Nachusa Grassland Promotes Scientific Research

by Dee Hudson Photography

Graduate student, Heather Herakovich, gathers research data about grassland bird nests.

Graduate student, Heather Herakovich, gathers research data about grassland bird nests.

Bison, Grassland Birds, Dung Beetles, Bees, Small Mammals, Invasive Species, Bacteria & Fungi — these are all topics of ongoing study by Professors, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at Nachusa Grasslands. I had the opportunity to photograph Nachusa’s first Science Symposium last Saturday, as an interested audience gathered at the Franklin Creek Grist Mill to hear several researchers present their work.

Researchers at Nachusa Grasslands

The presenters at Nachusa Grassland’s first Science Symposium. Front row: Julia Brockman, Kim Elsenbroek, Shannon McCarragher, PhD., Heather Herakovich, Elizabeth Bach, PhD. Back row: Nicholas Barber, PhD., Angela Burke and Sean Griffin.

Researchers study the microbes in the soil.

Researchers study the microbes in the soil. Photo Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service

The ongoing research is amazing and exciting to hear about!

Microbe Research
Dr. Elizabeth Bach and graduate student, Kim Elsenbroek, both study microbes (bacteria & fungi) in the soil and how they affect the success of prairie plants. Dr. Bach asks, “What are the microbes doing? When are they most active? How do the microbes affect the plants throughout the growing season? How do the microbes cycle nutrients?” Kim Elsenbroek compares the microbe activity in the soils of remnant (original unplowed prairie) versus successful and less successful prairie plantings.

Insect and Mammal Studies

At Nachusa, Dr. Nicholas Barber's research focuses on beetle communities.

At Nachusa, Dr. Nicholas Barber’s research focuses on beetle communities.

How does the beetle community change following a prairie restoration? How has the introduction of bison affected the beetles? Answering these questions are important, because beetles are known to be a good indicator of ecological health. By the way, Dr. Barber is holding dung beetles in his hand!

Angela Burke

Angela Burke discusses her research with Jeff Walk, Illinois’s Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy; and Bill Kleiman, Project Director for Nachusa Grasslands.

How are the small mammals (mice, voles etc.) responding to bison introduction at Nachusa? To find out, Angela Burke baits live traps with peanut butter and oats to capture the mammals. After she gathers her data, she microchips them and releases the animals back into the prairie. The meadow jumping mouse has been her most exciting find, while the deer mouse has been her most common.

A bumble bee on White Wild Indigo

A pollinator, the bumble bee, visits the White Wild Indigo at Nachusa in early summer.

Graduate student, Sean Griffin, studies the most important pollinators in prairies — bees. How does prairie restoration change the bee communities? To collect the bees, he sets up his brightly–colored traps on warm, sunny days. His research compares bee populations in remnant prairies to those in restored prairies.

GPS Collared Bison

A female bison fitted with a GPS collar.

Seven female bison fitted with GPS collars provide hourly location points for graduate research student, Julie Brockman. Do the bison prefer restored or remnant prairies? How are bison affected by human activity? To learn more, read Julie’s article on page seven of the 2014 Prairie Smoke magazine.

Grassland Birds
I had the wonderful opportunity to assist Heather Herakovich this summer as she searched for grassland bird nests. Read more about my experience in my May 28 blog titled Searching for Grassland Bird Nests.

A Lark Sparrow nest with four eggs.

Three Lark Sparrow eggs and one Brown–headed Cowbird egg are found in the nest. The Cowbird does not build a nest, but rather lays her eggs in other bird’s nests and allows that bird to raise the young Cowbird.

With the decline of tall grass prairies, nine grassland species are near–threatened or vulnerable. Heather looks for changes in nest density since the introduction of bison. How does nest density compare in restorations versus remnant prairie? Will the nests have more brood parasitism? (see photo)

Invasive Species

Dr. Shannon McCarragher

Dr. Shannon McCarragher presents a poster with her scientific research.

The last presenter, Dr. Shannon McCarragher, looks at the ecological impact the non–native honeysuckle (Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii) has on the native White Oak tree in a savanna. How much light does the White Oak require to establish a healthy savanna?

Mary Vieregg

Mary Vieregg organized Nachusa’s first Science Symposium. This photo is courtesy of Kirk Hallowell.

Many presenters speaking on Saturday were recipients of scientific research grants from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. The Friends . . .

“ . . . may award monetary grants to qualified candidates conducting scientific research significant to Nachusa Grasslands. Research projects should focus primarily on prairie and savanna land management practices, such as prescribed fire, seed collection, weed control, general or specific flora or faunal populations, and natural areas restoration.”

To learn more about the awarded Science Grants or to apply for a 2016 Research Grant, visit the Nachusa Grasslands website.
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Where are all the Weeds?

by Dee Hudson Photography

This prairie field has very few weeds because the steward that tends this unit has excellent weed management! I am part of this exceptional weed removal and I love the results!!! Look at the different beautiful plants blooming!! I see pink Pale Purple Coneflowers . . . yellow False Sunflowers . . . and white Quinine flowers.

The Prairie in Bloom at Nachusa Grasslands

The Prairie in bloom at Nachusa Grasslands.

One of my jobs as a volunteer steward at Nachusa Grasslands is to remove weeds from the prairie fields. For me, this is a familiar task. Growing up in rural Minnesota, my summers as a young girl were always spent helping my father remove the agricultural weeds from his soybean fields. At Nachusa Grasslands, I remove different weeds, but the process is one that is very familiar.

Red Clover Flower

Red Clover Flower

This summer, with the wettest June in Illinois history, one weed has really popped up in great numbers — the Red Clover (Trifolium pretense). The Red Clover is a non–native plant, first introduced in our country to provide food for farm animals. The purplish–pink flower head on the Red Clover is very pretty and one of the colors we scan for as we search for these weeds.

The Red Clover leaves have a light–colored

The Red Clover leaves have a light–colored “Chevron–shaped” pattern.

When the clover is not blooming, it is much trickier to find the plants and the hunt for the Red Clover becomes more like a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ exercise. Thank goodness the leaves are very distinctive! My steward taught me to look for the light colored ‘chevron–shape’ pattern on the leaves.

Jay Finds a Red Clover to Remove

Jay finds a Red Clover in his 2009 Gobbler Ridge planting.

Hello Jay! This is Jay Stacy, the land steward I regularly help and the steward of this prairie field (Gobbler Ridge) we are weed managing today. As we transect Jay’s 2009 prairie planting, we are mainly searching for Red Clover and Sweet Clover. The Red Clover flower heads are beginning to turn brown and if we do not remove them soon, the clover will begin to drop its seeds and then we will have many more to remove next year. In the photo above, Jay has located a Red Clover for removal.

Cutting the Red Clover With Scissors

The Red Clover is cut off close to the ground.

Jay gathers all the stems together first, which is tricky, because the stems tend to spread out into the surrounding prairie plants. Once all the stems have all been brought together, the clover is cut close to the ground.

Applying Herbicide to the Clover Stem

Jay carefully applies herbicide to the clover stem with a paintbrush.

Jay carefully applies herbicide to the clover stem with a paintbrush, being careful not to touch the brush to any of the nearby prairie plants.

Carrying the Red Clover from the Field

Jay transports the Red Clover seeds out of the prairie in a bucket.

This Red Clover plant has to be removed from the prairie so none of the seeds in the mature flower heads plant themselves. We collect the Red Clovers into a bucket and transport them completely out of the prairie to our central weed pile.

Red Clover Weeded from the Prairie

Red Clover collected in one morning.

Whew! Look at all the Red Clover we collected in one morning!! The clover fills the entire truck bed!

Red Clover Spreads

When Red Clover is left in a new prairie planting, it quickly multiplies.

This photo above illustrates what happens when the red clover is not weed managed. As you see, the clover quickly multiplies and begins to crowd out the natives plants and the plant diversity becomes lost — I mainly see Red Clover in the photo above. One of the reasons I love to photograph and explore the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands is to discover all the unique individual forb (flowering plants) and grass species that I never have the chance to see anywhere else.

When you are an ‘outdoor girl,’ there is nothing more satisfying than spending the day in a beautiful prairie searching for weeds. The work is physical, as you walk back and forth across the fields, constantly bending down to the ground to remove the weeds. However, there are some pretty ‘sweet’ rewards! While laboring, I pause to enjoy the raspy call of the Dickcissel (dick-dick-cissel) ,the call of the near–threatened Henslow’s Sparrow or I enjoy a quick glimpse of a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on a milkweed.

Dickcissel, a grassland bird

A grassland bird called the Dickcissel.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on a Common Milkweed

Come visit the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands and enjoy the fruits of my labor and see what treasures you can find!!!

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Searching for Grassland Bird Nests

by Dee Hudson Photography

It is 6:30 am on a Wednesday morning, and I am walking miles across prairie grasslands, waving a long stick. What am I doing, you ask? Well, I volunteered to help NIU Master’s student, Heather Herakovich, locate grassland bird nests at Nachusa Grasslands. Heather’s research studies how bison are impacting grassland bird nest density and survivorship. In her research, Heather compares the land that bison now roam to non–bison grassland plantings. The various bison/non–bison fields in her comparison study were remnant or restored in similar years.

Heather gave me my own ‘search stick,’ (light–weight and about a meter long) and my job was to space myself a few feet from her and gently wave and probe the vegetation in front of me as I walked forward. The task is not too complicated for me and is actually rather relaxing on this beautiful morning. There were three of us that morning, (Heather, Jessica Fliginger & I) and we walked in transects (long straight lines) trying to flush birds from their nests. We spent two hours on each designated field in the study.

Heather Herakovich Searches for Grassland Birds

Heather and Jessica walk through the dead vegetation in an unburned prairie planting, searching for bird nests with their search sticks.

Heather and Jessica use binoculars to search for grassland birds.

Heather and Jessica search for grassland birds.

First, we walked for two hours in an unburned field in the Hook Larson Unit. It was harder to walk through this unit, since last years standing dead vegetation was all underfoot. However, the Henslow’s Sparrow prefers to build its nest in this dense layer of dead grass and plants and I would love to find this bird nesting here. During our two–hour walk, we did not find any Henslow’s nests, but we did hear them calling and we spotted a few with our binoculars. This was pretty exciting for me to hear so many Henslow’s in this field, because the conservation status of this grassland bird is listed as ‘near threatened’ by IUCN.

 

Searching for Grassland Bird Nests

This field was control–burned, making it much easier to hike through and search for bird nests.

After two hours of hiking back and forth, back and forth, we found ZERO nests in the unburned field. Yeah, if research were easy, I suppose everyone would be doing it! I was a little disappointed, but mid–May was still early in the nesting season, so more nests could be spotted in future weeks. So, we headed to the next field in Heather’s study, Hook Larson West. This field was quite different from the one we had just walked, for it had been managed with a controlled burn. The ground here was very easy to see and also easy to traverse, with young prairie plants only several inches high.

An Abandoned Lark Sparrow Nest

An abandoned Lark Sparrow nest built next to a stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

Our first task was to relocate a Lark Sparrow nest that Heather had found only three days before. When Heather finds a nest, she takes a GPS reading so she can easily find the nest throughout the season. We followed the GPS reading, but no mother bird flushed from the nest when we approached. Hmmm . . . not a good sign. In fact, we searched for the nest for a bit, already suspecting it had been abandoned. Our first clue that there had been trouble was a lone Lark Sparrow egg on the ground in the nest area, with a hole in the egg — probably caused by a predator. When we finally located the nest, it was empty, clearly abandoned. Now that the nest is empty, on her next visit, Heather will return to this nest with a Robel pole and quadrat to quantify the density of vegetation around the nest (ie. how visible the nest may be to aerial predators) and to quantify the plant composition around the nest.

An Eastern Gray or Cope’s Gray tree frog.

An Eastern Gray or Cope’s Gray tree frog rests on a prairie plant.

While searching for the nest around the GPS coordinates, I made a fun discovery and spotted a tree frog in the vegetation — either a Eastern Gray or a Cope’s Gray.

A Lark Sparrow egg held in a hand.

A close–up view of a Lark Sparrow egg we found on the ground. It looks like an artist spattered and drizzled paint on one end of the egg. The markings create a great camouflage in the grassland.

While transecting this unburned unit, we heard the insect–like call of the Grasshopper Sparrow and the song of the Dickcissel. We also saw a Killdeer several times, but not its nest. There was a lone Lark Sparrow egg found on the ground, but no more nests were spotted until the very end of our time in that field. I actually flushed the female out of the vegetation and first spotted the nest. Very exciting!

A Lark Sparrow nest with four eggs.

Three Lark Sparrow eggs and one Brown–headed Cowbird egg are found in the nest. The Cowbird does not build a nest, but rather lays her eggs in other bird’s nests and allows that bird to raise the young Cowbird.

Once the nest was found, Heather had to work quickly, so the mother was not away from the nest too long. Heather instructed us to not touch any vegetation near the nest with our hands, only using our search sticks to move the plants. Something I learned from Heather that morning is that predators can follow our scents to locate the bird nests, so we have to be careful and leave as little as possible.

The mother left the nest so quickly, but Heather noticed the bird’s tail feathers and believes the identity can be confirmed as a Lark Sparrow. There were four eggs in the nest and three eggs appeared to be from a Lark Sparrow, while the last egg was from a Cowbird. We glanced at the nest contents quickly, snapped a few photos, and then walked a good distance away from the nest to record the important data. Heather keeps track of the species, the date & time, the number of eggs, the number of young & whether the mother was on or off of the nest.

A Red–Winged Blackbird Nest

The Red–winged Blackbird built its nest in a glade mallow (Napaea dioica), a native prairie plant.

Before we parted for the day, Heather took Jessica and I to see another nest found in the Sand Farm planting. This nest belonged to a Red–winged Blackbird.

A Red–winged Blackbird nest with four eggs.

A peek inside the nest reveals four eggs.

If you would like to volunteer to help Heather search for bird nests or if you are interested to read more about Heather’s research, visit her website at http://www.bios.niu.edu/jones/lab/heather_herakovich.html

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Photo Place Gallery

by Dee Hudson Photography

This was a very exciting week! My image, Silhouette Glow, submitted to the juried show at Photo Place Gallery was chosen from amongst 1200 images for the online gallery. This show was curated by the incredible Jeff Curto, Professor Emeritus at College of DuPage. I appreciate being selected and I am delighted to be in the company of all the other wonderful artists in this show.

Also in the Photo Place Online Gallery are Carol Byron and Becky Davis, fellow members with me in the ‘Fleeting Moments Artists’ group. Congratulations!!

Congratulations also to Joanne Barsanti, a former classmate and fine artist, on her selection to the Photo Place Gallery. Her image, Preening Egret, was selected for exhibition in the gallery in Middleton, Vermont in March.

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Silhouette Glow © Dee Hudson

Silhouette Glow was photographed in the West Chicago Prairie in Illinois during the winter of 2014. When I captured this image, I remember I was snowshoeing through deep snow during a very cold spell — temperatures in the single digits. The day was nearly done and I was cold and tired, about to finish photographing for the day. As I framed this last winter plant stalk (probably in the sunflower family) in my camera view finder, I instantly knew it was a ‘keeper’. People often ask me whether this image was created in Photoshop. No, it was actually all captured in my camera as the photo appears here. To achieve this effect, I carefully position myself in relation to my light source and my subject and then use a very selective focus. Although this is the ‘look’ I strive for, many times I hike miles through the prairie without success, for it is hard to locate exactly the light I desire and the subject I want.

Basic RGB

Porcupines in the Prairie

by Dee Hudson Photography

Porcupines in the prairie? When it comes to prairies, I am of course speaking about the Porcupine Grass (Stipa spartea).

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The porcupine grass creates an elegant silhouette.

The seed from this grass is one of my favorites because it is so unique–looking compared to other seeds I have seen. The tip of this seed is rather furry and comes to a very sharp point, like a porcupine quill. Even though I was careful while planting these seeds, I still bled from pricking my fingers with the sharp tips.

 The furry and sharp tip of the porcupine seed.

The furry and sharp tip of the porcupine seed.

To plant the porcupine grass I actually jabbed the seed downward, burying the pointed tip into the ground. I would squat to the ground (to get a work–out while I planted!!) and then sink five seeds into the ground in a circle around me. Then I would stand up and toss out another five seeds to self–plant and then I would walk eight to ten feet and repeat the whole process again. As you can imagine, this planting process is very labor–intensive.

The candy cane twisted seed tail.

The candy cane twisted seed tail.

The seed tails are very fascinating. There are two different colored strands that twist around each other, looking rather candy cane–like to me. Apparently these two strands twist at different rates depending on the humidity in the air. So, when the air is dry, the tapered tail end will coil and fishtail to one side or the other and then when there is more moisture in the air the tail will fishtail the other way. Over time, the humidity changes  will allow this seed to literally screw itself down into the ground. It is pretty amazing how nature works!

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As the seed dries, the end coils.

 

To give an idea of the seed size, I photographed three porcupine seeds before planting them in the prairie.

To give an idea of the seed size, I photographed three porcupine seeds before planting them in the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands.

 

Planting Seeds in Winter?

by Dee Hudson Photography

Yes, when you’re planting prairie seeds, December can be a great time to sow them!! Native seeds actually need many freezes and thaws to soften up their hard seed coats so they are ready to germinate in the spring.

On the morning of December 4th, I helped Jay Stacy, a land steward at Nachusa Grasslands, hand–sow seeds onto a problem area in his prairie field.

A hand holding prairie seeds

Over the past seven months, Jay (with my help also!) has hand–collected seeds from all over Nachusa’s restored prairie fields, to use for this ‘Mullein Hill’ planting. The seed mix we sowed contained over 40 different species, many species that are rare in plantings (conservative species) and many species that will colonize quickly and then give way as the rare species become established.

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I asked Jay what was in his seed mix and he said, “Leadplant, dropseed, cream wild indigo, pale purple coneflower, western sunflower, coreopsis palmata, yellow coneflower, shooting stars, prairie violets, silky aster and many other species.”

The 16 acres surrounding this hill were planted into prairie in 2012, but Jay left this small fifth of an acre unplanted due to all the brush and tree limbs laying across the slope. Jay cleared the hill of stumps and branches in 2013, but in the meantime, mullein, an invasive non–native species, took over!! Boy, did these plants ever take over! See all the green rosette–shaped plants covering the hill and slope as far as you can see? There are hundreds and hundreds of these non–native plants in just this small area._MG_8465

Mullein grows well in sandy, dry areas and this hill was a perfect place for it to thrive. To keep this biennial from making seeds, Jay mowed the mullein down three separate times this past summer (2014). Now, Jay and I are planting some competition for the mullein and once these seeds sprout in the spring, the mullein won’t have a chance at survival.

This mullein hill is shaped irregularly, so Jay used an inventive planting method (known as the Schmadeke Techniqueto insure that we did not miss any spots as we scattered out the seeds. First we ringed the outside perimeter with bright colored flags. Then we stood next to a starting flag and spaced ourselves about five feet apart. We began to spread our seeds while walking towards the next flag. When we arrived at the second flag, Jay pulled it out and handed it to me, and I plunked it in the ground to my left, thus creating a tighter circle to follow the next sweep around the hill.

I’m excited to visit ‘Mullein Hill’ next spring and see what has sprouted. We will probably need to give the hill a new name!