Thursday, December 15, 2011

Anticipating Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Champaign County edition

Anticipating Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Champaign County edition

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Recently I took some time to do a bit of scouting in the territory my group covers for the Champaign County edition of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which will take place this Saturday, December 17. Our area includes Urbana’s Meadowbrook Park, as well as the University of Illinois Forestry Plantation on the other side of Race Street.

My first objective was to determine whether any owls have been roosting at Forestry, where there’s a small block of cedars they like. A great horned owl is a possibility there, but in winters past, long-eared owls, which come down from the north, have been found there, too.

The easiest way to locate roosting owls is to search for whitewash at the base of likely trees, so that’s what I did for starters. Finding none, I moved to strategy two--in this case, tipping my head back and scanning the densely growing upper branches of 25-foot tall trees spaced less than ten feet apart. Patient birders with sharp eyes sometimes find owls this way, but I never have, so after a short time I shifted gears.

I quietly made my way into a block of scrub, drawn by the calls of a loose flock of winter songbirds. Cardinals, robins, and juncos were there, as well as a single yellow-rumped warbler. They can be difficult to find on Christmas counts, so I was happy to locate this one.

The trunks of dying trees in the vicinity were alive with the tapping of woodpeckers, and all three of the species most common in our area were represented: downy, hairy, and red-bellied. White-breasted nuthatches probed the bark for insects, sometimes clinging sideways or upside down to access a choice crevice. Not so a tiny brown creeper, which picked its way directly from the bottom to the top of one tree, and then flitted to the base of another to begin ascending again.

A flash of color on a bird in flight provided a welcome surprise, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker landed on a nearby pine. Like yellow-rumped warblers, they can usually be found for local Christmas counts, but not always.

I moved next to edges of the prairie reconstruction at Meadowbrook Park, hoping to find an uncommon raptor, a red-shouldered hawk or a goshawk, perhaps, but that was not to be.

Little birds were there in abundance, though. Goldfinches in their drab winter feathers scattered before me, their undulating flight confirming identification even at a distance. The squeaky calls of goldfinches are unmistakable, too, but there other bird music in the air gave me pause.

American tree sparrows? Pine siskins?

First it seemed to be one, then the other. As it turned out it was both—a mixed flock feeding on the seeds of dormant prairie plants. At my approach, sentinels popped up from the ground to perch atop last summer’s growth of Indian grass and goldenrod. I took another step and the whole group was gone, leaving the scene so quiet I could hear the cold breeze sweeping in from the north.

I suppose there’s no point in hoping for warm weather on count day.

Are you interested in participating in an east-central Illinois Christmas Bird Count this year? Check out the Website of the Champaign County Audubon Society for dates and contact information:

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Symposium to showcase efforts supported by U of I Environmental Change Institute

Symposium to showcase efforts supported by U of I Environmental Change Institute

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When University of Illinois professor Bill Sullivan first offered a course called Environmental Sustainability in Fall of 2009, only 11 students were enrolled, and they came from just two departments.

The following year, 27 students signed up, representing a somewhat wider range of majors.

This fall, Environmental Sustainability was supposed to be opened to a maximum of 50 students, but, as Sullivan told me, somebody working at registration forgot to shut the gate. As a result, he’s teaching a group of 98 undergraduates from all across campus.

What is it that students taking Environmental Sustainability are so eager to learn? The first two-thirds of the course focus on some of the harsh realities of the world they stand to inherit: global warming, ecosystem and biodiversity loss, the threat of pandemics, pockets of persistent and severe poverty, the depletion of resources essential to human well-being.

Sullivan wants students to develop greater capacities for thinking critically about these issues, but he emphasizes that in order to do so, they must first gain a clear understanding of the facts.

The latter part of the semester is devoted to the study of how human creativity and innovation can enable people to create a more sustainable world.

Ultimately, Sullivan hopes that what his students learn in Environmental Sustainability will shape how they approach the work they do beyond school, whether they go on to design energy-efficient buildings, teach English, practice medicine or create art.

I tell this short story about the interest in and aims of Bill Sullivan’s Environmental Sustainability class for two reasons. First, to illustrate just one of the ways undergraduate education is thriving at the U of I. Second, to call attention to how much good can be accomplished with a little bit of extra support at the right time.

Sullivan received a grant to help develop his Environmental Sustainability course from the Environmental Change Institute, or ECI, which is the campus unit where I’ve held an appointment for the past couple of years.

ECI was created in 2008, thanks to a generous gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family fund and matching funds from three U of I colleges: Business, Law, and Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Its mission is to advance understanding of global environmental change and offer solutions that enable society to avoid, mitigate or adapt to its effects through the support of scholarly research, innovative teaching, and public outreach initiatives.

On Wednesday, December 7, ECI will host its third annual symposium, where members of the campus community and the general public are invited to learn more about the wide range of efforts it supports.

Speakers at the symposium will include Bill Sullivan, as well as others who have developed courses with help from ECI. In addition, there will be presentations on the wide range of other activities ECI has fostered.

For example, plant biologist and ECI fellow Andrew Leakey will describe his ongoing quest to identify the knowledge needed to adapt tropical rice to tolerate the range of warming predicted in the 21st century. And Karen Decker of ECI will give an overview of the Illinois Energy Dashboard project. This project, which involves collaboration between ECI, the Student Sustainability Committee and U of I Facilities & Services, will provide usable information about energy consumption to students and staff of chosen University buildings.

The Environmental Change Institute’s annual symposium will be held from 9:00 a.m. to noon at the Beckman Institute on the U of I campus. Further details follow:

9:00 am Coffee and Refreshments

9:15 am Welcome: Wesley Jarrell, Interim Director, ECI

Robert Easter: Interim Associate Chancellor

9:25 am Mr. Joel Friedman: Alvin H. Baum Family Fund

9:35 am Robert Hauser: Dean, College of ACES

Pradeep Khanna: Associate Chancellor

9:45 am ECI-Supported Courses

Bill Sullivan: Landscapes, Sustainability & Human Health

Bruce Litchfield & Katherine Halm: Grab-a-Bike @ Illinois

Scott Willenbrock: Science and Sustainability

Jesse Ribot & Poonam Jusrut: Democracy and Environment

Brian Deal: Sustainability and the Built Environment

10:15 am ECI-Partnerships

Emily Cross: Reflections from COP 16

Michelle Wander: Change and the Heartland

Karen Decker: Curriculum for Change and the Heartland

Willie Dong & Nick Glumac: Effects of Soil Water and Bulk Density on Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy of Soil Organic Carbon

Jonathan Tomkin: Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation

Karen Decker: Energy Dashboard

11:00 am ECI Fellows

Catherine Blake: Text Mining Environmental Change Literature

Andrew Leakey: Basic Research to Enable Adaptations of Rice Production to

Rising Temperature

11:20 am ECI Funded Research Reports

Andrew Leakey: Environmental Change-induced Alterations in Crop Rooting

Andrea Martens: The Impact of Gasoline Prices on Internet Purchases

Jennifer Fraterrigo: Terrestrial Carbon Loss to Aquatic Ecosystems

Courtney Flint: Agricultural Landscapes and Decision Making in the Context of Climate and Policy Change

11:50 am Closing Remarks: Wesley Jarrell

Join in for conversation and refreshments

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Grand Prairie Friends works to protect precious woodland

Grand Prairie Friends works to protect precious woodland

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If you’re familiar with Fox Ridge State Park south of Charleston, you know there’s more to east central Illinois than mile after mile of flatland. Thanks to the influence of the Embarras River, forested ridges and lush valleys provide the area with a distinctive natural character.

This character is maintained through a chain of protected lands, including the Woodyard Memorial Conservation Area at the edge of Charleston, Warbler Woods Nature Preserve a little further to the south, and Fox Ridge State Park itself.

During the past year, an opportunity has arisen for adding a beautiful link to the chain, and the board of the local conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends, has been actively pursuing it. The “link” in question is a 140-acre tract of land adjacent to Warbler Woods that’s up for sale.

Known, for now, by the name of the current owner, the Dolan Woods tract is almost completely forested. On the ridges, where the soil tends to be dry, a mix of towering white oak trees forms a loose canopy, which allows some sunlight to reach the floor below. There, native shrubs, such as serviceberry, provide structure and food for wildlife.

In the ravines, where moisture is more abundant, red oaks and sugar maples dominate. Beneath them grow plants adapted to dampness and low light, a luxuriant blanket of ferns and wildflowers.

Scientific surveys of Dolan Woods have identified some real treasures among the plants there, including the relatively well-known yellow lady’s slipper orchid, along with two less common types of orchids as well. [Photos: Coles County naturalist David Mott (right) leads Jamie Ellis and other GPF board members on a tour of Dolan Woods this past June (Fred Delcomyn); yellow lady's slipper orchid (Michael R. Jeffords); worm-eating warbler (Greg Lambeth/].

Better still, according to Jamie Ellis, who is a botanist and also board president for Grand Prairie Friends, further discoveries are very likely. He told me, “The plant list already includes more than 100 species, many of which are typical of high-quality woods—but it’s certainly not complete. We’re still adding species each time we take a walk there.”

Thanks to the diverse, intact habitat, a variety of wildlife thrives at Dolan Woods. The site is presumed to host the same birds as the adjoining Warbler Woods, where breeding bird surveys have identified 57 species, eleven of which are considered “species in greatest need of conservation” by the Illinois State Wildlife Action Plan. These are birds that rely on large blocks of forest to reproduce, and they include some that are familiar, such as the redheaded woodpecker, as well as others that are less common, like the worm-eating warbler.

Dolan Woods also offers ideal habitat for the mammals, frogs, salamanders and other animals typical of Illinois forests.

Since June, members of the Grand Prairie Friends board have been working to secure grants from major Illinois foundations to cover the lion's share of the cost for Dolan Woods. (NEWS FLASH: Approval for one of the two key grants came in just as I was submitting this column.) But they are also committed to raising a significant amount for the purchase—$50,000—in contributions from members and friends by the end of the year.

If you are interested and able to help, there are two easy ways to donate money. You can send a check made out to Grand Prairie Friends to P. O. Box 36, Urbana, IL 61803. Or click you can go to the Grand Prairie Friends Website at and click on the “Donate Now” button. To my way of thinking, this is an exciting opportunity to help protect a real gem in east central Illinois.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

People wonder, what do crows think?

People wonder, what do crows think?

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At about this point in the fall a few years back, I noticed a curious phenomenon as I drove along Florida Avenue on the U of I campus. Dozens of crows—a “murder” if you will—were returning day after day to a row of majestic trees, for what looked to me like a great big crow party.

This wasn’t a roost, where crows gather at night for safety in numbers (and create misery for the unfortunate humans who live below.) It was a raucous, daytime affair, with lots of loud calling and hopping and flapping from branch to branch. [Photos by author: Row of pecan trees stretching south from Florida Avenue toward the round barn on St. Mary's Road; crow with pecan.]

What was the attraction of those trees? I stopped one morning to investigate. On the ground below the crow party were scattered the husks and shells of pecans, a nut I didn’t even know grew in Illinois.

So that little mystery was solved, and now I watch each November for the crows to congregate and feast on the pecans as they mature. (As a bonus, I now also know of a place where I can pick up one of my favorite foods from the ground.)

As I had spent time figuring out what crows were up to, I had inadvertently joined what turns out to be a very large and cosmopolitan group—people who are curious about crows.

If you’ve seen the episode of the PBS series, “Nature,” called “A Murder of Crows,” you know that scientific research on crows is illuminating new aspects of their intelligence and sociability on an ongoing basis.

For example, one group featured in the show, from the University of Washington at Seattle, designed a study to ascertain whether adult crows pass along specific knowledge about the world to their offspring.

The scientists knew from earlier work that crows recognize and remember masks worn by researchers who catch them, and that the crows’ dislike for people wearing those masks is communicated among adult birds. The question was whether such knowledge would be passed on from one generation to the next.

It was. A young crow that had learned from its parents to associate a particular mask with danger picked out a person wearing the same mask months later, in an entirely different setting, and gave the same alarm call.

Another area of research featured in “A Murder of Crows” is tool use among crows of New Caledonia, which appear to be the smartest of crows worldwide.

In the experiment, a New Caledonian crow is presented with a piece of food in a narrow box, which it can obtain only by reaching in with a long stick. But the long stick is inside a cage. To retrieve it, the crow has to reach in with a smaller stick, which is suspended from a nearby branch on a piece of string. In essence, it has to think up a three-step plan to achieve its goal.

You can almost hear the wheels turn as you watch the crow contemplate its options and then spring into action.

New Caledonian crows are also famous for the fact that they modify the tools available to them. In an earlier experiment, which you can view online, a New Caledonian crow named Betty crafts a hook from a straight piece of wire in order to pull food from an upright cylinder.

I don’t know whether the American crows we see in Illinois are as smart as all that. But having a better sense of what’s going on in their heads sure makes me want to watch them more closely in the future.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

U of I Department of NRES students get a taste of field work at Allerton

U of I Department of NRES students get a taste of field work at Allerton

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Would you know how to hold a cardinal safely to put a band on its leg? Do you know what to use for bait in a live-trap to catch raccoons or possums? Could you hold up your end of a minnow seine to sample for fish in a shallow river?

These are some of the skills that people who work in natural resources must possess. But they are not things young people typically pick up, either in school or out. And in the past, even students majoring in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) at the UI have been introduced to them only in upper-level courses, fairly late in their time as undergraduates.

Thinking that students would benefit from an earlier introduction to fieldwork, this year NRES professors Courtney Flint and Mark David collaborated to institute a field day as part of the large lecture course that serves as an introduction to the major.

The scene: A crisp October morning at Allerton Park near Monticello. Sixty-five students arrive in small buses. Awaiting them are twelve professors and eighteen graduate students and other student helpers.

As the students split up into smaller groups, I chose one to follow. It included a fairly typical mix of UI undergraduates—the majority of them were from Chicagoland, others were from downstate, and a few were from abroad, China and Malaysia, in this case.

At our first stop, avian ecologist Mike Ward demonstrated how scientists use the recorded call of a screech owl to draw in songbirds; the smaller birds converge to mob the predator and drive it away. Two of them that came in for our call, a white-breasted nuthatch and a cardinal, were caught in a mist net that had been set up nearby for the purpose. Ward and his colleagues used them to show how small birds are handled for scientific study (and then released them, annoyed but unharmed). [Photos by author: Antonio Celis Murillo, a PhD student in NRES, shows undergraduates how to handle a bird; Bob Schooley, professor in NRES, fields a question about the raccoon in the trap; a happy undergraduate transfers a fish from seine to bucket.]

At our next stop, wildlife ecologist Robert Schooley and student Adam Ahlers, explained how live-traps work for catching medium-size mammals, including where to place them and what to bait them with. (Peanut butter and apples work well.) We then checked traps that had been set out the night before, one of which contained a very large, mellow raccoon. There was no “hands on” in this case, given the risks of handling mammals.

Our mammal stop also included an introduction to radio telemetry, which is still widely used for tracking mammals to study their behavior. Ahlers explained it’s much more economical than satellite-based tracking, and can provide more precise data on animal movement. One student from the group then had the opportunity to lead the rest on a successful hunt to find a transmitter the instructors had hidden.

At our last stop of the morning, aquatics, “all in” and “hands on” were the rules, as students put on waders and stepped into the Sangamon River. Some helped collect fish that were stunned by electroshocking, while others worked minnow seines in shallower water. As the students gathered to examine their catch, professor Cory Suski encouraged them: “Don’t be afraid to touch things and pick them up—it’s okay to get your hands dirty!”

After a box lunch on the lawn near the Music Barn, the students spent the afternoon engaged in further hands-on activities. They measured and identified trees in the forest, evaluated water quality at the river and clambered into pits where they learned to “read” a soil profile.

To my way of thinking, there’s just one difficulty with this sort of education, and it affects students and teachers alike--returning to the lecture hall for the next class meeting.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Revitalized "Green Observer" promotes student engagement with environmental issues

Revitalized "Green Observer" promotes student engagement with environmental issues

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To be conscious of the environmental challenges people face as world population approaches seven billion is to grapple with the loss of hope now and again. If that’s where I left you with last week’s commentary, which focused on the IUCN "Red List of Threatened Species," this week, let me call your attention to a document with a more positive vibe.

It’s the just-published edition of “The Green Observer” magazine, which is available now at locations on and around the University of Illinois campus. If you’ve been around the U of I in recent years, you may remember seeing one or another of the earlier incarnations of the “Green Observer,” but the current model aims higher than any of those did.

The driving force behind the new “Green Observer” is editor-in-chief and designer Emily Cross, a third-year student pursuing majors in both Political Science and Earth, Society and Environment.

When we spoke recently, Cross said that one the goals of the magazine is to provide students with information that’s useful on a day-to-day basis. Toward that end, it contains a calendar of upcoming environmental events, for example, as well as articles with tips to help students reduce their own environmental impacts.

But Cross also emphasized that she hopes the “Green Observer” will help students to understand their roles on campus and in the world differently. “On a campus this size,” she said, “it’s easy to look around and think, ‘I can’t make a difference.’ But students have brought important changes to campus, and they continue to do that.”

Along those lines, one article in the current “Green Observer” tells the story of the eight-year effort by students to bring wind power to the U of I campus, which was finally cancelled this past spring. While the students involved did not achieve their ultimate goal, the story of their struggle provides an excellent reminder of just how much they brought to the table.

Other stories in the current issue encourage student engagement by reporting on activities few are even aware of. For example, one student writes about volunteering to help with a prairie burn at a University-owned natural area in northeast Urbana. In his words, “The smell of smoke and the sights and sounds of ten-foot high flames are simply unforgettable.”

I should emphasize that the “Green Observer” itself represents an opportunity for students to get involved. No fewer than 14 wrote articles for the current issue, and others provided artwork, photographs and more. Students involved with the “Green Observer” represent a wide range of disciplines, from earth systems, engineering and political science, to economics, business and a variety of others.

Cross reported that even in the short time since the current issue went into circulation, she has been contacted by a number of students who are eager to contribute to the next one.

Can the new “Green Observer” expand the cohort of students who are engaged with environmental concerns beyond the membership of existing green organizations? That’s a sincere hope of everyone involved, and it explains, in part, why the magazine is being distributed as a printed object, not just online.

The “Green Observer” is a program of the University YMCA, and you can pick up your own copy of it there. It’s also available at a number of campus businesses, or online at

Thursday, October 13, 2011

IUCN "Red List" documents continuing extinction crisis

IUCN "Red List" documents continuing extinction crisis

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Lately my work on another project has meant spending time with one of the most depressing documents people have ever produced. It’s the “Red List of Threatened Species” published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which is an umbrella organization that coordinates scientific efforts to catalogue and preserve biodiversity worldwide.

Updates to the Red List are published every four years, and the version I’ve been looking at comes from 2008. Its authors point out that it contains glimmers of hope, but then they characterize the news it holds this way: “The overwhelming message is that the world is losing species and that the rate of loss is accelerating in many taxonomic groups.”

Scientists know much more about the state of vertebrates—especially mammals, birds, and amphibians—than they do about other forms of animal life. Every one of the 5,488 species of mammals that have been described, for example, has been evaluated for purposes of the Red List. Of them, 76 species have become extinct since the year 1500, and two, Pere David’s deer, which is native to Asia, and the scimitar oryx from Africa survive only in managed facilities. Another 29 of the mammal species listed as critically endangered are also tagged as “possibly extinct”; they are very likely gone, but the sort of exhaustive surveys required to confirm that fact have not been conducted. Overall, approximately 22% of mammal species worldwide are known to be threatened or extinct.

The Red List categorizes a smaller proportion of the world’s 9,990 bird species—14%—as threatened or extinct. But the raw number of bird species lost over the past five centuries is at least 134, and four more species persist only in zoos. Another 15 species of birds are considered possibly extinct. The fact that 86% of bird species are categorized as “not threatened” constitutes really good news in the context of the Red List.

Among the well-studied vertebrates, amphibians are faring especially poorly. Of the more than 6,000 known species of frogs, toads, salamanders and the like, 38 have become extinct worldwide since 1500, 11 of those in just the last three decades. [USFWS photo: The Monteverde golden toad is one of 11 species of amphibians to become extinct since 1980.] Another one, the Wyoming toad, survives only in a recovery program, and another 120 species are considered possibly extinct. Overall, about a third of the world’s amphibian species are known to be threatened or extinct.

Of course, this information about familiar, terrestrial creatures is just a small part of what the Red List covers. It also documents disturbing facts about marine life, from plummeting fish stocks to large-scale declines among reef-building corals, and more.

I should emphasize that even taken as a whole, the Red List does not provide a comprehensive picture of life on earth. Scientists have described fewer than 2 million of the 8-9 million species of organisms thought to exist, most of which are insects, and only a fraction of those described species have been evaluated for purposes of the Red List.

The threats that put species at risk vary from one to another, but most of them result from human activity. People convert wild land to agriculture. We strip it to get at minerals. We build roads and cities. We cut down trees and kill animals at unsustainable rates, and we wreck ecosystems by introducing invasive species.

None of this is to say people are not capable of altering their behavior to prevent the extinction of other species. But on the whole, it’s difficult to spend time with the Red List and come away with a lot of hope.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

An invitation to enjoy Vermilion County's Forest Glen Preserve

An invitation to enjoy Vermilion County's Forest Glen Preserve

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I suppose with the weather we’ve had of late, few people need encouragement to get outdoors. But on the chance you’re casting about for what to do, here’s a suggestion. Explore Forest Glen Preserve in Vermilion County. Getting there from Champaign-Urbana takes about an hour. It’s longer than the drive to Kickapoo State Park, but the extra time invested in the journey pays off in the different experience to be had there.

I visited Forest Glen recently with my son’s Boy Scout troop. It was the first overnight backpacking trip for the scouts, a step toward the ultimate goal of a backcountry outing in the Great Smokey Mountains next summer. The 11-mile backpacking loop at Forest Glen, which includes options for camping, is ideal for such a purpose.

The preserve is fairly large for east central Illinois at 1,800 hundred acres. What’s more, it encompasses an impressive variety of ecosystems, including a 40-acre tallgrass prairie restoration, a smaller savanna restoration, large tracts of mature forest and two seeps that are designated Illinois Nature Preserves. The eastern border of Forest Glen is marked by the Vermilion River, which is a point of interest itself.

If you go, you’ll definitely want to make time for a hike. As long-time Vermilion County naturalist Gary Wilford says, “If you’ve just driven through it, you really haven’t seen Forest Glen.” Among the things to look for on the trail are the magnificent beech trees, which are especially prominent on the uplands and steep slopes. You’ll know them by their smooth, silvery grey bark—they’re the trees people carve their initials into. Vermilion County marks the western edge of beech-maple forest at our latitude, so these are trees you won’t see in Busey Woods or at Allerton Park.

In the low-lying areas at Forest Glen we encountered large stands of scouring rush, a plant that grows up in two-foot tall stems from rhizomes that spread underground. The hollow, segmented stems of scouring rush resemble bamboo, but it’s really a more ancient plant, one whose relatives shared the stage with ferns and other spore-producing plants long before flowering plants evolved. Scouring rush incorporates silica into its fibers as it grows, which you can feel if you rub it between your fingers. American Indians and early settlers are said to have used it for scrubbing, hence its common name.

A unique point of interest at Forest Glen is a 72-foot observation tower, which is open to the public. If you’re able and willing to climb the stairs, you’re rewarded with a spectacular view of the Vermilion River valley from above the treetops. We were there a little early for fall color, but I can’t imagine a better spot for leaf-peeping in the weeks to come. [Photo by author. View from the tower just as leaves are beginning to change.]

As a bonus, at this time of year the tower is also an excellent vantage point for raptor watching. On a recent visit there, Bob Schifo of the Middlefork Audubon Society reported seeing two bald eagles, two red-tailed hawks, a red-shouldered hawk, a Cooper’s hawk and an osprey.

By the time Troop 107 descended the tower and finished lunch on the second day of our trip, we had neither the time nor the energy to complete the entire backpacking loop. Fortunately for us, there’s a whole network of trails at Forest Glen, and we took the short way back to our starting point.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

U of I research incorporates farmer perspectives on water quality

U of I research incorporates farmer perspectives on water quality

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Recently, I spoke about the technical aspect of a current U of I research project designed to address nitrate loss from farming in the Salt Fork River watershed.

This week, a report on the other main component of that project. It focuses on farm landowners and operators, especially their perceptions about water quality and their thinking on issues that might affect willingness to adopt new water management techniques. This part of the effort is led by U of I professor Courtney Flint, with important collaboration from George Czapar at the Illinois State Water Survey and others at the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Flint is a sociologist whose research focuses on rural community and regional responses to environmental disturbance or change. When we spoke, she emphasized that the development of new technology is only one step toward the goal of reducing nitrate loss, and she referred me to a favorite quote to explain what motivates her work: “All the good intentions of science and technology are meaningless unless the farmer actually uses the practices.”

Flint and her colleagues employed two instruments to document the perspectives of farmers in the Upper Salt Fork Watershed during spring and summer of 2010. They sat down for personal interviews with 40 farm operators and landowners, and they conducted a broader survey by mail.

The researchers found that most respondents felt that local water quality, which they generally associated with drinking water, is good. They were more concerned about getting water off of fields quickly than what water might be carrying as it runs off. Among the relatively small percentage of respondents who had concerns about surface water quality, most ranked sediment and municipal discharge above fertilizers as sources of problems.

The great majority of respondents reported they already employ conservation measures to reduce soil erosion and protect water quality. Topping the list of these measures were reduced or no-till planting, which together are employed by a whopping 87 percent. More than half said they have established grassed waterways to filter water that runs off the top of their fields, and many have also planted filter strips as a buffer between fields and streams. Farmers who responded also report managing nutrient applications with an eye toward preventing loss.

What factors influenced decisions about actions that might improve water quality? You might expect “bottom line” to top the list, but it actually ranked below concern with improving the farm—for its own sake, for the benefit of future generations and for the sake of good relations with neighbors. About three-fourths of those responding also cited concern for the quality of water downstream and promoting conservation of natural resources as factors in water quality management decisions.

Flint found that farmers would be most likely to modify their practices to improve water quality if they learned those practices would increase the productivity and effectiveness of their operations. They were concerned about the costs of making changes, and the possibility that changes would limit their flexibility to adapt to new conditions in the field.

Flint and her colleagues anticipate that exposure to field demonstrations of mechanisms for reducing nitrate loss (such as the one described in last week’s column) will increase the willingness of farmers to adopt them. To test that hypothesis, they will repeat their interviews and surveys late next year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An abundance of enviro activities next week

An abundance of enviro activities next week

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Have you ever enjoyed a walk at Heritage Park in Champaign? Do you value the natural areas at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana? If so, you might be interested to know of an upcoming opportunity to deepen your connection to such places.

It’s an event called National Public Lands Day, which is intended to help people learn about environmental and natural resources issues, and to provide volunteers with opportunities to improve public lands for outdoor recreation.

National Public Lands Day takes place next Saturday, September 24. It is being promoted locally by the U of I Extension’s East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program, in cooperation with the agencies that manage participating sites.

The National Public Lands Day event at Meadowbrook Park is designed with families in mind. It begins with a program of hands-on work from 9:00 – 11:00 a.m. Taking advantage of the season, Urbana Park District personnel will lead some volunteers in an expedition to collect seeds from native plants in the Meadowbrook prairie restoration. These seeds will be used to establish prairie at other sites next year. Other participants will remove invasive plants, improve trails and pick up litter. [Photo by Kim Horbas. Volunteers collect seed at Buffalo Trace Prairie near Mahomet.]

After the work wraps up, park district educators will conduct a free program that includes a guided hike with activities about invasive species and how to take care of parks. Children under 16 who are accompanied by an adult are welcome to participate in both the work and the educational program at Meadowbrook.

The National Public Lands Day event at Heritage Park in Champaign is geared more for adult volunteers. Participants there will cooperate with park district workers to remove invasive plants and do general clean up from 8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

Other events associated with National Public Lands Day will take place at a number of area sites, including the Buffalo Trace Prairie near Mahomet, the Pollinatarium on the UI campus and the Illinois Demonstration Prairie on Country Fair Drive near I-72 in Champaign.

Further details about all of the events associated with National Public Lands Day are available

You can gear up for National Public Lands Day with two special-event film screenings next week.

On Tuesday evening, the Art Theater in Champaign will host a screening of the documentary Bag It, sponsored Champaign Surplus, the Common Ground Food Coop and Prairie Rivers Network. According to promotional materials, the film “started as a documentary about plastic bags [and] evolved into a wholesale investigation into plastics and their effect on our waterways, oceans, and even our bodies.” A panel discussion following the screening will focus on how personal choices and social policy could reduce some of the negative impacts of plastics.

Tickets for Bag It are $10 and are available through all three sponsors or at the door. The film starts at 7:00 p.m.

On Thursday evening, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and the Forest Preserve Friends Foundation will present the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time at the Virginia Theatre. This is the first full-length film to treat the life and thought of Aldo Leopold, the legendary conservationist whose vision continues to inspire the modern environmental movement. After the film, UI law professor Eric Freyfogle will host a discussion about the conservation ethic Leopold articulated and the impact it has had locally.

Tickets for Green Fire are $10 general admission/$7 students and seniors, available through or at the door. Proceeds from the screening will be directed to the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s land acquisition and preservation efforts.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

U of I Researchers cooperate with local farmers on new device to improve water quality

U of I Researchers cooperate with local farmers on new device to improve water quality

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You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon known as the “Dead Zone” that occurs each summer in the Gulf of Mexico. It forms when the concentration of dissolved oxygen in a defined area falls below the threshold that will support animal life. Highly mobile organisms, such as fish, can flee as it develops, but others, including mussels and crabs, die as it overtakes them.

In August, scientists with the group that has monitored the Dead Zone since 1985 found that this year it covered an area of almost 6,800 square miles. That’s just smaller than all of Lake Ontario, and about average for recent years.

The Dead Zone is caused by an explosive summertime growth and decay of algae, which is fueled by nutrients that enter the Gulf by way of the Mississippi River. Those nutrients, primarily nitrate and phosphorous, can be traced back to a number of sources, including urban runoff and treated wastewater. But agriculture in the Midwest is far and away the largest contributor of nitrate, and tile-drained agriculture of the sort that dominates east central Illinois leaks the largest amounts.

Over the past three years, a team of researchers from the U of I led by professor Mark David has been working with local farmers to address this problem, in cooperation with a number of other agencies, including American Farmland Trust, the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

One part of their effort has been an experiment to test whether managing the flow of drainage water from fields can reduce nitrate loss. A modern tile drain is really just a buried plastic pipe with slits in it that speeds the movement of water from the soil into an adjacent waterway. Without such drainage, many fields in Illinois would remain too saturated to work in the spring and early summer. It’s generally not important to farming, however, that fields be drained year round.

The researchers have been testing a simple structure that allows a farmer to block the flow of water at the discharge end of the tile during the winter and early spring. They have found that the amount of water coming out of these tiles once they were opened was reduced by 50–75 percent, with a corresponding reduction in the amount of nitrate discharged.

What makes this method of reducing nitrate loss exciting is that the mechanism is simple and relatively cheap. It’s essentially a small, belowground reservoir with a frame where boards can be stacked to back up water to a specific level. It occupies only a very small space and doesn’t interfere with farming in any other way.

There are aspects of the system that bear further investigation—chief among them, the question of what happens to the water and nitrates that do not flow out through the tile. The researchers don’t yet know for sure whether that all just winds up in the waterway via some other route, but they’re conducting further tests to see. If this method of controlling nitrate loss proves to be as effective as it seems, it would add to a growing list of practices that have been shown to work under a variety of conditions.

What do farmers think about when deciding whether to adopt these practices? That’s another key question being investigated as part of the current project. Next week I’ll check in with U of I professor Courtney Flint to report on what she has found so far.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

U of I Researchers collaborate on seismic monitoring in southern Illinois

U of I Researchers collaborate on seismic monitoring in southern Illinois

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Would it surprise you to know there’s a slope that rivals the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains here in the Midwest?

It begins at the bottom of a geological structure called the Illinois Basin, four miles below sea level underneath southern Illinois. It tops out on a structure in Missouri called the Ozark Dome, half a mile above sea level.

Unfortunately, this impressive Prairie State slope isn’t open for climbing. That’s because the Illinois Basin isn’t empty, but rather, filled with sedimentary layers that have accumulated during the past 500 million years as the floor of the basin has sunk. In effect, the surface of the ground today is the top of the stuff that fills up the bowl.

What are the contours of this formation? How did it come to be? These are questions U of I geology professor Stephen Marshak, Tim Larson of the Illinois State Geological Survey, and colleagues at Purdue and Indiana University are keenly interested to answer. They hope to do so with information gathered by a sophisticated earthquake monitoring system they began installing this summer.

In June and July, teams of students and technicians traversed the farmlands and hills of southern Illinois and adjacent Missouri to find suitable spots to place instruments—quite spaces without traffic noise or swaying trees. One of the biggest challenges came in finding landowners willing to have a three-foot hole dug in their property to place an instrument, all in the name of science.

When complete, the system will include 120 stations arrayed over a 200-mile long, 60-mile wide swath that stretches from central Missouri across southern Illinois and into Kentucky.

This intensive monitoring effort, which should be fully in place by next summer, is scheduled to run for two years. It’s part of a much broader project funded by the National Science Foundation called EarthScope, which involves a less-dense array of earthquake monitoring equipment that is gradually being moved across the entire continental U.S.

At each of the monitoring stations, the researchers are installing a seismometer, an instrument that measures movement in the ground from earthquake waves—not just the ones from once-in-a-great-while earthquakes people can feel, but also the ones from very small events that occur many times a year, even in the Midwest. According to Marshak, a better understanding of these minor earthquakes might help detect small, local faults in the Earth’s crust that have been overlooked before. [Photo by Michael Hamburger. Seismologists Gary Pavlis of Indiana University (left) and Hersh Gilbert of Purdue University use irrigation tile to create a temporary seismometer vault at an Earthscope site in southern Illinois.]

The seismometers involved are also sensitive enough to record seismic waves from larger earthquakes that happen elsewhere around the world—from events in Japan or South America, for example—even though those waves lose much of their energy as they pass through the Earth. That’s exciting because measurements of vibrations that pass through the Earth’s interior can be used to create a more refined three-dimensional image of the planet than those now available. (In an unexpected twist, the first waves from a significant quake came from Virginia, not the west coast.)

Marshak likens the anticipated product of this monitoring to a CAT scan of the Earth’s crust beneath the Midwest. Just as a medical CAT scan can detect unusual features inside a human body, a seismic CAT scan can detect unusual features underground, such as regions of light or dense rock. Recognition of such features may explain why the Illinois Basin and the Ozark Plateau exist, and may even help to explain how our continent formed in the first place, over a billion years ago.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Appreciating Hummingbirds in Illinois

Appreciating Hummingbirds in Illinois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 18, 2011

An update on efforts to promote cycling on and around U of I campus

An update on efforts to promote cycling on and around U of I campus

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As the University of Illinois again bustles with students, I thought it would be a good time to look over efforts to facilitate bicycling on campus. Toward that end, I spoke recently with Morgan Johnston, who is both Sustainability Coordinator and Transportation Demand Management Coordinator with Facilities & Services.

Johnston was happy to announce the completion of a Campus Bicycle Plan to be released soon, which was crafted by a task force that included representatives from the cities of Champaign and Urbana, the C-U Mass Transit District and the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. I should add that among all of the people and entities associated with local efforts to promote bicycling, Johnston called attention to the citizen group, The aim of the plan is to bring cycling infrastructure on campus up to current national standards.

Johnston emphasized that while the plan is important for connecting campus efforts with efforts that have been developing in Urbana and Champaign in recent years, much has already been accomplished in the University District.

For example, Illinois Street has become a heavily preferred route for cycling between Urbana and central campus, thanks to the traffic light that facilitates crossing Lincoln Avenue, and the on-street bike lanes that run from that intersection to Goodwin.

Goodwin Avenue itself has been converted into what planners term a “complete street,” which means it was reconfigured to better accommodate not just cars, but all users. In this particular case that means the addition of curb bump-outs to reduce the crossing distance for pedestrians at intersections; enhanced stops for the loading and unloading of mass transit buses; and dedicated on-street bike lanes for cyclists.

Similar changes are currently nearing completion on Fourth Street in Champaign.

In addition to pointing out changes in infrastructure, Johnston reminded me that the Campus Bike Project is now in its second year of operation. Located in garage space provided by the Prairie Research Institute and operated with funding from the Student Sustainability Committee and Facilities & Services, the Campus Bike Project is a nonprofit, membership-based repair space. It’s a place where students, faculty and staff who join can drop by to do all sorts of work on their bikes, from putting air in the tires to a complete overhaul. The Campus Bike Project also sells refurbished bikes (which come with a one-year membership), and offers a build-a-bike program, which allows members to create their own ride from a salvaged bike at very little cost.

The Student Sustainability Committee has also funded the purchase of two permanent kiosks for bike repairs to be installed on campus, one to be located near the Illini Union, and the other near the Campus Bike Project. These ingenious repair stands, called “Fixits,” provide easy access to an air pump and the basic tools needed to keep bikes rolling 24-7.

Anyone who has searched in vain for an open spot to lock a bike on campus will be interested to know that more bike parking is on the horizon. A survey was conducted last May to help determine where the needs are most critical, and the Student Sustainability Committee has provided funding for design. Installation of the first new parking stands associated with this effort will begin at the Law Building within the next month.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels (not chipmunks, not gophers)

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels (not chipmunks, not gophers)

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My encounters with ground squirrels in the west this summer reminded there’s a common, yet fascinating animal closer to home I’ve been meaning to profile, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Do you know the one I mean?

If you’ve had a small squirrel dash in front of you as you drove on a country road bordered by crops, or you’ve seen a chipmunk-looking critter darting about in a cemetery, you’ve probably encountered a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Some people call thirteen-liners gophers because they live in the ground, but in scientific terms, they’re members of the squirrel family.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are among those animals that have benefited from human development because they thrive in the close-cropped landscapes we create, from roadsides and pastures, to cemeteries, golf courses, parks and other lawns. Their geographic range, which encompasses much of the central U.S. and Canada, has actually expanded over the past two centuries.

If you were to draw a thirteen-lined ground squirrel based on its name, you would produce a picture that left out a notable characteristic of the original. Yes, they are marked by about thirteen alternating stripes of dark brown and light tan fur that run from neck to tail. But what’s equally striking is that the wider, dark lines are decorated along their entire length with evenly spaced light dots, giving them a star-spangled appearance. There’s a golden tinge to some of the lighter fur on thirteen-liners, and they’re the creature on which the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gopher mascot is based.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels eat just about anything they can get their little paws on, from insects of all sorts to the occasional small vertebrate (including carrion), to grasses, flowers, seeds and crops. They have pouches in their cheeks that they use to transport food to their burrows for eating later. (If you have trouble with thirteen-lined ground squirrels eating from your garden, University of Illinois Extension’s “Living with Wildlife” Website provides suggestions for dealing with them:

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are, in turn, food for a wide range of other animals, including coyotes, foxes, weasels, dogs, cats, hawks, owls and snakes.

One way thirteen-liners avoid being eaten is by excavating short, shallow escape burrows throughout their territories, so they’re never far from a hole to dive into. They also create deeper, longer burrows for nesting and hibernating.

And thirteen-lined ground squirrels hibernate like champions. After fattening up in the Fall, they retreat to a chamber that’s below the frost line, plug the entrance with soil, and curl up for about four months. During hibernation—which begins in late October or early November and lasts until late March or April—their body temperature nearly matches the temperature of the burrow, dropping as low as 37 degrees F. By the time thirteen-liners awaken, they have lost up to half of their body mass.

During the months thirteen-lined ground squirrels are active, you need not get up early to see them, nor do you need to brave inclement weather. They are most active on warm, sunny days, and they don’t even bother coming out of their burrows in the rain.

To learn more about thirteen-lined ground squirrels, or any of the other mammals you might see when you’re out and about in the Prairie State, let me refer you to the source for much of the information in today’s commentary, the Field Manual of Illinois Mammals by Joyce E. Hofmann. It’s published by and available through the Illinois Natural History Survey, which is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the U of I in Champaign.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Freshwater mussels: overlooked, under appreciated residents of Illinois streams

Freshwater mussels: overlooked, under appreciated residents of Illinois streams

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If you’ve spent time canoeing or kayaking on rivers in the Midwest, you’ve probably come across the shells of freshwater mussels from time to time. On the outside, mussel shells are seldom pretty, but the pearly shine of the interior surfaces often prompts people to pick them up.

Scientists distinguish among different species of mussels by focusing on the shape of certain parts of the shell. Here, for example, is how the Field Guide to Freshwater Mussels of the Midwest (Illinois Natural History Survey: click here to see free online version) describes the appearance of a species that goes by the scientific name Quadrula quadrula: “Shell quadrate to rounded, and somewhat inflated. Anterior end rounded, posterior end squared or truncated.”

Now, if that doesn’t bring to mind a very clear picture for you, try the common name for the same species: it’s “mapleleaf.” [Photo of Quadrula quadrula by Kevin Cummings, from the field guide. It reminds me of a maple leaf, anyway.]

Other Illinois mussels carry similarly evocative common names, which tell both what the creatures look like and what objects were familiar to the people who named them. Among them some of my favorites are washboard, pistolgrip, wartyback, heelsplitter, deertoe, spectaclecase, and pocketbook.

According to Kevin Cummings, a mussel expert at the Illinois Natural History Survey on the U of I campus, North America is home to a greater diversity of freshwater mussels than any other continent, with nearly three hundred species and subspecies. Some eighty of these are or were once found in Illinois. Many mussels have become locally extinct in former habitats, and only about forty species are regularly found in the state now.

Freshwater mussels live a low-key life for the most part. They pass their days hunkered down in the sand or gravel, usually in flowing water. They feed on microscopic plant and animal life, as well as other tiny bits of organic matter, which they filter from water they take in through one siphon and eject from another. Mussels are fed upon by a variety of fish and birds, as well as muskrats, otters, and minks. Minks leave the cleaned shells of mussels they’ve eaten in a pile near the water’s edge called a midden, which can be a great place to find and identify shells.

The early development of mussels is a bit more complex and dramatic. Mussel eggs are fertilized within the female, with sperm that has been released into the water by nearby males. Inside the female, the fertilized eggs develop into larvae, which scientists call “glochidia.” To grow further, these glochidia must be expelled and attach themselves to the gills or fins of a fish for some weeks, where they will take on their adult form, in miniature, before dropping off to live at the bottom of the stream again. By sending forth their young attached to fish, mussels are able to disperse much farther than they would under their own power.

Over time, freshwater mussels have served a variety of human purposes. Native Americans ate their flesh and used their shells for utensils, tools, and jewelry. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—before the advent of plastics—mussel shells were used on an industrial scale to make buttons. Since the 1950s, mussel shells have been exploited commercially for use in the production of cultured pearls in Japan.

It is unfortunate for mussels that they are not more cute and cuddly, because as a group they are among our most endangered animals, suffering from overexploitation, the pollution and physical degradation of waterways, and the introduction of exotic species to their habitats. Perhaps our best hope for preserving them comes from the growing awareness that the health of our rivers and streams is really a component of our own health.