Friday, December 11, 2015

Deer management program yields multiple benefits at Allerton

Deer management program yields multiple benefits at Allerton

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As someone who values the U of I’s Allerton Park and Retreat Center—especially for the natural areas—I’m happy to report this week on an ongoing effort that has really paid off there, the deer management program begun in 2004. “Deer management” here refers primarily to reducing the number of deer inhabiting the natural areas through carefully regulated hunting. That’s an archery season that runs from the beginning of October through the end of January, with hunters in the remote wooded areas of the park.

Prior to the start of the program, deer had grown hyper abundant in and around Allerton. A 2004 aerial survey counted a record high of 730 individuals, which is about four times the number such an area can support without significant damage to native ecosystems.

When deer occupy a natural area so densely, they degrade it by by consuming all of the plant life in reach. They seem to be especially fond of native woodland flowers and the seedlings of native trees. Unfortunately, they do not have much taste for invasive species like multiflora rose and Asian bush honeysuckle.

The management program brought the deer population down very effectively, thanks in large part to a policy requiring hunters to take a doe before going after antlered deer. Surveys in recent years show a deer population that ranges from about 100 to 150, which is comparable to benchmarks from the early 1980s.

The ecological benefits of the deer reduction program are the subject of continuing study, which means they haven’t all been quantified yet. Some things are clear, though. As the number of individual deer has declined, the health of the herd has improved, as measured by the reproductive rate. Native woodland flowers—such as snow trillium, shooting star, and bloodroot—are more common again, giving visitors a reason to get out and walk the trails in April. Even the native honeysuckle species, which had become difficult to find, are thriving and expanding.

The positive impacts of reducing the deer population at Allerton extend beyond the natural areas of the park, too. Fewer deer there means fewer deer-vehicle accidents on the surrounding roads; the average number per year has declined by more than half over the past decade. Deer damage to crops in the surrounding agricultural fields is also down significantly.

 All of this is great news according to Nate Beccue, who oversees the deer reduction program in his role as natural areas manager at Allerton. But he is equally eager to call attention to the other way it benefits the park, which is through the investment it requires of hunters. In order to obtain one of the 65 permits issued there, hunters are required to pass a proficiency test first, and then to volunteer 30 hours of work a year.

If you’ve used the boardwalk that takes people out over the spring that feeds the mansion pond, you’ve enjoyed the work of the hunter volunteer who built it. If you’ve admired the fresh paint on the music barn—or just about any other building—at Allerton, you’ve seen the work of hunter volunteers. Hunter volunteers also help to fill the ranks of those directing traffic at music events, setting up and taking down chairs for weddings, and doing the never-ending job of invasive plant removal.

Since the program began, Beccue reports, hunters have contributed an amazing 18,000 volunteer hours. He says, “They’re here first in the morning and last in the evening, almost like a third shift for us. With all we have to protect it’s a great comfort knowing they’re out there.”


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Celebrating the return of wild turkeys to Illinois

Celebrating the return of wild turkeys to Illinois

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With all of the Thanksgiving press devoted to domesticated turkeys—how many we’re going to eat this week, how best to cook them, etcetera—you probably weren’t aware of this fact, but we’re living in the age of the wild turkey. That’s according to Patrick Hubert, who was formerly a wildlife ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, and who I spoke with on this topic some years back. In his words, “It is a good time to be alive if you are a turkey, turkey hunter, or turkey biologist in Illinois.”

This has not always been the case.

Wild turkeys were abundant in the state prior to European settlement, but their numbers declined steadily during the 1800s due to over-hunting and the destruction of forests, which are a necessary component of turkey habitat. The state legislature closed turkey hunting in 1903, in an effort to preserve remaining populations. But that measure proved to be too little too late, and by 1910 wild turkeys had been eliminated from Illinois altogether.

[Photos by author of wild turkeys at Kickapoo State Park IL.]

Some turkey habitat was regained as marginal farms in the southern and western parts of the state were abandoned and returned to forest during the first half of the twentieth century. This fact gave hope to state efforts at turkey reintroduction, which began in 1959. The birds involved in this program were obtained from other states where turkey populations had already rebounded in exchange for animals that were doing well here—Canada geese, largemouth bass, and bobwhite quail. From the 1970s through the year 2003, Illinois moved turkeys around within the state from areas where they were thriving to suitable habitat where they had not yet moved in.

Illinois now boasts wild turkeys in just about every habitat that will support them, and recent estimates put the state population at around a hundred thousand. Harvests by hunters vary from one year to the next but they’ve been strong for more than a decade; this year’s spring take statewide was just under fifteen thousand birds.

Whether you hunt them or appreciate them from a distance, wild turkeys are fascinating birds. For one thing, they’re big. Adult males, or gobblers, measure about four feet from bill tip to tail tip and weigh from seventeen to twenty-one pounds on average. Hens are smaller, measuring closer to three feet long and generally weighing from eight to eleven pounds, but they are still large birds. Despite their size, wild turkeys can also be very fast when they need to be. They can do twenty-five miles per hour running, and they can fly at speeds of up to fifty-miles an hour in short bursts to escape from predators.

While most of us weren’t noticing their comeback, grain farmers were developing the suspicion that wild turkeys were damaging crops. A 2004 study by researchers in Indiana exonerated them on that charge, though.

Turkeys had been tagged as suspects because they show up during daylight hours in corn and soybean fields where crop damage has occurred at night. The real culprits turn out to be deer and raccoons, whose nocturnal activity accounted for ninety-five percent of the damage in the fields studied. The suspect turkeys, it turns out, were dining on waste grain and insects.

Would the wild turkey have made a better national symbol than the bald eagle? Most people know that Benjamin Franklin thought so. I’ve never been able to see that myself, but I take great pleasure in knowing that they’re back to stay in Illinois.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

People wonder, what do crows think?

People wonder, what do crows think?

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At about this point in the fall a few years back, I noticed a curious phenomenon as I drove along Florida Avenue on the U of I campus. Dozens of crows—a “murder” if you will—were returning day after day to a row of majestic trees, for what looked to me like a great big crow party.

This wasn’t a roost, where crows gather at night for safety in numbers (and create misery for the unfortunate humans who live below.) It was a raucous, daytime affair, with lots of loud calling and hopping and flapping from branch to branch. [Photos by author: Row of pecan trees stretching south from Florida Avenue toward the round barn on St. Mary's Road; crow with pecan.]

What was the attraction of those trees? I stopped one morning to investigate. On the ground below the crow party were scattered the husks and shells of pecans, a nut I didn’t even know grew in Illinois.

So that little mystery was solved, and now I watch each November for the crows to congregate and feast on the pecans as they mature. (As a bonus, I now also know of a place where I can pick up one of my favorite foods from the ground.)

As I had spent time figuring out what crows were up to, I had inadvertently joined what turns out to be a very large and cosmopolitan group—people who are curious about crows.

If you’ve seen the episode of the PBS series, “Nature,” called “A Murder of Crows,” you know that scientific research on crows is illuminating new aspects of their intelligence and sociability on an ongoing basis.

For example, one group featured in the show, from the University of Washington at Seattle, designed a study to ascertain whether adult crows pass along specific knowledge about the world to their offspring.

The scientists knew from earlier work that crows recognize and remember masks worn by researchers who catch them, and that the crows’ dislike for people wearing those masks is communicated among adult birds. The question was whether such knowledge would be passed on from one generation to the next.

It was. A young crow that had learned from its parents to associate a particular mask with danger picked out a person wearing the same mask months later, in an entirely different setting, and gave the same alarm call.

Another area of research featured in “A Murder of Crows” is tool use among crows of New Caledonia, which appear to be the smartest of crows worldwide.

In the experiment, a New Caledonian crow is presented with a piece of food in a narrow box, which it can obtain only by reaching in with a long stick. But the long stick is inside a cage. To retrieve it, the crow has to reach in with a smaller stick, which is suspended from a nearby branch on a piece of string. In essence, it has to think up a three-step plan to achieve its goal.

You can almost hear the wheels turn as you watch the crow contemplate its options and then spring into action.

New Caledonian crows are also famous for the fact that they modify the tools available to them. In an earlier experiment, which you can view online, a New Caledonian crow named Betty crafts a hook from a straight piece of wire in order to pull food from an upright cylinder.

I don’t know whether the American crows we see in Illinois are as smart as all that. But having a better sense of what’s going on in their heads sure makes me want to watch them more closely in the future.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tanglefoot Ranch thrives through diversified agriculture

Tanglefoot Ranch thrives through diversified agriculture
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One day in spring of 2011, Grover Webb was out discussing a new project on his farm with Jeff Kindhart, a U of I research specialist based at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. As Kindhart’s gaze came to rest on a gently sloping pasture nearby he said, “Grover, that’s the best peach orchard site I’ve ever seen in southern Illinois.”

The following spring, Webb planted 300 peach trees there, using a mix of five varieties. Some of these ripen faster than others, so harvest and marketing stretch out longer than they would with a single variety. That’s good for consumers, because it allows them to buy local peaches over time, and good for the farmer, since picking can be done by a small crew of people on hand rather than a large crew brought in all at once.

Webb’s peach orchard is part of a larger operation, Tanglefoot Ranch, a highly diversified farm that he and his wife, Shirley, run in partnership with his brother, Richard, on 950 acres in Pope County. The orchard provides a good example of Webb’s willingness to try things other than corn, soybeans, and cattle, and the relationship he has cultivated with the applied agricultural research programs at Dixon Springs.

Tanglefoot Ranch is also one of the places I mentioned in a recent commentary about a field trip with U of I undergraduates; we go there to investigate what “sustainability” means in the real world. Webb tells them, “The first thing the farm has to sustain is the farmer.” So he chooses innovations carefully and he sticks with them only if they’re profitable.

Take, for example, prawns, which are also known as freshwater shrimp. Fifteen years ago Webb used help from the State of Illinois Alternative Agricultural Land Program to begin raising them at Tanglefoot. They now have an indoor prawn nursery and six “grow out” ponds.

In a normal year each pond produces between 450 and 600 pounds of harvestable prawns. Many of these are cooked and sold at the Golconda Shrimp Festival, an annual, weekend event that draws roughly 7,000 tourists to the Ohio River town for which it is named.. In addition, Tanglefoot’s nursery supplies juvenile prawns for spring stocking to six other local farms that have established grow out ponds of their own.

Our tour at Tanglefoot also included stops in the farm’s two “high tunnels,” which are greenhouse-like structures made of tubular steel covered with translucent plastic. The high tunnels are not heated, but they trap enough warmth from the sun to provide tomatoes grown there a two-month head start over their field-grown counterparts as well as a number of other benefits, especially natural checks on pests and diseases and the opportunity to closely control and monitor inputs. According to Webb, Jeff Kindhart calls them the best innovation in horticulture of the last 20 years.

This brings me to a sour note that affected our visit to Tanglefoot. The week before our arrival, the U OF I Department of Crop Sciences announced it would be ending support for many applied research programs at Dixon Springs and three other facilities around the state, including the programs and people with whom Webb has collaborated over the years. Obviously this is a story of its own, and for now I have nothing to report other than that efforts are underway to find alternative sources of funding.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fall brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana

Fall brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana [Originally posted 11/21/2013]

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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, October 15, 2015

Are we really in Illinois? U of I students get a different view of the Prairie State

Are we really in Illinois? U of I students get a different view of the Prairie State

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work at the U of I is teaching a one-credit-hour field course that runs during the first half of the fall semester. The course provides students who are new to the Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability major an introduction to the types of work done by faculty in the Departments of Geology, Atmospheric Sciences and Geography and Geographic Information Science. It culminates in a trip to far southern Illinois, which is where I was last weekend.

We arrive at the University’s Dixon Springs Agricultural Center too late on Friday evening to do anything but go to bed (at least for the trip leaders), but we start early on Saturday.

Our destination for the morning is the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area in the Shawnee National Forest. There, a quarter-mile long trail gives visitors access to sandstone cliffs and rock formations that can prompt first-timers to question whether or not they’re still in the Prairie State. We make stops to talk about how sandstone forms and how geologists sort through evidence to explain the genesis of some unusual landscape features, including isolated stone towers (hoodoos) and raised circular rings in stone faces (Liesegang banding).

But we also make time to observe the sky, especially since we’re accompanied by my colleague Jeff Frame from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences. (He’s a storm chaser through and through, so blue skies like we had this past weekend disappoint him.)  In addition, we take time to just “be,” and climb around a bit where the rock formations allow that.

[Photos by author.]

We picnic for lunch as a way of reducing costs and making the most of our time in the field, and then rest on a grassy slope to hear a talk about the roles played by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the construction of area park facilities and the lives of the men who took part in the program. The talk is given by historian Kay Rippelmeyer, a long-time southern Illinois resident whose research has involved extensive firsthand interviews with men who served in “the C’s,” and whose enthusiasm and expertise prompted one student to comment, “I could listen to her all day.”

On Saturday afternoon, we hike to see the cypress swamp at Heron Pond, a nature preserve in the Cache River State Natural Area. Seeing the towering baldcypress trees, with their wide, buttressed foundations and “knees” that rise up from their roots again prompts first-timers to wonder whether they’re still in Illinois.

The path to and from the swamp winds through the floodplain of the Cache River, which offers those inclined (including myself) opportunities to look for reptiles and amphibians. Tiny cricket frogs are hyper-abundant there, and their frenzied hopping can make the riverbank look alive as you walk among them. As you avoid stepping on frogs it’s also important to keep an eye out for snakes; this year we came across three water moccasins by the river. That’s a treat (for some of us), but they’re venomous, so this is definitely a “look but don’t touch” encounter.

Dinner is pasta we cook for ourselves at the Ag Center, and then we’re back outside for a campfire and stargazing. Thanks to cloudless skies and a new moon on Saturday we were able to see the spread of the Milky Way galaxy across the sky—also a first for many students.

Before heading back to Champaign on Sunday, we pack in a visit to Tanglefoot Ranch, where farmer Grover Webb and others produce food like no place else in the world. But that’ll have to be a story for another day.