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.