The bison reintroduction has been exciting for everyone involved with Nachusa—staff and stewards, volunteers and visitors, and especially scientists. The project provides a unique opportunity measure the impacts of these animals and their actions on the entire restored prairie ecosystem. I’m fortunate to be part of a small army of researchers and students working closely with Nachusa personnel to understand how bison influence plants, animals, and other organisms.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to spend time within the bison units over the past 2 years has undoubtedly seen evidence of these giant herbivores: dung! In addition to grazing on plants and wallowing in dirt, bison play an important role in nutrient cycling by depositing concentrated piles of plant material and nutrients around the prairie. Across the landscape, this may provide hotspots of growth for some plants, adding to the overall diversity at Nachusa.
An inconspicuous group of insects help to carry out this nutrient–cycling process. Dung beetles feed on animal waste, and many species collect dung as a food source for their offspring. Some species famously form it into spheres, and roll these “dung balls” away to bury and deposit eggs. Other species tunnel below the dung patty, building chambers where dung is stored and beetle larvae can develop. And some species are “dwellers” who simply dive in to fresh dung and start to feast, laying eggs along the way. When these eggs hatch, the larvae feed, pupae, and emerge as adults, completing their entire metamorphosis in a single patty before heading off to mate and start the process over again in fresh patty.
Burying small bits of dung in the soil helps make nutrients accessible to plant roots. In the soil, microorganisms like bacteria and fungi convert organic materials into inorganic forms available to plants. This can represent a significant amount of the nutrients. As dung dries, much of the nitrogen can be lost to the air as ammonia volatilizes. This is why dung beetles are important for ranching: every bit of nutrients back in the soil rather than lost to the atmosphere means more fodder for livestock.
So it was a reasonable assumption that the dung beetle community at Nachusa would respond positively to the introduction of several dozen large, dung-producing herbivores to the prairie. I credit Dr. Ken McCravy from WIU for first suggesting that we should investigate these communities. Over the past two years, with support from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands, I have been working with NIU students to survey the dung beetles to determine which species are present and how their abundances differ between sites with and without bison. We use pitfall traps, baited with fresh bison dung, to collect beetles that are later pinned and identified under a microscope in my lab at NIU.
Our preliminary results are exciting: we have documented at least seven species, including rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. The two most common species are Onthophagus hecate, a widespread species, and Onthophagus knausi, a uncommon species whose range extends west and south through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The other species are much less common but include the large, blue-black Geotrupes opacus and the spectacular rainbow scarab, Phanaeus vindex.
As a preliminary result, the presence of bison doesn’t seem to have a big effect on abundance, as some bison-free sites have high numbers of beetles. But this may not be surprising given how mobile these insects are. They can fly and specialize in seeking out their preferred food. Cattle pastures surrounding Nachusa likely provide population sources as well.
Over the next two years, we will be investigating these dung beetle communities in more detail. A Master’s student at NIU will be combining observations of dung decomposition with beetle measurements to understand how different species contribute to dung processing. Ultimately we hope to understand how the management actions that maintain high plant diversity at Nachusa (such as prescribed fire and grazing) affect beetle communities and their ability to process dung.
Keep an eye on fresh dung patties and you may see these small but fascinating insects carrying out some of the invaluable “dirty work” that keeps the prairie ecosystem healthy and biodiverse!
Nick Barber is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Illinois University. To read more about his work, visit the Barber Lab webpage. Thank you Nick, for being our guest blogger this week!
A seed on the wind as it travels alone,
does it feel isolation as it looks for a home?
The breeze carries it aloft and sometimes quite high,
will it land in a spot that is wet or quite dry?
Will the conditions it lands in meet all of its needs,
or would its chances have been better on an easterly breeze?
Of seeds born to the wind there must be many,
so at least a few make it to the land of seed plenty.
Where a cycle of freeze and thaw is step one,
for the seed to sprout it will need good soil and sun.
Bright orange flames of fire flicker on thatch,
to soon leave the prairie a charcoal black patch.
Down came the rain, it fell all around,
it loosened the soil and moistened the ground.
Forbs and grasses of green cover the black,
this seed found a home where the cover does lack.
Grazing the grass fills bison need,
allows warmth and the sun down to this little seed.
From that seed emerged a tiny green shoot,
that soon put down a nice little root.
The bison that graze the grasses down low,
add nutrients and microbes that help the plant grow.
In the place where this little seed did land,
a plant of its species does now stand.
The new root has grown and is now very deep,
so that this plant can survive a long winters sleep.
In the spring, the plant will grow to be tall,
it will flower this summer, and set seed in the fall.
When the fall breeze blows, the seed will take to the air,
hoping to land on good ground that is bare.
Where can one find this wondrous glory?
At a place called Nachusa, that inspired this story!
This poem was written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands.
Photos courtesy of Dee Hudson and Charles Larry.
Seeds! That essential element of prairie restoration, seeds are hand gathered and then planted by stewards, volunteers, and crew over hundreds of acres at Nachusa Grasslands each year. Gathering seeds by hand assures that only the right, ready, and wanted species are collected. But there is another method of seed harvesting and planting utilized at Nachusa: mechanized, with combine and broadcast seeders.
With a combine, very large areas of seeds can be gathered in a very short time. In 2016, the Nachusa crew hand collected about 4000 lbs. of seed, while combining yielded about 20,000 lbs. Combining is not as precise a method as hand gathering and will retrieve the seeds of everything in its path, including weeds. This is minimized by carefully monitoring the path of the combine and either driving around an area of unwanted seeds or by disengaging the combine head.
The photo above shows a field which yielded a variety of seeds: Big and Little Bluestem; Indian Grass; Smooth, Sky Blue, and Silky Asters; Old Field, Missouri, and Showy Goldenrod; Rough Blazing Star; Round–headed Bush Clover; and Pale Purple Coneflower, among others. The advantage of this method, in addition to large-scale collecting, is that it frees the crew to concentrate on rare, harder to collect seeds, such as from those plants that are too low to the ground to gather by combining.
Combines can operate with different types of heads (front part of combine) for harvesting various grains and seeds. Nachusa's combine uses a rice-stripping head. The metal "fingers" (photo above) spin very fast, stripping seeds off each stem. This is much more efficient and collects less chaff compared to using a soybean head, which cuts and harvests the stems along with the seeds. The combine has also been further modified: the fans have been turned off and the top of the stripping head has been covered with a wire screen to minimize the loss of the fine, fluffy seeds.
Because the special head brings in very little chaff, the seeds can be directly planted without going through the hammermill.
After drying, the seed collected by combining is mostly given to conservation partners of Nachusa Grasslands, such as Byron Forest Preserve, Natural Land Institute, and Franklin Creek State Natural Area. Some of the seed is used to supplement the seed hand gathered by stewards and crew. Some of the seed is used to plant areas that were recently cleared of brush.
This 103-acre field is much too large an area to plant by hand. The crew fills antique broadcast seeders with a mixture of the combine-gathered seed and hand-gathered seed. The broadcast seeders, attached to the back of trucks, are then driven over the field, again and again, spreading the seed.
There are many factors that filter into a successful restoration. Weather, of course, is one factor. Often, after an initial planting, there are places where growth is sparse. Overseeding is done, sometimes over several years, to help increase growth and also to add more diverse plants. Diligent weeding is also done to eradicate unwanted and invasive species. New plantings are often burned on a yearly basis for a few years to help with weed control and encourage native species growth. Nachusa's staff and volunteers have gone through this process of collecting and planting prairies over 120 times within the past 30 years. After many years of care and hard work, a beautifully restored prairie may bloom.
This blog was written by Charles Larry, volunteer and photographer at Nachusa. To see more of his images, see: charleslarryphotography.zenfolio.com
As I prepare this week to graduate with my Master’s degree from Northern Illinois University, I found myself reflecting on how much my experience at Nachusa shaped my life. I fell in love with Nachusa in 2013, after a volunteer work day collecting seed for one of my courses at Northern Illinois University (NIU). After less than an hour out in the field, I realized how much natural beauty I had missed out on while growing up in “The Prairie State,” and I was determined to make a difference. Standing on that knob surrounded by smiling stewards, seeds and sunshine sparked an everlasting passion in me to conserve, protect, and connect communities to their natural areas.
I was honored to research the effects of bison grazing and prescribed fire on small mammal communities at Nachusa for my graduate degree. Being able to witness the reintroduction of bison to the prairie and to be part of the team of scientists documenting their impacts is a once in a lifetime experience that I will cherish. I had the privilege of witnessing first–hand how different mice, voles, and ground squirrels thrive in this ecosystem filled with towering grasses and successional bursts of flowers.
Bison are truly amazing and I honestly was clueless as to how they would influence my research, and the herd always made sure to keep me guessing. It is really no joke that bison can be hard to find in the tallgrass, and I spent just as many hours fascinated watching them as I did capturing little critters. In early 2015 when I first saw that they had been through one of my trapping sites, I laughed because they had kicked around a few traps and bent over poles marking where the traps were, making the message loud and clear that my equipment was apparently in their way as they grazed.
That following summer I saw many bison grazing patches dotted with the peaking heads of 13–lined ground squirrels and began to capture them more frequently in the areas the bison stuck around in. It was surprising to me how quickly the deer mice returned to the areas that were recently burned, making them appear like giants among the emerging vegetation. The elusive capture of specialist small mammals like the western harvest mice and meadow jumping mice were always a treat to photograph. From the excitement of not knowing which little small mammal I was going to capture to the increasingly frequent “bison delay,” my adventure was filled with many fun experiences that definitely made me a prairie enthusiast for life.
My time at Nachusa documenting this healthy and diverse ecosystem, filled with so many amazing small mammals, are among the best memories I have spent with friends and family. Watching the seasons and the colors of the flowers change was always the highlight of my time out there. I will never forget the colors of that first sunset and how the fog rolled between the remnant knobs as the sun came up the next morning. At that time I never would have guessed that capturing adorable small mammals in this breathtaking landscape would bring so many people of diverse backgrounds together.
Sharing my time with all of you in the prairie truly inspired me to pass on the Nachusa spirit and help connect more people with their natural areas. Recently I accepted a position with The Nature Conservancy in Ohio as their Conservation and Volunteer Coordinator. I can only hope that I am able to pass along even a small bit of the Nachusa spirit that makes us more than volunteers or nature enthusiasts, but rather a family working together for the benefit of everyone through restoring and protecting nature. For this I graciously thank the amazing people who made Nachusa my home away from home and for a prairie state of mind . . . now and forever.
Today’s author is Angie Burke, a graduate student and researcher from Northern Illinois University. To read more about Angie's research, visit The Jones Lab at NIU.
In the fall I look forward to the incredible display from the native prairie grasses. Up to this point, the grasses have remained rather unobtrusive, but in the fall they step out of the background to claim our attention. Although I enjoy them all, the little bluestem grass is definitely my favorite.
Little bluestem can be found throughout the prairie, but right now this grass is very noticeable if you to look the hills. Many of Nachusa’s knobs and hills are blanketed in an orange–red, and that color is from the . . . little bluestem grass!! In addition, throughout the winter, the grass will retain this energetic color and stand out beautifully in the snow.
As the autumn winds blow, the little bluestem grass undulates like waves in the ocean, as seen in the photo above in the upper left. It is mesmerizing to watch it ripple across a vast expanse. The view is from the top of Fameflower Knob in early fall (notice the leaves still on the trees).
As a photographer, I love to use little bluestem as a backdrop for the goldenrods and asters that bloom in the fall. Then, as the season progresses, the grass creates a wonderful texture and contrasting color for the changing leaves of many other forbs.
It is surprising to view the seeds up close through a macro lens. Look at all that white feathery fluff decorating the seedstalk! So intricate with so many fine hairs.
Come visit Nachusa and enjoy a late fall hike through the grasses. I recommend the Clear Creek Knolls hike, with a climb to the top of Fameflower Knob. The hike trailhead is accessible from the small parking lot on Lowden Road, just south of Flagg Road or 1.4 miles north of the visitor kiosk. Once you arrive at the base of the hill, there is no path, so make your own! Just avoid walking on top of the sandstone, for it crumbles easily. Give the short climb a try and if you do, leave us a comment on this blog about your adventure!
Today’s author is Dee Hudson, a photographer and volunteer for Nachusa Grasslands. To see more prairie images, visit her website at www.deehudsonphotography.com.
It is easy to spot and identify in late autumn. The tall deciduous trees, the oaks, the hickories and others, have but a few brown leaves still clinging to their skeleton frames. Below, on shorter plants, abundant leaves remain green. A drive in the country reveals this late season green plant growing at the edge of a woodlot, deep in a forest or in abandoned fields. It is in the fall that its abundance becomes most visible. It is exotic and invasive bush Honeysuckle.
Nonnative Honeysuckles such as Amur Honeysuckle, Showy Fly Honeysuckle, Common Fly Honeysuckle and others were introduced into the United States from Eurasia more than 100 years ago. They were brought into new habitats for ornamental reasons, for erosion control and for wildlife cover. In the absence of repeated fires and in grazed and disturbed wooded areas the exotic Honeysuckles have reproduced rapidly and spread widely.
There are woodland and savanna areas now in Nachusa Grasslands where the Honeysuckle has become abundant over many decades and is disruptive to the native ecosystems. These multi-stemmed bushes can grow up to twelve feet tall and form very thick shrub layers that prevent the growth of native species by decreasing the amount of light reaching the forest floor and by using up nutrients and water in the soil. Honeysuckles are considered an allelopathic species as they release chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of native species. Birds that may build nests in Honeysuckle are more susceptible to predation because the Honeysuckle branches are nearer the ground than native bushes. The abundant berries, while high in carbohydrates, do not produce the fats and nutrients needed by migrating birds in the fall.
I have been a steward of the East Tellabs Unit at Nachusa Grasslands since 2011. With the help of many volunteers, other stewards and the Nachusa crew, we have cut and treated thousands of Honeysuckle plants of all sizes. It is rewarding to use a pair of loppers or a saw to cut a plant near its base and treat the stump with a chemical to kill the Honeysuckle and prevent resprouting. The forest floor is exposed and sunlight may reach it for the first time in years. Other methods of attacking this invasive plant include chemically spraying the leaves, applying chemicals to the base of the plant and seasonal fires.
The work to decrease the Honeysuckles continues. A few hours working among the Honeysuckle can leave one tired, sweaty, sore, scratched and covered in burrs. Yet the tired and sore will go home feeling proud for doing a necessary task that makes a difference in the diversity and ecology of the woodlands and savannas. Each Saturday a Nachusa steward leads a volunteer workday. You might collect seeds, you might pull weeds, you might pile deadfall, or you might cut, treat, stack and burn Honeysuckle.
Text and Photography by Tellabs Steward Mark Jordan
In the summer of 2008, my oldest son Mark asked if we could become members of the Field Museum in Chicago. He wanted to attend member’s night. This is a special event where the mysteries of the third floor of the museum are open to the public. Those readers, who have been to the Field Museum, are already familiar with the wonderful natural history displays on the first and second floors. What are less familiar are the third and fourth floors. The third floor is devoted to scientific research and investigation related to the natural world around us. On the fourth floor the ideas for presentation and display are created and brought to life.
It’s on the third floor that this story begins. My family had been investigating the different rooms where the museum scientists had set up displays, highlighting details of their research. We walked into a room where a crowd had formed around a scientist busily dissecting a tiger that had recently died at a local zoo. He removed parts and explained what each one was and what he was looking for as a scientist. Each part was measured and compared to other specimens, to better understand changes taking place in tigers over time.
A nametag read Dr. Bill Stanley, and Bill was answering questions as he worked. Mark asked, “How does one become a scientist?” Bill answered, “I started as a volunteer, as did many of the people working here.” He gestured to his assistant and explained that the assistant was currently a volunteer. Bill went on to explain the many benefits of volunteering. For him, and many people, it is their first introduction to their life’s work. He said, “Find something you might like, and find a way to volunteer. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it interests you, try it. Maybe it turns out it’s not your thing, move on, try something else. It’s a great way to learn something new, learn about yourself, and spend time with people that share similar interests.” He went on to explain that one must be 16 years old, or accompanied by a parent, to volunteer at the Field Museum.
On the morning of Mark’s sixteenth birthday, Mark took a train downtown and began volunteering in the bird lab on the third floor of the Field Museum. Dr. Bill Stanley and Mark became friends, and Mark is currently involved in a graduate degree related to things he learned at the Field Museum. My two younger children also took Bill’s advice, and also found their life’s work through their volunteer experiences. My wife finds satisfaction and friendship through an organization called “Arlington Cares” which provides assistance to families in need in our local community. Myself, I find volunteering and helping at Nachusa Grasslands to be richly rewarding!
My journey to volunteering at Nachusa started long before TNC began land acquisitions in Lee and Ogle counties. As a boy, I lived in Glenview and right behind my house, after crossing railroad tracks, was a wooded area called “The Grove”. I would often walk through The Grove to find peace and solitude. It was dense with buckthorn and the ground was mostly bare, but some native plants would emerge. Plants like Mayapple, Jack–in–the–Pulpit, and wild onions. Oh, what a smell when walking through the wild onions during their peak, a delicate sweet smell of onion, not the overpowering kind that comes from slicing onions. Once in the fall, in a moment of mischief, I lit the dry grass along the railroad tracks on fire. The flames burned high, but it was a still day, and after the initial fuel burn, the flames subsided and I put it out. In the spring, much to my surprise, this area was lush with tender green grass. The difference from the nearby grass was dramatic and caused me to ponder on the possible reasons the fire brought this change.
As an adult, I worked with a group of volunteers interested in native plants and birds. They had received permission to work in the Cook County Forest Preserves. The mission was to clear the invasive buckthorn to allow light through to the ground, where it was hoped original native plant communities could be revived. Originally called the “North Branch Prairie Project”, the focus was to open up portions of the forest floor, return native plants and fire, enhance native plant diversity and suppress invasive species. In spite of the name it was understood that we were working with different ecosystems. The name has now been changed to “North Branch Restoration Project” to reflect the varied ecosystems. Whether it was prairie, woodland, or the newly recognized but poorly understood Oak Savanna, the idea was to bring forest preserve conditions back to presettlement times. It was during my time working as a volunteer with the North Branch that I learned of “The Midwest Oak Savanna Conference”. It was at this conference that I first learned of Nachusa and signed up for their newsletter. The idea that The Nature Conservancy would buy up remnant prairie, return fire to them, and then buy adjoining land and restore it, captured my imagination. I would read every newsletter and ponder the work of clearing brush, breaking drain tile, and removing fence. I would look for articles that suggested some rare plant, bird, or animal now called Nachusa home, and that its populations at Nachusa were increasing.
I picked up a flyer for Illinois RiverWatch training, a program that uses citizen scientist volunteers to monitor the health of Illinois rivers. It was at this training class that I met Mary Vieregg, a long–time steward and volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands. Mary was organizing a group of volunteers to sample the creeks at Nachusa and get data on stream health, pre-bison. I had never been to Nachusa and asked if she needed help. So my first trip to Nachusa was to help collect, identify, and count macroinvertebrates from Wade Creek in early spring. I was awestruck! Before I even made it to the barn I began to notice all the prairie plants. The diversity of plants growing alongside the driveway testified to how special this place is. It was a place I wanted to be, and when I began meeting and working with other volunteers and the staff at Nachusa, I felt welcome and appreciated. Project Director, Bill Kleiman, and Restoration Ecologist, Cody Considine, are knowledgeable, organized, and never waste a volunteer’s time. There are always projects for just about every interest. Wherever one’s talents lie there is a need waiting to be met. In addition to RiverWatch with Mary and friends, I help with brush cutting, weed sweeps, trail maintenance, fire equipment maintenance, frog monitoring, data recording, brush and prairie burns. The list goes on.
Volunteering at Nachusa is a wonderful way to connect with nature and other people. Work at your own pace and take time to appreciate the wonderful views. Admire the flowers, insects, and incredible birds. Explore your creative side and be inspired to write, photograph, or paint. If you like organizing, help with the annual “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration. If you’re mechanically inclined, maybe helping with vehicle maintenance is for you. Sometimes a scientist may need help with collecting data or other aspects of their research. I personally find the science of the prairie to be most fascinating. There are tasks for all ages and abilities. Come join the effort to restore Nachusa to a living example of the past. This living past will provide a home for species that need the very special habitat that is Nachusa!!!
Today's blog was written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands.
Dedicated to the Memory of Dr. Bill Stanley.
I love autumn. I love all the seasons, but autumn is my favorite. Even after 20 years of photographing here, I still find Nachusa Grasslands an inspiration. There's always something new, something exciting and astounding each time I'm out with the camera.
There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape
as we are prepared to appreciate.
Henry David Thoreau
From a photographer's perspective, the landscape can be appreciated in many different ways. Color is probably the most dominant, especially in this season of incredible color displays.
Yellow and scarlet in an intensity that takes your breath away.
Spectacular sunrises can occur in any season, but...
To be walking along and, suddenly, looking down and seeing the mesmerizing blue of the Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) always catches me by surprise. Just as color is an obvious and overwhelming visual aspect in the fall at Nachusa, there are occasions where the opposite can also be appreciated.
The monotones of this photo give emphasis to the structure of the grasses and lend an almost otherworldly quality to the scene.
Contrast is also visually arresting: large and small, soft and hard, light and dark... The light and soft textures of the seeds of the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) contrast with the sculptural, solid shapes of the pods and stems.
Pattern and texture are other elements that catch my eye. Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) forms a pattern amid a sea of texture.
The subtle colors and shapes show off the differing textures of these late fall plants.
Look down and you may not see anything that stands out in a landscape, but, together, all of the elements reveal patterns that remind me of abstract paintings or Persian carpets.
Even up close, patterns are evident, as in this Prairie Dock leaf (Silphium terebinthaceum). Look at all the varying patterns of color, branching veins, dots....
Challenging situations are another aspect of photography at Nachusa that I find inspiring. Motion is one of the most difficult to capture well. Wind can be frustrating when shooting on the prairie, but wind is an ever constant presence here. Sometimes it's best to not fight it and just go with it. This very windy fall day, I decided to try to capture the wind and not the grass it was rampaging through.
In this photo of a bison moving quickly through a sumac thicket, I tried to capture the motion of the animal and not focus on the animal itself. Moving the camera slightly in the direction of the bison's movements creates a blurred, abstract image where light is caught in streaks. I find the result interesting. What do you think?
And then there are those surprises when all elements just come together at once: color, contrast, texture and the right light. Autumn at Nachusa: a photographer's dream.
Today's blog is by Charles Larry, a volunteer and photographer at Nachusa Grasslands. To see more of his images visit: charleslarryphotography.zenfolio.com
"What a package of potential a seed is! Most of the prairie seeds I harvested weigh almost nothing but contain the genetic plans for a future.”
Nachusa volunteers and stewards collect 125+ seed species for both new and field–overseed plantings. Seed collection begins at Nachusa around mid–May and continues through the first week of November. This year 100 new acres will be planted to prairie and about a dozen stewards will overseed 150 acres or more on various newer restorations.
How much seed is needed to plant 100 acres to prairie this fall?
About 5,000 pounds!!!!
Equipped with buckets, bags, scissors and clippers, stewards and volunteers walk through the fields searching for mature seed. Harvesting seed by hand is time–consuming and labor intensive, but there are advantages. Some seeds are on tiny plants close to the ground and located on rocky slopes. The only way to harvest these is for collectors to crawl on their hands and knees to pick each seed individually.
I'm a retired librarian from NIU. I've been taking photos at Nachusa for over 20 years.
I am a nature photographer and freelance graphic designer. I have been taking photos for Nachusa since 2012.
I am the manager's daughter and a resident prairie critter. I currently attend Sauk Valley Community College and I have been drawing Nachusa my whole life.
I am a semi–retired teacher and the Steward of Nachusa's East Tellabs unit. I have returned to the grasslands after 30 years in the north.
I am a hobby naturalist who works with knowledgeable people to help restore native ecosystems at Nachusa and in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Exotic And Invasive Plants