Grounding/Earthing

Things happen in threes.  Have you experienced this?  My most recent threesome has been conversations on Grounding, aka Earthing.  Since this seems to be a trend that is on the rise yet again (it’s been known about for over 2000 years, and Nikola Tesla was a believer in its value), I thought I’d do a little more research into it and share my findings with you.

Photo credit: https://fablefeed.com/health/15-benefits-of-walking-barefoot/

Photo credit: https://fablefeed.com/health/15-benefits-of-walking-barefoot/

I first encountered the concept of grounding about two or three years ago while working on a “Forest Bathing” program.  The two concepts sort of go hand-in-hand, in that they both deal with human connections with some aspect of the Earth, both have scientific support, and for most folks they are both a bit “out there.”

If one accepts that we are all energy, and that electricity is the powering force for this energy of life, then grounding makes complete sense.  If one is not on board with these concepts, however, then this is the stuff of science fiction.

The basic idea is this: in our lives, our bodies build up excess positive charges, known as free radicals, from natural processes, but also from the electromagnetic radiation of all the electrical stuff around us – cell phones, power lines, computers, televisions, radio signals, appliances, the wiring in your house.  Now, free radicals are not, in and of themselves, bad things.  Free radicals are a natural part of your body’s operation, and their job is to help combat things like bacteria and viruses.  However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and when you get too many free radicals zooming about inside you, they can lead to health problems, such as inflammation and chronic disease (think heart disease and diabetes).

Meanwhile, the Earth has a surplus, or reservoir, of charged free electrons.  Electrons, if you remember from high school chemistry, carry a negative charge.  Apparently, when we touch the Earth with our bare skin (most commonly walking outside barefoot), these negatively charged free electrons are taken up by our bodies and cancel out the free radicals within us.  The result is a reduction of inflammation in the body, which leads to improved healing, reduction in stress (cortisol levels decrease), reduced hypertension, et al.  They say it even improves one’s sleep. 

If you look online, you can see videos of the blood moving in people’s vessels before and after grounding.  Before shots show blood cells are clumped together and moving sluggishly – this is known as having sticky cells.  After about 30 minutes of grounding, the blood cells are zipping right along solo – no more, or vastly reduced, clumping. 

The study that I find most fascinating deals with grounding and plants.  Scientists have taken regular plants (house plants, sunflowers) and have placed a grounding wire in one, while the other is left alone as the “control.”  The other end of the grounding wire is stuck in the ground.  Plants that are grounded grow faster and are more lush than the control.  Likewise, cut flowers last longer in a vase if they are grounded than those that are not.  It’s fascinating.

Up until the last 100 years or so, grounding happened naturally, for most people still had daily connections with the Earth, often through growing their food (gardening), but also when they walked outside.  It is said that the creation of the sneaker (rubber soles, which serve as insulators) was the first step in the decline of our connection with the Earth.  Industrialism runs a close second – people were outside a lot less.

Of course, this is hardly the time of year to promote running around barefoot outdoors (I’ve tried it…I don’t recommend it).  The good news, however, is that there are other options.  There are a variety of products out there that you can hook up to either the grounding wire of your house (via our outlets), or by running a wire out your window and into the ground.  Some are pads you can place under your computer keyboard, some are sheets and/or blankets you can put on your bed.  There are even bands you can wear around your wrist or ankle.  The key is that you have to have your bare skin touching the surface of the material (which eliminates the chair pad if you are in a multi-person office). 

Two summer ago, I put together a plan for a summer camp where we would encourage the campers to go barefoot.  It was going to be a bit of an experiment to see if there was a noticeable difference in how the campers felt and behaved.  Sadly, that camp never materialized, but I encourage you all to give it a try next summer.  I know that as a kid, I ran around barefoot much of the summer (much to my mother’s great dismay), and I spent three summers barefoot in the Adirondacks where I worked at a residential summer camp.  I don’t do it much anymore – my yard here is full of Norway spruce needles (not conducive to barefooting).  I may have to rectify that.

We are indeed creatures of this Earth, and it seems to me that we are connected in more ways than most of us can see or feel.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how different things would be if we all knew and acknowledged these connections.

Feed the Birds

This last week of mild weather lulled us all into a false sense of bliss, I think.  Yesterday it was in the 60s (!), and this morning, when I went out to walk the dog, it was significantly colder; in fact, not only were my layers not quite enough, but I really wished I had worn a hat and brought along a scarf!

So imagine what our wildlife must be going through.  

"In the old days," the gradual cooling of the seasons between the end of summer and the start of winter helped plants and animals alike get ready for the long, cold Dark, but these days, with the roller coaster weather that seems to have become the norm, it is difficult for anything to be ready for winter.  What can we do to help?

One of the traditional activities of winter is feeding the birds.  We buy (or make) feeders, fill them with seed, hang them out in the trees, and wait for the birds to arrive.   It really is that simple.  And, I suspect that if we put out some really good quality food for the birds now, it will help them be prepared when the temperatures suddenly dip.

DSC_0357.JPG

I have learned that if I am only going to put out one kind of seed, black oil sunflower seed is the best choice.  It is high in fat, all birds like it and all can eat it.  Grey-striped sunflower seed is also good, but it is larger and has a harder shell, so the smaller birds cannot open it to get to the seed inside (grosbeaks, however, love it).  My second go-to is peanuts - out of the shell.  Again, all birds love this high-fat food:  bluejays fly off with their gullets stuffed with whole peanut kernels, while the smaller chickadees and nuthatches peck off small bits at a time to eat. 

Next, I go for nyjer, or thistle seeds.  These small seeds are frequented by the finches, but it is expensive, and they are just as happy to eat the black oil sunflower seeds, so if finances are tight, I skip this one.  Finally, I round out my offerings with suet cakes (which can easily be made at home if you collect your bacon drippings and other fats drained from the meats your cook).  Most birds enjoy suet, but it is a real draw for woodpeckers - always a bonus at your feeder station.

If I'm feeling generous, I'll also put out peanuts in the shell.  I've had a lot of fun watching blue jays puzzle out how to get them out of the coiled wire feeders.  This morning, however, I found one of my peanut-in-the-shell feeders on the ground.  Whether this was from the high winds or a rambunctious squirrel, I'm not quite sure, but I may be rethinking that one.

Where I used to live in northern New York, hunters routinely put the rib cages of their deer up in the trees.  These fat and meat offerings attract not only most of the birds, but also bring in other amazing visitors, like martens and their smaller weasel kin.  

The coups de grâce for your bird feeding station is water.  If you can keep a birdbath filled with unfrozen water, the birds will be your best friends.

As the gift-giving season approaches, it's kind of fun to make your own bird food and/or bird feeders.  These are gifts you can give to friends and relatives (especially great for young children to make and give), but they can also be a gift for your winged neighbors.

A classic DIY bird feeder is the peanut butter pine cone.  PLEASE - if you make these, you want to do them right.  You see, the oil in the peanut butter can be a genuine problem for birds, because it can get into their feathers and not only make a mess, but it can wreak havoc on their insulation.  So, if you are going to use peanut butter in any of your bird treats, be sure to mix it with cornmeal, or even oat meal.  These ingredients will absorb the oil and make it much less hazardous for the birds.

Another great way to make stand-alone birdfood/feeders is to mix gelatin (or agar agar) with your birdseed (you can find lots of recipes online).  This mix can be pressed into a bundt cake pan or even molded by hand.  Be sure to leave a hole so you can add string for hanging your creation.

Good foods to use in your homemade bird mixes are lard/suet (every bird needs fat - it is high energy and lasts), peanuts, and sunflower seeds.  Dried fruits are also good - you can chop them up and add them to your homemade suet cake mixes.  Insects are a high protein food that the birds will love you for - buy some mealworms and either put them out in a bowl or mix them (dried) into your suet cakes.

You want to avoid filler items that have little to no nutritional value (most birds will not eat them anyway, so you might as well save yourself some money and not buy them).  These include golden and red millet, flax seed, rapeseed, and canary seed.   Quite often, premixed bird feed is loaded with these fillers (read the labels).  This is why these mixes are cheap - you get what you pay for - and the birds will kick the fillers onto the ground as they search for the good stuff (sunflower seeds).  

More than once people have asked me: "What happens to my birds if I go away - will they starve if the feeders are not filled?"  The good news is, no, your birds will be perfectly fine.  Odds are they visit a number of feeders in the neighborhood, not just yours, plus they know where the "wild" food is located.  So you need not worry about "your birds" if you want to take a vacation or if the bird seed runs out and it's a few days before you can get to the store.

So, put up a feeder or two, fill it with seed, and see who comes calling.  If you start now, you will be ready to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count when Valentine's Day rolls around!

Happy feeding!

Cabinet of Curiosities

(photo credit: odgamer.wordpress.com)

(photo credit: odgamer.wordpress.com)

The mid-1800s through the early-1900s was the heyday for the study of natural history.  Men and women explored the outdoors in droves, learning about birds, plants, and all other aspects of the natural world.  Collecting was huge, but not often done in a sustainable manner (for example, birds were usually shot and then identified, and their eggs and nests were also collected; many of these items also made their way onto hats, but that's a whole different blog).  Wasp nests decorated corners of rooms.  Ferns were hugely popular in collections (a hobby known as Pteridomania) and were grown in miniature glass houses called Wardian Cases.  Many a Victorian home had shelves or rooms that were known as Cabinets of Curiosities.  The outdoors was “in.”

In many ways, I can relate to these Victorians, for I, too, love to collect natural objects.  My house and my office are full of things I have found out in the field:  acorns, rocks, shells, leaves, galls, exoskeletons, bones, sand.  I often bring objects in so I can identify them at my leisure, or to incorporate in programs – original objects are terrific teaching tools.  But in truth, some things I collect just because they fascinate me.

Legally, I am “allowed” to collect some of this stuff because I work at an educational facility that has the proper state and federal permits to possess such things as feathers and nests.  What most people do not realize is that these items (all parts of or belonging to our native birds, with the exception of game birds like turkeys) are protected by law…a result of that very collection (and hat) craze of the Victorian era.  Many bird populations were nearing critically low levels during this time and we have them around today only because laws were passed that made their collection illegal.  So, please be aware that unless you have the proper permits, you cannot legally have most bird nests, feathers, or eggs in your collections.

Children are natural collectors; many’s the time we have had school groups here and found students with their pockets jam-packed with acorns, walnuts and more.  I’ve had students who really wanted to take frogs home with them, or even worms.  Rocks and sticks naturally find themselves in children’s hands.  We are by nature drawn to picking up stuff that we find; more than once I have turned around to find a student has plucked the flower I was just showing them. I imagine this is an ancestral habit from when we were a nomadic species, and by investigating our surroundings we could determine if objects could be used for food or as tools to either help us get food more easily or to protect ourselves from those who wanted to eat us!

Today nature centers tend to discourage the urge to collect stuff, and in many cases this is quite reasonable, for if every student or visitor took a pocket full of souvenirs home, there would be a lot less here for others to enjoy (not to mention the impact it would have on the plants and animals themselves).  However, I often wonder if we have taken this “hands off” dictate too far.  If we do not encourage children to pick up and touch things, or to go off the trail to explore, we are putting just one more barrier between them and the natural world.  And then we wonder why interest in the outdoors is waning.

As with all things, I think there is a happy medium here.  There should places where we encourage visitors to step off the trail and go exploring.  And it really is okay if a child pockets a walnut husk, or takes home an acorn cap that she has learned to use as a whistle.  For it is only by exploring and getting our hands dirty that we engage our minds, learn about the natural world, and develop a love for it that will carry on into adulthood.  I think every child should have his or her own cabinet of curiosities – a shoebox under the bed that is stuffed with found rocks, bones, and cicada exoskeletons.  These will be the memories that tie him or her to the outdoors, memories that when accessed as an adult will hopefully trigger the desire to protect our planet.

With caution and respect, good sense and where permitted, collect on. 

Cranes Fly

A Whooping Crane, accompanied by Sandhill Cranes, above McHenry County, Illinois, during autumn migration, November 15, 2017. Photo by Ken Wick.

A Whooping Crane, accompanied by Sandhill Cranes, above McHenry County, Illinois, during autumn migration, November 15, 2017. Photo by Ken Wick.

Last Sunday was clear and cold, with a brisk breeze out of the north:  perfect weather to support the migration of one of North America’s largest birds, the Sandhill Crane. At home that day, I could hear the unmistakable sound of bugling cranes filtering through the closed windows of my house. Cranes call to one another in flight, keeping in close contact as they make their migratory way up and down the central corridor of the continent following the seasons. Their clarion calls can be heard for miles, a guttural sound that can be described as profoundly primordial. As I do every year, I ran out the door and stood, shivering, craning my neck (pun intended) to view the majestic birds as they swirled and careened above me, “kettling” as they sought a fresh thermal to carry them along on their continuing southward journey.

My early exposure to Sandhill Cranes occurred years ago while I was living in central Wisconsin. There were woodlands, prairie remnants and hayfields, along with a crescent of wetland, surrounding the house that I lived in. I would slip out of the house in the morning, startled to find Sandhill Cranes, tall as deer, standing in the fields, gleaning insects and seeds. They would fly low over the house, like some prehistoric dream creatures, dropping in to land nearby. I was captivated.

Two species of cranes occur in North America; their respective stories seem at first to be at odds, but my hope is that the relative abundance of Sandhill Cranes today may presage the recovery of the endangered Whooping Crane. As recently as the 1930s there were but a couple dozen nesting pair of Sandhills throughout the whole state of Wisconsin. They were absent from Illinois until later in the century. Now, no longer over-hunted, Sandhill Cranes have seen their population numbers rebound dramatically over the past several decades. The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, estimates today’s population of Sandhill Cranes (including all five subspecies) to number more than 650,000 and increasing.

The fate of their larger cousin, the Whooping Crane, remains in question. The total number of Whooping Cranes in the world today is just 612, including 161 that are in captivity. Yet, that is a great improvement; the Whooping Crane population reached an all-time low of just 21 individuals in 1944, perilously close to extinction. Recovery has been gradual:  in the 1970s the population remained precariously low, at about 50 birds; by the late 1980s there were more than a hundred Whooping Cranes. Federal protection, habitat improvements, captive breeding, and assisted migration have contributed to the recovery process.

Sadly, illegal shootings still claim Whooping Cranes every year; more troubling is the revelation that most such takings are intentional, with shooters well aware that they are taking a protected species. Other threats to Whooping Cranes include hazards of migration, such as predation and power lines. Nest disturbances can inhibit reproduction, as can low genetic diversity caused by the depletion of the population in the 20th century.

The eastern migratory population of Whooping Cranes numbers 93 individuals that mingle with the Sandhill Cranes in mixed flocks during spring and fall migration, traveling over northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin twice a year. The Whoopers are easily discerned as they are bright white, with black wing tips and are noticeably larger than the gray or brownish Sandhills. While Sandhill Cranes typically may be 4 to 4 ½ feet tall, Whoopers can attain a height of 5 feet.

We’ve seen (or more probably heard) Sandhill Cranes migrating across northern Illinois for decades, but for many years they did not nest south of the Wisconsin state line. Setting them on the road to recovery, Sandhill Cranes in 1989 were listed as Endangered in Illinois. In 1999 their improved status was listed as Threatened. They were delisted in 2009. For the past dozen or so years I have taken part in the annual Crane Count organized by the International Crane Foundation. This Citizen Science initiative has helped generate a clearer picture of crane population trends throughout the Midwest. Today, among the northern-tier counties of Illinois, Winnebago County reportedly has the highest count of Sandhiill Cranes with 429 observed this past spring. (For comparison, the count revealed 51 cranes in McHenry County and 63 in Lake County.) The fact that we now see Sandhill Cranes during the summer, rearing their young, is testimony to the success of our conservation efforts.

With continued efforts toward protection, habitat improvement, and public education, it is hoped that Whooping Cranes will follow the example set by the recovery of Sandhill Cranes. Our lives will be wilder and much enriched thereby.

Behold, the Box Elder Bug

“You have bugs on your window,” a second grader said very quietly to me the other day, pointing at the windows behind me in our classroom.  I turned and looked, and she was right, the windows were crawling with red and black insects, but there were far fewer than there had been! 

Image from abcwildlife.com

Image from abcwildlife.com

Severson Dells is not alone when it comes to the annual invasion of box elder bugs (BEBs).  Members of the True Bug Family (Hemiptera), these stunningly colored black and red insects are the bane of many a home-owner when fall arrives.  Why are they here, what do they want, and why won’t they leave us alone?

Like with so many animals that have been labeled as “pests” in the eyes of humanity, our troubles with box elder bugs are ultimately our own fault.  Left to their own devices, they would be perfectly happy to leave us alone (see paragraph seven).

Box elder bugs, Boisea trivittata, are one of our native insects (bet you didn’t see that coming).  The family to which they belong, Rhopalidae, is known as the scentless plant bug family.  Its members are notorious for lacking the scent gland that is found on the hind legs of most true bugs.  However, unlike the rest of its kin, the BEB is not unscented.  In fact, it is apparently famous for its stink, which it produces only when pestered – no doubt it is part of its defense mechanism.  Biologists theorize that the production of this smell, and subsequent bad taste, is what allows BEBs to congregate in such large numbers in the fall without fear of being eaten.  The red and black coloring no doubt serves to advertise that it is not tasty, just like the coloration of ladybugs, milkweed bugs and monarch butterflies.

In the spring, the females lay their bright yellow eggs in the crevices of bark of the box elder tree.  The eggs turn red as the embryo develops, and within two weeks the youngster emerges.  Also red and black, just like its parents, the juvenile goes through several instars as a nymph before finally turning into an adult.  All the while, it is feeding on its host plant.  (Like aphids, BEBs have piercing and sucking mouthparts, designed to stab into the “flesh” of the plant on which they feed and suck out its juice.  The food of choice for BEBs is the seeds of the box elder tree, although they are also known to nip and sip from the tree’s leaves, flowers, and tender twigs.) 

So, summer arrives, the nymphs grow and eat, and eat and grow.  All good things must come to an end, however, and soon summer turns in to fall.  As the cooler weather approaches, the BEBs seek someplace new to live.  Remember I said that if left to their own devices, BEBs would happily not have any interactions with us?  It’s true.  In the wild, minus the presence of humans, these insects seek out rocks, loose bark, or hollow logs to crawl into or underneath for the winter.  If it is dry and sheltered, they will be happy.  People, however, have moved in to their habitats, and as we have altered the landscape, BEBs, like so many other animals, have had to adapt.  And lo! and behold – our houses provide dry, sheltered spaces that are just perfect for these insects to overwinter!  In they come – through cracks in the foundation, holes by utility wires or plumbing, old window screens.  They crawl under siding, and nestle by loose windows.  South- and west-facing walls are preferred real estate, for they get good and toasty on cool days when the sun is out.

BEBs are not going to hurt you and are not going to eat your wiring.  If your dog or cat tries to eat them, your pet may get sick, but I haven’t read of any accounts where a pet died after ingesting a BEB.  On the other hand, I have read that even though BEBs do not “bite people,” they have been known to inflict injury, although more as a defense mechanism (you rolled over on one in your sleep) than as a premeditated action (like a mosquito biting you for a blood meal).

So what is one to do when the BEBs seem like they are taking over one’s house?  Vacuum up the interlopers.  You could also employ a variety of sprays, from insecticides to mixtures of water and dish soap, but remember:  insecticides are poisons, and they are not often specific in their targets.  You are better off trying to prevent the insects from invading by plugging all possible entrances during the summer while they are out.  Replace old or torn screens; plug holes with tight wire mesh; put tight screens on foundation and attic vents; be liberal in your caulking adventures.

In the meantime, BEBs could make for some interesting insect studies.  Maybe you can capture and mark some – follow the daily lives of individuals.  Host BEB races for your friends and relatives.  Apply some engineering and see if you can build a better BEB trap!  Who knows – maybe you or your child might discover some previously unknown trait of BEBs that will change the world!

Simple Sensory Perception

night hiking...

night hiking...

Into the dark, follow your senses, leaving behind the artificial lights, the jumble of your thoughts, the bustle of the day. Enter the woods behind twilight to find the silence.

Night hiking is a favorite activity of mine, largely because it is something of a rare treat. Most of our natural areas are public preserves that close after sunset. Unless we happen to be spending the night at a campground, we don’t generally have access to the trails after dark. For the most part, wherever we go at night we are under artificial lighting. Street lights, porch lights, endless photons spilling over from myriad sources all flood the nighttime environment of the built landscape. As a result, we are losing our ability to maneuver in the dark, losing our night vision, losing touch with the many senses that can rise to the compensatory challenge when vision is limited. We have forgotten how to be in darkness.

Night hiking can reawaken our senses. If we set out on a trail in full awareness we have much to discover. Sounds and other sensations take on new meaning and import. Our sensory awareness might extend beyond the limiting frame of our bodies and expand into the space around us, alerting us to the branch hanging at head level, or that dip in the eroded trail, without us ever “seeing” the hazard with our eyes. This simple sensory perception can be cultivated and refined, honed like any other tool to keen sharpness if only we practice.

Taking to the trail by starlight, by moonlight, or by the pale ambient light reflected under a blanket of clouds, can lead us to a heightened awareness that brings a deeper appreciation for the subtleties of the night. The stillness. The silence. The tactile sense of the very atmosphere. These things come alive.

In preparation for leading a public night hike I recently roamed the trails at Severson Dells and came to pause in an opening of the trees along Hall Creek. I leaned back on an angled trunk and relaxed, gazing upward. The stars filled the sky with patterns at once mysterious and familiar, dazzling in their silent array. Later, on the deck at the pond, out in the open, I could discern the Milky Way, a rare enough sight in these parts, these days. I returned to the parking lot renewed and reinvigorated.

If the notion of a night hike appeals to you, consider visiting Severson Dells during our Luminaria program, December 8 or 9, 2017 (6-9pm). We’ll have a trail lit with festive candles, and for those called to explore further, our staff will be available to lead walks into the woods and fields under the night sky. You’re welcome to join us under the stars.

Turn 'em Loose!

One of my favorite activities to do with a group of kids is just let them go for an explore, with me there to answer their questions and guide their discoveries. 

We recently had a group of second and fifth graders out for a Discover Nature Hike, and we couldn't have had a more perfect autumn day for it!  The sun was out, the sky was blue, the leaves were changing color and drifting to the ground.  It was just warm enough that the possibility of seeing snakes basking on the pavement, or turtles on logs at the pond, was real. 

The students I had in my group were second graders, and they were full of curiosity and in full explorer mode.  We first headed out to an old stone wall that runs along part of the driveway.  Armed with hand lenses, they checked out seeds, mosses, lichens, tree bark.  One girl turned to me to ask me to identify the insect she found - and it was a tiny red and black wasp, which was crawling on her hand.  Kudos to her for not freaking out when I said "Oh, it's a wasp!"  She was completely unfazed by it.  We talked about how it was likely an important pollinator and possibly even parasitic on other critters, like caterpillars.  A classmate joined our conversation, and both were very serious in their investigation of this insect...and reassured when I told them that the odds of it harming them were pretty slim.

Checking out the seeds on the Canada Wild Onion.

Checking out the seeds on the Canada Wild Onion.

Nuts are still all over the place (hickories, walnuts and acorns), although there are significantly fewer than there were a month ago.  We found the mother load of acorns by the picnic tables on the island in the middle of the parking lot.  Could it be that because cars drive around it that the squirrels hadn't gathered these nuts yet?  Whatever the reason, it was a boon for us, as each child learned to make a top and a whistle from their finds.

Then we were off down the trail...but only for a short distance, for they saw a "clearing" in the woods that was so tempting that they eagerly asked if they could go check it out.  What the heck - why not!  So off the trail we went, on a genuine "explore" into the unknown. 

We found ourselves in a little hollow under a fallen tree that just made the best exploration spot for second graders.  They looked at the logs, pulled off bark, jumped over the dry "stream" bed, pet some moss (after admiring the way the sun shone through the russet sporophytes).  

After bushwhacking back to the trail, they saw the deer exclosure (cage), and said "can we go there?!?!"  Absolutely - I'd never explored it myself, so it was new to me, too.  We discovered that the cage also had fencing over the top...once upon a time.  That fencing has now sagged and collapsed into the cage.  The kids found a "door" on the back side, so of course they had to go inside.  We talked about the purpose of the exclosure, but second graders aren't really concerned about browsing pressure.  They were intrigued, however, when I mentioned the Severson Dells legend of Humphrey the Dragon, who supposedly uses the cage as a home.

We completed our walk around the trail, stopping at the pond to look for turtles (none), frogs (nope) and dragonflies (zero).  And then we went to The Grove, where running and climbing were the order of the day.

I know I certainly had a great time exploring the unknown with these students, and I think they did, too.  I worked with a volunteer once who said that everyone needs to "step off the sidewalk" from time to time, which is exactly what we did this day.   The next time you go out, take a chance and step off the sidewalk in your explorations - even if only for a few steps (and watch where you walk - be aware of your surroundings).  You might be amazed at what you find.

Citizen Science: A Timely Option

The other day I spotted a spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) in bloom. Not many native flowers bloom this late into the season, so it caught my eye. Of course, this has been an exceptionally warm autumn, so it didn’t surprise me altogether to see the bright blue denizen of the summer prairie basking in the bold October sunshine. But I’m used to seeing it flower in June and July, so I consulted a couple of reference texts. The online resource, “Illinois Wildflowers,” suggests that the bloom time is from late spring to midsummer; likewise, the Ohio Prairie Association reports that it flowers from “late May to early July.” However, Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha cites bloom dates observed by the authors ranging from May 14 to October 27, so my own observation was hardly unprecedented.

spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)

spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)

Thankfully, interested witnesses have been recording such information for much of our history. Phenology is the name we apply to the timing of events in nature and people have been recording such data for thousands of years. According to Project BudBurst, “The Chinese are thought to have kept the first written records of phenological observations dating back to around 974 B.C.” While records here in the Midwest are nowhere near that old, we do have some pretty good local data from the past hundred years or so.

Famed conservationist Aldo Leopold collected phenological data in Sauk County, Wisconsin from 1936 to 1948 and his daughter, Nina, resumed the tradition from 1976 to 2011. In his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold shared, “Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and meaning in these events.”

Leopold was in good company. Back in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau recorded his observations of nature in a daily journal spanning the years of 1851 through 1858. Included in his journals are the first flowering dates of hundreds of local forb species.

If, like me, you enjoy making such observations (bloom dates, seed ripening, etc.), you might like to volunteer to assist with the collection of phenological data for the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County. If you’re at all curious, I invite you to save the date, Saturday, February 3, 2018, for a Species Spotlight orientation and training for plant monitoring in the year ahead—including a proposed phenology project. There are several other monitoring projects planned under our Citizen Science program; join us January 20 for a Citizen Science Spotlight to learn more. Further details are forthcoming so keep an eye on our online calendar.

 

Finding the Little Things

There are a lot of advantages to being vertically challenged. 

The other day we had a group of children out for programs highlighting plants.  They learned how seeds travel, how seeds store food and energy, and the important role(s) of plants in our ecosystems.  They also learned how to identify some of our more “dangerous plants,” how to make whistles from acorn caps, how to make cordage from plant fibers and how to make toy ducks from cattail leaves.  It was a lot of hands-on fun for all involved.

After showing my first group wood nettles and discussing why it is a good plant to avoid, I had my eyes peeled for poison ivy.  It seems I can never find it when I need it.  I thought I had found a PI vine, and was starting to tell the kids how to recognize it (leaflets three, let it be; hairy rope, don’t be a dope), when I noticed that the vine I was looking at, while indeed sporting three leaflets on each leaf, had a couple suspicious leaves with itty bitty fourth leaflets present.  Hm…

Just as I was contemplating (to myself) these “aberrant growths,” the kids started shouting “there’s a caterpillar, there’s a caterpillar!”  I had no idea what they were talking about – I saw no caterpillar!  But sure enough, underneath the leaf, there was a small green caterpillar.  The kids had seen it because their heads were all beneath the leaf – I was too tall and was looking down at the leaf!  

Pandorus sphinx Eumorpha pandorus on Virginia creeper.JPG

And what a magnificent caterpillar it was:  about an inch long, bright green, with brilliant white spots on its flanks and a wisp of a red horn on its back end.  The front end was held rigidly erect – no doubt trying to look big and tough to scare us off.  Well, we ooo-ed and we ahh-ed, photos were taken, and then we moved on.

Back in the office I looked up our mystery larva, and it turns out it was a Pandorus sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus.  It’s a lovely cream and brown moth, perfectly designed to blend in in its woodland surroundings, and reading up on it I discovered that our caterpillar was doing all the trademark things noted for this species:  a) it was on the underside of a leaf, and b) the leaf it was on one of its food preferences, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), as was evident by those rogue fourth leaflets.

The white spots on the caterpillar’s sides each surround one of the caterpillar’s spiracles, or breathing holes.  Why it’s to the caterpillar’s advantage to have its spiracles made so obvious is unknown to me, but an interesting question nonetheless.  And the little red tail/horn is only present on the early and middle instars, so we obviously had a youngster.  On the final instar the horn is replaced with a “button,” which looks a lot like an eye.  Perhaps it, too, serves to scare off predators.

Another interesting thing about these caterpillars is that they come in several colors: pink, green, orange, brown, black or cinnamon.  And they can change color for the last instar.  Why?  Are the colors diet related?  Maybe predicated on the habitat they are in?  Luck of the draw?  I have no idea, and I've not found an answer online yet, but it is sure fun to speculate.

Besides rearing up, displaying the tail horn, or hiding under leaves, what can these stunning caterpillars do to protect themselves?  Apparently they use regurgitation to ward off ants and other parasites that might want to prey on them.  We didn't put that to the test.

So today I tip my hat to the second graders who saw a caterpillar I never would have seen because I was too tall (it’s not often I get to say that) and too focused on identifying a plant.  Because they are curious and closer to the ground, kids often see things that we adults miss…and it can almost always be an eye-opening experience.  I encourage everyone to occasionally change your perspective:  get down on the ground and look at things from the level of a chipmunk; climb a tree to see how the landscape looks to a bird perched on high; take a child out and kneel down at her level to experience nature when you are less than three or four feet tall.  Let us know what you discover.

A Restorationist's View of Conservation

Piles of brush (honeysuckle:  Lonicera maackii) accumulate where the forest floor is opened to receive sunlight.

Piles of brush (honeysuckle:  Lonicera maackii) accumulate where the forest floor is opened to receive sunlight.

One of the finest ways of nurturing a sense of place, developing a direct connection to the land, is the practice of ecological restoration. As stewards—caretakers—we manage the vegetation of the site, which fosters a certain intimacy with the environment. Working the land for the purpose of healing, of restoring the vibrancy of the living systems at hand, connects us to the spirit of the specific locality. And yet, ecological restoration is a fairly recent phenomenon, a current expression of the conservation movement.

The conservation of natural areas has taken on different forms over the past century. From early efforts toward preservation of scenic beauties, to the calculated extraction of utilitarian resources, to active efforts to restore natural processes in historical landscapes, conservation has proven to be a multifaceted endeavor. Where once the preservationist presumed it to be sufficient to protect an area from development or despoilment, today’s restorationist seeks to manage natural areas for native biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Why the shift? Like many movements, restoration arose as a collective response to perceived threats. Planners, practitioners, and researchers alike recognize that natural areas, left unmanaged, quickly degrade in the face of stressors such as invasive species, altered hydrology, and fire suppression. Natural functions are diminished; ecological relationships are strained; species are lost. Due to the many challenges that stress the systems that sustain them, natural areas require our intervention. To allow nature to take its course no longer serves to preserve the historical character of our native natural communities. So we intervene, we intercede on behalf of native species and the ecosystems in which they live. We remove invasive species, restore habitat, and enhance the diversity of native species present in the system.

Such work may feed the human spirit, even while enriching the natural area being restored. Many people find quiet joy and great satisfaction in participating in restoration workdays. Good exercise in fresh air, coupled with the knowledge that we are making a positive difference in the world, combine to bring about a legitimate sense of well being.

If you have not yet experienced a restoration workday—or if you have and you are ready for another taste—I encourage you to join us here at Severson Dells to help restore our natural communities. We gather twice a month, on the second Saturday and the fourth Monday, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, with our inaugural workday slated for Monday, October 23, 2017. Respond via e-mail (gregr@seversondells.org) or phone (815-335-2915) to let me know to expect you. Dress for the weather and be prepared to get dirty. Bring a water bottle and work gloves if you can. And perhaps bring a willingness to be open to that natural connection to the living landscape.

Are Acorns Dangerous Nuts?

We have been having a lot of fun this fall doing Outdoor Skills programs for visiting classes.  We teach them how to identify some “dangerous plants” (poison ivy, wood nettle), how to make cordage (a very useful skill if you are ever on your own in the wild), how to build a debris shelter, how to tie basic knots, etc.  It’s not all serious, though – we also teach them how to make spinning tops from acorns, how to use an acorn cap as an emergency whistle, and how to make toy ducks from cattail leaves.  Last week, a parent asked if having the children handling acorns, even putting them up to their mouths, wasn’t dangerous, because, after all, they are nuts.  What if the child had a nut allergy? 

I didn’t have an answer. 

And what about all the walnuts and hickory nuts that are all over the ground this time of year?  I needed to do some research, and here is what I found out.

As most of us know, peanuts are not real nuts, they are legumes, so peanut allergies are not really relevant when it comes to dealing with the native nuts we have here.  However, walnuts and hickory nuts are on the list of dangerous nuts for those who suffer from tree nut allergies.  Acorns are not on any lists, and from everything I have found, they are not problematic (they have a different type of protein than the other tree nuts, which is apparently what makes them safe).  But even if they were problematic, here is the thing:  one has to actually consume these nuts in order to have a reaction to them (http://blog.onespotallergy.com/2012/11/newstalk1010-interview-are-acorns-a-risk-if-youre-allergic-to-tree-nuts/).  Rest assured, parents:  we do not allow students to taste things here.

So, I’m breathing easier now that I know we can continue doing acorn cap whistles and making acorn tops.  But what about the walnuts and hickory nuts that are rolling about underfoot – should one be concerned about children touching them, or inhaling crushed bits of them?  Here is what is written on the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology website (https://www.aaaai.org/ask-the-expert/inhaled-tree-nut-allergen):

Your question is focusing on contact sensitivity or inhaled exposure in an individual who is tree nut allergic. Although it is difficult to make absolute statements, I am convinced by the available literature and clinical experience that there is no significant risk associated with a tree nut allergic person engaging in activities in close proximity to a tree, even with nuts on the ground around the tree. Certainly skin contact with nuts outside of the shell is a potential risk if common sense measures of avoidance are not in play. Although aerosol food allergen exposure has been described, this has been primarily in cooking of the food. I have cared for a patient who would have respiratory symptoms when sitting in an establishment with peanut shells on the floor, so aerosol exposure is theoretically possible but is not a realistic concern in an outside environment.

In summary, there is risk in any activity of life. I think you can reassure your patient and their family that the risk of playing under a pecan or walnut tree is negligible, even with pecan or walnut allergy, as long as the nuts are not handled or eaten. Inhalation risk is not a concern in this circumstance.

In summary, it looks like we will now caution parents, teachers and students not to handle the nuts if they have known tree nut allergies…at least if the nuts are outside of their shells.  Fortunately, most of the nuts we find are still in their shells, which is a relief considering how many times in the last few weeks we have turned around to find students with their pockets bulging with nuts they have picked up to take home!

rsz_1rsz_1dsc_1067.jpg

Clingers & Shakers

What do Coneheads, Fluffies, Ballistic Missiles, Mama’s Boys, Clingers, and Shakers have in common? They’re all whimsical names applied to types of seeds based on their dispersal mechanisms.

The familiar dandelion, for example, disperses its seeds by air, each attached to a fluffy appendage known as the pappus. We’ve all experienced blowing on the tuft of a ripe dandelion seed head to watch the little “parachutes” float away on a breeze. Thistledown is another example of pappus. We might categorize seeds dispersed in this manner as Fluffies.

Generally, as organisms rooted in place, plants benefit from dispersing their seeds away from the parent; that’s how a population might expand and how new territory might be claimed by a given species. Some plants disperse their seeds with the aid of mobile animals. Seeds with bristly attachments, hooked hairs, and the like (think Bidens, enchanters’ nightshade, or stick-tight) might be called Velcro Seeds or Clingers. Those of us who have had to face the challenge of trying to comb bur dock out of a dog’s fur know just how stubborn such seeds can be in clinging to an animal.

Some seed pods are spring-loaded and catapult their seeds a considerable distance, perhaps as far as 30 feet. Such a dispersal mechanism could be termed, Ballistic. Local examples include Geranium, violets, and jewelweed.

If you’d like to learn more about seed types, especially in terms of harvesting native seeds for use in ecological restoration of natural areas, we have just the program for you:  Seed Collection & Dispersal, here at Severson Dells on Monday, October 2, from 9:00 a.m. until noon. We will begin with a brief presentation of seed types and dispersal mechanisms, followed by a hands-on field session of seed collection, and concluding with a tour of the Winnebago Forest Preserves’ seed-processing facility.

Each seed is a treasure, a little box of promise. Each seed represents the vegetation of the future—and our own future wellbeing may well hinge upon the vegetation that sustains the diversity of life in our region. To hold such promise in the palm of our hand, to nurture the future, is an honor and a privilege. And you are welcome to participate.

The event is free. RSVP at http://www.seversondells.com/community-programming-1/ or call 815-335-2915.

Ripe seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)--shown without the pappus

Ripe seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)--shown without the pappus

Things That Make You Say "Hm"

Have you ever wondered what sort of things go through the mind of a naturalist?  No doubt it varies from person to person, as all such things do, so I can only tell you for sure the things that often have me entranced as I try to puzzle them out.  Here is a "for instance."

a mass of braconid wasp cocoons Microgastrinae.jpg

A couple days ago, while leading a school program, one of our volunteers found this fluffy white mass on the back of a dried leaf that had fallen from one of the trees along our path.  Now, I knew it was an egg or pupa case, and I knew I had seen it before, but I could not recall what species it belonged to or any details of its life history.

When we got back to the visitor center, and while the students took their lunch break, I grabbed my copy of "Tracks and Signs of Insects" by Eiseman and Charney, and searched for the answer I was sure was in there.  No luck.

And yet I KNOW I had seen (and identified) it before.

My go-to site for all insect ID is the terrific website BugGuide.Net.  If you haven't been there yet, you must do so soon.  These folks are terrific: you send them a photo of some mystery insect or insect part, and often within a couple hours you have an answer as to what it is. 

So, off I sent my photo, and sure enough, the answer soon came back: Braconid Wasp, subfamily Microgastrinae.

My work had only just begun.

This morning I have been scouring my insect books and the Web in search of details about this small ball of fluff.  Eggs?  Pupae?  Life cycle?  And while some information is quite readily available, much (to me) still remains a mystery.

For example:

There are about 2000 described species in the subfamily Microgastrinae.  Scientists suspect there are 5-10,000 species possible; that is a lot of unknowns.

The Microgastrinae are a subfamily of the Brachonid wasps, which are the second largest family of wasps in the world (right after the Ichneumonids, just in case you were wondering).  Over 17,000 species of Brachonids are recognized today, but again, it is believed there are thousands more that we know little to nothing about.

Brachonids are parasitic wasps.  In general, they lay their eggs on the host (in the case of the Microgastrinae, the hosts are the caterpillars of moths and butterflies), the eggs hatch, consume the host, pupate, and then the adults fly off to continue the cycle. 

If you have ever seen a tomato hornworm in your garden that is covered with small white ovals all over its back, you are seeing the pupal cases of a Microgastrinae.  The larvae ate the caterpillar's "blood" (hemolymph) and internal organs, then tunneled out of its dying body to spin silky cocoons on this back.  This is a good thing for you and your tomatoes - not so good for the caterpillar.

Anyway, this was all familiar territory for me -- I have seen many a hornworm covered with cocoons, and plenty more photos of other species of caterpillars similarly parasitized.  But the fluffy mass that is currently sitting on my desk has no (apparent) caterpillar host associated with it.  Why?

I continue to search the Web, but even BugGuide has let me down - there are photos a-plenty, but mostly all it says about them is "Brochonid Wasp - Microgastrinae" - no life histories.

The best I can come up with at this time is that this is a collection of Microgastrinae pupae (and if I teased apart the mass I would surely find all the little oval pupal cases), and perhaps the desiccated husk of the host caterpillar has fallen away, since by now its purpose is fulfilled and it is obsolete.

Knowing me, however, I shall continue to puzzle about this until one day I have found THE answer.

Light in the Sky

2017-09-05resized.jpg

Recent weather systems have ushered in some glorious skyscapes, with a delightful play of light and shadow, color and texture, gracing the space above us. Cool days and crisp nights herald the coming of autumn, weeks before the equinox arrives. Sunsets come earlier and sunrises, later. Sunlight glances in on a slant distinctly different from that of high summer. We can feel the change in the air.

Of all these seasonal changes, one that tickles me most is the light in the sky. Clouds, lit from beyond, cast shadows of blue or gray that seem to support the white billows above. As gentle winds send undulating waves through the prairie grasses and set the tall, yellow Silphium and Helianthus to wave rollicking across the landscape, breezes usher low clouds across the sky in a procession of festive forms.

Any time of day might offer a show or feature a surprise, like the red moon that shone down upon us in September, just past full, ruddy with the residue of western wildfires. For those of us fortunate enough to be under a cloudless sky, August’s solar eclipse was something rare and wonderful to experience. Those even more fortunate caught a glimpse of the elusive aurora borealis in September.

No matter where you are, in city or town or out and away, you might catch a glimpse of the parade in the sky. For my part, I prefer to see it framed in nature, cast in a setting of leafy trees or adorned by the nodding spikelets of tall grasses.

Pause to breathe deeply; capture a moment of quiet; see the seasonal skyscape.  Go ahead. Take a look. Raise your gaze and smile back at the sky.

Monarchs Emerging

DSC_1038.JPG

Yesterday we released our first three monarchs.  They emerged from their chrysalises (see above) on Tuesday, but had to rest and dry for several hours before they were ready to go.  One more may emerge today, leaving one chrysalis still in the "cage."  That final chrysalis formed just last week, and it takes about two weeks for the monarch to complete the pupal process, so we anticipate it emerging late next week.  The monarchs that you see outside now are the ones that will be heading to Mexico for the winter.  Keep your eyes open as you drive around these next few weeks - on a nice sunny day you may see waves of monarchs winging their way to warmer climes.

Severson Science Saturday: Monarch Mania

DSC_0902.JPG

This past Saturday was a stellar day at Severson Dells.  It was the latest in our Science Saturday series, and we focused on monarch butterflies.  The weather was perfect, and visitors came out in droves.

If you didn't make it, here's what you missed:

The Animal Farm Band performed in The Grove to a roving audience of parents and adults.  Their music was engaging, and we even had families doing yoga and dancing to some of the tunes!  After the show, they invited the kids to come up and play a couple of the instruments - what fun!

The Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association had a table set up in our classroom and they were able to answer not only all sorts of questions about butterflies in general, but were also able to share dragonfly information with visitors, for one of them has authored a dragonfly ID book.

But the day really was a focus on monarchs, a species that is facing a variety of obstacles for survival.  We had a handful of live caterpillars and chrysalises on display, which we collected and are raising inside so visitors can see the process up close and in person.  Visitors were able to plant swamp milkweed seeds in newspaper pots that they made, to take home and plant, and we were also giving out local wildflower seeds, so visitors could create their own pollinator patches at home.

Why are monarchs in distress?  There are so many factors contributing to their decline:  habitat loss (wintering habitat in Mexico is falling to timber harvesting, and all along the route north, milkweed patches are disappearing - more on this in a moment); increase in disease; and, dare I say it, climate change.

Let's take a look at the one that we as individuals can all have a hand in controlling:  milkweed.  As every grade school child knows, monarchs are completely dependent on milkweed - it is the only food the caterpillars eat.  That said, there are many different species of milkweed, each adapted to specific habitats.  The most common one is, well, common milkweed (Asclepias syrica).  This is the one that we used to find in every field and along every roadside.  If you find yourself in wetter areas, you've probably encountered swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), with its brighter, more magenta blossoms.  In our prairies and grasslands, butterflyweed (A. tuberosa) stands out with its brilliant orange flowers and its shorter, almost bushy, form. 

These three are the milkweeds most people have seen, but our part of Illinois is home to a few others, like poke milkweed (A. exaltata), which is our only woodland milkweed and has flowers that remind me of an old-fashioned firework; sand milkweed (A. amplexicaulis); woolly milkweed (A. lanuginosa), a state threatened species (it's rare); purple milkweed (A. purpurascens); prairie milkweed (A. sullivantii); whorled milkweed (A. verticillata), which has such thin, thread-like leaves that at first glance you would dismiss as a milkweed until you looked at its beautiful cream-colored flowers; and short green milkweed (A. viridiflora).  So many different colors, and all glorious.

The thing about monarchs and milkweed is that whichever species the female lays her eggs on, that is the species the caterpillars must eat, so there needs to be plenty of it around for the larvae to visit in order to get enough food to survive.  Also, if you collect the eggs or caterpillars to raise indoors, you need to have a source of the milkweed species you found them on so you can continue to feed them while in captivity.

When I collected the caterpillars three weeks ago to have on hand for this program, I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to find enough common milkweed to keep them fed.  I've been involved with raising monarchs indoors for a number of years, and milkweed has been incredibly easy to find - after all, it does grow along roadsides!  But this year I had to scour the roads and fields near Severson Dells to find enough young plants to harvest to keep our larvae fat and happy.  And I only had eight caterpillars!

Why is this?  One of the reasons is directly related to the change in agriculture.  With large-scale farms growing huge monocultures of corn or soybeans, we find less and less milkweed on the landscape.  Once upon a time, milkweed grew alongside these crops - it wasn't too much of a competitor and the butterflies were able to find enough to carry on.  Modern farming practices, however (and this is just in the last few years), have turned to crops that have been genetically modified to be "Round-Up Ready."  This means that they are resistant to the herbicide Round-Up, so after the crops are planted, the farmers can go through and spray the fields with this herbicide to kill off all plants that are not their crop plants.  This keeps the competition down and increases their yield.  Unfortunately, this means there is no milkweed in the fields or on the field margins any more, which is problematic for monarchs, especially as they migrate north.

You see, monarchs have a bit of an unusual life cycle.  Let's start off with the ones that are here right now.  We are part of the northern range of these butterflies, and the ones that are emerging now are the last of this year's cycle.  This generation is the one that flies all the way down to Mexico to for the winter.  Those that survive the winter start to head northward the next spring.  They stop in Texas, or some other southern location, where they mate, lay eggs and die.  Those eggs hatch, and the caterpillars that successfully become butterflies fly the next leg of the Journey North.  They, too, stop part way north, mate, lay eggs, and die.  It takes four generations to make it to The North.  The fifth generation is the final one, and that is the one that then heads back to Mexico in the fall.  So, you see, if there isn't milkweed all along the routes these butterflies take as they fly northward, then there is no food for the caterpillars, and that means there won't be a next generation.

Disease and parasites also contribute to the decline in monarchs.  One disease is called OE, which is short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a protozoan parasite that the caterpillars ingest as they eat the milkweed plants.  Not all milkweed is infected, but the infections are on the rise.  The spores are spread by the adults, and as more and more monarchs are raised in captivity in butterfly houses and to sell to classrooms and brides, the more it spreads, for the spores are often contained in the captive “ecosystems,” and when the butterflies are released, they take the spores out into the wild with them.  And thus the contamination spreads.

A “newer” disease is called Black Death, or NPV (nuclear polyhedrosis virus).  If your caterpillars seem to suddenly “deflate” and then turn black, you have NPV.  Well, YOU don’t, but your caterpillars do, which means your enclosure is infected (if you are rearing them indoors).  This is a virus that is commonly found out in the wild, but in “normal” situations, it isn’t too much a problem.  More on this in a moment.

Monarch caterpillars also have to contend with other parasites:  chalcid wasps, which lay eggs in the chrysalises before they harden, and tachinid flies, which lay eggs on the caterpillars.  The larvae of these parasites consume the host – they live and it dies.  And then there are assorted fungi that can kill the caterpillars, as well as pesticides, such as Bt.  Bt is Bacillus thurigiensis, a bacterium that is sprayed on crops to prevent pests from eating the plants.  But the bacterium doesn’t just fall on crop plants when the fields are treated.  If it lands on milkweed, then the monarch caterpillars ingest it, and, like the “pests,” they are infected by the bacterium and die within three days.

I mentioned climate change – how can this be affecting monarchs?  Let me take you back to NPV for a moment.  This virus, in the wild, is often kept in check by the chill of winter.  However, with good old-fashioned cold winters on the wane these days, NPV is surviving in greater quantity than before.

Climate change is also affecting migration.  Two things tend to trigger migration in animals:  day length and temperature.  While day length is unaffected by climate change, temperature is not, and studies have shown that the monarch’s fall migration has been delayed by as much as six weeks in recent years.  If the butterflies do not leave when they should, then the chances of them finding enough food (flowers for nectaring) as they head to Mexico becomes slim.  In other words, that fifth generation may starve before reaching the wintering grounds, which means there will be no (or fewer) monarchs to head back north come spring. 

It's a complicated thing, life is.  And the more we learn just how intertwined each component is on this planet, the more we see just how prescient John Muir was when he said "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

So, plant more milkweeds!  Plant all kinds – find out which one(s) is/are right for where you live.  (Don’t plant the tropical milkweed – it isn’t native and comes with its own host of problems.)  And while you are at it, plant other native flowering plants – provide food for other insect pollinators who are facing a genuine food desert out there.

And come join us for our next Science Saturday (September 30), when we will be going crazy over more insects.  It will be Insect Insanity, and who knows, you might even get to sample some edible insects…yum!

 

 

 

Wildflowers- Spring Into Summer

This spring Severson Dells partnered with the Natural Land Institute to offer a 10 week Wildflower Walk series, as we have done for many years. As a new transplant to the area, this was a great way to learn about the wonderful ecological gems we have in northern Illinois and begin to scratch the surface on all of the plants, animals and unique habitats that I get to learn. 

Thank you to all of the volunteers that helped make these walks possible and to all of those that attended. We hope you get out and continue to explore more of the hidden (or not so hidden) gems of northern Illinois and beyond. 

Spring is Moving in Quickly

Every year it seems that spring starts off slowly, and then with a little rain and a few warm days Whoosh!  it explodes and starts galloping very quickly toward summer.  After a week of sunny warm days, and then some rain, the trees went from swelling buds to hand-size leaves!

And just yesterday we had our first hummingbird and tiger swallowtail.

Things are starting to hop here - come on out and welcome the season with a explore along our trails.

DSC_0535.JPG