landfill. Those bags, which are themselves biodegradable, accumulate in two large, rolling carts, which hold up to about 600 pounds each.

Those carts are picked up twice a week, on Monday and Thursday afternoons, by Matt Luedtke, who is with the U of I Environmental Change Institute. Luedtke retrieves the vegetable scraps from the kitchens at Ikenberry Commons to compost them, and I joined him for a run earlier this week.

He has been fortunate this semester to have help from undergraduate students in the College of Engineering who are part of a group called “Engineering in Service to Society.” On the day I met up with him, two of them came to help, Jason Kenyon, from Muscatine, Iowa, and Ryan Chan, from Hong Kong.

From the dining hall, Matt and his helpers drove the compostable material by pickup truck to a site on the U of I South Farms near the intersection of First Street and Windsor Road. There they loaded it with an equal volume of dry leaves into a manure spreader, which is essentially a small wagon with a rotating bar at the rear. [Photo: Matt Luedtke, left, and helpers Ryan Chan and Jason Kenyon, right, running the manure spreader to mix compost.] When the bar is engaged, a staggered line of paddles attached to it simultaneously mixes the vegetable scrap with the landscape material and flings off the back.

So far this Fall, the campus compost operation has generated two substantial mounds about twelve feet in diameter, with another having just been started. For now, when this material is ready to be used on a field, it will be transported a mile east to nourish the soil at the student farm, which, in turn, supplies fresh produce to Dining Services.

In the future, however, some on the U of I campus anticipate using the compost to nourish the soil on site, as part of a development known as the Integrated Sustainable Homestead.

This brings us to part two of today’s story, which is a vision for the future of the site at First and Windsor, which promises to become an important gateway to the U of I as Curtis Road is developed in Champaign.

Wes Jarrell, who is interim director of the Environmental Change Institute, sees today’s composting effort as a first step toward an operation that will demonstrate how food and energy can be produced sustainably at a local scale in Illinois. At the Integrated Sustainable Homestead, students would learn about where food comes from, how energy can be conserved and produced on a local scale, and how water can be used efficiently and sustainably, all through hands-on experience.

Picture, for example, a dormitory topped with solar panels, set among fields of a bioenergy crop, such as switchgrass, with forage plots for livestock and organic vegetable gardens filling out the scene.

You can get an even better idea of what the Integrated Sustainable Homestead might look like in a presentation by Matt Luedtke at the Environmental Change Institute’s annual symposium next Monday, November 8. The symposium, which is free and open to all, will take place from 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. at the iHotel and Conference Center. Details are available on the Web at

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A comeback for gray wolves in Illinois?

A comeback for gray wolves in Illinois?

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As I drove with a car full of Boy Scouts on the way to a camp out in western Indiana recently, we talked about what parts of the trip we were looking forward to. Most of this discussion was devoted to plans for fishing the next day. But in my turn, I mentioned the hope that we would hear coyotes overnight, since the sound of their yips and howls makes me feel like I’m in a wild place, even when my tent is pitched in a county park.

The prospect of hearing coyotes at night was anticipated with much less pleasure by other members of the party, and before long one scout asked with some urgency in his voice that we not mention the “c” word again.

We obliged. But the scout’s discomfort with the idea of toothy creatures later got me wondering about another, more formidable wild canine that once inhabited the Prairie State, the gray wolf. You may or may not have seen the accounts, but some wolves have begun to show up here again in recent years. [Photo: gray wolf, Gary Kramer/USFWS.]

Gray wolves were extirpated from Illinois before the Civil War, thanks to government sponsored predator control programs and reductions in the prey and habitat available to them. And “extirpated” is still their official status in the state. But since 2002, there have been at least six wolves killed here, five of them by hunters and another one by a vehicle.

In Illinois, it’s illegal to shoot gray wolves, which are protected federally under the Endangered Species Act, but hunters have done so mistaking them for coyotes, which can be killed legally.

If you’re not accustomed to the difficulties of quickly identifying wild animals at a distance, you might wonder how people make such a blunder. At five to six-and-a-half feet long from nose to tail tip, and weighing 70-100 pounds, an average wolf in the Midwest is nearly double the size of an average coyote. But size is notoriously difficult to gauge in the field, and the differences in color and shape that help separate coyotes from wolves are also fairly subtle.

So far, four of the wolves killed in Illinois have been confirmed as wild immigrants from Wisconsin, where the wolf population has risen from zero to nearly 700 over the past thirty years.

The wolves of Wisconsin are part of a larger population that includes nearly 3,000 individuals in Minnesota and another 600 or so in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In its robust growth, this western Great Lakes wolf population has exceeded the goals established for it under the Recovery Plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they were listed as an endangered species. As a result, there has been legal wrangling over whether or not to delist them in the recent years, including a review of evidence for delisting currently under way. (For more on delisting and all kinds of other cool information see

Could wolves become reestablished in Illinois? The ones that have been confirmed here to date are all males, which tend to disperse over far greater distances than females, and they alone can’t accomplish the job. (The current Midwestern record for distance—600 miles—was set by an individual that was trapped in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and subsequently killed in north central Missouri.) But there’s food enough for wolves in our now-overabundant herds of white-tailed deer, and probably sufficient habitat, too. In the long run, the real question may be whether the human population of the state can make the psychic space to accommodate them.


Upcoming presentations on sustainable environment sponsored by Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

November 3, 2010: “Save the Plants; Save the Planet.” Kay Havens, Director, Division of Plant Science and Conservation and Senior Scientist from the Chicago Botanic Garden.

November 17, 2010: “Animal Conservation and Habitat Preservation.” Norah Fletchall, Vice President of Conservation from the Indianapolis Zoo.

Both talks will be from noon - 1 p.m. at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, One E. Hazelwood Dr. in Champaign. Further details at

Thursday, October 21, 2010

All welcome at Environmental Change Institute events

All welcome at Environmental Change Institute events

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Are you interested to know how environmental change is being addressed in research and teaching at the University of Illinois? Do you have a stake in the way agriculture confronts climate change in the years to come? If your answer to either question is yes, let me invite you to a couple of events slated to take place early next month. Both will be hosted by the unit that provides a home for Environmental Almanac on campus, the UI Environmental Change Institute.

The Environmental Change Institute, or ECI, was created in 2008, thanks to a generous gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family fund and matching funds from three UI colleges: Business, Law, and Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Its mission is to enable society to avoid, mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change through the support of scholarly research, innovative teaching, and public outreach initiatives.

On the afternoon of Monday, November 8, ECI will host its annual research symposium. At this event, members of the campus and wider communities are invited to hear firsthand accounts of the activities ECI sponsors, in the form of brief presentations by faculty members and graduate assistants.

The range of inquiry enabled by ECI funding is indicated by the diversity of the research questions symposium presenters are addressing, among them: How do land the values of land managers affect response to climate change threats? How much carbon is lost from forests into streams? Do consumers shop more on the Internet when fuel prices increase? How effective are small-scale solutions in enhancing food production, energy, and water management?

The symposium will also offer the opportunity to hear from faculty who are developing new courses that address environmental change. These include a course that explores the two-way relation between environment and democracy; a course that teaches students to think about buildings first in terms of energy use and sustainability; one that seeks to educate citizens and future leaders in the science topics define our world; and even one that will involve students in the very practical business of developing the world’s first solar-powered, cost-efficient bike sharing system.

Presentations at the research symposium will be brief because there many of them, but a reception following will allow for audience members and presenters to mingle.

On the day following the symposium, Tuesday, November 9, the Environmental Change Institute will host its second annual summit, an all-day colloquium on the topic, “Climate Change: Agricultural Solutions, Adaptation and Mitigation.” This event will bring together research scholars, business leaders, and policymakers to discuss the causes, effects and consequences of agricultural practices on earth’s changing climate patterns. Speakers at the summit will address topics that range from chemical management and soil fertility to the potentials of organic and sustainable farming.

In the opening address at the summit, climatologist and meteorologist Mark Seeley of the University of Minnesota will outline the changes climate science anticipates in the next 50 years and discuss some of the implications of those changes for land use, landscape and infrastructure.

Both the summit and the research symposium will take place at the iHotel and Conference Center on South First Street in Champaign. You can find further details and register for the summit at the Website of the Environmental Change Institute at


Next Monday evening, October 25, on the UI campus journalist Jeff Biggers will speak on the subject of his current book, “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” which explodes the idea that coal is clean or cheap. Biggers’ talk, which is part of 2010 Illinois Sustainability Week, will take place at 6:30 p.m. in room 100, Gregory Hall, 810 S. Wright St. You can find a full listing of Sustainability Week activities at

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A look ahead at the climate for agriculture in the Midwest

A look ahead at the climate for agriculture in the Midwest

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Coming up in early November, the Environmental Change Institute at the U of I will hosts its annual summit, a one-day colloquium on the topic, “Climate Change: Agricultural Solutions, Adaptation and Mitigation.” Next week I’ll provide a sampling of what attendees at that summit can look forward to. (Of course, if you're reading the electronic version of this segment, you can easily look ahead for yourself: But this week, I want to set the stage for the summit by providing a quick look at the climate picture for agriculture in the Midwest in the century to come.

This picture is drawn from a recent (soon to be published) report co-written by U of I professor of atmospheric sciences Don Wuebbles (who is a sharer in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), his colleague at Texas Tech, Katharine Hayhoe, and U of I student, Ben Garrett.

The report focuses on impacts from climate change that will require farmers to change how they operate, impacts that will vary according to whether or not people act effectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The higher emissions scenario used to make projections in the report assumes a combination of fossil fuel use and population change that results in an atmosphere with greenhouse gases at more than triple pre-industrial levels. The lower emissions scenario assumes a shift away from fossil fuels, with atmospheric greenhouse gas levels at the end of the century only double those of preindustrial times.

Under either scenario, summers in the Midwest are projected to be hotter. Over the next thirty years, somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of summers will be characterized by median temperatures that equal or exceed the hottest summer of the historical reference period of 1961-1990. By midcentury, according to the report, nearly all summers will be hotter than that, even under the lower emissions scenario.

Heat waves, which can negatively affect crop development and stress livestock, are also projected to increase in number and intensity. In this case, the difference between high emissions scenario and low emissions scenario is pronounced. Under the high emissions scenario, for example, even Wisconsin and Minnesota would be expected to experience weeklong stretches of 95-degree days every other year by the end of the century. Under the low emissions scenario, such weeks would more likely occur in only one year out of four.

The report also projects warmer winters for the Midwest, and anticipates how that will affect agriculture in two ways. It projects a decline in “accumulated chilling hours,” which results in the northward migration of corn pests that are limited by periods of pronounced cold. It also projects a decrease in productivity for fruit crops that depend on a prolonged winter chilling period to flower, including things like apples, grapes and blueberries.

The report points out that warmer winters will also mean the continued northward migration of plant hardiness zones, which are defined by the coldest temperatures of the year. Already plants that used to be typical of southern Illinois can be grown in the Chicago area and much of Michigan. By the end of the century, the report projects, conditions once associated with the Southeast are likely to take hold in much of the Midwest.

Warmer conditions in spring and fall are also anticipated to extend the growing season in the Midwest. The degree to which that is a benefit will depend largely on whether precipitation patterns allow farmers to get into the fields earlier in the spring.

Are you interested to know more about the implications of climate change for agriculture? Check back next week for a preview of the Environmental Change Institute’s annual summit.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

UI undergraduates involved in cutting edge global change research

UI undergraduates involved in cutting edge global change research

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Over the past summer, Bartlett, Illinois native Brianna Usdrowski got a taste of what it means to be a twenty-first century plant biologist. She monitored the development of soybean plants grown under varying environmental conditions by carefully counting leaf nodes and tracking pod development. She also collected images of corn roots underground by means a special camera slipped down into a clear plastic tube, and she worked long hours in the lab processing and analyzing those many images. She coped with sun, extreme heat, mosquitoes and biting flies.

At the same time, she learned what it means to work as part of a University of Illinois team that’s addressing one of the great challenges of the century, how to ensure an adequate food supply for a fast-growing human population in the context of a changing climate. [Photo: Usdrowski with post-doctoral associate Jeff Skoneczka sampling soybean leaves in the field at SoyFACE. By Amy Betzelberger.]

Usdrowski was one of five undergraduate students who were selected this year to participate in a program called Student Ambassadors for Global Change Research, which is sponsored by the U of I Environmental Change Institute.

The Student Ambassadors program is a collaborative effort run by Lisa Ainsworth, who is a USDA Agriculture Research Service scientist and assistant professor of plant biology, and four faculty colleagues: Carl Bernacchi, Evan DeLucia, Andrew Leakey and Don Ort. All of them work with a long-running experiment called Soy Free Air Concentration Enrichment, or SoyFACE. In SoyFACE, conditions for crop growth are modified in the field, to allow for research on how agricultural plants will respond to the changes projected for the climate of the Midwest in the years to come--increased levels of carbon dioxide and ozone, higher temperatures and decreased water availability.

While much of the work performed by the student ambassadors is tied to specific investigations, they also participate in the general efforts that keep SoyFACE running. They weed plots, maintain paths and help set up the ingenious devices that experimenters use to alter growing conditions in the field. They also pitch in with efforts that require many hands: for example, dawn-to-dusk measurements of photosynthesis that call for a team of sixteen people.

The students who participate in the Ambassadors program also learn how to communicate with diverse audiences about their research. In part, they do so by collaborating with their professors on scientific papers, and creating posters to explain their work in academic settings. But they also learn to explain what they do and why for the various interest groups that visit SoyFACE, including everyone from touring South American farmers, to 4-H groups, to the Illinois Soybean Association. That’s crucial, according to Ainsworth, given the charged nature of discussions involving climate change.

The first two cohorts of Student Ambassadors for Global Change Research have included five students from the U of I and five students from other colleges and universities in Iowa, Missouri and Pennsylvania. In the years to come, Ainsworth and her colleagues hope to expand the program, perhaps to include cross-disciplinary training in agriculture and climate science.

As you might imagine, undergraduate students who participate directly in scientific work like the SoyFACE experiment are enthusiastic about the opportunity. As Brianna Usdrowski put it to me, “It opened my eyes to things I wouldn’t even have known to look for.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rain gardens grow from campus-community collaboration

Rain gardens grow from campus-community collaboration

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Last Saturday morning, the home of Anna Barnes and David Riecks on West Washington Street in Champaign was a scene of intense activity. A group of friends, neighbors, and other volunteers—27 people in all—gathered to transform the parkway in front of the house from a nondescript, mostly bare strip of land into a beautiful, functional rain garden.

Working from a design by U of I professor of Landscape Architecture, Gale Fulton, participants first removed some of soil from the site, a job made easier by the fact that it was begun with a small excavator earlier in week. With that finished, we loosened the soil that remained with a tiller, and then used shovels and rakes to create a neatly contoured basin, about fifty feet long and ten feet wide, with its lowest point midway between the sidewalk and the street.

Then we put in plants, lots of them, some 200 in all. The plants used in the project were selected by Fulton for their ability to thrive in a garden that, by design, fills with water during big storms, but which remains as dry as the rest of the landscape at other times. They include a mix of grasses, sedges and more showy flowering plants, such as cardinal flower and Siberian iris. (Some of us involved who value the potential for home landscapes to provide a food base for wildlife are encouraging Fulton to employ native plants more exclusively in future projects.)

Fulton’s involvement with this project stems from a course he developed with and U of I professor Tony Endress this past spring, which focused on sustainable approaches to storm water management in Champaign's John Street watershed. That course provided the foundation for an ongoing collaboration among students, faculty, U of I Facilities and Services, City of Champaign staff, and city residents who live in areas that flood regularly.

The sustainable approaches put forward by the class include the development of “green infrastructure,” including rain gardens, to complement conventional ways of handling rainwater.

According to Eliana Brown, an environmental engineer who coordinates the U of I’s storm water compliance efforts and was part of Fulton's class, the rain garden that went in last week should detain more than 1,200 gallons of water during a storm, or the equivalent of 23 rain barrels. [Photo: The finished garden after Wednesday morning's rain. It had filled up to the level of the curb before I got there to take a picture, but the water had then all soaked into the ground.] That would be all of the water from the roof that drains there during even a big rain event, one of the sort that floods local viaducts.

Brown acknowledges that rain gardens won’t eliminate the need for big pipes and large-scale detention basins. But she emphasizes that they reduce the burden on those parts of the system, and they provide the added benefit of filtering pollutants from the water that passes through them.

Funding for the rain garden at the Barnes-Riecks home was provided by the Illinois-American Water Corporation in the form of a grant that was secured by Prairie Rivers Network this past Spring. That grant is also being used to establish two other rain gardens, one in the John Street watershed, which was created earlier this summer, and another in the Washington Street watershed, which will be installed this Saturday, September 25.

Does the idea of a rain garden intrigue you? You could help out with the installation Saturday to get a sense of what’s involved. At the same time you will be helping to create a thing of lasting beauty and real utility. For more information or to volunteer, contact Stacy James at Prairie Rivers Network, (217) 344-2371, or

You can see a map with links to photos of some rain gardens around Champaign at

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Citizens, public interest groups push for safeguards against coal ash pollution

Citizens, public interest groups push for safeguards against coal ash pollution

If the phrase “coal ash” brings to mind no specific image for you, think back to December 2008. That’s when the most massive coal ash spill in U.S. history inundated homes, buried farmland and fouled rivers near a power plant outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. The photos and video of that disaster made plain for all to see the inadequacy of the safeguards that were supposed to protect people and wildlife from coal ash pollution. (Click here to see pictures.)

While the Tennessee spill was the biggest to date, it was not an isolated incident—significant failures of coal ash impoundments have also occurred in Georgia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania in recent years. And it represents only the most obvious way hazardous materials from coal ash contaminate the environment.

In less dramatic fashion, pollutants from coal ash stored at dump sites around the country contaminate the environment on a daily basis as they are carried away to neighboring land by the wind, migrate into groundwater or flow off directly into lakes and streams. Most significant among these are chemicals that can sicken or kill people when they occur in drinking water--arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, etc.

How big a problem is this? Very big. The waste produced by burning coal—primarily at power plants—is second only to household garbage as a component of the American waste stream—131 million tons per year.

Illinois is currently the eighth largest generator of coal ash, but our state enjoys the dubious distinction of having more sites than any other, twelve, where contamination from coal ash has been documented in nearby water. I should add that these twelve sites have been identified through a hit-or-miss process rather than a coordinated effort, so there are likely more to be found. Our state is also home to two ash ponds ranked as “high hazard potential” facilities using criteria developed for the National Dam Safety Program, which means there is potential for dams to fail and unleash coal ash on downstream communities.

According to Traci Barkley, watershed resources scientist with the Champaign-based conservation group, Prairie Rivers Network, the current system of regulating coal ash on a state-by-state basis has enabled polluters to avoid the cost of handling this material as the hazardous waste that it is. She points out there is no statewide requirement to track or monitor where it is generated or where it is disposed of. Further, she adds, if coal ash is disposed of onsite at a power plant or in a coal mine or a quarry, no permit is required and a limited review of threats to water is conducted.

Change is in the offing, though.

After years of effort from citizens and public interest groups to document and publicize the threats posed by coal ash pollution, the U.S. EPA is poised to adopt one of two new policy options. One of these, which is backed by the coal and electric utility lobbies, would essentially allow for a continuation of the current system. The other, which has been promoted in Illinois by a coalition including Prairie Rivers Network, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, would effectively regulate coal ash as hazardous waste, with the associated safeguards for storage, handling, transport and disposal.

There are two ways to let U.S. EPA know where you stand on this question. One is to join citizens from all over the Midwest to speak out at a public hearing that will be conducted on Thursday, September 16, at the Hilton Chicago, 720 South Michigan Avenue. If you are in the Champaign-Urbana area you can arrange for carpooling to the hearing by contacting Traci Barkley ( or 344-2371). You can guarantee yourself time to speak there by pre-registering at The other is to submit written comments to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson through Sierra Club at

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Enjoying a wildlife friendly home landscape

Enjoying a wildlife friendly home landscape

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Over the years, Beth Chato has traveled to see birds all over the globe, and she has a life list of some 2,000 species to prove it. But she also takes great pleasure in watching birds and other wildlife at home.

Here, for example, is how she described the activity in her yard in a post to birdnotes, the email discussion list of Champaign County birders, back on August 7th: My cardinal flower and my nectar feeder are buzzing with hummingbirds. A gang of young cardinals is sunbathing and snacking on my sunflower seed. A very tame catbird keeps an eye on me if I am outside. At least three pair of goldfinch go through a lot of niger seed. A busy family of house wrens and one of Carolina wrens patrol the bushes for insects. Mourning doves, house sparrows, and house finches clean up below the feeder. Yesterday I had my first fall warbler, an American redstart. I almost forgot the resident robins.

If you didn’t know better, you might think Chato was describing the activity on a roomy spread somewhere out in the country. But she and her husband, John, have lived in the same home on a standard city lot in west Urbana for forty years. The richness of activity in their yard demonstrates what’s possible when people maintain landscapes with wildlife in mind.

Chato provides food for birds via all of the usual methods. She puts out a nectar feeder for hummingbirds in late April, when the ruby-throats return, and keeps it filled into November, on the chance a western species rare to our area might find it during migration. She also maintains the seed feeders alluded to in her email, including a tube filled with niger for the finches, and a squirrel-proof hanging feeder with a standard blend of seed for cardinals, sparrows and the like. During the winter she brings downy woodpeckers and nuthatches into view with a suet feeder.

These food sources complement the food Chato provides by means of the plants she grows in her yard, where only a portion in the center—about a third of the total area—is kept in turf grass. Cardinal flower and other native perennials, mist flower, brown-eyed Susan, and woodland phlox among them, are sources of nectar and pollen that help sustain insects, and they flourish without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. A rich mix of taller vegetation, including shrubs, such as grey dogwood, and a black cherry tree provide further food for wildlife, as well as places for birds to perch and nest.

When Chato wants to bring hard-to-see songbirds down from the treetops for a closer look, she attaches her garden hose to a mister, which creates a fine spray they can’t seem to resist, especially during dry spells.Two other fixtures in the yard provide wildlife more constant access to water, a repurposed concrete laundry sink, which is set in the ground to make a small pond, a decorative fountain powered by a solar panel on the roof of the garage.

A human visitor at the Chatos might wonder why they leave a small dead tree standing near their patio, or why they keep a heap of sticks in a corner obscured by shrubs. But the purpose is obvious to hummingbirds, which like a bare branch to rest on, and to white-throated sparrows, which in winter take refuge from the weather and predators in the brush pile.

If you are interested in tips on improving your own yard as wildlife habitat, check out the “Garden for Wildlife” pages at the National Wildlife Federation’s Web site. The Chato’s yard is certified through the program—maybe yours could be, too.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Campus Bike Project promotes sustainable transportation

Campus Bike Project promotes sustainable transportation

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As he drove home from the grocery last weekend, Don Keefer of Urbana noticed a bike near the street, set out by a neighbor hoping someone would take it away. Keefer obliged. He saw in that red ten-speed an economical replacement for the bike his 11-year-old daughter had outgrown. But he also saw that it needed work—a new back tire, at least—and he was told by the former owner there was some problem with the pedals.

Keefer realized that he probably didn’t have all of the knowledge or tools needed to make the bike roadworthy. But he had seen a little place near his office on the U of I campus where he thought he might find those things.

The Campus Bike Project, which opened this past spring, occupies garage space off of Pennsylvania Avenue that was donated by the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability and converted with a grant from UI student sustainability funds. It’s a collaboration between the University and the Urbana Bike Project, which operates as a non-profit membership-based bicycle repair shop.

So, before going in to work on Monday morning, Keefer wheeled into the Campus Bike Project with his find and bought a family membership. That gave him instant access to lots of cool stuff, including specialized bicycle repair tools, collections of free spare parts, and space and a bike stand to work at. Beyond that, membership gave him access to expertise, in the person of Carl Stewart, the Campus Bike Project manager.

Over the next few hours, Stewart provided Keefer with advice and an occasional extra hand as he installed new tires, replaced crank bearings, and adjusted the brakes and derailleurs on his daughter’s new bike. Most of these operations were new to him, and the process took longer than expected (a partial day’s leave, it turned out), but in the end the red bike was fully restored. [Photo: Keefer at work (right) with Stewart lending a hand.]

I was visiting at the shop while Keefer was working, and during that time other people dropped by with various projects of their own. Among them were two sisters from the Chicago suburbs. The older one, a U of I Junior, needed to replace a leaking inner tube, which she did herself with a little coaching. The younger, a freshman, needed to buy a bike to get around campus, and she picked up a hybrid that had been refurbished by Bike Project staff for only $75. A worker with campus building services, who bikes recreationally, came in for advice on how to switch cleats from an old pair of cycling shoes to a new pair, and a student who was riding by on her way to class took time to put air in her tires and align her front wheel.

It should be understood that the Campus Bike Project is not intended to compete with full service bicycle stores, such as Durst and Champaign Cycle, which play such an important role in our community. It is, rather, to facilitate the reuse of bikes and bike parts, and to provide tools, guidance, and a convenient space and for people who wish to do some maintenance and repairs on their own.

You can learn more about the Campus Bike Project on the Web at

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Annual cicadas enliven dog days with love song

Annual cicadas enliven dog days with love song

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Even if the heat and humidity of recent weeks have limited your time outdoors, I bet you’ve been hearing a familiar insect song. It’s the mating call of dog day cicadas, loud enough to rise above the drone of air conditioners and so persistent and widespread that people who hear can hardly miss it.

I say, “dog day cicada” I mean the insect (pictured right) that goes by the two-part scientific name, “Tibicen canicularis,” which is the most common species of forest dwelling cicada that occurs in the eastern U.S. and Canada, one that has also adapted well to life in urban and suburban settings where enough trees grow to support it. These cicadas have bulky, bodies about an inch and a half long that are dark on top with green and white markings, and entirely white below. At rest their clear, heavily veined wings close over the back like a pitched roof and add another half inch to their length.

Some people call these and other cicadas locusts, a name that was first applied to them by settlers of European extraction for whom the emergence of large broods called to mind the plagues of the Bible. But the name locust is more properly applied to certain grasshoppers. Other people know cicadas by the name “harvestfly,” which derives from the fact that they emerge as adults at the same time crops are maturing.

The singing of dog day cicadas is one of the loudest insect noises on earth, sometimes exceeding 110 decibels up close. This means the song of a cicada perched your shoulder would be plenty loud to damage your hearing. The song is often compared to the whirring of a circular saw, although I think that comparison ought to be reversed, since cicadas have been around far longer than power tools. The earliest fossil record of a cicada dates back 65 million years.

The fact that dog day cicadas are also called annual cicadas sometimes generates confusion about their life cycle, but do they live for more than a year. They start out as tiny nymphs, which hatch from eggs laid in tree branches. These nymphs drop to the ground and burrow down to find a root they can latch onto for nourishment, and there they remain, probably for something like two to five years. (Scientists aren’t sure exactly how long, and the span probably varies according to conditions affecting the cicada’s development.) Some annual cicadas emerge as adults each year because their generations are staggered, which sets them apart from periodical cicadas, generations of which mature in synch, on 13- and 17-year cycles.

It is a common misperception that adult cicadas do not feed, but the fact is they have all the mouthparts needed to extract liquid from plants, and they’re not afraid to use them. Dog day cicadas do no damage to trees as they feed, and no measures to control them are warranted.

The only warm-blooded predators that pose a significant threat to cicadas are birds, but there’s another insect that specializes in them, the cicada killer wasp. A female cicada killer stings a cicada to paralyze it, then carries it back to her burrow still alive. There she seals the unlucky creature in a chamber with one of her eggs, to become nourishment for the grub that hatches.

But that’s not where I want to leave you. Let’s get back to cicadas singing their love song in trees, and appreciate how that enriches our summer.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant promotes proper disposal of unwanted medicine to benefit wildlife, people

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant promotes proper disposal of unwanted medicine to benefit wildlife, people

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In a recent column I noted that for all the good they do, sewage treatment facilities are not designed to remove human medications from wastewater, but that the presence of medications in lakes and streams is a growing cause for concern.

To follow up on that, I checked in recently with Susan Boehme, a scientist who has been working on this issue in cooperation with many colleagues at the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, which is headquartered on the U of I campus in Urbana.

Boehme pointed out that the use of pharmaceuticals has grown remarkably in recent years. In 2009, for example, Americans spent more than $300 billion on prescriptions, which represents a 5.1 percent increase from the year before. Boehme also cited a United Nations study that projects a 3-fold increase in prescription use worldwide over the next 25 years.

As many people are already aware, pharmaceuticals are now found regularly in waterways. A widely-cited 2002 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found 95 different pharmaceutical chemicals in streams that were tested, and 80 percent of those streams contained one-third or more of the chemicals in question. Further studies have begun to show the impacts of those chemicals on aquatic creatures, including such disturbing things as the widespread development of female sex characteristics in male fish.

It’s not just wildlife that’s exposed to medications in streams and lakes, either. Studies commissioned by the Associated Press in 2008 found a variety of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, mood stabilizers, and hormones in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

Pharmaceuticals enter the environment by a variety of paths. Some chemicals are released at the plants where drugs are manufactured, and others through the waste we excrete after taking them. Still more are released into the environment when people dispose of unwanted medications improperly, especially by flushing them down the toilet. (I know, I know that really was what you were supposed to do, but it’s not anymore.)

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant educators have been working around the state to promote the proper disposal of medications by informing people about this problem and giving them the tools to address it. They have done so by providing high school teachers, 4-H leaders and others, with a compilation of multidisciplinary, standards-based classroom lessons, sample stewardship activities, and background information. Young people who have taken to heart the message of these lessons have been instrumental in establishing programs that allow individuals to dispose of unwanted medications properly—everything form one-day collection events to permanent collection sites at pharmacies and police stations.

The most important thing people can do individually to help reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals in the environment is to dispose of unwanted medications properly. This means not flushing them down the toilet, and not putting them into the trash, but instead getting them to a designated collection center. In east central Illinois Carle Rx Express currently provides drop boxes for this purpose at locations in Champaign, Urbana and Danville (information at

Individuals and communities not served by these locations might be interested in a toolkit developed by Sea Grant that provides guidance for establishing unwanted medicine collection programs at

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Getting the scoop on Illinois mussels

Getting the scoop on Illinois mussels

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The freshwater mussels that inhabit the streams of Illinois spend most of their lives buried in the substrate, exposing only the parts they use to take in and expel a steady flow of water, from which they filter their food. This mode of living poses certain challenges for the scientists whose work it is to monitor mussel populations. As Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) field biologist Alison Price explained to me, it is sometimes possible to sample for mussels visually, but only in waters that are shallow and clear enough to afford a good view of the streambed—a rare case in the Prairie State. More often, she and her colleagues sample for mussels by “grubbing.” “It is what it sounds like,” she quipped. “You reach down and rake your fingers through the sand and gravel until you feel a shell.” [Photo: Price grubbing for mussels in the Mackinaw.]

Recently, I spent some time in the field with Price and her colleagues, to learn about their work and even do a little grubbing myself.

Our day began at a site on the Mackinaw River northeast of Bloomington, with a “maximum effort survey,” which was performed in part to collect data for a UI graduate student who is studying the efficiency of current sampling methods. In conducting this survey, members of a crew that included biologists and technicians from both the Natural History Survey and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources collected all of the mussels they could find from a predetermined stretch of river in a set amount of time. Then, without returning any of the mussels previously collected, they covered the same territory again three more times.

What they turned up was amazing to me, although about what they expected. One-hundred-fifty-one live mussels were collected, with representatives from 10 different species, most numerous among them fatmuckets, plain pocketbooks and round pigtoes (and which, I admit, I list here just because I find the colorful common names of mussels enjoyable). After these were all sorted and measured they were returned to the river, where, presumably, they hunkered right back into the substrate and resumed filtering the water for food.

By analyzing data collected through this and other “maximum effort” surveys, the UI student is seeking to answer the question of whether current sampling protocols provide information that is reliable enough to accurately assess populations of rare mussel species. The question arises since rare species are more likely to be missed altogether or underrepresented using current techniques.[Photo: UI graduate student Jain Huang and INHS field biologist Diane Shasteen sorting mussels collected from the Mackinaw.]

More importantly, data from the Mackinaw River survey I observed will be combined with data gathered by Price and others at approximately 800 sites around the state as part of a three-year project. This project will ultimately provide state agencies with the information needed to manage and protect populations of mussels, which are among the most endangered groups of animals that occur in Illinois.

My day in the field with Price and her crew also included a second stop, to rescue mussels from a drainage ditch beneath a county road bridge that is slated for demolition. This effort was mandated by the known presence there of slippershell mussels, which are listed as threatened in the state. Our inelegant, yet highly effective method of finding mussels for removal there was to form a shoulder-to-shoulder line across the stream and crawl through the target area, grubbing as we went.

From this small stretch of unpromising looking stream, we retrieved 359 live mussels, including 11 slippershells. All of these were moved to reaches of the stream that would not be affected by the bridge work.

Illinois has already lost 20 of the 80 species of mussels that once occurred here, and our streams have become poorer as a result. Wouldn’t it be a great accomplishment if we could use the knowledge generated by today’s scientists to prevent further declines?

To learn more about mussels on the Web, you might want to start with the following:

Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society

Illinois Natural History Survey Mussels:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Effective wastewater treatment benefits wildlife, human health

Effective wastewater treatment benefits wildlife, human health

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In recent years my morning run has often included a pause to observe the wildlife of the Copper Slough, where it runs under Rising Road in southwest Champaign. Great blue herons and mallards are regulars there, as is a pair of belted kingfishers, which nest in the bank nearby and noisily patrol the stream corridor. In the pool below the bridge live masses of some fish that tolerate fairly degraded waters, especially common carp and suckers. But there are fish with higher standards there, too, among them some decent sized largemouth bass, as well as an occasional snapping turtle.

What makes the variety of life at this site remarkable is that less than a hundred feet upstream from my vantage point, the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District’s southwest treatment plant, which serves roughly 40,000 people, discharges some 6 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into the stream. [Photo: Discharge from the UCSD plant entering the Copper Slough from the left, just upstream from where Rising Road crosses the stream.]

I recently had the opportunity see for myself what happens to wastewater at the plant that renders the effluent capable of supporting life, thanks to a tour with Mike Guthrie. In his current life, Guthrie is an East Central Illinois Master Naturalist, but before his retirement in 2006 he had been supervisor of operations for the Sanitary District.

Guthrie emphasized that contrary to whate many people expect, most of the processes that take place at the plant do not rely on chemicals. Rather, they replicate processes that occur in nature, only they are managed to occur very efficiently.

In the first stage of wastewater treatment re the sewage that comes into the plant is screened to remove paper. This process takes place inside a building, the only place on the tour where we really had to hold our noses. The material removed in this process is the only byproduct of the plant that goes to a landfill, and the quantity of that is surprisingly small, on the order of one dumpster a week.

In the next stage of treatment, wastewater is channeled through a series of open-air basins where bacteria and other microorganisms are introduced to remove phosphorous and other pollutants. [Photo: Secondary treatment basins, left, and clarifiers, right, seen from the top of the nitrification tower.]

From this secondary treatment, water flows into clarifying tanks where the microorganisms introduced before settle out, to be cycled back into the previous process. From this point the water is pumped to the top of nitrification towers, the tallest structures at the plant. Here it is sprayed over stacked layers of honeycomb-like plastic that fill the inside of the tower. As it runs down through them, another group of microorganisms converts toxic ammonia into nontoxic nitrates.

After passing through a filter that removes any solids that might have been introduced in the nitrification process, the water from the Southwest Plant is released into the Copper Slough.

We have effective federal law—the Clean Water Act—to thank for the current high standard of wastewater treatment in the United States. And when I spoke with Glynnis Collins, executive director of Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network, which seeks to ensure the consistent application of that law in Illinois, she shared my enthusiasm about how far we’ve come in the past 50 years.

But Collins also noted there is still work to be done. She pointed out, for example, that the Illinois EPA, which administers permits for discharge into streams, sometimes exempts wastewater plants from the final step of disinfection, making them unsuitable for human contact for some distance downstream. In addition, she explained, we’re still just beginning to understand how pollutants that are not treated by current systems, especially some of the human medications that are showing up in water all over the world, impact people and wildlife.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Volunteers key in effort to restore endangered Illinois orchid

Volunteers key in effort to restore endangered Illinois orchid

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Among the more than 130 species of native plants that make up the flora of the Loda Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Iroquois County, the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) can be difficult to pick out, and the beauty of its flowers is best appreciated up close. They’re only about an inch long, and they grow in a cluster on a single, upright stem. Each has a lower lip divided into three parts, which branch toward the tip like tiny antlers. From any distance, the prairie fringed orchid tends to be obscured from view by its taller neighbors.

What sets the prairie fringed orchid apart is its rarity. Prior to European settlement, it was widespread across the upper Midwest, with the largest and most extensive populations occurring in Illinois, where it was found in 33 counties. Loss of habitat due to agriculture and urban development has eliminated it from all but nine counties, and only three of those are outside the Chicago metropolitan area.

The fringed prairie orchid is currently listed as “threatened” federally and “endangered” in the state.

Because it is listed, the prairie fringed orchid is the subject of a recovery plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This plan, which was crafted and approved in the 1990s, involves a great deal of cooperation among scientists, landowners, and conservation organizations, and it relies heavily on the efforts of citizen-scientist volunteers.

At Loda Prairie Nature Preserve, which is owned and protected by the conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends, the role of citizen-scientist is filled by Jackie Roy, who came to it as an active participant in the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program. Before spring of 2008, she had never heard of the prairie fringed orchid, but she answered the call for a volunteer monitor because lives just down the road in Paxton.

As a fringed prairie orchid monitor, Roy visits her site three or four times in June and early July, when the orchids are typically blooming. [Photos: above, close-up of eastern prairie fringed orchid flowers; left, Jackie Roy making notes on her observations at Loda in June.] While there, she locates as many orchids as she can, beginning where plants have been found in previous years. When she finds one, she marks its location, measures its height, counts its leaves and blossoms, and makes notes about its general condition--whether, for example, it has been browsed by deer, etc.

If Roy finds more than one prairie orchid in bloom at the same time, she takes the further step of transferring pollen between the flowers on one plant and another. Prairie orchid flowers that are cross pollinated produce more viable seed than those that are not, and among small populations, the odds of cross pollination occurring without human intervention are fairly slim. That’s because fringed prairie orchids are pollinated by only a few species of night flying hawkmoths, which simply may or may not find them at the right time.

Is there any reason to think the eastern prairie fringed orchid will come off the lists of threatened and endangered species in the years to come? That’s a question I put to Cathy Pollack, who is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and coordinator of the recovery effort. She expressed hope that it would. “We’ve got a great team of researchers, scientists and partners helping us,” she said, “and right now that’s about all I can ask for.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Net-zero energy” home nearing completion in Urbana

“Net-zero energy” home nearing completion in Urbana

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Last September, on the Fall equinox, Debra and Ty Newell began construction of a new home in northeast Urbana. Barring any unforeseen hang-ups, they will move into it this July. In some ways, the house is like other 1-story homes in Beringer Commons, where it is located. It features about one-fourth an acre of usable yard, approximately 2,100 square feet of living space and a two-car attached garage. The Newell’s home differs from others nearby in that it will generate as much energy as it uses in a year, making it a net-zero energy house.

How is that possible? There’s nothing futuristic about it.

The Equinox house will achieve net-zero in part by using far less energy than even a well-built conventional home—about one-fifth as much.

The walls and roof of the Equinox House are constructed with twelve-inch thick structural insulated panels, which are four to five times more effective at preventing thermal transfer than the walls of a typical house. Great care has also been taken to minimize any leakage of air through envelope of the house

The Equinox House uses high performance, triple-pane windows, which also help to prevent thermal transfer. Beyond that, the windows are oriented to allow direct sunlight into living space for the heat it provides during the cooler half of the year—beginning on the Fall equinox—and to exclude direct sunlight during the warmer half of the year—beginning on the Spring equinox—when it would increase the load on the cooling system.

The demands of the Equinox House for heating, cooling, ventilation, and humidity control will all be met by a single, heat-pump based system, developed by Ty Newell and his son Ben through their company, Newell Instruments. Aside from the fact that it maintains a comfortable temperature and level of humidity in the house, this system also delivers a constant flow of fresh air from the outside, and it does that without the loss of conditioned air that occurs in a drafty house.

Of course the Equinox House will be fitted out in other ways that emphasize conservation, including LED lighting, low-flow plumbing fixtures, etc. It even features a system for collecting rainwater that is designed to meet 80 percent of the annual water needs for a family of four.

Although the Equinox House is designed from top to bottom to conserve energy, it will still require electricity to operate. So to be “net-zero energy,” it will produce some, by means of a ground-mounted array of solar panels. The solar array has been in service since February of this year and already produced enough electricity to offset all of the power used in construction of the house.

In addition to providing the energy required to run the Equinox House, the Newell’s solar array will also generate enough electricity to power an electric car (c’mon Chevy Volt, go Nissan Leaf!) for something like six to nine thousand miles worth of driving every year.

Does the idea of a net-zero energy home intrigue you? The Newells hope so. That’s partly why they chose to build where they did—so people could see their house in the context of a conventional development, and understand building it as a natural step for conservation-minded baby boomers preparing for retirement.

You can learn more about the Newell's home at the Equinox House Construction Blog at

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A quest for wild animals close to home

A quest for wild animals close to home

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This past week the Boy Scout at my house was busy finishing up a few last requirements to earn the rank of Second Class before heading off to Camp Drake with his troop. It took only a little creativity for me to figure out how I could help him, and at the same time accomplish some of my own work.

Rank Requirement #5 for Second Class Scout reads as follows:

Identify or show evidence of at least ten kinds of wild animals (birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, mollusks) found in your community.

Together, the scout and I decide he could fulfill this requirement by an outing in our own neighborhood in southwest Champaign, with bikes for transportation. We wear river sandals on the chance we might need to wade, and carry just a few tools for making and recording observations: binoculars, a camera, a pencil and a 3 X 5 notebook.

We ride first to a nearby retention pond, where we had come across the remains of a crayfish (1) on the sidewalk the evening before. They are still there: a claw, the hard exoskeleton of the head and thorax, and a bit of tail. Identifying crayfish to species can be quite complex, and requires body parts we didn’t have, so we just leave this one at “crayfish.” [Photos by Will Kanter: Crayfish parts, toad underwater, northern water snake.] Nearby a Canada goose (2) honks, so we count it, too. (As you might imagine, we see much evidence of Canada geese on the sidewalk.)

As we continue riding, we hear the high pitched trill of an American toad (3) and head in its direction. To my ears it sounds a long way off, but the scout suggests we check a nearby fountain. enough, the toad calls again as we approach, and we are able to find it by moving a few rocks around.

Our next and saddest find is the upside down body of a painted turtle (4) that has been killed by a car in the street. Painted turtles are adaptable enough to live in highly developed landscapes, but they have no defense against drivers who are too distracted or too mean to avoid running over them.

The scout wonders if we can count some of the insects we observe—a sulphur butterfly, a lightning bug, and others--toward our total, but I point out they are not “wildlife” according to the common use of the term, or the scout manual. That said, I can’t resist the urge to lecture him about how crucial insects are in most food webs, but I’ll spare you.

At our next stop, a couple of ponds where willows and other vegetation have been allowed to grow up, red-winged blackbirds (5) dominate the scene. They’re disturbed because we’re close to their nests, and keep up a steady racket until we move on.

Just over an embankment, the Copper Slough is running high and muddy from the rains of the night before, so there will be no fish or mollusks observed on this day. But three mallard (6) bachelors loaf on the opposite bank, and a green heron (7) stalking the edge of the stream takes flight as we approach.

On the wire-bound rock used to stabilize the creek bank, we see a northern water snake (8) sunning, our first live reptile. Better still, after a pause we realize we’re seeing two snakes, partly intertwined, both of them 18-24 inches long.
The most exciting moment of our excursion occurs when the scout turns and spots a great blue heron (9) flying behind us. The enthusiasm in his shout tells me our quest has been a success far beyond our tally of species.

Wild animal number ten is an American robin. We have passed many since starting out, but it counts only after the scout makes a note of one as we head home.
If you need extra motivation for a wildlife excursion of your own, you should know that June is “Leave No Child Inside Month,” by proclamation of Governor Pat Quinn. For a list of associated events visit