Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Twelve Animals To Save

Seventy wildlife conservationists met at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on January 31, 2017 for a Chicago Wilderness campaign to save a dozen Priority Species of the region’s critical habitats. This initiative is headed by 28 agencies and organizations. Goals includes measurable improvements in numbers and habitats for all 12 species in five years and beyond.

Species were chosen for their "geographic/biological" significance. In other words, "How important is work here to the future of this species?"

This post focuses on four of the priority species that live in oak savannas and woodlands:

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee 
Blue-spotted Salamander
Smooth Green Snake
Red-headed Woodpecker

Of course, saving the habitats for these species, if done well, will also conserve hundreds of other species of rare animals and plants.

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee 

This large furry bee was common in our prairies and savannas but has decreased by 95% (nationwide) in recent years. It is the first bee given Endangered status by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 

Local trends and threats are poorly known. If you (or volunteers you’re in touch with) might be willing to learn to recognize these bees, search for them, and report findings - go to Bee Spotter: https://beespotter.org/about

Allen Lawrence of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum explained that bumble bees are especially good pollinators of some plant species because of their impressive “buzz pollination” abilities. They unhinge their wings and buzz to shake off large amounts of pollen that lesser bees don’t get.

Lawrence listed three threats to this species:
- pathogen spillover 
- habitat quality
- sub-lethal effects of pesticides

The big surprise here was the threat of pathogen spillover from commercial bumble bees. There has been a steady increase in the commercial rearing of bumble bees for pollination. This has not always been a blessing. Farmers are allowed to transport commercially-reared bumblebees onto their land, for pollinating crops. 
This has spread diseases, with consequences for local populations of wild bees. The Xerces Society submitted a petition to the USDA requesting laws to protect wild bumble bees from disease by regulating the movement and health of commercial bumblebees. You can read more about this issue on this page and this one.

The habitat quality problem is the result of invasives, of course. If buckthorn shades out all the flowers, the bees lose the diverse food sources they depend on. Thus, “SAVE THE RUSTY PATCH” is one more good reason to restore and maintain diverse prairies and savannas. 

Is there any place where politics doesn’t rear its ugly head? When the Fish & Wildlife rep at this meeting was asked if Donald Trump’s recent decree would block the agency from regulating threats to this Federal endangered species, he said, “Yes.” But that shouldn’t stop us from voluntary work to protect this species in yards and forest preserves, as Chicago Wilderness proposes. And that’s the main help this deserving bee needs anyway. 

Smooth Green Snake

Fairly common until recently, this soft and gentle snake is recognized in Illinois as a Species in Greatest Conservation Need. It is on the Endangered list in Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio. 

It has been found in 25 Chicago Wilderness locations in the past five years, but researchers have found nest failure rates ranging from 42 to 86% over the last three seasons.  Of the failed nests, 70% of failure was due to abiotic conditions like desiccation or mold. The other "~20-30% was due to predation (typically by insects) or unknown fate," according to team leader Allison Sacerdote-Velat also of Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.  The conservation team is also concerned about unscrupulous collectors stealing snakes as pets as well as the spread of snake fungal disease. Research is under way to determine best management practices for green snake habitats.

Why such a high nest failure? One possible culprit is the lack of large diameter rotting logs, which keep the eggs moist and hidden. To increase this species’ odds in the short run, three agencies (DuPage, Lake, and McHenry Forest Preserve and Conservation Districts) do what they call "head-starting." A Head Start Program for smooth green snakes consists of incubating and hatching out the eggs - either through captive breeding or through collection and protection of "wild nests or wild-sired nests" to assure that eggs don’t desiccate and die - or go down the gullets of predators. Young snakes released into good quality prairie or savanna habitat are thought to do well.

To help monitor this species, citizen-scientists are encouraged to record sightings on Herp-Mapper at: https://www.herpmapper.org.  It's important to click “mask location” so that the data can't be used by poachers. At present, the smooth green snake project doesn’t have a designated project page for this part of the effort. It is planned for the coming year. Then the information will automatically go to the research team, which may get in touch with you for follow-up.

Red-headed Woodpecker

This flashy woodpecker was also common a century ago. But it "declined by over 2% per year from 1966 to 2014, resulting in a cumulative decline of 70%," according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Worse. to as been declining at 5% per year in the Chicago region. That can go on only so long, if sustainable populations are to survive. The red-head is “a signature species of a singular habitat” according to John Legge of Illinois Nature Conservancy. Like a great many other plant and animal species that depend on oak woodlands and savannas, this one is threatened by habitat loss due to excess shade from invasive species, both native and non-native. According to Legge, “In my experience many people hear ‘invasives’ and only think of non-native invasives, but in oak systems invasion by sugar maples (and other species more typical of non-oak communities) due to lack of fire and other disturbance are as much of an issue.”

Legge sees this flashy woodpecker as a symbol of oak ecosystem recovery. “This is a species that responds well as oak habitats are opened up,” he said. 



The Bird Conservation Network’s Breeding Bird Survey has helped establish recent trends and nesting sites.

Legge recommends a good summary of one of the more notable regional efforts to recover oak woodland habitat that would benefit this species along with many others at: http://www.lcfpd.org/woodlands/

Many conservationists focus on publicly owned land, but Legge pointed out that 70% of oak systems in our region are on private land, so private landowners with oak habitat can potentially do a lot for the species.  A good summary of a broad regional approach is the CW Oak Ecosystem recovery plan, which is dense but has good info: https://www.dnr.illinois.gov/conservation/IWAP/Documents/Chicago%20Wilderness%20Oak%20Ecosystem%20Recovery%20Plan.pdf 

The CW Priority Species page for the Red-headed Woodpecker has some fun and cute contributions to outreach on this species: http://www.chicagowilderness.org/page/redheadedwoodpecker

Blue-spotted Salamander

“These salamanders may be locally common by perception. But perception may be wrong,” said team leader John Crawford of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.

Key threats are the loss of ephemeral ponds and adjacent oak woodland habitat. Blue-spotted salamanders are excellent indicators of the health of ponds and adjacent woodlands. As with the woodpeckers, saving the salamanders goes hand-in-hand with restoring the health of the whole ecosystem.

Salamander lovers with contaminated boots may pose another threat - the spread of disease from pond to pond. Crawford takes special care: "We follow a pretty strict disease prevention/transmission protocol (as do most researchers) when sampling multiple wetlands. After each wetland is sampled we scrub our boots, waders, etc. with a 10% bleach solution which has been scientifically shown to eliminate chytrid, ranaviruses, etc. Additionally, all sampling items (dipnets, traps, etc.) are also sterilized with the bleach solution after use."

At Somme Woods in 2015, forest preserve volunteers noticed that large numbers of salamanders were dying from road salt. Forest preserve conservation staff then implemented a program that successfully protected the amphibians and the ponds from salt in 2016 and 2017. Yes, friends of nature. With a little effort, conservation works!

For more on the salamanders of Somme Woods, check out: 
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For more on the Priority Species program, check out: http://www.chicagowilderness.org/?page=PrioritySpecies

Chicago Wilderness Priority Species Campaign

The eight other species and their habitats:

Blandings turtle – prairie marshes
Bobolink – moist prairies and marshes (especially those burned frequently)
Henslow’s sparrow – rank prairies (that aren't burned annually)
Ellipse mussel – cool streams
Little brown bat – caves, hollow trees, and air with flying insects
Monarch – prairies, savannas, gardens, and anywhere that milkweed grows and flowers bloom
Mottled sculpin – clean streams
Regal fritillary – prairies with specialized violets (especially bird's foot and arrow-leaved violets)

Priority Species Campaign Lead Partners: 
Audubon Great Lakes| The Field Museum | Illinois Audubon Society| Illinois Natural History Survey | Lake County Forest Preserves | Lincoln Park Zoo | National Great Rivers Research and Education Center | lllinois Nature Conservancy | Openlands | Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Advisors: Chicago Botanic Garden | Forest Preserve District of Kane County | Shedd Aquarium | US Forest Service

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Thanks to Allison Sacerdote-Velat and John Legge for providing additional input for this post.

The photos in this post are from the Chicago Wilderness website.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Animals, Cuteness, and Pain

We who love nature have conflicts over cuteness and pain. We give animals human attributes. Identifying with animals isn't all bad.

Whenever I'm with a group and have an opportunity to grab a white-footed mouse, a meadow vole, or a smooth green snake, I do - for Show and Tell. I apologize to the animal, which means nothing to it, but it means something to me.

The Morton Arboretum's Ray Schulenburg, a great conservationist and ethicist, was critical of people picking up animals. He said it was demeaning to the animal. Just because we have the power to dominate them against their will, should we? He said, No!

But I want to show the mouse (or snake or salamander) to the people with me because, chances are, some of them will gain some level of empathy they hadn't had. Regularly, people start out "Argghh! Get that away from me!" and slowly move to "Well, ewwww, well, could I look a little closer?" And then, "Can I hold it?" Soon they'll be purring, "It's soft. It's beautiful. I never thought I'd like ..." a snake or a mouse or for some, even a strange mushroom.

Many people ultimately feel these experiences are valuable to them. Identifying with animals helps them care more for life and its future on this planet.

Later in this post, there will be photos of two recently dead animals. They died violently. If you don't want to be subjected to animals looking more like meat, don't read past the bird's nest with nut.

Most people never see a mouse, or snake, or salamander. Such animals need to be shown to them. On the other hand, they do see birds.


Birds are the great ambassadors of conservation, because they're out and about - visible during the day time. Not nocturnal, or under logs.

They also leave evidence as nests. The weaving below was the only evidence of an animal I saw on one winter walk. The maker was "rascally" or "cute" in that it made off with a piece of flagging that we had tied somewhere to mark some restoration need - and the bird wove it into her nest.


To take a better photo (to show you) I pulled out some dead leaves that had fallen in, and then saw another surprise.


Lying in the nest was a hickory nut. It didn't fall there, because the nest was far from any trees in a shrub copse. It was carried there by a white-footed mouse while it was storing autumn food away for the hard times of winter. Once I found a whole nest full of pure tick-trefoil seeds - little beans, stored by some industrious mouse for a snowy, hungry day. Wild mice are cute, precious, and a main food of hawks, snakes, owls, and coyotes, which do them violence.

Winter is harsh and raw, and challenging to delicate senses. We don’t see colorful flowers or butterflies. Even the birds that stay for winter in the temperate zone lose their bright colors and tend toward brown or black and white. All the mammals are mostly black or white or brown or gray.


Young animals have their first (and often their last) major struggles in their first winter. Later, we found the remains of a young red-tailed hawk. 


It still had its juvenile brown tail. We at Somme had been watching that hawk all fall. It was this year's baby, relatively curious, tame, and friendly. It had itself "viciously" torn apart a great many white-footed mice during its short life. But great-horned owls eat hawks - that don't know better than to sit on exposed perches during the night. Now this one was gone. Its parent flew nearby.


Some of us found the corpse fascinating - an opportunity to see this raptor up close. Some, who treasured nature when it was beautiful or tender, now were sad, bummed out, conflicted.


I myself am conflicted by the great-horn generally. At Somme we rarely hear or see a screech owl or a barred owl, largely, we believe, because the great-horned owls eat them all. The only long-eared owl I've ever seen at Somme was lying in pieces beneath a great-horned's perch.

We used to have foxes, but the coyotes killed them or scared them out into odd niches in nearby suburbs. Most preserves are not large or varied enough to have their full diversity of animals. The great-horned is a super-adaptable omnivore that, in a simplified habitat, wipes out smaller owls and certain other species.

But overall, larger predators mean healthier nature and richer biodiversity. Would that our little preserve could have eagles and wolves.


Colorful patches of coyote urine and blood puzzled me at first. I felt bad for this predator (that rips apart cuddly-looking baby raccoons and opossums). Did some human miscreant injure our coyote in some way? Fortunately, steward Paul Swanson could enlighten me when he saw that photo. As female coyotes are getting ready to breed, their urine starts to show blood. "When a male coyote loves a female coyote very much," the two travel and hunt together, and every time the female pees, the male pees next to it. Very tender.

Coyotes help the ecosystem big time. When foxes were the biggest predator we had, there were so excessively many meso-predators (especially raccoons and opossums) that some snakes and ground-nesting bird species were in danger of being wiped out. Coyote predation restored a more natural balance.

Coyotes kill fawns. They also eat most of the Chicago region's adult deer, sooner or later. But they don't kill them. Most are killed by cars (or sharp-shooters working for the Village or the Forest Preserve District if there's a good culling program, which most preserves need, in the absence of the Potawatomi, wolves, and mountain lions).

Also at a workday, Russ Sala noticed what looked like a deer lying on the railroad tracks. We investigated.


A commuter train had cut this young buck in half. How horrible is this! What a way to die! And yet, would you rather die by wolves, or sharp-shooters?

In the absence of any kind of predator, deer become so over-abundant that they utterly destroy many species of shrub, bird, orchid, and other victims.

So I feel horrified for the deer when I see a dead one, but at the same time I feel glad for the ecosystem. Doing conservation and loving nature means coming to terms with these conflicts. I pulled both halves of the deer off the tracks and into the forest. Would it have been "more natural" for it to stay where it was? To leave it there felt wrong. When I checked back two days later, the coyotes had eaten all the best parts. Over the winter they and others would leave nothing but bones.


Bones seem to grow more abstract and more eloquent as they get older.


For me at least, they are not mostly reminders of death. They remind of life, complexity, richness, and the honor of being a human who can enjoy, and try to do some good, as the world turns.

Photo Credits
Mouse: Eriko Kojima
Nuthatch: Lisa Culp Musgrave
Others: my cell phone.