Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why not make wildlife a topic of conversation?

Why not make wildlife a topic of conversation?

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‘Tis the season to find yourself standing awkwardly among people you may not see often, balancing food and drink in your hands, maintaining a smile and racking your brain for agreeable things to talk about.

I learned from my spouse, who’s an artist when it comes to making conversation, that what you really want in such a situation is not a good story to tell, but a good question to ask.

And that’s my gift, such as it is, to you, dear reader: questions to prompt conversation at a holiday party.

My favorite question for drawing people out is, “What kind of wildlife did you see this year?” Replies to this question can take a conversation all kinds of places if the folks you’re with have done any traveling. That’s because even people who pay no special attention to the natural world at home often take note of the more exotic animals they see when they’re away. And people who travel especially for the purpose of experiencing nature in far-flung places are typically even more gung ho to tell you what they saw.

(Did I tell you about my family’s camping trip in the Rockies this summer? Which animals do you want to hear about? We saw a pair of moose, a group bighorn rams, elk, mule deer and a whole bunch of different smaller mammals, from chipmunks in our campsite to pikas (photo by author), which live only above tree line.)

You may also try to get people going on wildlife they’ve seen locally by asking about the birds they’ve had at their feeders. Sometimes when people have spotted an interesting bird but haven’t been able to identify it on their own, they can provide enough clues for a group to figure out what it was.

Of course, people also enjoy kvetching about squirrels and other animals that cause trouble. UI Extension maintains a very nice Website called “Living with Wildlife in Illinois” that’s full of tips for dealing with such critters. But it can be more entertaining to hear people describe the anti-varmint strategies they come up with on their own.

What do you do when the squirrels defeat your squirrel-proof bird feeder?

Talking about animals can also enable you to find out what’s unusual in the neighborhood. My next-door neighbor recently told me about seeing a red fox on our block one morning. I knew foxes lived on the golf course at the Champaign Country Club, but we live near Central High School. So how cool is that? At this time of year it’s not unusual for people to see deer and coyotes around the outskirts of town, too.

You can further expand the terrain for a conversation about wildlife by asking people about memorable encounters they had with animals when they were growing up. (I remember very little from the year I turned ten, but am happy to tell about the day that summer my brother and I found a bobcat in the woods near our home in suburban Cincinnati.) Hunters and anglers tend to head down this path with great enthusiasm, so it might be worthwhile contemplating in advance how to bring this conversation back to terms suited to a mixed group.

If you’ve got a wildlife story or photo to share, or you would like to keep up with the ones I come across, you’re welcome to join me at the newly launched Environmental Almanac page on facebook at Among other things, you can see photos of all the animals we saw in the Rockies this year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Late November brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana

Late November brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana

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The calls of sandhill cranes carry on the wind by some magic. Whether they are flying, and your view of them is obscured by a tree line, or they’re feeding in a harvested cornfield, where their rust-stained gray feathers make them difficult to pick out, you typically hear cranes before you see them.

And hearing sandhill cranes is a great pleasure. They talk quietly among themselves in family units, which include mother, father and one or two young of the year, which are called “colts.” (Colts stand as tall as their parents by Fall, but their plain gray “caps” are distinct from the bright red ones on adults.)

What’s more dramatic, though, is the way cranes call to one another as they collect in larger groups, either in flight or on the ground. To me these calls resonate in a mix that brings together something of pigeons cooing, something of geese honking and something less birdy, too—a stick rattled along serrated ridges on a wood block.

You may know by one means or another that sandhill cranes gather by the hundreds of thousands along the Platte River in western Nebraska during their migration north in the Spring. But did you know there’s scaled down version of that spectacle in western Indiana each Fall, one that’s much more accessible to us? It takes place at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, which is just 60 miles north of Lafayette.

Sandhill cranes that breed in the upper Midwest and central Canada begin gathering at Jasper-Pulaski near the end of September, and their numbers grow until mid- to late November, when they peak at about 20,000. Imagine that—20,000 of these majestic birds together in the same place less than
half a day’s drive from where you are now.

During their stopover in Indiana, the cranes keep a very regular schedule. At night, they roost in marshes at the reserve, where they’re
safe from predators such as coyotes. In the morning, for about a half hour either side of sunrise, they come together to socialize in Goose Pasture, a vast field that’s overlooked by an observation platform.

The cranes then head out into nearby agricultural fields where they spend the day feeding. There they take advantage of corn that was lost in the harvest, as well as a wide range of other foods—everything from plant materials to worms, insects, mice and snakes.

Your best bet for seeing cranes up close is to cruise the gravel roads south of Jasper-Pulaski (carefully, of course, with respect for the people who live there) and pull over quietly to watch them feed.

The real crane spectacle at Jasper-Pulaski takes place in the hour around sunset, as they congregate again at Goose Pasture before heading back to the marshes for the night. At that time flocks pour in from every direction, and the calls of birds already on the ground blend with the calls of birds in the air to create music like none you’ll hear elsewhere.

This gathering also affords great opportunities to see the cranes “dance”; they bow, they jump into the air, they flap their enormous wings and generally wind each other up, then settle down again, sometimes in a wave of activity that ripples across the field.

If you go to see the sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski you’ll definitely want to have binoculars, and if you have access to a spotting scope bring it along, too. And take extra warm clothes. You wouldn’t to be driven from the observation platform by cold before the twilight show is over.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

PowerShift conference an eye-opener for student environmental leaders from U of I

PowerShift conference an eye-opener for student environmental leaders from U of I

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Most people who sympathize with the individuals and communities harmed by coal mining and natural gas extraction do so on the basis of media accounts or documentary films.

That was previously the case for Leah Wurster, a U of I undergraduate in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, who is also an organizer for the Student Sierra Coalition, and an active member of Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS).

That changed in October, when Wurster and a group of forty other UI students attended a conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called “PowerShift.” It was, in the terms of organizers, a gathering of more than 10,000 youth leaders from around the country with the ambitious goal of building a movement to “fight fracking, divest from fossil fuels, build a clean energy future, and stop the climate crisis.”

I met with Wurster recently over lunch at the Red Herring to talk about the experience. We were joined by two other students who are active in environmental efforts on campus and who also attended the conference, Peter Whitney and Tyler Rotche.

When I asked the three to describe the aspect of the weekend that had had the greatest impact on them, they quickly agreed: Hearing directly from people in front-line communities. Wurster added, “You never know what’s been clipped when you see people in a documentary; it’s a different experience to actually hear them speak and be able to ask them questions.”

As an example, the students told about a man only a few years older than they are named Junior Walk, who lives in the coal country of southern West Virginia. In fact, Walk explained, he lives in the shadow of a massive earthen impoundment of coal slurry, the mixture of water and toxic byproducts created by washing coal. Should that impoundment fail, Walk and his neighbors will pay the price, in property and lives.

The students were moved by the stories Walk told of how locals suffer where mountains are torn down to extract coal. Their water is fouled and undrinkable, the air they breathe is filled with dust from coal processing, and they are subject to a long list of illnesses caused by constant exposure to the coal pollution.

The students also responded strongly to stories they heard from Kandi Mossett of North Dakota, who was there to represent the Indigenous Environmental Network. Mossett called attention to the devastating impacts of the current fracking boom on indigenous communities of the northern Great Plains, which include everything from racist graffiti and intimidation by workers, to dangerous truck traffic, assault and murder. She also showed photos of many environmental hazards and violations associated with gas operations.

The Illinois students said they were especially unsettled by what they heard from Mossett because their predecessors in SECS pressured the UI to replace coal with natural gas as a source of fuel at the Abbot Power Plant on campus. That switch, they know, makes perfect sense as a measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But at the same time, they now understand in a very direct way, it deepens the university’s ties to an energy source with its own set of intractable problems.

When we spoke, Wurster, Whitney and Rotche could not yet say how their new understanding would translate to policy or action for SECS. But it’s certainly gratifying to see young leaders willing to face such difficult questions head-on.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Good news (kinda), bad news (very) from UI researchers about diseases in wild mammals

Good news (kinda), bad news (very) from UI researchers about diseases in wild mammals

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Bad news first. Research by Daniel Raudabaugh, a graduate student in the UI Department of Plant Biology, has confirmed disturbing facts about the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats that hibernate in caves and mines.

Working under the direction of Andrew Miller, a mycologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of the UI Prairie Research Institute, Raudabaugh conducted experiments to test what kinds of nutrients the fungus could make use of and what kinds of environmental conditions it could tolerate. Other scientists had already observed that the fungus persisted in caves even after bat populations had succumbed to it and there were none of them left for it to live on.

Raudabaugh’s findings help explain why.

Unfortunately, it’s because Pseudogymnoascus destructans is quite flexible. Says Raudabaugh, “It can basically live on any complex carbon source, which encompasses insects, undigested insect parts in guano, wood, dead fungi and cave fish. We looked at all the different nitrogen sources and found that basically it can grow on all of them. It can grow over a very wide range of pH; it doesn’t have any trouble in any pH unless it’s extremely acidic.”

[Images: above, a northern myotis bat in Monroe County, Illinois, shows the patches of fungus distinctive of white-nose syndrome, by Steve Taylor / UI Prairie Research Institute; USGS map showing current extent of WNS.]

Miller is direct about the upshot of this research. “This means whether the bats are there or not, it’s going to be in caves for a very long time.”

I’d say white-nose syndrome has been a seven-year-long, rolling disaster for North American bats, but that’s an understatement. I simply don’t know the right words to characterize it.

Prior to 2006, P. destructans occurred in Europe, but did nothing to call attention to itself. That year it arrived in New York State, probably on the clothes or equipment of an unsuspecting caver. Since then, white-nose syndrome (the name given to the affliction

caused by the fungus in bats) has spread to at least 24 more states—including Illinois—and five Canadian provinces, and it is estimated to have killed more than 5.7 million bats. It’s not unusual for white-nose syndrome to kill every individual bat at an affected site.

The news is somewhat less depressing on the topic of another wildlife scourge, chronic wasting disease (CWD), an equivalent of mad cow disease that affects deer, moose and elk, and has been spreading from west to east across the U.S. over the past three decades.

A group of researchers including Jan Novakofski, a UI professor of animal sciences, and Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, a wildlife epidemiologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, has confirmed that the strategy implemented by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to keep CWD in check since 2002 is working.

That strategy, employed in the eight northern Illinois counties where CWD is known to occur, combines liberalized hunting regulations (i.e., high quotas, reduced-price permits, extra hunting days) with significant culling of affected herds by sharpshooters.

“We know a lot about how far deer typically move,” said Novakofski. “If they’re sick, they’re going to spread the disease that far. So if you find a deer that’s sick, you draw that small circle and you shoot there.”

As a result of these practices, the prevalence of CWD in deer that were tested for it remained constant at about 1 percent from 2002 to 2012. For comparison, Wisconsin wildlife managers reduced their use of culling, and the prevalence of CWD among deer tested there has risen to about 5 percent since 2007.

Like mad cow disease, CWD is fatal in every animal that contracts it. Thankfully, that group has included neither humans nor agricultural animals to date.

A great big thank you this week to Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor at the UI news bureau. Her excellent work on stories like these makes my job easy.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Changing seasons, new outdoor pursuits

Changing seasons, new outdoor pursuits

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Just two weeks ago, I found a good-sized garter snake basking on a low rock wall behind Engineering Hall on the University of Illinois campus. It was taking advantage of the sun and seventy-one degree air temperature. I didn’t know it at the time, but now am reasonably certain it was the last wild snake I’ll see in 2013. That’s because garter snakes, like most other reptiles and amphibians, deal with the advent of cold weather by getting below the frost line and remaining inactive until spring.

Recent weeks have seen a number of other turning points in the cycle of seasonal animal activity.

Chimney swifts, the small, dark gray “flying cigars” that enliven our skies for six months out of the year are gone, with the last local sighting confirmed on the Birdnotes listserv on October 13. Chimney swifts winter in South America and return north in mid April, just as we’re filing income tax returns. (Do you think people in Columbia or Peru consider chimney swifts “their” birds and say, “They summer in North America”?)

[Photos by author: garter snake basking on rock wall on October 14; yellow-rumped warbler gleaning minute pirate bugs from a hackberry tree in my yard.]

Of course in the world of birds and birders fall is not just a time of departures but one of arrivals as well. Yellow-rumped warblers, which summer in Canada and northern tier states, have descended on east central Illinois in force. A person who is attuned to it their characteristic “chip” can hear it throughout the day all over town. A couple of weeks ago more than a hundred yellow-rumped warblers spent the afternoon feasting on the minute pirate bugs that swarmed around the hackberry trees in my back yard. Some swooped out from branches to catch the pirate bugs in the air (a feeding behavior known as “hawking”), while others picked them from the tree bark (known as “gleaning”).

Many different types of sparrows have also moved down from the north for the winter. Dark-eyed juncos, sporty gray birds with a distinctive white bill have arrived, so keep an eye out for them at feeders. So have white-throated sparrows, which you may hear singing now and again even in the fall, although they typically do only a half-hearted, shortened rendition of their Spring song.

For much of my life, these transitional weeks represented an end of consistent outdoor activity until the return of warmer weather, but that has changed with my adoption of new outdoor pursuits.

A few years back I bought myself a good digital camera and telephoto zoom lens, which enable me to do bird photography. I find photographing birds much more engaging than simply finding and identifying them. It’s extremely gratifying to return from outings with photos and be able to share them with other people via social media. And because birds are active throughout the year there’s really no off-season for bird photography.

Along similar lines—at least from my perspective—I’ve also begun hunting, mostly for deer. Because of that, I now anticipate fall and winter just as eagerly as I do spring and summer, maybe more. I realize some people don’t think of hunting as a pursuit that’s compatible with concern for the environment, but I do. I’ll come back to the topic in a future commentary to explain why.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Local clay worth more than gold?

Local clay worth more than gold?

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Although my interests generally favor living things, a few geological treasures occupy my desk at work: half a geode, dull on the outside but sparkling within; a thumb-sized chip of granite from the “elephant rock,” a giant boulder left by a glacier in southern Illinois; and a rounded, flat stone I’ve had so long I don’t remember where it came from—the shore of Lake Superior, where my wife and I stopped on our honeymoon?

To this collection I recently added a small bag of clay fragments, which I acquired on a field trip held in conjunction with the 50th annual meeting of the Clay Minerals Society on the University of Illinois campus.

Is it worth more than gold?

That’s what another participant on the trip was overheard to say as he received his sample bag.

The clay fragments aren’t much to look at. They were moist when we collected them and very dark gray, but in the process of drying they’ve lightened to the color of an elephant, and they crumble to a fine powder when they’re ground together.

I would like to be able to tell you more about the clay based on simple observation, but I can’t. That’s not a dismissal of my powers of discernment, but a fact of life for people who study clay.

[Photos by author: (above) U of I geology major Evan Gragg collects samples from the Fithian illite for field trip participants; (below) Steve Altaner (white t-shirt), directs field trip participants as they take turns examining the Fithian illite.]

Geologists can distinguish among other minerals by looking at them. Quartz looks like quartz, and mica looks like mica, even without any kind of magnifying lens. But clay grains are too tiny to be classified that way.

Geologists gained the ability to distinguish among different types of clay only in the early decades of the twentieth century, when they developed a process for analyzing it using x-ray diffraction. This process enables them to observe distances between planes of atoms in crystal structures. Since the set of these distances is unique in each mineral, taken together they can be thought of as a fingerprint.
And that brings us to the value of the clay fragments on my desk. They are composed of illite, which is one of three (or four, depending on who is counting) recognized groups of clay minerals, and one with a special local connection—as you may have gathered from the name. Illite was first described by Ralph Grim, who was a faculty member in the UI Department of Geology from 1948 to 1967, and who is widely recognized as the “founding father” of the scientific discipline of clay mineralogy.

My illite holds extraordinary value for a clay specialist because it was collected from the Fithian illite, a deposit on the south bank of the Salt Fork River in Vermilion County that our field trip visited. The Fithian illite is what geologists call a “type locality,” which is to say it’s the very place Grim and his collaborators collected the samples they used to analyze and describe it.

The intrinsic value of illite is much more modest. As Steve Altaner, a UI professor of geology and organizer of the field trip said to me when we spoke, it’s really the “average Joe” of clays—useful for making bricks, perhaps, but not very sexy from a broad perspective. Illite, he explained, lacks the moldable quality of kaolinite, a type of clay most people come into contact with regularly—it’s the main component of porcelain. And it lacks the super absorbing power of smectite, or “swelling clay.” Smectite’s power to absorb and swell can be useful, as in cat litter, or destructive, as when it deforms and breaks concrete structures that are anchored in it.

Altaner went on to point out that illite does matter to geologists, in part because it is the second most abundant mineral in sedimentary rock after quartz. In addition, it plays a key role in a process used they use to gauge the timing of events that happened long ago (which for them means millions or even billions of years), events such as the formation of mountains or movements along geological faults. But hat may be a story for another day.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Rain Garden Ramble" organized by Prairie Rivers Network combines recreation, education

"Rain Garden Ramble" organized by Prairie Rivers Network combines recreation, education

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The weather on the afternoon of Saturday, September 21st was perfect for a bike ride—blue skies, a light breeze, and temperatures in the low 70s. Still, I wondered how many people would turn out for an event billed as a “Rain Garden Ramble,” in which participants would pedal from the Prairie Rivers Network office in Champaign to four sites around town. I need not have been concerned.

By the time we set out our group included nearly thirty people. Among them were two small children, conveyed by their father, some active retirees, students from the U of I, people who already had rain gardens of their own, and people who were new to the concept but wanted to learn more.

[Photos by author: above, Stacy James stands on a rock to explain the creation of her neighbors rain garden; middle, participants en route to next site; below, at the Eppichs.]

Our first stop was the least garden-like site on the tour. In a heavily shaded place at the back of his yard where water from his own home and the homes of two neighbors once ponded, Bob Hudson pointed us to a bed of rocks. Below that, he explained, vertical shafts had been dug to detain water until it could soak into the surrounding soil.

Next on the tour was the home of Stacy James a water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers, and the leader of the rain garden ramble. In order to reduce water seeping into her basement, James explained, she extended a downspout away from the the house and created a shallow depression where water can pool before soaking into the ground. This small rain garden is planted with sedges, grass-like plants that grow in attractive clumps and tolerate occasional flooding.

Before moving on, we also crossed the street to look at a rain garden James helped her neighbor create in the right of way, which features a variety of flowering plants native to our area. I found it especially striking to see how much life was associated with the these flowers—in the form of bees, butterflies, and other insects—compared to the adjoining lawn.

Stop number three on our tour was South Willis near John Street in Champaign, where the city finished installing very large rain gardens between the street and sidewalk last year. At this site, Leslie Mitchell, who is an engineering technician with City, explained the idea is actually to move some water off the street and into the rain gardens by means of openings in the curb.

While we were at this site Mitchell took time to outline the incentives Champaign is currently offering that encourage residents to adopt measures to alleviate flooding. [Click here for details on the City's Website.]  These include cash reimbursements for the purchase of rain barrels, and larger payments to help cover costs associated with putting in rain gardens.

The last stop on the Rain Garden Ramble was the home of Doug and Mary Eppich, just “upstream” of Hessel Park. Their rain garden, which they installed themselves ten years ago, occupies a 400 square foot area that was formerly lawn. It’s a foot below the surrounding grade at its deepest point, but you don’t see that from the street. What you do see is an artfully designed garden that’s bursting with native flowers.

The Eppichs rain garden was designed to accommodate all of the water that would come off the roof of their entire house in a 100-year storm. When such an event occurred in 2005, Doug Eppich happily reported to me, the rain garden performed just as intended.

If you’re considering a rain garden of your own start with a visit to the rain garden pages at Website of Prairie Rivers Network.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Efficiency, solar power enable family to achieve “zero net energy” in 1929 home

Efficiency, solar power enable family to achieve “zero net energy” in 1929 home

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Last November, Champaign resident Scott Willenbrock learned through Environmental Almanac the story of another local man and U of I faculty colleague, Phil Krein, who was installing solar panels on the roof of his garage.

For Willenbrock, a professor of physics, the timing of that segment was perfect. That’s because he was in the midst of a project to make his own family’s two-story colonial home, a conventional structure built in 1929, “zero-net-energy.” In other words, they would generate on-site as much or more energy than they would use over the course of a year.
“It’s one thing to build zero-net-energy from the ground up,” Willenbrock said to me, citing a number of local examples. In that case, he pointed out, you can take advantage of a whole range of opportunities to insulate and weather seal, and maximize the benefits of direct sunlight. The question he wanted to answer was what people who live in older houses can do?”

Willenbrock’s question was motivated by the conviction that individuals have an ethical duty to join the battle to limit global warming. And he hopes his approach to answering that question will provide a rational model for others to follow.

The most economical way to reduce fossil fuel consumption in homes is to reduce demand for heating and cooling. So Willenbrock began his zero-net-energy quest by hiring a contractor certified with Ameren’s Act-on-Energy program to evaluate the insulation and weather sealing of his home.

That evaluation turned up numerous opportunities for improvement, and Willenbrock took full advantage of all of them. According to his calculations, weatherization alone resulted in energy savings of roughly 30 percent.

Willenbrock’s zero-net-energy quest also coincided with the need to replace an aging furnace and air conditioner. He and his spouse considered the options together and decided on a geothermal system, which is by far the most efficient way to heat and cool with electricity.

The last step in this zero-net-energy quest was to add some renewably generated electricity. And that brings us back to solar panels. Previously, Willenbrock had gotten quotes from a couple of professional solar installers that discouraged him from making the investment. Reading about Phil Krein’s DIY project, however, prompted him to investigate ordering panels online and installing them himself.

He began where Krein had, on the roof of his garage. He designed a configuration to make the best use of the space available, and then worked by phone with the same Arkansas-based vendor Krein had used, to order panels. After they arrived, he installed them with help from a handyman who had done other work at the house, and hired an electrician tie them into the grid.

Willenbrock then decided to go a step further and cover the south-facing roof on his house with solar panels. Since he did not want to work on a second-floor roof, he hired a local building contractor, New Prairie Construction, to do that installation, again using panels he had ordered himself. Even with the added cost for labor, he still spent about 40% less than the quotes he had gotten to start.

I mention above that Willenbrock was motivated to pursue this project by a sense of personal responsibility for limiting global warming, and I suspect many listeners share that conviction. I do, too. The Act-on-Energy contractor is working at my house this week.


Scott Willenbrock has created a Web site that provides the full details of his home project, which you can see at:

Better still, you can visit it on Saturday, October 5, as part of the National Solar Tour day sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society. It’s at 1017 West White Street in Champaign, and it will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

A number of other locations in east central Illinois are part of the tour, including the Brickhouses Road development in rural north Urbana—new homes that are all zero net energy—and the Geil home in Mahomet, as well as two the houses built by UI students for competition in the U.S Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.

You can see details about the tour on the Web at: