Saturday, January 25, 2014

Historic Commitment (if we follow through)

Forest Preserves President Tony Preckwinkle Proposes Major Initiatives

January 24th, 2014 may go down in history - beside the launching of the Burnham Plan and the founding of the Forest Preserve District - as a day that changed the future. 

Under the plan announced by Preckwinkle, the Cook County Forest Preserves would spend $40 million dollars a year to restore 30,000 acres of woodlands, prairies and wetlands to Natural Areas Inventory quality. The plan envisions 400 expert volunteer stewards playing a key role alongside staff and partner organizations. 
The "Next Century Conservation Plan" is filled with photos of people
using and appreciating the woods and prairies. This plan is for the generations.
The photo below from Somme Prairie Grove is the main cover graphic. (Somme deeply appreciates the honor.) The photo seems to say, "Biodiversity is a treasure to cherish." Underneath the nature photo are five photos of diverse people enjoying compatible recreation. Yes, public involvement, appreciation, support are key. The full plan in on line at  
Restoring this quality at Somme took three decades. The plan proposes
restoring 30,000 acres to "Natural Areas Inventory quality" in 25 years. 
The Technical Report of the plan cites the 2007 study 
designed by scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey, the FPD, and Audubon -
which was carried out largely by expert Habitat Project volunteers: 

"According to this most recent land audit, only 25% of high-opriority conservation areas (approximately 3,500 of 14,000 high-priority acres, or about 5% of the Forest Preserve' total holdings) were found to be in good or excellent condition. Given the ongoing deterioration of the Preserves' biodiversity, the restoration and maintenance of the natural areas is a matter of the utmost urgency."   
A bur oak woodland - its understory and reproduction gradually being choked out by buckthorn
The plan (which in February will go to the FPD board for approval, with President Preckwinkle's support) calls for the training and empowerment of 400 expert volunteer stewards. Recognizing that such a goal will take many years, the plan also credits the existing stewards with much of the best restoration work done to date.

The plan also proposes jobs. In addition to beefing up the Forest Preserve professional staff, the plan proposes a "permanent" force of "at least 500 conservation corps members - built on partnerships that provide supportive workforce training for at-risk youth and young adults." 

This oak woodland was as choked with brush as the one shown previously. After thirty years of restoration
it has attained good quality - but still has a way to go to achieve high quality. Staff and stewards are rapidly learning the more effective and efficient approaches that make the plan's 10- and 25-year goals achievable.
Students from Evanston Township High School exult in victory over brush, as a bonfire burns behind them.
From the plan:
"Decades of neglect have allowed our diverse woodlands and grasslands 
to lose their wildflowers and become impenetrable thorn thickets. 
Eroding soil silts our streams, ponds and wetlands. 
With the loss of natural systems comes the loss of public benefits. 
Without a healthy restored landscape, our metropolitan region
 will be dirtier, hotter, less safe and less attractive."

Processing rare seeds for woodland restoration. It will take tens of thousands of people many decades to accomplish the plan's goals. Those diverse people, if you believe this photo, include one with an orange jacket and no head. 
The vision statement of the Next Century Conservation Plan:


The people of Cook County will celebrate and nurture 
our thriving woodlands, prairies, and waters as world-class treasures 
that sustain our great metropolis. 

There's a lot to consider in the actual plan. Check out 
Stewards may find the "Technical report" (under the first tab, "The Plan") 
to be especially worth some thought.

Comments on this blog can also help the discussion.
Much education, listening, and support will be needed if this plan is to achieve its wise goals.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Plant Quests and Questions from 2013

These photos by Lisa Culp seemed worth
some reverence (and some thought) in the cold of winter.

Vestal Grove was home to little or no trout lily when we started. But we've thrown seed around, 
and once a plant's established it spreads underground dramatically. 

Hairy stargrass is another one that's hard to restore by seed, 
because the seed is so hard to get.
We've been raising hundreds in a garden, harvesting a little seed, 
but mostly digging and planting out garden-raised bulbs 
in widely scattered prairie, savanna, and woods areas. 
In a few measly years, if all goes well, each spot will be a patch.

The first little purple leaves of prairie betony are often the first spring color we see. Betony is now widespread, because the seeds are easy to gather, and the seeds do very well.
As the central buds unfold, large areas will be bright yellow.

Shooting star is in no rush. From seed, it takes a plant about ten years 
to grow big enough to bloom in the competition of the wild. When we started at Somme Prairie Grove we had only a few single plants. We've gathered some seed from each, but we let some blow around the parent plants. Now we have hundreds - widely scattered plants - 
and big patches where the first ones were. 

Of cream false indigo, we had none. We scattered seed found along railroad tracks. 
Now there are hundreds. These spread their own seed by rolling like tumble weeds when dry in fall.
(We also still pick and scatter a lot by hand, before the weevils can eat it all.)

A few plants of veiny wild pea showed up in our early surveys. Then we saw not a one for decades.
Deer eat it. Nor could we find seed from a single population within 15 miles, our first goal. 
Then in 2012, one plant showed itself where we'd been scything tall goldenrod. 
We put a cage on it, and in 2013 it was many stems needing many cages. Inspired and looking carefully, we found three more plants widely scattered. Now they all have cages.   

We have so many close-ups of the prairie white-fringed orchid.
Lisa decided to try to capture its relationship to the ecosystem. 

Characteristic of only the highest quality prairies, our few prairie lilies are still widely scattered. Every one came from seed gathered elsewhere and started for us by the Chicago Botanic Garden. 
We keep gathering seed and starting more. When there are enough to reproduce on their own, 
we'll have passed a very special milestone. 

Dr. Betz always told us that Leiberg's panic grass typifies the finest prairies.
This species has spread massively for us from the limited seed we've gathered. Its chocolate stamens and feathery pistils make gorgeous flowers, if you can appreciate the minute.

Is purple gerardia a natural plant for us, or not? Unlike slender gerardia, which we have by the thousands, this one has been absent, despite a bit of seed broadcast long ago. Lisa noticed just two plants blooming this year. Where did they come from? Very nice.

Wild plum flowers may be beautiful, but the fruits also have eye beauty (in addition to mouth beauty). 
Here in a tangle with grapes they remind us of how crucial mammals are to the savanna. 
Mammal disperse big seeds. Big fruits and nuts are designed for mammals. 

Of cardinal flower, we had very few, and mostly the deer ate them. We salvaged a few seeds 
and gave them to Bill Valentine who propagated them in his yard. 
Bill returned massive amounts of seed and now these beauties are plentiful in many areas. 
Plant fans - there's also an animal in this photo. See if you can find it. 

Another celebrity for us this year was rough white lettuce. 
We'd never seen it bloom at Somme Prairie Grove. But it wasn't a surprise this year, since we finally found nearby native seed and grew the corms for transplant. In this case, the seeds blow widely 
with the wind in their parachutes. It will be a treat to see where the new colonies appear.

Savanna blazing star is recognized by a) long stalks on the flower heads 
and b) flat, green leafy bracts. After much conservation work, 
this species may be ready to come off the Illinois threatened list.
Hint to plant fans: there's also an animal in this photo. Look carefully. 

When we started, we thought no black-soil fringed gentians survived within out 15-mile limit. 
So we made a deal with Dr. Betz, and Larry Hodak harvested 6 capsules 
from Markham Prairie. We paid back the seed with interest 
when nearly 200 plants thrived at Miami Prairie that very first year. 
Being annuals, they're vulnerable to difficult weather and over-abundant deer. 
Some years we've had none. Some years we've had thousands.

When I see a shot like this, I wish I was a pollinator. I want nectar. I want pollen.
Are the fringes just decoration? No, they're there to ward off pilfering ants.
Only welcome here are flying insects that spread the genes from plant to plant.

We hate to see the prairie gentian, because it's our last flower of the fall. 
We love to see it because that color is so achingly deep. 
Except when warm sunniness inspires the pollinators to fly, this gentian twists to close up tight. 
Bottle gentian never opens at all. Only bumblebees are strong enough to get inside and pollinate.
Gentians protect themselves from crawling bugs, perhaps just too numerous by late fall.
Over evolutionary time, three gentian species came up with three solutions.
Is there more to learn about this?

Thanks, Lisa, for another year's worth of treasures to love and ponder. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

WINTER REVIEW - 2013 in photos - animal edition

The 27 photos below, by Somme's "Photographer Laureate" and co-steward Lisa Culp, 
are highlights of another special year. Winter is a good time to study and think and plan. 
As you yourself think, consider having your own year of nature in favorite places, 
perhaps doing something special, in 2014.  

In winter, Somme's blue-spotted salamanders are tunneled deep in the soil, 
hibernating, waiting. As soon as spring melts the ice on our ponds, these slimy 
little sweethearts will be heading to the ponds to breed.

 The blackburnian warbler, in our winter, it is catching tree-top insects in Peru;
during the second week of May it will be at Somme;
all summer it will be bringing up babies in Canada.  

Congregations of spring peepers make so much noise as they sing for mates 
in Somme Woods ponds that they drown out the sounds of highways and airplanes. 
In the summer they'll climb around trees, looking for insects to eat, not so different 
from the blackburnian warbler. Note the suction-cup-like toe pads. 

Eastern bluebird hunts from a bur oak branch sprouting its first leaves of spring.
When these forest preserves were mostly dense buckthorn, no bluebirds nested here. Now multiple pairs nest annually in Somme Prairie, Somme Prairie Grove, and Somme Woods. 

That furry blob with incredible legs is a flower fly, 
busy pollinating one of spring's first wildflowers, toothwort. 

Could you recognize a rare Lincoln's sparrow? With a little practice, you could. 
Its upper breast is a warm buffy color. The streaks through the buff are thin and dark. 
Here it sits in a hawthorn. You could identify that too, by its very long, thin, short thorns. 

It surprises some people that vultures nest in Somme Woods. They hide the nests inside hollow fallen logs. Their big babies have no black and no red - just a clean elegant gray. Very handsome.

Scarlet tanagers have also returned to nest in Somme Woods for the first time in many years. 
They like the open oak woodlands that are the restoration goal of steward Linda Masters 
and all the steward volunteers. 

Another elegant and handsome creature, the eastern wood pewee.  

What's this plant doing in the animal edition? Something about that bug on the top open flower?
No, it's here to celebrate a potential. A rare butterfly, the silvery blue, is nearly gone from Illinois. Its caterpillars need this plant, the veiny pea. And after not being found for decades, this pea appeared in four places in Somme Prairie Grove this year. It gives us hope that the silvery blue may return too.

Not the silvery blue, but a similar little cutie, the summer azure.

Another plant to introduce a co-adapted animal.
Insects don't see red. Plants evolved with pollination by hummingbirds are red. Somme now has most of its original red flowers. Scarlet painted cup was finally re-introduced by seed in 2013. We'll keep our eyes open for it, possibly blooming in 2015. If so, the humming birds will pounce.

In fact it was only in 2013 - for the first time since we've been stewards - that there were enough humming birds for Lisa to be able to photograph two at a time. Not on sugar-water plastic feeders. But in thriving nature. Here their red beauty is cardinal flower.

The ruby throat of our hummer looks black in most lights.
But if you catch it just right, it's one of the most brilliant colors in nature.

Females and young have plain throats.
This juvenile male is just starting to get his first red feathers.
I wonder if his voice is changing too. 

One of Somme's many species of bumble bees drinking deeply of the nectar of great blue lobelia. 

But what kind of bee is this? The great conservation mentor Dr. Robert F. Betz always hoped that people would emerge to study specialties. We have people at Somme monitoring rare plants, birds, butterflies, frogs, and dragonflies. Who'll study the bees?
Betz also hoped people would study the flies. This one mimics a bee. 
There are so many amazing-looking species. Few study them. Discoveries are waiting.

 This photo shows paper wasps in the little shed where we keep our tools. My head passed within inches each time we retrieved or stored rakes, loppers, saws, whatever. Most species of bees and wasps won't bother you at all if you respect them. Which is a good idea.

 The orchard oriole is another rare bird that's returned to Somme's restored areas. 
Here both male and female look at Lisa with bugs in their mouths. That means 
they have babies near by. The parents seem friendly, but they're really worried 
that you're a predator of baby orioles, just as they're predators of bugs. 

Speaking of babies, Lisa found these curious young raccoons. 
Their mom would scold them if she found them being foolish like this. 

Tiger swallowtail on gayfeather.
Its caterpillars eat tree leaves; birds will eat most of them; but a few will become this.


Picture-wing fly. This is the one that creates the "bullet galls" on goldenrod stems. 


This chipmunk is eating his food and letting scraps fall on the oak branch. She doesn't clean up. 
Isn't it great that there's no "mess." It's all food on the plate. 
Some other little tiny animal will eat the scraps. 

In his spare time, this chipmunk is caching food for winter. 
Soon she'll be semi-hibernating - once in a while eating some stored nut.

We stewards spend the winter cutting brush, taking vacations, planning for next spring, 
and reaching out to possible new friends and colleagues. 
Captions of this blog are by Stephen Packard. Your comments are invited.