Thursday, March 31, 2016

A walk on the wild side with three U of I students

A walk on the wild side with three U of I students

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For the next couple of weeks of Environmental Almanacs, Rob Kanter will be joined by students from the School of Earth, Society, and Environment who are developing their skills to communicate about environmental topics.

Most residents of central Illinois are familiar with Busey Woods in Urbana, but for some U of I students, it’s new territory.

Hi I’m Chloe, I’m Katie, and I’m Christina.

Christina Lopez
Chloe:  On the first Sunday in March, the three of us went our very first bird walk which also happened to be the first bird walk of the season in Busey Woods coordinated by members of the Champaign County Audubon Society at Busey Woods in Urbana.

Christina: When we pulled into the parking lot on that brisk 32-degree morning and asked ourselves . . .
Katie: what do three college students know about birding?

Chloe: As it turns out not much, but we were up for the challenge to learn more. That began with learning about Busey Woods itself, a 59-acre forest fragment in Urbana.

Christina: Back in the 1960s, Busey Woods was under development to be grounds for commercial dumping with the hopes of being turned into an industrial park. But through citizen action, people fought back and ultimately succeeded in preserving these woods for recreational use, where they now stand today as the site for our Sunday morning bird walk program with Greg Lambeth.

Katie: Lambeth has been leading the bird walks with the nature center for about the last 15 years, since the death of friend and fellow birder Bob Chapel. Lambeth takes birders of all levels under his wing, pointing out different species and bird calls along the walk for fellow birders to photograph, listen to, and enjoy.

Chloe: Lambeth said that although it’s been a mild winter that the start of the birding season is a sign of spring for him.
This time of the year you’re not going to see a lot, its just to fun to be out and walking around. It was even fun last year . . . to me, and I don’t know how other people describe it, it’s just like, it may be really cold but its still kinda symbolically mean spring is on its way and we’ll have our first 60-65 degree walk, you know on our third or fourth walk. It’s just . . . this was not a long winter but in long winters it helps show spring is on its way.
Christina: And I think the three of us really agreed with Lambeth’s connection to the bird walk and spring.

Katie:Despite the chill in the air the walk really made us all feel refreshed, and we were genuinely excited to see the different bird species that live in our own neighborhood.

QSBjb29wZXJhdGl2ZSB3aW50ZXIgd3Jlbi4=Chloe: Something I though was cool was that we got to see Winter Wrens. Which Lambeth told us are usually really uncooperative for walks because they’re so small and hide in the brush.

So the next Sunday you find yourself looking for something new to experience, we suggest heading over to the nature center in Urbana and joining the birders at 7:30 a.m. for a bird walk.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Prescribed burn enables prairie to thrive [from the archive]

Prescribed burn enables prairie to thrive

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If you’ve taken advantage of the recent weather to visit local natural areas, you’ve probably come across patches of land blackened by fire. These are places where you expect to see tallgrass prairie, but where, for the moment, there’s nothing to block your view of a robin on the ground 50 yards away.

What you’ve encountered is evidence of land managers using the most powerful tool at their disposal, fire. I’ve hear people wonder aloud whether it’s necessary to do all of this burning, whether it wouldn’t be better to just leave nature alone.

The short answer to that question is, no—not if our aim is to preserve or reconstruct landscapes that resemble tallgrass prairie as it existed in central Illinois at the time of European colonization.

That’s because without fire, prairie would have given way to forest here over the past 5,000 years. Prairie fires, which were set regularly by American Indians, and sometimes caused by lightning, are estimated to have scoured any given bit of land here once every one to five years.

Prairie fires usually moved quickly, so their heat did not penetrate deep into the soil. Thus they killed the saplings of encroaching trees—such as walnut, ash and sugar maple—and favored instead the growth of herbaceous perennials, grasses and flowers that die back and store their energy below ground in winter.

[Photos by author: fire engulfs an encroaching sapling; Mike Davis patrols the line with a flapper; "The Marker" looks over the burned area at Meadowbrook Park.]

By removing thatch and speeding the return of nutrients to the soil in the form of ash, prairie fires enabled dormant seeds to germinate, and the spring and summer that followed on were marked by a profusion of flowers and reinvigorated forage.

Similar effects are now achieved through the use of prescribed burns.

In addition to thwarting the advance of local trees, prescribed burns also now perform the important service of knocking back invasive plants imported from other continents, chief among them bush honeysuckle and autumn olive. Without fire as a tool, says Mike Davis, who’s a natural areas technician with the Urbana Park District, the task of keeping such plants in check would be far more difficult than it already is.

Most prescribed burns operate like the one I participated in recently at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. It was organized by Davis, and carried out with help from other park district personnel, as well as volunteers from Grand Prairie Friends and the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist Program.

Some volunteers manned barricades to keep park users from wandering into the designated areas. The rest divided into two burn crews. Working on opposite sides of the burn unit, and beginning at the downwind end of it, one person from each crew used a kerosene drip torch to light fire along the mowed paths that served as breaks. Others who were armed with backpack sprayers, flappers and heavy rakes then spread out along the lines to make sure no fire crossed them.

By design, the fires we lit on the sides of the burn unit moved slowly, since we were advancing into the wind. Not so the headfire we created as the two burn crews converged along the upwind edge of the unit. It snapped and crackled briefly, then roared to life and swept back across the field, exactly according to plan.

If you have the opportunity, keep an eye on the blackened patches at Meadowbrook Park and other preserves as spring progresses, and enjoy the tallgrass prairie plant show made possible by fire.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Return of the American woodcock--another March madness

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One of the early season highlights of birding in central Illinois is the widespread return in March of a bird called the American woodcock. Indeed, for some birders this phenomenon holds just as much interest as that other one more commonly known as March madness.

[A woodcock struts his stuff at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, IL. By Greg Lambeth]

The woodcock belongs to the shorebird family, whose more familiar members include sandpipers and plovers. But unlike its cousins, the woodcock prefers habitat composed of moist woods, open fields, and brushy swamps. You won’t see a woodcock poking along beaches or mud flats the way other shorebirds do. Most of the time the woodcock is so secretive and so well camouflaged that unless you witness its courtship display, you’re likely to see one only if you come close to stepping on in it, and it flushes. Then you are startled by an explosion of wings at your feet, after which you’ll have five to ten seconds to watch the bird fly before it lands and takes cover again.

On the ground, the woodcock’s appearance suggests that it was constructed by a birdmaker who didn’t pay strict attention to the shorebird blueprint. It’s a plump bird, about eleven inches long altogether, although its bill accounts for three of those inches. This bill is highly sensitive, which enables woodcocks detect the vibrations made by earthworms underground. And it features a flexible tip that can be opened to grasp worms even while the rest of the bill remains closed.

A woodcock’s eyes bulge out like black, stick-on doll-eyes that are attached in the wrong spot—just a little too high up, and too far back on its head. Odd as it may look, this arrangement allows the woodcock a super wide field of vision—nearly three hundred sixty degrees. This is quite a useful adaptation for a bird that spends so much time with its nose to the ground.

Appearances aside, what endears the woodcock to birders is the strange and elaborate courtship ritual that the males perform at dusk and dawn in the spring. Many people have written to describe this behavior, although none so eloquently as Aldo Leopold, whose book, A Sand County Almanac, has done so much to inspire the modern conservation movement.

This is how Leopold describes the male woodcock’s “sky dance”:

He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began and there resumes peenting.

Depending on conditions, the male woodcock may repeat this performance for a half hour or more.

If you would like to see the sky dance for yourself but don’t know where to look, check out one of the upcoming “Woodcock Walks” conducted by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. There’s one tomorrow evening and another next Friday. Further details are available through the website of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.

[A woodcock struts his stuff at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, IL. By Greg Lambeth]

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Bird reports from friends signal arrival of spring

Bird reports from friends signal arrival of spring

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One way you can tell spring has arrived is to listen to the conviction with which cardinals are now singing, including this one, which I stopped to record while I was out for a run last week. Another is to hear the reports friends bring me about what they’ve been observing.

A friend I’ll call “Anna” recently stopped by my office to talk about what she had seen with her son, a second-grader, on their walk to Bottenfield School in Champaign. She said, “There was a huge, dark bird with two-toned wings and a wingspan like this [arms wide] soaring overhead. Would that be a turkey vulture?”

It would. And many other people I’ve talked with recently have noticed them soaring over town. Turkey vulture populations in North America have increased substantially in recent decades, and in Illinois some of them don’t go very far south in winter anymore, thanks to the increasing availability of roadkill, as well as the food they can scrounge at landfills.

Another friend I’ll call “Lisa” texted to say she had seen and heard a large flock of large birds flying over Urbana at night. “I’ve never heard this kind of call before,” she said, “but they flew in a V.”

This would have been one of the large flocks of geese that are not Canada geese that have been moving north since mid-February: snow geese or greater white-fronted geese. By listening to both calls on the Web, Lisa determined that hers had been white-fronts. Here’s what that sounds like.

Back on February 18, my friend “Eric” asked whether I had seen my first red-winged blackbird of the year yet.  (Unlike robins, which now remain in central Illinois through the winter, red-winged blackbirds are generally absent in here for some part of winter.) I had not, but we both agreed (in the way mature people sometimes do) that it “seemed about time” for some to show up.

That very evening, my spouse called my attention to a facebook post by our mutual friend, “Lucy.” She wrote, “I saw my FOY [birder-speak for “First of Year”] red-winged blackbird this morning. My favorite harbinger of spring. Turns out it is the same day I saw him last year and a day earlier than two years ago.”

It was with more mixed feelings that our friend “Sue” reported last week the return to her yard of a very different pair of birds, the Cooper’s hawks that began nesting there two years ago. Sue prefers to have songbirds around, but since songbirds are on the menu for Cooper’s hawks, they’re scarce in her yard during the hawk breeding season.

The end of February also saw the return of American woodcocks to central Illinois, as reported by my friend “Roger” on the Birdnotes listserv. He walks with his spouse at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana early on most mornings, and they’re among the first people to notice such things.

If you’re interested to get out looking birds and other wildlife, there are some really nice opportunities to do so locally with company in March, including the Sunday morning walks at Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park in Urbana, which are led by members of the Champaign County Audubon Society.

Sunday Morning Bird Walks at Busey Woods (usually led by my friend "Greg")
Busey Woods & Crystal Lake Park
Sundays, March 6 - May 29, 2016
7:30am - 9am

Woodcock Walks
Friday, March 18, 7:00-8pm Buffalo Trace Prairie, Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve (CCFPD)
Saturday, March 19, 7:00-8pm Interpretive Center, Homer Lake Forest Preserve (CCFPD)
Wednesday, March 23, 7:00-8pm Meadowbrook Interpretive Center (UPD)
Contact CCFPD (896-2455) / UPD (384-4062) for more info and to register.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Appreciating amphibians and the habitats that support them

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and habitats that support them

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It may be too early in the year to contemplate April showers bringing May flowers. But in much of Illinois heavy rains in late February and early March trigger an astonishing and ancient natural phenomenon—the annual congregation of amphibians in the waters where they breed.

The participants in the initial phase of this aquatic love fest, which begins in water cold enough to stun people, include frogs that are known by their vocalizations—spring peepers [pictured], whose once-per-second ascending peeps [IDNR audio] can be heard day and night, and western chorus frogs, whose call is often compared to the sound produced by running a stick over the teeth of a comb [IDNR audio].

These vocal frogs are joined in the frigid water by other more secretive amphibians. To me, the most fascinating of these are the eight species of salamanders that are known collectively as mole salamanders.

In central Illinois the most common member of this family is the six-inch-long smallmouth salamander [pictured], a blackish creature with blue and grey markings that give it a marbled appearance. The eastern tiger salamander can be found here, too, although I have to admit I’ve never seen one. A tiger salamander may grow to more that a foot in length, and it is marked by yellow spots that cover more and more of its body as it ages. You may or may not remember it, but the tiger salamander was elected the official state amphibian of Illinois in a 2004 contest sponsored by then Lieutenant Governor, Pat Quinn.

As their group name suggests, mole salamanders spend most of the year underground. There they move about in natural gaps, and the tunnels and burrows created by small mammals. They feed on a variety of invertebrates, including earthworms, slugs, and insects.

In the spring, though, as the earth thaws and the ice recedes, rainy nights bring mole salamanders above ground, and they trundle overland seeking the ephemeral pools where they were born. Ephemeral pools are wetlands that hold water far enough into the summer for amphibian larvae to mature, but which dry up at some point in most years. This characteristic prevents fish from becoming established there, and that’s important because fish eat amphibian eggs and young. [Pictured is an ephemeral pool at the Urbana Park District's Busey Woods.]

If you were to shine a light into such a pool on a spring night you would be amazed at how many salamanders you can see, and surprised at how gracefully they swim. You might also be interested to see how many other forms of life are active in such cold water—delicate, inch-long fairy shrimp, ferocious diving beetles, and more.

Looking into an ephemeral pool during the day you might see amphibian eggs, held together in a mass with a jelly-like substance, and attached to twigs or other underwater structure.

While it is still possible to find ephemeral pools where you can witness the springtime congregation of amphibians in Illinois, it’s not easy. More than 90 percent of the wetland acres that once existed in the state have been lost to agriculture and urbanization, and only a tiny fraction (0.05%) of the state’s historic wetlands persist in relatively undisturbed condition.

Whether future generations have the opportunity to experience the springtime awakening of life in ephemeral pools depends on whether our generation acts to preserve and restore them.