August 23, 2010

Heron Pond

by Susan Post

Long before human records were kept, the extreme tip of southern Illinois bordered the shoreline of a much larger Gulf of Mexico. Though the seas retreated, plants and animals remain in southern Illinois that are more commonly found surrounding the present day Gulf of Mexico. Heron Pond, located in Johnson County, provides a glimpse into this ancient landscape.

In this strange, silent, primeval world of the southern swamps, the only sounds one hears are created by humans or birds: the groan and creak of the floating boardwalk underfoot, a pileated woodpecker hammering on a long-dead snag, a prothonotary warbler chortling as it feeds its young, or the startled cry of a wood duck fleeing through the trees. Cypress trees, in a seemingly vast stand, support upon their "knees" little colonies of plants —islands in miniature. The surface of the pond is covered with several species of duckweed. This thick green blanket is broken only by a fallen cypress needle, the black ribbon of a swimming cottonmouth, or the delicately embossed outline of a floating frog. In the quiet and stillness, the bayous of Louisiana come to mind.

This area was originally described by an English journalist in the 1860s as "a forest of dead trees—a cheerless miserable place, sacred to the ague and fever." Other early visitors described it as a place where your first and only thought was "how shall I get away again" or more simply, "the pit of hell." These descriptions of the swamps of southern Illinois, of vegetation more typical of Mississippi, Alabama, or Louisiana, were made by individuals viewing the landscape without the luxury of a boardwalk.

Heron Pond, located 1 mile northwest of Forman, Illinois, is a bald cypress forest named for the great blue herons that nested in the huge cypress trees. It is part of a larger area called the Cache River State Natural Area. The trail at Heron Pond begins west of the parking lot. Crossing the Upper Cache River on a suspension bridge, you enter the bottomland forests, soon leave them behind, and enter the world of the swamp.

In spring, the trail is lined with wildflowers; by August the huge white blossoms of spider lily have opened, creating patches of white in the unrelenting green. By late fall the cypress trees have discarded their needles, littering the duckweed with brown. Fortunately, your adventure into the swamp is greatly aided by a long boardwalk.

Though the southern swamp, with its midsummer heat, humidity and mosquitoes, could still be called "the pit of hell" by the unprepared, the sights and sounds of this unique landscape soften this unfortunate description for most, and a visit to Heron Pond becomes an adventure into the remote past.

August 5, 2010

Prairie Pages

Here is an article by Sue Post published in the Illinois Steward, Spring 2009 issue about a few of our favorite Illinois Prairie sites (click download or fullscreen for better readability):
Prairie Pages

August 3, 2010

“We Sweated and Survived”

We finished up our Dragonfly Blitz on Thursday, 29 July, visiting parts of Wildcat Hollow. Within 15 minutes of our arrival at the marsh, we spotted the elusive Comet Darner – a red beacon. And just like that, it was off, taunting us, daring us to catch it. Peering through binoculars from shore, ecstatic cries, “it’s coming right at you!” “to your left!” “on your right!” only seemed to confuse those standing with their nets at the ready. Skillfully, the Comet Darner snatched a saddlebag dragonfly and zipped off to the prairie.

Our skipper and moth expert, Jim Wiker, refused to give up, and after stalking it through the tall grass, returned with the Comet Darner in hand for all to admire.

Grand Total: 21 Species of Dragonflies

A few photos from the class:

July 28, 2010

IWIN Dragonfly Blitz Day 2

After our second day of the blitz, with heat index of 109, we are up to 29 species of butterfly and 20 species of dragonfly.

Today we visited Fulfer Creek and the Daybreak Sanctuary adding:

Mocha Emerald
Swift River Cruiser
Flag-tailed Spinyleg
Great Blue Skimmer
Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Tomorrow is our last day; fingers crossed for good weather and a few more species to add to our list.

We'll have plenty of pictures to post when we get back to the office!

July 27, 2010

Illinois Wilds Institute for Nature Dragonfly Blitz

"They're the greatest mathematicians. They can estimate the length of your net and add 18 inches." Richard Day

Thirty-two participants will spend three days in east-central Illinois trying to see as many species of dragonflies as possible.

Our first day, it was 90F and 75% humidity. At Ballard Nature Center in Altamont IL, we found 15 species of dragonfly:

Green Darner
Eastern Pondhawk
Slaty Skimmer
Twelve-spot Skimmer
Black Saddlebag
Carolina Saddlebag
Red Saddlebag
Halloween Pennant
Calico Pennant
Widow Skimmer
Eastern Amberwing
Spot-wing Glider
Blue Dasher
Spangled Skimmer

Tonight we blacklight for insects!

July 23, 2010

Summer Cicadas

by Susan Post

Late evening of the hot days of summer is the perfect time to hear the loud drone of male cicadas. Even during classical times the fact that only male cicadas produced sound was well known, leading to the chauvinistic comment—"Happy are the cicadas for they all have voiceless wives."

After spending anywhere from one to six years underground as a nymph, cicada males loudly announce their arrival upon the scene. The call is produced, not by rubbing wings or legs together, but by muscles vibrating a pair of drum-like membranes in the cicada’s thorax. An air cavity acts as a resonator and connects to the outside through a pair of tiny holes called spiracles.

While many of us may be familiar with the dog day or annual cicadas found in our yards—prairies also support cicadas. People who've seen this insect in high quality prairies say they “fly up like partridges when disturbed.” The adult prairie cicada's body is large, approximately one and half to two inches long and brownish yellow with conspicuous brown and white markings. Prairie cicada nymphs, instead of feeding on the roots of trees like their city and forest cousins, prefer to suck the sap of the long roots of prairie dock and compass plant.

Whether you hear the drone of the cicadas in your backyard or on the prairie, recognize it for what it is and enjoy this brief, poignant, noisy love serenade of summer.

July 16, 2010

Evergreens That Aren't

by Susan L Post

All "evergreen" (coniferous) trees in Illinois are not always green. Two unique species, the bald cypress and tamarack, actually lose their leaves each fall and contribute to Illinois' fall color display.

As curious as it may seem, two species of evergreen trees that occur naturally in Illinois actually lose their leaves each fall, much like an oak or maple. Both inhabit unique wetlands. One species, the bald cypress, occurs naturally only in the swampy lowlands of far southern Illinois, while the other, the American larch or tamarack, is a denizen of the bogs of far northern Illinois.

The name Bald Cypress comes from the tree's habit of shedding its needles, giving it a bald appearance. These swamp trees have swollen bases and knees and can reach giant proportions. The cypresses swollen base develops in response to water and helps provide a firm footing in the swamp. Knees are distinguished by their smooth, conical shape, and are produced on land that is subject to alternate flooding and drying. The height of a cypress knee usually corresponds to the high-water mark in the swamp. The largest tree in Illinois is a Bald Cypress along the Cache River; many of the immense trees along this sluggish southern Illinois stream are 800-1500 years old. The original extent of cypress swamps in southern Illinois was about 250,000 acres, but today can be seen in preserves such as Heron Pond-Little Black Slough in Johnson County and Horseshoe Lake in Alexander County.

At the other end of Illinois, a few scattered bogs can be found in northern Lake and McHenry counties, the only remaining examples of a plant community common in most northeastern states. Illinois bogs are acidic wetlands that contain very typical plants such as sphagnum moss, carnivorous plants, wild orchids, and the tamarack. Tamaracks grow on spongy hummocks in the bog and are generally rather short and scrubby. These attractive trees can grow elsewhere, but are commonly found in bogs because they can tolerate the extremely acidic water of the bog, something other trees cannot do. In addition, tamaracks are not very good competitors in a forest habitat, thus they are largely confined to bogs. The best place to see tamaracks in a classic bog in Illinois is Volo Bog State Natural Area in Lake County.

July 15, 2010

Threatened and Endangered Species

by Susan L. Post

Illinois hasn't always been corn, soybeans, and canal-like waterways.
Historical accounts speak of huge trees, vast grasslands, and extensive wetlands. These impressive landscapes, however, rapidly became timber leases, farmsteads, and urban sprawl. Illinois citizen interest in the protection of natural communities and their species grew with time and resulted in the passage of the Nature Preserves Act and the creation of the Nature Preserves Commission in 1963. In addition, the Illinois Legislature, recognizing species as important entities, enacted the Endangered Species Protection Act in 1972. This act gave the Endangered Species Protection Board the responsibility of identifying species as endangered or threatened and the Department of Conservation [now Illinois Department of Natural Resources—IDNR] the authority to develop a permit system for endangered animals and their products. Plants were added in 1977. The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act "prohibits the possession, taking, transportation, sale, offer for sale, or disposal of any listed animal or products of listed animals without a permit issued by the Department of Conservation [IDNR]. Also prohibited are the taking of listed plants without the expressed written permission of the landowner and the sale or offer to sell plants or plant products of endangered species."

An endangered species in Illinois is defined as breeding or naturally reproducing native species likely to be extirpated from the state in the near future; threatened species are those likely to become endangered in the near future. The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board regularly updates the Checklist of Endangered and Threatened Animals and Plants of Illinois. Listed are 19 endangered and 12 threatened fishes, 3 endangered and 6 threatened amphibians, 10 endangered and 8 threatened reptiles, 25 endangered and 5 threatened birds, 5 endangered and 4 threatened mammals, 42 endangered and 12 threatened invertebrates, and 251 endangered and 81 threatened plants.

Endangered or threatened species aren't always the most impressive or the showiest organisms. Yet these rare individuals have become the standard bearers of the conservation movement and are signals of our deteriorating environment. These species are the messengers of change, a message we must heed if we are to keep them as part of the natural world.

June 23, 2010

Insect Appreciation

by Susan Post

A walk on any trail this time of year may offer the expected deer, numerous bird calls, and blooming summer flowers, but it is the insects, common or rare, that are a delight. It is these unexpected encounters that will hold your interest and pique your curiosity during any forays outdoors.

Look in shady areas of dense vegetation for scorpionflies. While they resemble flies, these insects have two pairs of wings instead of one, like flies, and belong to the insect order Mecoptera. Their head is elongated and if you happen to encounter a male, its genitalia are large and conspicuous and carried curved upward over the back like the sting of a scorpion. Crane flies also may be found in this habitat. These large, mosquito-like insects will hang motionless on stinging nettle, but don't be afraid; while rather large, these insects don't bite, in fact, most don't feed at all as adults.

Wet areas offer a plethora of observations from the whimsical gyrations of whirligig beetles to the defense of territories by damselflies and dragonflies. Summer is the time for many of the large dragonflies to gather in groups. Watch for them as they swoop and dive, catching the abundant insect prey. Along the edges of moist areas look for large gatherings of butterflies and skippers. These gatherings are called puddle clubs and are the purview of newly emerged bachelor males. It is thought that these males, by being together, are creating a "super male" to attract the fancy of passing females.

While clouds of butterflies disturbed from a puddle club are fun to walk through, the single butterfly sitings are no less exciting. From buckeyes to painted ladies to swallowtails, their effortless flitting is a signal of the coming days of summer fun. But what about the moths? A chance encounter of a luna, cecropia, or polyphemus is quite remote during the day.

To increase your moth sighting chances, perhaps a light trap is in order. By using a white sheet and a bright white light source, you have created a beacon in the dark which moths and other night flying insects are attracted to. The insects fly toward the light and hit the sheet, climbing around on the sheet so you are able to get close to study them. During the night, check the trap often as different insects fly at different times. If you don't have access to a light, walk around your hometown checking the bright white lights—an entomological friend spent his youth checking the lights at the local laundromat and gas station.

Take time during these warm days of summer to view some of the many and unusual insects that grace the Illinois landscape.