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:

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:  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:

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: 

The CW Priority Species page for the Red-headed Woodpecker has some fun and cute contributions to outreach on this species:

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: 

For more on the Priority Species program, check out:

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


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.


David Cordray said...


Another informative post. I have seen a few rusty patched bumble bees in prairie plantings which is encouraging. As you stated, red headed woodpeckers are quick to accept newly restored (structure wise) oak savannas. With restoration, we are having good luck in bringing this woodpecker back to woodlots where it had not been seen in decades.

Thanks, David

Jim said...

Good stuff! Thanks for continuing to share info about your passions, Stephen!

Jim Reynolds
Gold Canyon, AZ

Anonymous said...

This is interesting, thanks. You tell the why and what, but I wonder about the how. As you know, we have several of these species where I’m steward. Is this a campaign that will result in Chicago Wilderness helping out on individual sites, or might we hope this group will have an influence at the FPD in this regard? Or perhaps an intervention as to how the site should be managed in order to provide some additional protection? Will there be trade-offs in what we can get in fire in order to protect these species?

I didn't know that about the green snake eggs. That's very sad. We'll have to cut a few trees just to let them lay and rot for them. It surprised me that you put them in the oak savannas when we've seen them mainly in the prairie. We'll have to keep an eye open for them in the oaks.

Stephen Packard said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

The "how" is not easy to summarize. That's partly because it's "early" yet. Indications of the "The How" are already on the Chicago Wilderness web pages for Priority Species. But when you have many organizations trying to work together on something, the planning process may take months and years. The hope is that in time a lot of diverse resources then get focused where they're needed. In time, many kinds of helpful influences and motivations can come into play. For example, when a successful initiative has been worked out by one agency and gets a lot of positive notice, then it can be easier for staff or volunteers at another agency to get approval to do something similar.

Fire? Yes, there are always trade-offs with fire. Every burn stresses or eliminates some individuals you'd like to protect while it's helping some other individuals (plants or animals) that need that help (and may be higher priority). So it's always a balance.

As for logs for green snakes - they're not necessary. It was suggested that they could help savanna populations. But there are large grasslands with no logs that have plentiful smooth green snakes. They must have other tricks that work there.

One good thing that's likely to happen with the Priority Species campaign is that increased research ought to provide us with more specific knowledge on all these kinds of questions.

James McGee said...

You peeked my interest in the nesting habits of smooth green snakes. As I was reading information on the species I came across an interesting fact. Smooth green snakes are known to hibernate in abandoned ant mounds. Turtles also use old ant mounds, but as a place to lay their eggs. Some snakes are even know to hibernate in active ant mounds.

I've been to lots of FPCC lands in Northwest Cook County with many ant mounds. Unfortunately, I have not seen a smooth green snake since I was a kid living in Nebraska. If the FPCC wanted to participate in introduction efforts they would have many good choices for locations.

Deborah Antlitz said...

Chuck Westcott, the first and long-time director of Crabtree Nature Center in NW Cook County, said that the previous property owners (prior to EPA and pesticide regulations) used intensive insecticides on their estate, so that in all his years he only saw garter snakes there. Just down the road the inter-connected multi-former-owner Spring Creek preserves have a decent variety of snake species. Also tree frogs were not known from Crabtree until the mid 00's: incidentally that is when I began to live near a nature preserve with abundant tree frogs, and commute via Crabtree, and tree frogs were observed on several occasions to hitch rides on vehicles. Snakes of course can not hitchhike so well. Green snakes are in Paris, not so sure about the NW which was heavy agricultural practices

James McGee said...

I remembered later I had seen a good number of smooth green snakes when I visited a wetland in Pennsylvania many years ago. Now that I think about it, I also saw one on a trail in a park in McHenry County.

I read on a herpetology forum that someone found a few smooth green snakes not too far east of the Northwest region. However, I've never seen one in the local preserves I visit most often. This makes me wonder why Lake County, Du Page County, and McHenry County are involved with this reintroduction effort and not Cook County? I know the problem is not a lack of good sites.

Deborah Antlitz said...

Indeed, if there is a problem it is not with the sites.

Observations over decades show too things: small snakes do not seem to disperse or migrate well in their own; their presence or absence may relate to past land abuse hat is no more; in areas where they survived land use history they thrive quite well, but if lost from a patch have difficulty slithering back. But I think if put back in fields where they are absent they would now readily thrive.

Larry Hodak said...

A liitle off-topic but why hasn't there been a push to reintroduce turkey into the oak woodlands and savannas? It seems the Somme complex is large enough to support them.

Stephen Packard said...

On turkeys, many years ago some of us did push for the restoration of turkeys. Whatever authorities there were who worked on that said that the turkey restoration programs were all oriented to hunting, and since there's no hunting in the forest preserves, then all the permitting and logistics wouldn't work out. At the same time, people said that turkeys were headed our way, down from Wisconsin through Lake and McHenry Counties. So perhaps they'll just show up?

James McGee said...

The entire county is surrounded by wild turkey sightings. I've even heard reports that they have been seen in Cook County. One must ask why all surrounding counties have resident populations but there are none in Cook County. I think our high coyote population is keeping them out of the area.

Deborah Antlitz said...

A few years back a turkey showed up at Spring Creek. Many years ago a pair of turkeys made the rounds of Barrington and palatine deer grove preserves. Will county south of the canal gets quite a few sightings. Palos if restored would be the best habitat for them.

Larry Hodak said...

The North Branch Restoration Project is celebrating their 40th anniversary this summer. That's a long time to wait for turkeys.

James McGee said...

They have been spotted as close as the Des Plaines River at River Grove.

Often the results of reintroduction efforts is the animal simply takes off for parts unknown. The good news is that our area is surrounded by sightings and animals are being pushed into it. I think you will have turkeys in the North Branch in a few years. Some of them will discover all the bird feeders in the area and will surely return.

If you wanted to keep any toms passing through the area from leaving all that is needed is a domestic hen in an enclosure. :) Usually when I have visited a nature education center with wild turkeys on display their free ranging cousins are nearby.