Thursday, May 16, 2013

Spring migration the high point of the birding year

Spring migration the high point of the birding year

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People who pay attention to the weather understand that knowing the average high temperature for May 17th doesn’t tell you what the actual high temperature tomorrow will be. In the same way, people who pay attention to the migrations of birds understand that knowing the average date of arrival for Baltimore orioles in Champaign doesn’t tell you which day they’re actually going to get here.

Much of the pleasure of birding derives from learning the general patterns of bird behavior and observing the variations on those patterns that occur over the course of time.

No birds that occur in east central Illinois are more reliable in the timing of their migration than chimney swifts. In spring, they arrive here from South America within a few days of April 15th, like clockwork, year after year after year. They then depart almost exactly six months later, in the middle of October. For now, you can see them in the sky throughout the day. Chimney swifts are recognized by their quick, acrobatic manner of flight, their stubby, dark cigar-shaped bodies and tapering, swept-back wings.

[Photos by author: common loon in Champaign; greater yellowlegs in a flooded corn field; hooded warbler from back yard.]

Other birds have completely ignored the migration schedule this spring. Two species that typically occupy east central Illinois only during the winter, pine siskins and red-breasted nuthatches, are still being observed here regularly. Will they come to their senses and head for the northern forest to breed? For now, nobody knows.

The oddest local stopover so far this spring was a common loon that recently spent five days in the retention pond in front of Menard’s in Champaign. It’s not that migrating loons are unusual in Illinois; they’re regularly seen on larger bodies of water. What was unusual was that the Menard’s loon landed on such a small pond. Loons typically stop on larger lakes because they need up to a quarter mile of water surface for a “runway” to get airborne. Fortunately, a strong headwind seems to have enabled our wayward loon to get back into the air and resume its trek north.

The flooded agricultural fields that have hampered local farmers this spring have benefited both migrating shorebirds and bird watchers. One day in late April, birders discovered thousands of pectoral sandpipers in fields southwest of town. Think of it. These are birds that winter in South America and then go all the way to the arctic to breed. And thousands of them spent a day or more feeding in Champaign County.

Other shorebirds that can be seen here and there around flooded fields range from the tiny least sandpiper to the relatively bulky greater yellowlegs.

For many birders, no aspect of spring migration compares to the waves of warblers passing through. More than thirty species of these most colorful little birds can be observed here. Ironically, the highly fragmented nature of the central Illinois landscape makes for great warbler watching. Warblers need trees to feed in, so when they stop over in our part of the world they are concentrated in urban areas and the isolated woodlands that remain here.

Many warblers feed on insects in the crowns of mature trees and flit from branch to branch quickly, so it’s best to start warbler watching with an experienced guide. One way you could do this is to take advantage of the two remaining Sunday morning bird walks led by members of the Champaign County Audubon Society. These walks—one this Sunday and one next—start at 7:30 a.m., departing from the Anita Purves Nature Center at 1505 North Broadway in Urbana.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Urbana beekeeper promotes healthy hives through sustainable, humane practices

Urbana beekeeper promotes healthy hives through sustainable, humane practices

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Even people who don’t take a special interest in insects have probably heard something about the troubles afflicting honeybees in recent years. And many people are aware of the name that has been adopted to describe the rise of an especially alarming phenomenon that was recognized in 2006, “colony collapse disorder,” or CCD. In hives stricken by CCD, the worker bees simply all go missing, and they’re presumed dead.

The press has tended to treat CCD as a crime story, and has wrongly pointed the finger at one “smoking gun” after another as the cause of it, for reasons about which I won’t speculate here.

The scientific community, meanwhile, has been moving toward a consensus that attributes CCD to the interaction of a variety of factors: agricultural pesticides, poor feeding practices, parasites and lack genetic diversity chief among them.

From an ecological perspective, points out Maggie Wachter of Urbana, it might be more of a mystery if the bees kept according to an industrial model to support large-scale agriculture were doing well.

Wachter is proprietor of Second Nature Honey, which sells products at farmer’s markets and through Strawberry Fields Grocery and Common Ground Food Coop. She is also accredited by the University of Florida as a Master Beekeeper and an accredited honey judge.

She began keeping bees in 2009 with just a single hive, but she has steadily added to her operation since then and now maintains 45 of them. Wachter seeks to redress the problems that beset beekeeping on an industrial scale by treating her bees in a humane fashion.

What, you might ask, is humane treatment for bees?

Allowing them to live at a fixed location, for starters. “Trees don’t have wheels,” Wachter likes to say, “and bees evolved to live in trees.” Bees experience an enormous amount of stress when they are loaded onto a truck and driven from place to place. On top of that, bringing bees together from far-flung places promotes the transmission of diseases from one hive to another. Wachter’s hives are set up at locations scattered around her Urbana home base, which allows her to travel to them.

[Photos. Maggie Wachter, left, with Michael Douglass and Terry Harrison checking on the health of a hive in her back yard, by George Sinclair. Below, a honeybee foraging for pollen on Jacob's ladder in a planting of native woodland wildflowers on the U of I campus, by author.]

In addition to keeping her hives at fixed locations, Wachter also seeks to keep her colonies strong by feeding her bees a high quality diet. This means leaving them more of the honey they make for their own use in the winter—and having less to sell—but from her perspective the investment in a healthier colony is worthwhile.

When problems such as parasites come along, and that’s an inevitable part of beekeeping, Wachter employs a system of integrated pest management rather than turning immediately to chemical fixes. She has found, for example, that she can control varroa mites by sacrificing a select number of the bees that the mites use in their own reproduction.

Although Wachter takes great pleasure in the hands-on aspect of beekeeping, she is also interested in the work of promoting small-scale beekeeping as a way for people to reconnect with the environment and the sources of their own food.

One thing that Wachter suggests everyone can do to benefit honeybees and other pollinators is to put more flowers in their landscaping, with a preference for native plants.

I'll conclude today by adding it’s a perfect time to do that, since the local conservation group Grand Prairie Friends is conducting its annual native plant sale on Saturday. The sale takes place at Lincoln Square in Urbana, and runs from 8am to 1pm. Further details are available through the Grand Prairie Friends Website at

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Sale of water proposed could have far-reaching environmental impacts

Sale of water proposed could have far-reaching environmental impacts

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In the past couple of years I have twice called attention to how wastewater treated by the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District (UCSD) supports aquatic ecosystems and other wildlife in the streams where it is discharged.

Here is how I characterized the Copper Slough downstream of the UCSD’s southwest treatment plant in summer of 2010: “Great blue herons and mallards are regulars there, as is a pair of belted kingfishers, which nest in the bank nearby and noisily patrol the stream corridor. In the pool below the bridge live masses of some fish that tolerate fairly degraded waters, especially common carp and suckers. But there are fish with higher standards there, too, among them some decent sized largemouth bass, as well as an occasional snapping turtle.”

And just last Fall I wrote this about the Saline Branch: “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. Witness 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.”

On top of that, as I also pointed out, the Saline Branch downstream of the Northeast Plant hosts at least 45 different species of fish, which is up from only 30 species in the late 1980s.

[Photos by author: the belted kingfisher that feeds on fish from the Copper Slough and nests in the bank downstream of the UCSD's southwest treatment plant, and a largemouth bass.]

My purpose when I wrote those descriptions was to celebrate the progress we have made as a community through the efforts of the UCSD. There was a time when the discharge from our wastewater treatment plants did more harm than good for streams, but the case is now reversed.

Indeed, a reliable flow of treated wastewater is essential for the survival of many of our headwater streams. That’s because our urban and agricultural drainage systems move water off of the land so quickly in spring and early summer there is little or nothing left for streams in dry periods.

I bring this up now because trustees of the Sanitary District are currently considering a move to divert part of the water discharged from the plants in Champaign and Urbana for sale to the fertilizer plant proposed for Tuscola. (A pipeline would be used to convey water there directly from the UCSD’s southwest plant.)

Also in the offing is an arrangement through which the Sanitary District would be paid by the operators of the coal mine proposed in nearby Vermilion County for guaranteeing a certain amount of discharge into the Salt Fork River system. (That water would then be available for withdrawal and use at the mine.)

The chief proponent of the sale is Rick Manner, executive director for UCSD. He is sensitive to the importance of discharge from the plants for the ecosystems that depend on it, and when we spoke this week he assured me any contract to sell the water would guarantee a certain amount to the creek, regardless of the wants of a buyer. He also emphasized that some portion of funds generated by water sales would be dedicated for local, in-stream habitat improvement projects.

Others, including people affiliated with Prairie Rivers Network, have raised important questions about the environmental impacts of the sale since it came to light. One of these is whether it makes sense to base thinking about a sale on bare minimum flows needed to maintain ecosystems, rather than adopting a more conservative approach.

Conservationists have also asked that the Sanitary District consider the broader environmental implications of any sale as well. They see a potential conflict between conservation of the Mahomet Aquifer, which we’re already depleting, and the demands of industrial users.

Which way forward? You can learn more about this important issue and make your voice heard on it at a public meeting being convened by the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District on Wednesday evening. The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. in Station W at 1100 E. University Avenue, Urbana.

See more at these Websites:

Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District --

Prairie Rivers Network --