Thursday, December 20, 2012

Good things happening at Homer Lake; you can help

Good things happening at Homer Lake; you can help

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How do you make a well-loved forest preserve even better?

One way is to develop it. Toward that end, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District recently completed installation of what’s called a “natural playscape” at Homer Lake. The playscape differs from a typical playground in that it uses natural materials—plants, boulders, logs, and earth mounds—rather than plastic and metal. It also includes an already popular, stream-like water feature.

The playscape is located near the Walnut Hill Shelter, and it’s open all year long, although the water feature is shut off for the winter to prevent damage to the plumbing. Forest Preserve staff are quick to point out that pathways to and around the playscape are ADA accessible, which is a great benefit to children, parents, or grandparents with physical disabilities.

[Photo of children enjoying water feature of playscape by Pam Leiter, CCFPD.]

Aside from adding features to a forest preserve, another way to make it better is to make it bigger, and there’s also a project in the works for that at Homer Lake. The Forest Preserve District is currently pursuing an opportunity to expand the preserve by purchasing a nearby tract of land known as Sylvester Woods.

At just over five acres, Sylvester Woods may strike people as a small addition, since the Homer Lake Preserve already encompasses more than 800 acres.

But in this case quality really counts.

According to Dan Olson, who was recently named executive director of the Forest Preserve District, Sylvester Woods stands apart from other local natural areas because of its ecological integrity.

The Sylvester family has held the property since the original apportionment of the area by the federal government, and they used it only for low impact recreation. They fished in the Salt Fork River, which runs through it, and had family get-togethers there, but not much else.

Sylvester Woods was never clear-cut or row cropped or even, as far as anyone knows, grazed. A cabin is thought to have once been built on the site, but little evidence of that remains. As a result, the forest there is characterized by some majestic trees, with chinkapin oaks dominating on one side of the river, and black walnuts on the other. In addition, says Olson, the forest understory of Sylvester Woods is incredibly diverse. A survey of plants conducted there identified no fewer than 86 species, including some wildflowers not found at any of the District’s other preserves.

One important use Olson sees for the property is to serve as a nursery where uncommon native plants can be propagated for ecological restoration work at other sites. He also sees Sylvester Woods as providing a unique experience for people who recreate there. The property is separated by private land from the rest of the Homer Lake preserve, and it’s not really big enough for developments like shelters or restrooms. Visitors who drive there will need to park on the side of the road, and explore without the benefit of trails. Those who take the trouble to do so will be rewarded with a glimpse of Illinois forest as few have known it for more than a hundred years.

In order for this vision to become a reality, however, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District still has some money to raise. If you can help out with a donation, please give them a call at (217) 586-3360, or visit them on the Web at

Thursday, December 06, 2012

One from the December 2010 archive: Don't let cold weather keep you off the trails

One from the December 2010 archive: 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, November 29, 2012

A view of the oldest living thing on the University of Illinois campus

A view of the oldest living thing on the University of Illinois campus

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One of the perks of my position with the School of Earth, Society, and Environment at the U of I is an office in the Natural History Building on Green Street. My colleagues and I will be moving to temporary quarters soon as renovations here begin, but for now the view out my window includes a magnificent bur oak, a tree I used to cross campus just to check on now and then. [Photo by author.]

How big is “magnificent”? I recently measured my tree at 13’7” around at chest height, which makes it bigger than just about any other tree on campus, although that’s still on the small side compared to the Illinois state champion bur oak, which is more than 23 feet in circumference. In characteristic bur oak fashion, my tree’s massive lower limbs grow almost horizontally; by my measurement, conducted in cooperation with coworker Lana Holben, they span 114 feet at their widest point.

It can be difficult to know for certain how long a tree has lived, but last year Gene Himelick, Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at the U of I, calculated that my tree is between 183 and 188 years old.
As bur oaks go, 180-some years is no record—they may live to be three or four hundred—but that still makes this one the oldest living organism on campus. (Insert your own joke about old professors here if you must.)

Like others of its kind, my oak provides all manner of benefits to wildlife. Squirrels feast on its abundant acorns, and they build their leafy nests among its limbs. Migrating songbirds also flock to it, attracted by the caterpillars of moths and butterflies it hosts. Among the many birds that distracted me from work this past spring were American redstarts and blackburnian warblers, blue-headed vireos and ruby-crowned kinglets.

This year’s extraordinarily warm March prompted my oak to flower and leaf out four weeks earlier than normal, which means the birds found a diminished food source when they arrived on schedule in late April and early May. An occasional warm spring won’t undo the age-old association between oaks in the Midwest and the long-distance bird migrants that depend on them, but ornithologists anticipate that the long-term trend toward earlier leaf-out could have that effect, to the great detriment of the birds.

Bur oaks were the signature tree of the wooded groves that here and there graced the landscape of east central Illinois when tallgrass prairie was the dominant landcover. Their thick, corky bark, which grows on even their smallest branches, enabled them to survive prairie fires better than other trees.

The species name for bur oak, “macrocarpa,” translates as big seed, and refers to the size of its acorns, which can be two inches long. The “bur” in the common name refers to another characteristic of the acorns, their heavily fringed caps, which reminded people of chestnut burs.

In one of my favorite tree books, twentieth-century botanist and writer Donald Culross Peattie cites studies suggesting the root system of a bur oak mirrors its above-ground growth in its mass and extent. If that’s so, the parking lots near my tree are already encroaching on its roots. But I know it has friends, too; someone from Facilities & Services kept it well-watered through the drought this summer. Similar consideration for this natural treasure will be important as construction to bring the Natural History Building up to date begins.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Now may be the time for DIY solar power in east central Illinois

Now may be the time for DIY solar power in east central Illinois

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Have you ever entertained the idea of generating electricity at home with solar panels on your roof? If so, now may be the time to act. That’s the conclusion Phil Krein reached recently, anyway. He’s a long-time resident of central Champaign and a professor in the U of I Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, a guy who knows this stuff as well as anyone around.

Why now? Previously, says Krein, installing solar panels was a job that required either a knowledgeable, dedicated hobbyist with lots of time, or a specially trained contractor. But that’s not the case anymore.

The availability of two fairly simple new technologies has emboldened Krein to go ahead with his own do-it-yourself project. One is a high-quality, self-sealing screw for mounting the brackets to hold solar panels on a roof.

[Phil Krein on the roof of his garage; one screw in, twenty-three to go. Photo by author.]

The other is a photovoltaic panel that comes with its own small inverter attached to the back. The inverter converts the direct current produced by the panel to alternating current, which can be fed into the grid. That makes the system safe for a nonexpert to work with and easy to expand. Formerly, most photovoltaic panel setups depended on a single, larger inverter, which required a more complex electrical setup.

In addition to these technologies, the other incentive for Krein to go ahead with solar now is the extremely low price of photovoltaic panels. For comparison, about four years ago the best-priced panels cost more than $5 per watt, or $1200 for a 240-watt panel, and that was down from $9 per watt in 2007. The panels Krein just purchased are priced at $1.57 per watt, or $378 per panel plus $30 each for shipping. (They're AC Unison PM240PA0 panels, which you can see on the list at 

He ordered them via the Web on a Monday and they were delivered to his house three days later.

Krein’s expenses for the project total about $3280, which breaks down as follows:
$2448 for six solar panels; $540 for the optional monitoring box that watches their performance; $150 for mounting hardware and electrical bits and pieces; $50 for a new two-way electric meter; and $80 for an electrical permit.  This doesn’t take into account the federal tax credit for residential solar projects or state incentives that can be sought.

In the current phase of the project Krein is installing six panels. Together they’ll produce about 2400 kilowatt-hours of electricity over the course of a year. That’s about 30 percent of what his family uses, and, at current prices, a savings of roughly $20 a month. That may not sound like much, and Krein’s project may take ten years or so to pay for itself, but as he points out, “The warranty is 25 years, so I don’t have to think about it again until it is time to replace the roof.”

That would already make it a reasonable deal, but Krein thinks there’s no reason to believe the panels will not continue to function for far longer—possibly fifty years. You can call that anything you like, but I call it cheap, non carbon emitting, non air polluting, non water polluting, non land occupying electricity.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Danville nature photographer “captures” unusual amphibian

Danville nature photographer “captures” unusual amphibian

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Have you ever seen a siren? I don’t mean one of temptresses of Greek myth, or the thing that makes noise atop an emergency vehicle. I mean the amphibian called a siren. It’s an eel-like creature that’s actually a salamander. As adults, sirens get more than two feet long. They’re somewhat variable in color, but mostly dark, and they have two undersized front legs (but no rear legs) and external gills.

Like most residents of east central Illinois, I’ve never seen a siren. But Jessica Runner of Danville has, and not a mile from her home. Here’s how.

Runner is a busy mother of two young boys who manages the shoe department at Carson’s and owns a landscaping business with her husband. But she is also a dedicated birder who has cultivated a growing passion for nature photography in recent years.

Often when Runner has time off work she drops by Heron Park, which is at the north end of Lake Vermilion and just minutes from her home by car. Its wetland complex makes an excellent spot for birding, and it hosts a rookery where great blue herons nest.

One morning at the end of May this year as Runner approached the park in her car she spotted a great blue heron stalking a meal in a shallow pond that borders the road. She quickly pulled over, and, using the car for a blind, photographed the bird over a period of 40 minutes as it worked to procure breakfast.

Great blue herons are patient hunters. They avoid spooking prey by moving extremely slowly until they’re close enough to stab it with a quick extension of the neck.

Unfortunately for Runner, her own patience did not quite match the heron’s, and her attention was focused on a family of wood ducks at the moment it struck. To her delight, however, the heron ran back toward her with its still-wriggling prize, and she was able to photograph the bird’s battle to subdue it.

[Photo of great blue heron with siren by Jessica Runner, used with permission.]

As she took pictures, Runner thought she was seeing her bird kill and then eat a snake. But when she later saw the images on a computer screen, she realized the snake-like creature had legs, so she forwarded them to a friend in Urbana. He identified it as a siren.

Runner wasn’t the only person excited about her discovery. She contacted Chris Phillips at the Illinois Natural History Survey to tell him about her pictures, since the Survey’s Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois shows no records for sirens in Vermilion County.

“It goes to show you,” Phillips said, “there are still some surprises out there for a herpetologist in the Midwest.”

On one hand, he continued, it seems odd that sirens would turn up in Vermilion County because they are more common in the southern part of the state and along major rivers. Besides, he and other field scientists have studied the reptiles and amphibians of Vermilion County for decades and never been able to find sirens there before.

On the other hand, it’s also a potential boon to have them located where they’re so accessible for study by UI faculty and students. “It’s only a forty minute drive from campus,” he pointed out, “and during high water we could throw a trap into that pond right from the truck.”

Sirens are weird creatures, and there is much to be learned about them. They maintain throughout life characteristics that most amphibians lose as adults: they continue to live in water, they keep their external gills and they develop only tiny front legs.

They can survive prolonged dry periods by encasing themselves in slime that forms an airtight sac and going dormant, but for how long, nobody knows. Nor have scientists ever witnessed their courtship and mating, so they can only speculate about that based on the siren’s physical characteristics.

I suppose there are people for whom the discovery of an unexpected amphibian nearby causes no excitement, but I’m not among them. As the temperatures warm next summer, I look forward to helping catch sirens at Heron Park. Don’t worry if you’re not there, I’ll take pictures.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

INHS scientists writing new chapter in long-running story of fishes of Champaign County

INHS Scientists writing new chapter in long-running story of fishes of Champaign County

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Few people see fish the way Josh Sherwood does. Sure, casual observers may notice the minnows that dart away as they look down from a bridge, and anglers learn the habits and haunts of the bass, catfish and other species they hope to catch.

But Sherwood, who’s a fisheries research scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), looks at a different picture. He’s interested in the entire gamut of fish that inhabit Illinois streams, and he’s quick to point out they are much more diverse and striking than you might think.

For an example, he calls attention to the arrestingly colorful, three-inch long rainbow darter, which is common in appropriate habitat throughout the state. During the breeding season, a male rainbow darter’s sides are marked by alternating bars of vibrant blue and orange, colors that also dominate on its fins, too. Below, it may be yellow, green or red, and there’s another splash of orange around its gills.

[Photos: rainbow darter (above), by Lance Merry; striped shiner, by Josh Sherwood.]

Most nonscientists never lay eyes on rainbow darters or the many other nongame fish that dominate our waterways—including myriad other darters, shiners, suckers and sculpins—because we can’t see them where they live, and we don’t have sufficient cause to pull them out of the water for a look.

Of course, pulling fish out of the water for a look constitutes a major part of the job for Josh Sherwood and his colleagues.

Here’s how they survey a reach of stream. Two people stretch a block net across the downstream end, taking care that it connects with the streambed. Then another team approaches them from upstream with a lightly electrified seine, which stuns fish as they approach. Other team members follow close behind and scoop up the fish with dip nets, then deposit them in live wells where they’re held until the collection is finished. The scientists weigh the fish, measure them and record their species, then return them to the stream.

Currently, Sherwood is in charge of fieldwork and sampling for a survey of the fishes of Champaign County, a project with very deep roots. It has been run at intervals of about thirty years going back to the late 1800s, and this is the fifth installment.

As they work on this project, Sherwood and company are building on the legacy of giants in their field. Their predecessors include Stephen A. Forbes, the first director of the INHS and an early definer of ecology as a field, and R. Weldon Larimore and Phillip W. Smith, who pioneered the statewide study of the ecology, distribution and conservation of fishes in the twentieth century.

To date, Sherwood and his team have completed fieldwork at 65 of the 172 sites the survey will encompass, and they anticipate finishing work at the remainder next year. Most of the sites yet to be surveyed are in the Sangamon River watershed, but a few are smaller streams that were too dry for sampling thanks to this year’s drought.

In the watersheds where fieldwork is largely complete—which include portions of the Kaskaskia, Embarras, and Vermilion Rivers—they have found roughly the same mix and numbers of fish that were found in the last survey, with one notable exception.

In the Saline Branch, just downstream of the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District’s northeast plant, and further downstream, in the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River, fish species diversity has increased dramatically.

In the Saline Branch alone, the number of species collected rose from about 30 in the late 1980s to 45 this past summer.

What accounts for the change? Sherwood hesitates to speculate, since much work on with the data is to be done. But it’s natural to focus on possible changes in the flow emanating from UCSD plant, since it constitutes such a significant portion of the total in the stream.

When we spoke, Sherwood said it was his understanding that shortly after the previous survey, the UCSD began to remove chlorine (which is used as a disinfectant) from its discharge, and that would do a great deal to promote aquatic life.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

UCSD open house gives public view of essential processes

UCSD open house gives public view of essential processes

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If you invited friends or family to join you for an open house at a wastewater treatment plant, would they laugh? I’m not naming any names, but I was on my own when I set out for the recent open house at the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District’s facility on East University Avenue. 

To my delight, however, plenty of other local residents were curious enough about the plant come out for a look around. According to the estimate of UCSD executive director Rick Manner, approximately 200 people stopped by over the course of the day—enough to make him consider holding the event annually.

Manner and his staff were motivated to host an open house because they wanted the people who are served by the plant to see what was accomplished in its just-completed, two-year renovation. Updates to the plant included new buildings to accommodate some of the treatment processes that take place there, as well as new space to accommodate employees as well.

[Photos by author: primary clarifier; control room; water sample; at the outfall.]

Of course, since most visitors to the plant came knowing little of the processes used to treat wastewater, the highlight of the open house was a guided tour that allowed us to see them firsthand.

I was fortunate to fall in with a group that included a Champaign father who had brought along his two young daughters and a friend of theirs. At the outset of our tour, the girls were quick to say they had come only because they hadn’t been given a choice. But their tune soon changed, and their lively interest made the afternoon more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Our tour was led by Dave Hermes, whose regular role is supervisor of maintenance at the plant. He provided concise explanations of what we were seeing at each stop, and answered our questions with the patience of a theme-park tour guide.
We started at the building where sewage entering the plant undergoes an initial screening to remove paper and grit. The material taken out in this process is the only byproduct of the plant that goes to a landfill, and the quantity of it is surprisingly small, on the order of a Dumpster or two a week.

We then proceeded through the plant in the same order that wastewater does: to the enormous, circular open-air tanks set deep in the ground where primary clarification takes place; to the concrete weirs where the wastewater churns with bacteria and other microorganisms in a process called “activated sludge”; to secondary clarifiers; to the tallest structures at the plant, nitrification towers, where the water runs down through stacked layers of honeycomb-like plastic, and toxic ammonia is converted to nontoxic nitrates by the action of another group of microorganisms; and finally to the building where water runs through a fabric filter; and back outdoors, where a chlorine-based disinfectant renders the effluent of the plant fit for human contact and capable of supporting aquatic life.

At each stop, a tightly sealed jar of the water from that stage was available for close inspection.

Our tour ended where the discharge from the plant pours into the Saline Branch, one of the most significant tributaries to the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River. As our group dispersed, I overheard the father of the young girls ask for reactions to the tour. “It was more interesting than I thought it would be,” allowed one. “Definitely not boring,” added the other.

One measure of how well the UCSD’s northeast treatment plant does its job is the diversity of aquatic life that thrives downstream from it. Executive director Manner called my attention to the discovery this year of a fish called the big-eyed chub in the Saline Branch. It’s a species that hasn’t been found in Champaign County since 1899.

Tune in next week for a story about the fish survey that prompted that phone call.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

U of I Biologists get help from engineers to study river otters

U of I Biologists get help from engineers to study river otters

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Biologists who study North American river otters in the wild face some unique challenges. Otters cannot be fitted with collars, because their heads are smaller than their necks, so their movements can’t be traced with the sort of GPS setup that might be employed to track foxes or coyotes. And it’s rarely possible to distinguish one otter from another in images captured by trail cameras, so there’s a real limit to what can be learned from those.

According to Samantha Carpenter, however, it’s important for scientists to overcome those challenges. Carpenter is a researcher who works in the lab of Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, who studies the ecology of wildlife diseases at the Illinois Natural History Survey.  Because river otters are top predators in many aquatic ecosystems, Carpenter points out, otter management has system-wide impacts, beginning with the many creatures they eat, including fish, mussels, frogs and crayfish.

River otter populations in Illinois have recovered dramatically over the past two decades, from a low of fewer than 100 animals in 1989, when they were listed as endangered in the state, to current numbers, which are estimated to exceed 11,000.  Their recovery is attributable in part to the recovery of aquatic habitats, which have improved so much thanks to the Clean Water Act, and in part to the otters from other states in the mid-1990s, which kick-started the current population boom.

The questions Carpenter and Mateus-Pinilla seek to answer include: How much space does an otter occupy as a home range? Are there seasonal patterns in their use of habitat? What factors affect the size, structure and interactions of their social groups? Answering these questions requires the capacities to trace the movements of individual otters and to distinguish among individuals. Both of these can be facilitated with the use of cutting-edge technology.

Over the past year, Mateus-Pinilla and Carpenter have received help in this regard from people who normally think very little about otters--or wild animals in general--faculty and students from the UI Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Each semester, ECE students enrolled in Senior Design work in teams and select among projects pitched to them by researchers who need real-world assistance.

What have they done for the otter researchers? One team has developed a device that is already deployed at a location near the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River called the “Otter Print Shooter.” It’s a box with a clear acrylic top that contains a digital camera and is buried near a site otters frequent. By means of a sophisticated arrangement of sensors, triggers and lights, the device captures detailed images of otter paw prints. These images enable the researchers to identify individual otters the way fingerprints are used to identify humans.

[Photo, left to right: Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, Yon Chiet Ng, Hui Lin Ng,  Sabrina Yan Ru, Hoong Chin Ng,and Samantha Carpenter deploy the digital tracking plate. Photo Jen Mui.]

Other teams have developed similarly ingenious and useful projects. One has created a system to track individual otters by means of an implantable chip similar the ones used to identify pet dogs and cats. Another is working on an implantable GPS chip, which would enable researchers to trace the movements of individual otters across the landscape via satellite.

Samantha Carpenter describes the fruits of this collaboration between wildlife researchers and engineers with great enthusiasm. And she also looks forward to all that these tools will enable her and others to learn: “Whereas many people view the recovery of river otters in Illinois as a happy ending to their story, we view it as the beginning of an exciting sequel.”