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.