Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cultivating an appreciation for toads in Illinois

Cultivating an appreciation for toads in Illinois

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Two species of toads inhabit Illinois, and neither one of them is threatened or endangered. It seems the factors that are contributing to the decline of other amphibians in the state and around the world—habitat loss, fungal infection, chemical contamination, etc.—pose no insurmountable obstacles to the continued health of toad populations here.

So, why give toads a second thought? They are common and approachable. [Pictured is a Fowler's toad I came across on a gravel bar along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.] For me, encounters with such creatures hold their own pleasures, and they reinforce the natural inclination to value other forms of life, even animals I’ll probably never see for myself.

At a glance, most people would not notice a difference between adult American toads and Fowler’s toads. Both are about two to three inches long, and they are similarly marked. Their skin is a light shade of gray or brown, dotted with darker spots. One way to distinguish between the two toad species found in Illinois is to observe the number of warts per dark spot on the back: the dark spots on American toads contain only one or two large warts, while the dark spots on Fowler’s toads have three or more smaller warts.

Toads have thicker skin than frogs, which enables them to inhabit drier environments. They thrive in forests, prairies, and wetlands, along the margins of lakes and streams, and even at the edges of highways. Toads can live in the midst agricultural fields and in urban settings, too, as long as they have access to bodies of water for reproduction.

Even when it comes to the choice of where to breed, toads are not very discriminating. If the nearby body of water is a pristine vernal pool, toads will get together there. If it’s a ditch or a flooded field, toads will use that as well (although toad offspring will survive only if the water persists for at least the 40 days it takes them to develop from tadpoles into terrestrial creatures). My family once received a gift of toad tadpoles from the water that had collected on top of a friend’s swimming pool cover.

You might well recognize the mating call of American toads even if you don’t realize you have heard it before. It is a sustained, high pitched trill that carries a very long way. Near ponds and other places where they breed, it is the background sound of evening in April and May.

Do I need to say people don’t get warts from handling toads? People don’t get warts from handling toads.

Under extreme stress toads secrete a toxin from the oblong glands behind their eyes, which irritates the mucous membranes of other animals that would eat them. (For this reason it’s a good idea to wash your hands thoroughly after handling a toad.) This defense works well in many cases, as you know if you’ve ever seen the reaction of a dog that picked up a toad in its mouth, but not all. Some snakes are not bothered by the toxins toads release, and other animals, including skunks and raccoons, get around the problem by eating them from the underside.

If you’re interested in a wildlife experience close to home this summer, you might start by looking for toads in nearby window wells, since they have a knack for falling into them. You can then increase the odds of survival for toads you find in window wells by releasing them a little ways off.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Now is the time to sort out potential environmental impacts of nearby coal mine

Now is the time to sort out potential environmental impacts of nearby coal mine

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As spring gives way to summer over the weeks to come, many residents of east central Illinois will respond to the call of local rivers, and for good reason. Beyond providing wildlife habitat and supplying drinking water for many communities, rivers offer some of our best opportunities for outdoor recreation nearby.

Many people also take it as a given that our rivers enjoy all of the protections they need, with schemes for flooding Allerton Park and damming the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River now decades behind us.

If you’re among those people, the news of an underground coal mine being planned on the border of Champaign and Vermilion counties ought to give you pause.

News reports in April revealed that officials with the Village of Homer have been working with the Sunrise Coal Company on a deal to supply the mine with water for use in coal processing. The water supplied by the village would be drawn partly from its treated wastewater, partly from drinking water wells near Ogden and possibly from the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River. The same reports also indicated the company intends to discharge some of the water used for coal processing at the site into the Olive Branch, a small tributary that will convey it to the Salt Fork.

Why should this be cause for concern?

That question was the basis for a conversation I had recently with Traci Barkley, who is a water resources scientist at Prairie Rivers Network, the Champaign-based conservation organization that works to protect waterways throughout Illinois.

Barkley pointed out that coal processing is a water-intensive activity, and the amount of water projected for use at the Sunrise mine is 750,000 gallons a day. That’s three times the combined water use of the nearby communities of Allerton, Fairmount, Broadlands and Homer. 

Can the resources available support the coal mines’ water use without negative impacts elsewhere? I have yet to find a clear answer to that, but it would be useful for the public to know what information about water supply Homer officials are relying on as they negotiate an agreement.

As someone who fishes and canoes the Salt Fork, I know firsthand that very little water flows there in the drier months of the year. I find it hard to imagine that stream flow would be unimpaired by a large new withdrawal. Because I wade in the river and pull fish out of it, I’m also concerned about the pollution that would enter it with the water discharged by the mine.

That’s because Illinois coal mines often have trouble meeting standards designed to protect water quality for drinking and wildlife.

Barkley pointed out that over the past three years nearly half of the 72 coal mines with active water pollution permits in the state have been out of compliance with their permits for six months or more, and that a third of them have been out of compliance for at least a full year.

Of course water use and water pollution are only two of many environmental impacts associated with coal mining. For people whose lives and livelihoods might be affected by the Sunrise Mine, now is the time to look into what those impacts might be.

Toward that end, the public is invited to participate in an open discussion about the proposed mine next week. The forum will take place on Wednesday evening beginning at 7:00pm in the Salt Fork Center at the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

If your summer plans will take you to the river, maybe this should be your first stop.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Of admirals, migrants and native plants for sale

Of admirals, migrants and native plants for sale

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During a recent phone call with my wife, my in-laws reported that they’d been enjoying a yard full of a certain kind of butterfly—medium-sized, mostly black, with red-orange markings, as well as some white spots. Embracing their inner naturalists, they had used their butterfly book to identify them as red admirals.

My in-laws live in Cleveland, Ohio, but I bet you’ve been seeing red admirals, too. If not, pay attention the next time you step out the door because they really are everywhere right now. 

Why are we seeing so many this spring?

I asked Mike Jeffords, a scientist who recently retired from the Illinois Natural History Survey, which is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at Illinois. He said it’s no great mystery: “When you don’t have winter, weird things happen.”

In a typical spring, the population of red admirals at our latitude is composed primarily of migrants, individuals that have overwintered either as pupae or adults somewhere to the south. That’s because few red admirals survive a typical winter as far north as central Illinois.

But this spring, the population of red admirals here includes all of those migrants plus every one that stayed on through winter; we had no cold snap severe enough to kill them. As Jeffords summed it up, “Every red admiral that could be around is around.”

He went on to point out that other butterflies have also been numerous and active far earlier than usual this spring. He and his spouse, who is also an entomologist, had seen 22 species of butterflies in Illinois before April, more than double the usual number.

Prothonotary warbler
When you slow down to look at a red admiral, you might also notice how greatly bird activity has picked up in recent weeks. Indeed, we’re in the midst of the best days of the year for birding. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are regular at nectar feeders again, and people who keep seed feeders out may be treated to the sight of the boldly patterned rose-breasted grosbeak, identifiable by his black hood, white bill, red chest and white belly.

The real highlight of early May, though, is warbler migration. Most of these spectacularly colored little insect eaters are just passing through—on their way from the tropical forests of central and South America to the boreal forest of the northern tier states and Canada—and they’re not here for long.

If you’re new to warbler watching, there’s no better place to start than the Sunday morning bird walks sponsored by the Champaign County Audubon Society, which continue through the month. These walks depart from the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center at 7:30 a.m., and cover much of Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods, depending on where the birds are.

Enthusiastic GPF volunteer Bob Vaiden
provides advice at last year's plant sale 
You may already know that the most direct way to benefit butterflies, birds and other wildlife is to beautify your home landscape with native plants. Saturday offers the best opportunity of the year to obtain native plants locally at the annual sale conducted by Grand Prairie Friends. The sale takes place from 8am to 12pm at Lincoln Square in Urbana.

All plants sold are grown by volunteers, from seed collected locally, and all proceeds benefit this highly effective, all-volunteer organization, which works to preserve and restore natural communities in east central Illinois.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Students get hands-on experience with next-generation weather radar

Students get hands-on experience with next-generation weather radar

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By the time students complete Bob Rauber’s course in radar meteorology, he expects them to understand how weather radars work and how they’re used to measure precipitation and detect severe weather.

Toward those ends, they do their reading, attend class lectures and even take a virtual tour of one of the nation’s most sophisticated radar stations. But as Rauber himself says, “there’s nothing more exciting in atmospheric science than living through the weather you study, especially when you are using sophisticated, state-of-the-art instruments.”

Rauber’s students have gotten such an opportunity over the past couple of weeks, thanks to a truck-mounted Doppler radar unit that’s been visiting the U of I campus.

I was able to ride along with one group of them on the day a cold front passed through, which brought with it rain, wind and an opportunity to really use the equipment.

Our group, which included professor Rauber, myself, the driver of the radar unit, and three students, set out just after noon. The slow-moving front had already passed over campus, so we drove east on I-74 to catch up with it. After a quick road lunch in Danville, we headed north on country roads searching for a place to set up.

We were looking for a relatively unobstructed shot for the radar—a spot on high ground away from farmhouses and outbuildings—and a firm enough road shoulder to support the truck. We found one on State-Line Road.

Quarters are submarine-tight in the operations cab of the radar unit, which accommodates only three students at a time, so professor Rauber stood outside on the step-up to direct the exercise through an open door. (Even switching seats to take turns at the controls required real ingenuity on the part of the students.)

Before powering up the radar, Rauber deployed a more basic weather instrument, a finger held aloft. The air felt cold, he reported, and the wind was blowing from the north. That, the students knew, meant we were still on the back side of the front.

Then came the students’ turn.

With coaching from Rauber and the operator, they each had a turn at the keyboard of the computer, where they learned to adjust the radar scan to sweep the area encompassing the important features of precipitation in the front—the location of its leading edge, its height and the level at which falling precipitation turned from snow (which is the state of nearly all precipitation when it forms) into rain.

The students worked together remarkably well, helping one another remember how to execute certain functions with the equipment and do the calculations needed to make sense of what they were seeing on the screen in front of them.

They had answered the most important questions before 3:00 p.m., which allowed some time for exploring other facets of using radar, such as distinguishing between precipitation and ground clutter.

As we spoke on our return trip to campus, Rauber emphasized that the radar the students were working with is an upgraded type, one the National Weather Service is currently installing across the country. With it, forecasters and research scientists like the ones he is educating will be able to better understand and predict the behavior of storms, to the benefit of everyone.