Thursday, March 29, 2012

Prescribed burns enable prairie to thrive

Prescribed burns enable prairie to thrive

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If you’ve taken advantage of the recent weather to visit local natural areas, you’ve probably come across patches of land blackened by fire. These are places where you expect to see tallgrass prairie, but where, for the moment, there’s nothing to block your view of a robin on the ground 50 yards away.

What you’ve encountered is evidence of land managers using the most powerful tool at their disposal, fire. I’ve hear people wonder aloud whether it’s necessary to do all of this burning, whether it wouldn’t be better to just leave nature alone.

The short answer to that question is, no—not if our aim is to preserve or reconstruct landscapes that resemble tallgrass prairie as it existed in central Illinois at the time of European colonization.

That’s because without fire, prairie would have given way to forest here over the past 5,000 years. Prairie fires, which were set regularly by American Indians, and sometimes caused by lightning, are estimated to have scoured any given bit of land here once every one to five years.

Prairie fires usually moved quickly, so their heat did not penetrate deep into the soil. Thus they killed the saplings of encroaching trees—such as walnut, ash and sugar maple—and favored instead the growth of herbaceous perennials, grasses and flowers that die back and store their energy below ground in winter.

[Photos by author: fire engulfs an encroaching sapling; Mike Davis patrols the line with a flapper; "The Marker" looks over the burned area at Meadowbrook Park.]

By removing thatch and speeding the return of nutrients to the soil in the form of ash, prairie fires enabled dormant seeds to germinate, and the spring and summer that followed on were marked by a profusion of flowers and reinvigorated forage.

Similar effects are now achieved through the use of prescribed burns.

In addition to thwarting the advance of local trees, prescribed burns also now perform the important service of knocking back invasive plants imported from other continents, chief among them bush honeysuckle and autumn olive. Without fire as a tool, says Mike Davis, who’s a natural areas technician with the Urbana Park District, the task of keeping such plants in check would be far more difficult than it already is.

Most prescribed burns operate like the one I participated in recently at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. It was organized by Davis, and carried out with help from other park district personnel, as well as volunteers from Grand Prairie Friends and the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist Program.

Some volunteers manned barricades to keep park users from wandering into the designated areas. The rest divided into two burn crews. Working on opposite sides of the burn unit, and beginning at the downwind end of it, one person from each crew used a kerosene drip torch to light fire along the mowed paths that served as breaks. Others who were armed with backpack sprayers, flappers and heavy rakes then spread out along the lines to make sure no fire crossed them.

By design, the fires we lit on the sides of the burn unit moved slowly, since we were advancing into the wind. Not so the headfire we created as the two burn crews converged along the upwind edge of the unit. It snapped and crackled briefly, then roared to life and swept back across the field, exactly according to plan.

If you have the opportunity, keep an eye on the blackened patches at Meadowbrook Park and other preserves as spring progresses, and enjoy the tallgrass prairie plant show made possible by fire.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Field trip to Brickyard landfill with U of I environmental geology class

Field trip to Brickyard landfill with U of I environmental geology class

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The first thing I put in a trashcan most days is coffee grounds. How about you? If you’re an average American, you generate almost three pounds of unrecyclable trash each day. Beyond taking it out to the curb once a week, most people have no direct knowledge of what happens to that trash once it’s picked up by the hauler.

Not so the students in U of I professor Steve Altaner’s Environmental Geology class.

I joined them last week as they took a field trip to Brickyard Disposal & Recycling in Danville, Illinois. At Brickyard, Altaner’s students got a firsthand look at how a modern sanitary landfill operates.

Our tour began with an introduction to the facility by manager Ken Samet, who took pains to make sure students understood the stringent federal regulations governing the operation of landfills that have opened since 1992.

[Photos: Altaner and students; compactors at work (Kevin Lim); student checking out exposed coalmine shaft.]

Under those regulations, he explained, landfills must be equipped to prevent any of the liquid that leaches from garbage from contaminating the ground around them, so landfill pits are sited on impermeable soils and lined with compacted clay and heavy plastic. As the leachate captured in the landfill liner gets more than a foot deep, it is pumped into a holding pond, and then on to a wastewater treatment plant. Landfill operators are required to maintain a system of groundwater monitoring wells that alert them should leachate begin to migrate outside the pit.

Samet also emphasized that environmental regulations require landfill operators to capture some of the methane gas produced by decomposing organic matter in garbage. At the Brickyard facility, the methane is burned to generate electricity, which is fed into the power grid.

After Samet’s overview our group got back on the bus. With professor Altaner at the wheel and Samet directing, we drove to various spots around the landfill to see the things we had heard described. We were there too late in the day to witness the drama of a truck releasing a load from the top of the giant tipping face. But we did see the massive compactors rolling over the day’s intake of trash to ensure no space was wasted.

For many participants, the unexpected highlight of our landfill tour was a close-up look at the open ends of two coalmine shafts, which were exposed near the bottom of a pit that was being expanded.

Heading back toward campus, coal mining was also the subject of a stop at Kickapoo State Park. On a bluff overlooking a pond there, professor Altaner gave a brief account of the park’s origin as the site of the world’s first mechanized strip-mine. He also recounted the successful effort to preserve the nearby Middle Fork River in its free-flowing condition, which led to its designation as a “National Wild and Scenic River” in 1989.

On the last leg of the drive, I learned from Altaner that food waste represents the largest component of the municipal waste stream in the U.S., after other recyclable materials are removed. So food waste recycling (a.k.a. composting) represents one of our greatest opportunities for further reducing the overall amount of material we send to the landfill.

That’s great motivation for me to find my family’s compost pail—which went missing in our recent move—and put the coffee grounds there, rather than in the trashcan.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and habitats that support them

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and habitats that support them

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It may be too early in the year to contemplate April showers bringing May flowers. But in much of Illinois heavy rains in late February and early March trigger an astonishing and ancient natural phenomenon—the annual congregation of amphibians in the waters where they breed.

The participants in the initial phase of this aquatic love fest, which begins in water cold enough to stun people, include frogs that are known by their vocalizations—spring peepers [pictured], whose once-per-second ascending peeps [IDNR audio] can be heard day and night, and western chorus frogs, whose call is often compared to the sound produced by running a stick over the teeth of a comb [IDNR audio].

These vocal frogs are joined in the frigid water by other more secretive amphibians. To me, the most fascinating of these are the eight species of salamanders that are known collectively as mole salamanders.

In central Illinois the most common member of this family is the six-inch-long smallmouth salamander [pictured], a blackish creature with blue and grey markings that give it a marbled appearance. The eastern tiger salamander can be found here, too, although I have to admit I’ve never seen one. A tiger salamander may grow to more that a foot in length, and it is marked by yellow spots that cover more and more of its body as it ages. You may or may not remember it, but the tiger salamander was elected the official state amphibian of Illinois in a 2004 contest sponsored by then Lieutenant Governor, Pat Quinn.

As their group name suggests, mole salamanders spend most of the year underground. There they move about in natural gaps, and the tunnels and burrows created by small mammals. They feed on a variety of invertebrates, including earthworms, slugs, and insects.

In the spring, though, as the earth thaws and the ice recedes, rainy nights bring mole salamanders above ground, and they trundle overland seeking the ephemeral pools where they were born. Ephemeral pools are wetlands that hold water far enough into the summer for amphibian larvae to mature, but which dry up at some point in most years. This characteristic prevents fish from becoming established there, and that’s important because fish eat amphibian eggs and young. [Pictured is an ephemeral pool at the Urbana Park District's Busey Woods.]

If you were to shine a light into such a pool on a spring night you would be amazed at how many salamanders you can see, and surprised at how gracefully they swim. You might also be interested to see how many other forms of life are active in such cold water—delicate, inch-long fairy shrimp, ferocious diving beetles, and more.

Looking into an ephemeral pool during the day you might see amphibian eggs, held together in a mass with a jelly-like substance, and attached to twigs or other underwater structure.

While it is still possible to find ephemeral pools where you can witness the springtime congregation of amphibians in Illinois, it’s not easy. More than 90 percent of the wetland acres that once existed in the state have been lost to agriculture and urbanization, and only a tiny fraction (0.05%) of the state’s historic wetlands persist in relatively undisturbed condition.

Whether future generations have the opportunity to experience the springtime awakening of life in ephemeral pools depends on whether our generation acts to preserve and restore them.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

A visit to U of I Wildlife Medical Clinic, a plug for "Doodle for Wildlife" benefit

A visit to U of I Wildlife Medical Clinic, a plug for "Doodle for Wildlife" benefit

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Winter is a slow time of year for the U of I Wildlife Medical Clinic, where the patients currently include only three birds of prey and a garter snake. I took advantage of this quiet to stop by while the veterinary medicine students who provide health care there did their morning work one day last week.

Kelsey Braun, a second-year vet med student, leads the team that has been providing care for a red-tailed hawk named Samson. He came to the clinic in early January with a wing fracture caused by a BB, an open wound in his mouth and lacerations in his feet.

Braun carried Samson into the treatment room wrapped in a towel, but allowed for a peek at his face before covering it with a leather hood to calm him. In cooperation with second-year clinic manager Nicki Rosenhagen, and with the help of various devices to protect her from his beak and talons, she then carefully checked the progress of healing on each of Samson’s injuries. [Photo by Vanda Bidwell, courtesy of Champaign News-Gazette.]

Braun reported that the bone in his wing has knit together well, and the wounds in his mouth and feet have closed, thanks to suturing done at the clinic. He’ll soon be healthy enough for transfer to a rehabilitative center, on his way to release in the wild.

It was a treat to witness the skill and care Braun and Rosenhagen brought to their work. They are but two of approximately 120 students of veterinary medicine at the UI who volunteer their time to staff the Wildlife Medical Clinic.

Under the supervision of faculty, these students, who are at various stages in their education, work in teams, enabling those with less experience to learn from those with more experience as they assess patients and provide care. The approach, says clinic director Julia Whittington, is “See one, do one, teach one.”

Few of the students who volunteer at the clinic will go on to work with wildlife in their veterinary careers, but they will enter those careers with invaluable hands-on experience.

Of course, the work of students at the Wildlife Medical Clinic is a great benefit to the patients they treat, too. The range of patients admitted to the clinic includes animals as large and formidable as white-tailed deer and coyotes, and as small and delicate as ruby throated hummingbirds.

With spring almost upon us, Whittington asks that people who encounter an animal they suspect to be sick, injured or orphaned take some time to assess the situation before they act. “Parents of many species, including rabbits and deer, leave their young unattended as a matter of course, so a person need not intervene just because they see a baby animal alone.”

The Wildlife Medical Clinic Website includes a page that provides detailed advice on how to decide whether a wild animal needs human help or not, as well as general information about various wild animals found in Illinois.

If you would like to help support the work of the Wildlife Medical Clinic, which operates as a nonprofit organization, check out the “Doodle for Wildlife” benefit to be held Saturday, March 3, at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign. At the benefit, signed photographs and original drawings donated by a slew of national celebrities will be auctioned off, along with a variety of unique travel and outing packages. Further information about “Doodle for Wildlife” is available by phone at 217-333-2761.