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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On a Quest for . . . Bison

by Dee Hudson Photography

So, today I am about to shoot some bison, or rather should I say ‘photograph’ bison?

My alarm blares at 5:00 am. Oh my gosh, I’m a night owl, so waking at this hour is very painful. I only hit the snooze button once, and then I am slowly pulling on all my clothing layers . . . my cold weather biking pants and jersey first . . . jeans and a turtle neck . . . a thick sweater. I stop layering there or I will overheat before I leave the house. I check my packing list, throw my food for the day into my cooler and grab my camera gear compiled the night before. I am out of the house in about 40 minutes — probably my record time, since I am not a morning person.

One stop for coffee and I am on my way to Nachusa Grasslands (90 minutes away), trying to arrive soon after sunrise in order to shoot in some nice morning light. Today I am on a quest to photograph Nachusa’s wild herd for possible use in the preserve’s annual report. In the last few weeks though, the bison and I have never been in the same location at the same time. Today, I’m hoping for success!

I arrive at the preserve around 7:30 am and the morning light is very pretty. The sun is just visible behind a thin layer of clouds — my favorite kind of light! Yikes! The temperature . . .
5 degrees Fahrenheit. . . . brrrrrrrrr!!!! As I exit the car, I pull on another layer — a thin coat that blocks the wind and covers the ‘bum’.

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The bison graze in the fields along Stone Barn road.

I meet my friend and steward, Jay Stacy, at the headquarters barn. Jay already has a vehicle warmed up and ready for our adventure. Jay volunteered to drive me around for the morning and help me search for the bison herd. We are lucky on this cold day, for the herd is grazing in the fields just off of Stone Barn Road. As we pull into the field entrance, the bison pause their eating to look at us. We watch them a view minutes as I adjust my camera settings and look for some good shots. I roll down the truck window and snap a few images. As I exit the truck, the bison turn around and slowly plod away. Rats!

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The bison move to a new grazing spot.

It is soooo cold, that even with hand–warmers in my pockets, I can not stand outside the truck long before my fingers hurt. Before I head back into the truck to warm up, through my telephoto lens I see two males face off and then begin bumping their heads together.

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Two males lower their heads and butt each other.

After lunch we drive back to the field and the bison are still in the same place they were when we left them in the morning. Now, most of the herd is laying down and resting on the side of a hill in the afternoon sun.

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The female standing in profile is one of seven female bison in the herd fitted with GPS collars. These collars collect daily data for researchers.

I was hoping for some nice images of the whole herd, and I was pleased with my success today. Hopefully during my next visit to Nachusa, I will again be in the right place at the right time to enjoy these magnificent animals.

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Wild Bison Return to Illinois!

by Dee Hudson Photography

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On a dark, cold and very windy night, I waited excitedly with about fifteen other folk for twenty bison to arrive to their new home at Nachusa Grasslands. To be a part of this moment was thrilling! Since I began photographing and restoring the prairie two years ago, the excitement, talk and preparations for the bison arrival have been steadily building to this eventful night. When the semi finally arrived, I had to stand well back while the bison unloaded, so the only photograph I captured of this major event was the semi! In the second bottom compartment though, I can clearly see the large outline of some bison.

For over an hour the bison handlers tried everything they could think of to move the bison from the semi into the new corral. Finally, all the lights were extinguished and everyone left to celebrate, allowing the bison to enter the corral on their own sometime in the night.

Bison

The next morning I wanted to rush over to the corral for a peek, but our Illinois weather was not cooperating. In late afternoon the rain finally stopped and I was able to get a nice glimpse of the cows eating.

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