Thursday, November 10, 2016

People wonder, what do crows think?

People wonder, what do crows think? [from the archives]

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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 27, 2016

Appreciating bats before white-nose syndrome

Appreciating bats before white-nose syndrome

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Back in 2007, my children came into the studio with me to record a segment on bats as a way of celebrating Halloween. Hearing their young voices in that is an enjoyable trip down memory lane for me. But I want you to hear it today for another reason. At the time we recorded this segment, we were entirely unaware that a pathogen capable of killing bats on a massive scale had arrived in the U.S. So think of this as a happy, “before” piece. Next week, then, I’ll tell you about the “after.”   

As Halloween approaches I like to make time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house, my children, Jane and Will, have joined me today to celebrate bats.

I suspect most young people of the present have grown up without being exposed to the kinds of myths about bats that previous generations grew up on. After all, these are kids who have read books with positive bat characters like Stellaluna and Silverwing.

But it can still be fun to bring up old myths, if only to contradict them.

Rob: Guys, are bats blind?

Jane and Will: Nooo.

Rob: Do bats like to get tangled in people’s hair?

Jane and Will: Oh, Please.

Rob: Are bats flying mice?

Jane and Will: Daaad.

Okay, okay. Scientists classify bats in their very own order, chiroptera. Worldwide there are around 1,000 species of bats, and they constitute a quarter of all mammal species alive today.

What’s so cool about bats?

Will: Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. Other mammals, like so-called flying squirrels, can jump from a perch and glide. But bats can propel themselves through the air, and stay up for a long time. The wings of bats are made of very thin skin stretched over very long fingers. [Photo of little brown bat courtesy the Illinois Natural History Survey.]

Jane: Another thing that’s really cool about bats is how they use echolocation to find prey and avoid obstacles as they fly. This built-in sonar allows them to detect insects the size of gnats and objects as fine as human hair.

Will, I know you’re interested in those vicious vampire bats, the ones that suck people’s blood. What can you tell us about them?

Will: Well, vampire bats do drink blood and they can only go a couple of days without eating. But they try to feed on humans only as a last resort. Vampires, which live in Central and South America, prefer to feed on cattle or other wild animals.

Jane: Aside from vampire bats, there are bats that eat lizards, bats that eat birds, and bats that eat other bats. Even more bats feed on fruits and their juices. But 70% of all bats, including all of the species from North America, are insectivores.

Will: And bats can eat a lot of bugs. A male little brown bat eats about half of his body weight in mosquitoes and other insects per night.

Jane: And a female little brown bat that is nursing a pup eats more than her own weight nightly. By eating so many bugs bats perform an important service for people.

Dad: So, since you guys like bats so much, if you found one would you pick it up?

Will: No way--bats are wild animals, and we know they can bite.

Jane: Besides, although very few people in the U.S. get rabies anymore, those who do usually get it from the bite of an infected bat.

Dad: It’s best to consult with the state department of public health or a local animal control agency if you’re faced with the task of getting a bat out your house.

Will: In reality, bats have more to fear from people than people have to fear from bats.

Rob: About half of all bat species worldwide are threatened or endangered, including 4 of the 12 species that occur in Illinois.

Jane: To learn more about bats and what you can do to help protect them, check out the links at the Environmental Almanac website.

Homepage of Bat Conservation International

Articles from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports online:

Indiana Bats in Illinois

Species Spotlight: Little Brown Bat

Thursday, October 20, 2016

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 13, 2016

An appreciation for U of I artist Deke Weaver's BEAR

An appreciation for U of I artist Deke Weaver's BEAR

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So much of conservation is about the concrete. Stop a pipeline here, plant milkweed for monarchs there, try to move the levers of political power with an email or a protest. Even when we turn our attention to climate change, with its remote effects, we’re on to wind turbines and solar power before very long. 

But I think it’s healthy for individual people and for cultures more broadly to have access to spaces where thought and communication are liberated from these usual channels, spaces that enable us to inhabit other realities for a time. This is why I found participating in the fall chapter of U of I artist Deke Weaver’s performance “Bear” at Meadowbrook Park recently so powerful. 

The other reality in which “Bear” is set resembles ones we’ve seen in other stories. It’s a future where, according to “Field Guide to the Bears,” which participants received along with their tickets: “Greenland slides into the Atlantic. The power grid collapses. The Totten Glacier crumbles, West Antarctica tumbles into the sea. Sea levels rise twelve feet, and now, 2020, we’ve got forty percent of the world’s human population leaving the coasts and heading inland.”

In the common fictions of our culture, such circumstances require action by a hero or team of heroes with mad quantitative skills and technical ingenuity, ones who apply the same human traits that produce the problems to fix them. In the world of “Bear,” however, heroes are replaced with participants, and technical fixes are out, as well. “To put the genie back in the bottle,” the guide explains, “we need to bring back the bears. We’re going to do this through outreach, education, and walking meditation. . . we will bring back the bears by telling and retelling a story, by walking a path for hours and hours. Our hope is that the bears will be able to sense our sincere intent.”

What kind of thinking is that? 

The setup for “Bear” required participants to hold off on such questions. “Rangers” who never broke character greeted us on our arrival and led us on the hour-plus meditative walk. In addition, before setting out we were asked to power off phones and not to speak among ourselves. The fact that our walk took place in the dark on a muddy trail hemmed in by head-high prairie plants, and that a light rain was falling most of the time we were out also helped create an atmosphere that encouraged people to let go a little.

I won’t recount all of our stops, but say they included stories and folklore, as well as nuggets of information about bears, which were especially pleasing to the literal-minded among us. 

The fall installment of “Bear” concluded in the Urbana Park District’s barn at Meadowbrook, which had become a den for the purpose. There, unspeaking, costumed bear dancers performed and then invited participants to join them. Following that, we became bears by crawling farther into the den and putting on plastic masks. As bears, we listened to Deke Weaver tell a story in which the bodily boundaries between human, bear, and even tree at points dissolved.  

I admit I’m still not entirely sure what to make of that, but I’ll never knowingly pass up a chance to hear Weaver tell a story again. I also encourage you to check out the Winter and Spring chapters of “Bear,” and the rest of the larger project of which it’s a component, Weaver’s “Unreliable Bestiary.” 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ancient oaks a living link to Big Grove

Ancient oaks a living link to Big Grove

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When people think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement they tend to think “prairie,” vast expanses of flat land covered in tall grass and tall flowers. And for the most part, that image is pretty accurate.

But groves of trees intruded on the grasslands here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well. 

[Photo by L. Brody Dunn. The bicentennial oak on the lot of the Quaker Meetinghouse in Urbana, IL.]

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game and shelter, as well as respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for American Indian villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was named by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s something really cool. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand today. You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a bur oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises to a height of more than 80 feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger bur oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Friends Meetinghouse. We can take this tree to be roughly 240 years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.” 

At Leal Park, which is on University Avenue near the Carle complex, there’s yet another bicentennial oak marked with a plaque.

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at some other Urbana Park District sites. Some of the largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are 10 or so of the trees at Weaver Park on East Main Street.

If you’re interested to do a little more reading before you head out on your treehugging adventure, check out the Website “Children of Giants” recently established by UI professor of entomology Stewart Berlocher at

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Entomology student publishes update of 1927 ant survey

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Andrea Belcher came to the University of Illinois five years ago as a graduate student to study ants with entomology professor Andrew Suarez. In her own words, she was “always interested in small things,” and the research opportunities she took advantage of as an undergraduate in her native Texas led her to focus on ants.

[Photo: Two carpenter ants of different species locked in combat. Credit, Selina Ruzi.]

In contrast to many other young biologists, who are drawn to genetic studies and lab work, Belcher was especially interested in the study of her subjects in the field.

That made her an ideal candidate for a project department head May Berenbaum had been hoping to have someone take on, which was to replicate a study of ants in and around homes in Urbana done by a U of I PhD student in the 1920s.

Belcher’s article describing that project is published in the Fall 2016 issue of American Entomologist, under the title “Urbana House Ants 2.0: Revisiting M.R. Smith’s 1926 Survey of House-Infesting Ants in Central Illinois After 87 Years.”

Belcher’s survey had three goals: To identify ant species that infest houses now, to analyze the methods people use to control pest ants, and to compare her results with those found by Smith.

Following in Smith’s footsteps, literally, Belcher focused her study on two intersecting streets that form a cross in central Urbana, an area that encompassed about 300 single-family homes, as well as 40 multi-unit buildings.

Like Smith before her, Belcher relied on the cooperation of residents in the study area. First, she asked them to become “citizen scientists” and collect any ants found within their homes. This was done by capturing the ants on sticky tape and recording some basic information about them: where they were found, how many there were, if and what they were eating and what, if any, measures were used to control them.

In addition, Belcher sought permission from residents for herself and an assistant to walk around their yards once and collect any active ants they found to help determine the total diversity of ants in Urbana. Beyond that, Belcher sampled ants from three nearby fragments of forest, to allow for some comparisons between them and the urban setting.

What changed for ants in Urbana over the 87 years between Smith’s and Belcher’s studies?

Fewer species seem to be inhabiting human residences. Belcher turned up only eight, whereas Smith had 11.

An exotic species, pavement ants, seem to have spread into or increased in abundance in Urbana. They were the fourth most commonly collected species in residences in 2012-2013; Smith had found none of them.

People have adopted safer, more selective methods for chemical control of insects indoors. Survey respondents in the 1920s used broadly toxic chemical controls including compounds containing arsenic and mercury. Respondents from 2012-2013 reported using targeted, “least toxic” compounds, frequently baits that workers carry back to the nest.

Some decline in the total number of local ant species may have taken place. Despite sampling more habitats using a greater variety of methods, Belcher found only 44 species whereas Smith had 47.

For the present, Andrea Belcher’s work no longer focuses on ants. With a spouse in the military, she has landed in Santa Cruz, California, where she works primarily as an interpreter and tour leader at Natural Bridges State Beach. Insects are still part of the picture for her though, as she also assists researchers studying the monarch butterflies that overwinter there.

She, Berenbaum and Suarez all hope her study inspires other entomologists to examine the archives at their own institutions for studies from the past that might be replicated to help us understand how the insect world has changed over time.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Appreciating nature near at hand

Appreciating nature near at hand

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Even though there’s time on the calendar before Autumn begins officially, we’ve passed some important marks on the cultural calendar. Labor Day is a memory, the new school year is in full swing, and the season of traveling to outdoor destinations is over. For me, that means it’s a great time to renew appreciation for the undramatic nature that surrounds us every day.

Birds are on the move. The peregrine falcon that has spent the past four winters on the U of I campus arrived ahead of the students this year. If you’re on campus, you can sometimes spot him perched high on side of the tall buildings near Fourth Street.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating, too, and you can attract them to your own backyard by hanging out a nectar feeder. Some hummingbirds linger into late October, and fall occasionally offers the opportunity to see species that don’t typically inhabit the Midwest.

[Photos by author: a ruby-throated hummingbird in the garden; male widow skimmer at the Boneyard; emerging cicada on a backyard tent.]

Birders who really want to take advantage of the season can come out for Sunday morning bird walks led by members of the Champaign County Audubon Society. These walks, which continue through October, depart from the Race Street parking lot at 7:30. Birders of all skill levels are welcome.

At our latitude, the peak abundance of migrating monarch butterflies typically occurs during the second or third week of September, so keep an eye out for them. When you catch sight of one, call to mind this mystery. The monarchs we see heading south in the fall are generations removed from the ones that started north from Mexico in the spring. Yet they’ll somehow navigate to the very same stands of mountain forest where their great great great grandparents overwintered last year. And we think GPS is cool.

Humbler insects also abound now. It’s astonishing to me to think about how many crickets must inhabit the yards in just my own neighborhood. My dog snaps at every one we encounter on the sidewalk, which means our walks take longer as their population booms late in the summer.

Over the prairie at Meadowbrook Park and other natural grasslands, hordes of dragonflies rule the air. But you can also see dragonflies near the margins of just about any pond or creek, even the Boneyard where it flows through town and campus. Learn to identify the male widow skimmer, with his powdery blue body and distinctively marked wings and you may find you’re interested in identifying some of the other dragonflies you see, too.

If you’re near the Boneyard Creek, or any other creek, pluck a berry from a nearby bush and toss it into a deep spot. You might be surprised by the number of fish that bolt out to investigate. Even the derided Boneyard now hosts more than 20 species of fish, thanks to the Clean Water Act.

Late in the day Cicada song still fills the air. Most of this year’s adults have already come and gone, but now and again you can still find one just emerging from the exoskeleton that it wore while living underground. If you’re so lucky, make time to watch the process.

As evening gives way to night and cicadas rest from their singing, bats take wing to feast on the insects that fill the air. You can see the first act of that nightly drama by sitting quietly and training your gaze on a single patch of evening sky.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

An ecological look at acorns

An ecological look at acorns [originally posted 9/25/2014]

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Last week I found a walnut on my windowsill, a big fat one with an unblemished bright green husk. Soon after, another appeared stuck in the wheel of my car. Now they’re cached everywhere around the outside of our house, from the shelf on the grill to the flowerpots on the deck.

Acorns are everywhere now, too, as anyone who bicycles where there are oaks can attest. A person’s got to keep both hands on the handlebars to avoid having them wrenched sideways.   

While these seeds may be present me with minor annoyances, they’re much more interesting and important from an ecological perspective.

Scientists group walnuts and acorns together with hickory nuts and beechnuts in the category of hard mast. This they distinguish from soft mast, which generally refers to fruits like crabapples and blueberries but can also apply to other parts of plants that serve as food for wildlife.

[Photo by author. Gray squirrel eating an acorn in a Chinkapin oak.]

According to Ed Heske, a mammal ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey at the U of I Prairie Research Institute, “The most important thing about hard mast from the perspective of wild animals is that it’s storable. Without hard mast many mammals that don’t hibernate in winter would have little to eat.”

Of course, while it’s a good thing for squirrels that acorns can be stored for eating over the winter, it is not in the interest of oak trees to expend all of the resources needed to produce such wonderful seeds if all of them wind up as squirrel food.

Evolution has provided oaks with a clever reproductive strategy to avert that outcome, referred to as masting cycles.

 In most years, oaks produce a sort of baseline quantity of acorns, and populations of animals that depend on them become calibrated to that. But every few years or so, depending on weather and other factors, the oaks of a local area synchronize their energy and produce a bumper crop—up to a hundred times the baseline quantity of seeds in some species. With populations of acorn eaters limited by the leaner years, chances are that some portion of acorns from the bumper crop will go uneaten and grow into the next generation of oaks.

There is another wrinkle to this story, though. Some years back Heske and a colleague conducted a study that found acorns would result in new oak seedlings only if some of them were buried by squirrels and then never recovered, a situation expected primarily when acorns are superabundant in mast years. Otherwise something—whether it was a deer, turkey, mouse or weevil—always ate them up from the soil surface before they had a chance to germinate.

In addition to promoting new generations of oaks, Heske explained to me, bumper crops of acorns initiate a cascade of other ecosystem effects. Extra acorns, for example, enable forest-dwelling mice to reproduce especially well; during mast years they can add an extra litter or two, and add to the size of their litters as well.

Good for the mice, right?

But what’s good for mice is, in turn, good for great horned owls and the other predators that eat mice. They generally experience a bump in reproductive success in the year following a mast year.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Great strides for home solar thanks to Solar Urbana-Champaign program

Great strides for home solar thanks to Solar Urbana-Champaign program

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You may or may not remember it, but in a commentary last December spoke about my family’s plan to have solar panels installed on our Champaign home in 2016. I’m happy to report we followed through on that, and since late July have had 25 Hanwha Q-Cells up on our south facing, second-floor roof.

The system includes an online monitoring program, so I am able to say that up until now, our best day for energy production was August 6, when it generated 28.17 kilowatt hours of electricity. Our worst was August 15, with only 2.9 kWh generated—that was a gloomy day!

Although these numbers are meaningful to me now, they probably don’t do much to help you get a sense of how much electricity our system produces. Better, perhaps, to say that it’s expected to generate more than 80 percent of our total electricity use over the course of a year.

What’s more important than the fact that my family now has a solar array is that ours is one of 81 arrays that were (or are to be) installed at homes and businesses in Champaign County thanks to the Solar Urbana-Champaign Program.

Solar U-C, you might remember, was initiated by the Urbana Sustainability Advisory Commission, and intended to move the city forward on its Climate Action Plan, the ultimate goal of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the community by 80 percent. The program secured a discount in the price for rooftop solar by bringing consumers together to buy as a group from a company selected through a competitive bidding process, St. Louis-based StraightUp Solar. StraightUp also partnered with local firm, New Prairie Construction, on some of the installations, including the one at our house.

On the subject of price, there are a few things you might be interested to know. The systems installed with the program averaged around $3.50/kw, which translates to $24,500 for an average size system. A federal tax credit returns 30 percent of that, though, and a state-sponsored program of renewable energy credits returns another 25 percent over five years, so the net present cost would be about $11,000.

Depending on electric use, assumptions about whether and how much electric rates will change in the coming years, etc., photovoltaic systems installed through the program are expected to pay for themselves in savings well within their lifespan.

Ultimately, of course, my family’s decision to go with solar power has more to do with our commitment to helping make renewable energy the norm in Illinois than saving money on our electric bill (although I’m not complaining about that, either). I also like the fact that much of the money we spent to bring electricity to our house in the coming years went to support good, local jobs.

If you participated in the Solar C-U Program, please know that the Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) is looking for host sites for its annual Illinois Solar Tour, coming up on October 1. If you missed the Solar C-U Program but you’re still interested to explore home solar as an option, your best bet is to start with the vendors listed on the ISEA website at

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Highlights from a summer trip to Colorado

Annual cicadas enliven dog days with love song

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Never in many years of fishing have I heard a better report than this, which came from an enthusiastic young man at the counter of St. Peter’s Fly shop in Fort Collins, Colorado: “Everybody’s catching fish everywhere,” he said.

“Everywhere,” in this case, meant the 40-some miles of the Cache la Poudre River above Ft. Collins. And within 24 hours, “everyone” included me. I caught brown trout, rainbow trout and brook trout all within walking distance of our campsite, and I fished only in the time between dinner and sunset. Don’t worry, though—this isn’t a commentary about fishing. It’s about the wildlife highlights of a camping trip my wife, Karen, and I took in July.

Most of our time in the Poudre Canyon was spent hiking with a good friend from graduate school who’s now a faculty member at Colorado State University. And the most interesting stream creature we encountered was not a fish at all, but an American dipper, North America’s only truly aquatic songbird.

It’s easy enough to picture a dipper, since it looks much like an American robin without the orange-red breast. But it’s difficult to imagine a dipper in action until you’ve seen it. One moment, it’s perched on a rock in the middle of a swift mountain, stream and the next it dives into the torrent headfirst, disappearing from sight. Surely it will be carried away, was my thought upon seeing this for the first time. Not so, though--up it pops moments later with a prize gleaned from the streambed.

Dippers eat aquatic insects and just about any other kind of small creature found in the streams where they live, including worms, small fish, and fish eggs. Dippers nest near streams, too, either on natural structures, such as cliffs, or up under bridges. Once we understood their affinity for bridges, we made a point of pausing at each one to see whether there were dippers using it, and often there were.

Our most dramatic encounter with wildlife took place in Rocky Mountain National Park. On a day-hike up to an alpine lake there, our trail ascended through excellent elk habitat, and before long we heard from hikers who were on their way down that, indeed, a herd of cows and calves lay ahead.

We may be flatlanders, but we had to laugh when one man assured us we needn’t be concerned about them, saying, “It’s only moms and babies.” Elk cows protect their young fiercely, and, weighing in at 500 pounds, they are formidable mothers.

As bad luck would have it, we passed one of the babies grazing in a thicket without seeing it, and so came between it and its mother, who was with the rest of the herd, a little farther up the trail. Baby squealed. Mama raised her head in alarm, fixed her eyes on us and gave a series of sharp barks. We scrambled twenty feet up the steep, smooth rock face on our left—our only real option, since the thick growth of trees on our right formed an impassable barrier.

Perched atop the slope, we waited until the calf passed below and rejoined the herd, and then we waited a little longer until the entire group moved away from the trail ahead. From that point forward, waiting for the elk to move away from the trail became a regular part of hiking that day.

I hope your summer included some time outside, whether it was far afield or here in Illinois. I’ve got a report on environmental developments from the home front in store for next week.