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.