By Dee Hudson and Charles Larry
By Riley Nylin, Restoration Technician
On November 18th, 2019 Riley Nylin, Tyler Pellegrini, and Amanda Contreras completed the 2019 crew planting on the corner of East Flagg Road and South Carthage Road. This 63-acre planting finishes off the Clear Creek Knolls management unit.
Over the course of the season, our crew hand-picked 2,930 pounds of seed. Because of the extremely wet conditions of the picking season, we were forced to focus heavily on diversity instead of attempting to collect large amounts of seed. This led us to breaking only one seed collection record. We collected 29 pounds of pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) when the past record was only 14 pounds!
Several different planting mixes were made, but not all of them were used on this site. The handpicked mixes are broken up into five categories: Dry, Dry Mesic, Mesic, Wet, and Woodland. The Wet and Woodland seed mixes were saved for other plantings/over-seeding areas. Within each mix, the crew focused heavily on species diversity. Table 1 displays the total number of species per mix.
Once the seed was collected, separated, and mixed, the crew took to the field to plant! By planting 184 species at 50 lbs per acre, they planted a total of 85 acres of new prairie as well as over-seeding a few portions of past plantings. While 63 of the acres were planted at the Flagg and Carthage planting, the other 22 acres were planted at Franklin Creek Natural Area (FCNA). The FCNA planting was in partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
By Charles Larry, with a thank you to Bill Kleiman for his help.
Fire! The very word can conjure up images of terror or comfort. Forest fire, wildfire, or house fire evoke terror, while campfire, hearth fire, and cooking fire suggest comfort. Fire for a prairie or savanna means renewal. Fire is a necessary element in the way these ecosystems evolved. The native peoples of the prairies were using frequent low intensity landscape fires to encourage habitats that fit their needs for hunting, food, and medicine. The natural areas we now manage are dependent on those fires continuing. Fire kills the above ground portions of small trees and shrubs, sparing the oaks and hickories, which have adapted to fire with thick bark and the ability to re-sprout as needed.
After a prescribed burn, the landscape looks bleak, seemingly devoid of life. But this is an illusion. Fire sets back woody plants, encourages wildflowers and grasses, and cycles nutrients.
In just a few weeks vegetation begins to sprout anew. Plants such as wild lupine, foxglove, and ferns flourish after a prescribed burn.
By summer, everything is in full bloom. Wildlife, such as deer, coyotes, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, and birds, such as wild turkeys, red-headed woodpeckers, chickadees, goldfinches, indigo buntings, not to mention the myriad insects, all benefit from the lush environment. In this photo we see some old standing oaks that died from oak wilt or some other oak disease.
Autumn is seed time and root time, returning again to underground. Dragonflies mass, preparing for migration. Migratory birds, such as northern flicker, indigo bunting, and summer and scarlet tanagers also gather in flocks to begin their migrations south. Tree frogs cease singing and bury themselves under logs, rocks, or leaf litter to hibernate the winter. The air becomes cooler. Frost happens with more frequency, foretelling the coming of winter.
Winter is quiet and still but by no means vacant of life and activity. Deer roam about, eating dry grasses or other plants coming up through the snow, as well as twigs and the bark of trees. They also eat acorns or hickory nuts that have not been stored away by the squirrels. Coyotes and foxes prowl for voles or mice under the snow. Because the land is blanketed with snow, it protects the seeds that have been dispersed. When the snow melts in spring, it will help to plant and nourish those seeds. Thus the cycle begins again.
This week's blog was written by Charles Larry, a volunteer and photographer at Nachusa. To see more of his images, visit his photography website.
By Jess Fliginger
In 2013, Dr. Holly Jones started conducting a long-term research project at Nachusa Grasslands on quantifying the effects of disturbance-related management strategies on small mammal populations at restored and remnant prairie sites. The reintroduction of bison in 2014 allowed for a powerful before and after bison impact study that documented the effects of bison grazing on the small mammal communities. Data collected on species responses to bison, prescribed fire frequency, restoration age, and vegetation composition will inform decisions regarding abundance and biodiversity for small mammals. Small mammals play important roles in the food web by influencing vegetation structure through herbivory and seed predation, as well as serving as prey for predator species. So far, plant communities with bison grazing are becoming more diverse and more abundant with small mammals. In the beginning, Dr. Jones ran the small mammal project by herself for a year until she was able to pass it on to her Master’s student Angela Burke in 2014. It was quite a challenge to run the project on her own, and volunteers have become an essential component to keep it going. Over the years, we have had more than 100 volunteers participate to help check traps in the morning and reset traps in the afternoon.
On the first day of small mammal trapping, or as we like to call it “smammaling”, we prep 150 metal Sherman traps by baiting them with peanut butter and oats. Our small army of volunteers, 3 or 4 people, create an assembly line, with one person spreading just a dab of peanut butter on the backplate and the other sprinkling a small pinch of oats inside. Once all traps have been prepped, we start stacking rows of them, Tetris style, in the back of Scarlet, our NIU mule.
Out of the four seasons we sample for small mammals, August and October have the tallest vegetation, making it difficult to locate our poles. We flag the highest plant we can find nearby; for me it’s usually prairie dock or good ol’ big bluestem, and we try to navigate our way through the meandering paths of the tallgrass prairie jungle."
We take off to set 25 traps at six of our 5x5 grid sites, hoping our plans don’t get foiled by any bison delays or strange weather. Each site has flagged poles to indicate where the trap must be set; however, finding them can sometimes be a challenge. Bison love using our poles as backscratchers, and they are often found sprawled across the prairie. At each pole we place an open trap where it will sit until an unsuspecting critter passes by and catches a whiff of irresistible Jif.
The mice spend the night at their “mouse hotel” feasting on peanut butter and oats until we are back to process them in the morning.
I always get a rush of excitement as I walk up to a trap and notice the door is closed. When I peek inside the trap, I am usually able to see a little face staring back at me. Occasionally, I’ll get a trigger-no-capture and my excitement will fade to dissatisfaction. Likewise, thieves are a constant problem. Some especially small, speedy daredevils are able to run in to the trap, take some quick bites of peanut butter, and run out without triggering it. We keep tabs on which traps have been thieved and adjust/replace them accordingly.
To process the small mammals, we record the weight and take measurements on the right hind foot, tail, and body using a caliper. In addition, we determine their sex, age, reproductive status, species, and PIT tag number. Some of the species we have captured at our sites and record data on include thirteen-lined ground squirrel, deer mouse, white-footed mouse, western harvest mouse, meadow jumping mouse, prairie vole, meadow vole, and masked and short-tailed shrews. The most common species we capture is the deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus. Depending on whether it’s a new capture or recap, we will carefully insert a PIT tag underneath its skin – similar to microchipping your pet – as a way to keep track of its movements, survival, and reproduction throughout the study. It’s always a treat when we have an overwinter or recapture from the previous year; they were the lucky ones to survive the long cold winter! Finally, we provide complimentary haircuts to all new buddies and collect the hair to run in the stable isotope lab. The information gathered from each sample result can tell us about their diet and role in the food web.
Since 2015, I have been volunteering with Dr. Jones’ small mammal project. This year I was given the opportunity to help run the project and process the small mammals until her incoming PhD student, Erin Rowland, arrived. I took up the challenge, and with practice I became a pro. I would say my favorite part of the job is meeting the volunteers and training them how to be great smammalers. I enjoy acting as a Nachusa tour guide to all newcomers, young and old.
Although anyone is welcome to volunteer, the majority of our helpers are undergraduate students who enjoy a break away from the classroom. Volunteering for the small mammal project gets you to spend time outside, which is beneficial to your health and well-being. It inspires the public to engage in the scientific process, appreciate native plants and animals, and meet others who care about our environment. Furthermore, it helps develop team building skills that are important for any job setting. Volunteers are the heart and soul of the small mammal project, and without them I’m not sure it would be able to persist. There is a lot to accomplish within the 12 consecutive days we are at Nachusa smammaling, and any help is greatly appreciated! If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Erin Rowland. To me, the small mammal project is all about making new and old friends — volunteers and mice alike.
By Cody Considine
In her new role she will lead the crew for the remainder of this field season, which includes harvesting a couple more thousand pounds of seed from 150 species to plant 50+ acres this fall. In addition to the fall planting and prescribed fire season, she will also be interwoven into the bison roundup, helping with various tasks. This winter she will operate chainsaws and large equipment, removing brush in our oak woodlands. Next spring she will work to become qualified as a line boss position on prescribed fire. By the end of her residency (December 2020), Amanda will have the skillsets, confidence, and humility to be a natural areas manager.
Bill and I, along with Elizabeth and Dee, would agree that one of the most gratifying experiences in managing natural areas is helping grow the next generation of natural areas managers. We are immensely grateful for all of our young professionals who choose to start their careers at Nachusa.
Please give them a shout out next time you come for a visit.
Cody Considine is the Deputy Director at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands.
By Jason Willand, PhD
I first visited Nachusa Grasslands in August 2008 while I was working for the Illinois Natural History Survey. I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the restorations that comprised the preserve and never envisioned myself conducting research on these restored prairies. As fate would have it, I returned to school in 2009 to start work on my doctorate degree and was able to fit part of my research into the restorations at Nachusa. The research was for the first chapter of my dissertation, where I examined the role of seed and bud banks for plant community regeneration during prairie restoration. The field portion of this work lasted only five days, and afterwards I was hoping that I would have a chance to return to conduct more research. As fate would have it again, I was able to conduct a small research project at Nachusa as I was wrapping up my dissertation in July 2014.
The research project was the result of brainstorming between my dissertation advisor Sara Baer and myself. With the imminent introduction of bison on the preserve in October 2014, we wanted to develop a potential long-term monitoring project. We decided that an interesting study would be to examine the resource availability of the remnant and restored prairies before the bison were introduced. Bison were the dominant grazers in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem before settlement by the pioneers. They play a “keystone” role in the maintenance and diversity of prairies because of their wallowing behavior and preferential grazing on graminoids (grasses and sedges). Most bison research to date has been conducted either on private game ranches or remnant prairies, with little research coming from restored prairies.
We collected data on three resources that could affect where bison would graze in the introduction area: plant biomass, the forage quality of the biomass, and soil carbon and nitrogen. Knowledge of plant biomass provides a rough estimate of the amount of plant matter available for bison consumption. Forage quality of plant biomass is informative because it not only tells us how much of the plant matter is actually digestible to the bison, but also the fat and crude protein content of the plant matter. Soil carbon and nitrogen are vital because as a plant uptakes them, they allow a plant to produce important macromolecules for growth, such as proteins.
In order to adequately sample the bison introduction area we surveyed three different prairie types: remnant prairies, restored prairies more than 15 years old and restored prairies less than 5 years old. To quantify potential differences in resource availability between the three prairie types we collected plant biomass and soil samples from three different “fields” in each prairie type. Both the plant biomass and soil samples were returned to the laboratory at Southern Illinois University, where they were processed. Forage quality samples were sent to the University of Wisconsin Madison Soil and Forage Laboratory for analysis of seven components of forage quality.
We found that the restored prairies less than 5 years old had almost twice the amount of plant biomass compared to the restored prairies more than 15 years old and more than twice that of the remnant prairies. Surprisingly, there was little difference in forage quality and stored carbon and nitrogen in soil among the three prairie types. The similarity in forage quality between the three prairie types may be attributed to prescribed burning, as all the fields were burned in April 2014 three months before we sampled them. Prescribed burning has been found to increase forage quality for up to a year after a fire and may have created homogenous plant biomass on the landscape. We expected soil carbon and nitrogen to be higher in the remnant prairies because these soils have not been tilled, a disturbance that has been found to reduce the storage of carbon and nitrogen in agricultural soils. The remnant prairies we sampled perhaps had a lower storage of carbon and nitrogen than expected because the soil was fairly shallow in comparison to the typical deep, loamy soils that characterize many remnant prairies.
The findings of this study suggest that bison may prefer the youngest restored prairies because there is simply more plant biomass available and little difference in the forage quality from the other prairie types. Even with these preliminary data it is still difficult to predict where bison will graze. Other factors that need to be considered are the dietary preferences of male and female bison and how prescribed burning creates a more heterogeneous landscape in the three prairie types. Post-introduction data have not been collected, so at this point any predictions of landscape use by bison is speculative at best. Maybe fate will strike again and I will be able to collect more data at Nachusa sometime in the near future.
Jason Willand is an associate professor of biology at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, MO where he currently serves as the assistant department chair and chair of the conservation section of the Missouri Academy of Sciences.
“Today you can stand anywhere on the 23-acre plot and see all the way across it in any direction. Previously, the woody invasives blocked the view. Now the prairie species will have space and sunlight to bloom and thrive.”
--Mike Carr, Orland Prairie Steward
By Dee Hudson
Nachusa Grasslands Steward
Asian honeysuckle and autumn olive brush were quite thick throughout a 23-acre plot of Nachusa’s Orland Prairie. Ten years of mowing and burning these invasives had little effect, as the shrubs kept resprouting. As long as these invasive shrubs remained, the native plants were suppressed. In order to help restore Orland Prairie, Friends of Nachusa Grasslands applied for a stewardship grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. The objective of the Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation is to encourage increased community participation in the care of natural areas and wildlife habitat managed by non-profit organizations in Illinois.
The grant provided support to Friends of Nachusa Grasslands in a several ways:
A Cash Donation Match Challenge
Volunteer Stewardship Challenge
Social Media Challenge
Come see Orland Prairie! Join steward, Mike Carr, as he leads a tour of the project site at Nachusa Grasslands’ Autumn on the Prairie on Saturday, September 21, from 2:45 to 4 pm. See the areas newly-cleared of dense brush and enjoy the young plants moving into the bare ground.
Friends of Nachusa Grasslands would like to thank Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation for motivating and supporting our organization in this invaluable effort.
By Jenn Simons
Nachusa Grasslands Science Extern
On January 10th, 2019 I made a simple phone call to Nachusa Grasslands. Four months later, I was packing up my things to spend the summer living 480 miles east of my hometown. And with that, this Nebraska native ended up in an eastern tallgrass prairie state of both mind and place.
Prior to that fateful January day, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I had narrowed down my research interests to the impact of conservation grazing on vegetation in midwestern prairies. My goal was to meet the requirements of my degree with a research project at the intersection of stewardship and applied ecology. Though the importance of disturbance to prairie management is well known, grazing on restored and remnant prairies has been a contested issue. Additional data to understand some of the trade-offs to using grazing for land management facilitate better understanding and application of the tools available in a land manager’s toolbox. The only thing that I was missing to begin my research was access to a herd of conservation grazers (nothing too significant, right?).
During my quest to connect with folks using grazing as a land management tool in prairies, I ended up on the phone with Dr. Elizabeth Bach at Nachusa. As many of you know, it’s hard not to fall in love with a site as beautiful and biodiverse as Nachusa Grasslands. It’s even harder not to fall in love if that site also features a herd of grazing animals and the existing infrastructure to study their impacts. After my first conversation with Dr. Bach, I was sold. Nachusa was where I wanted to be, and the impact of their bison was what I wanted to study.
In my case, and the case of many other grad students, there’s a gap in available funding between spring and fall school semesters. Grants and assistantships don’t always pan out, and many degrees in ecology require a large amount of data collection during the summer months (something rather at odds with working full time). Fortunately, 2019 marked the first summer for a Science Extern position at Nachusa. Open to all graduate students currently or beginning to conduct research specifically at Nachusa, the externship was to be awarded as an external grant to the student’s home university and paid as a salary, allowing the student to remain enrolled and continue receiving benefits. Just as the crew of seasonal employees spends their week supporting land stewardship needs throughout the summer, the role of the science extern was to support data stewardship needs throughout the summer. This position continues Nachusa’s history of encouraging research and providing opportunities for budding conservationists.
With my fingers crossed, I submitted my application for the position and tried not to get my hopes up. I made a mental plan B (and C and D) for how I might be able to make my Nachusa research dreams come true if my application wasn’t successful. Work full time and collect data on the weekends? Take out loans? Choose a simpler research question? These are questions most grad students have had to seriously consider at some point. When sites like Nachusa are able to offer summer positions that merge science with practice, both the student and the site benefit from the results.
Much to my delight, plan A came through, and I never looked back. Since May I’ve been assisting in collection, entry, and analysis of core ecological data for Nachusa while simultaneously collecting my own data. To answer my research questions, I’m leveraging twenty-two fenced plots (10mx18m) replicated across habitat types in the 1,500 acres of bison habitat that were designed and built by Bill Kleiman, Cody Considine, TNC staff, and collaborating scientists prior to the introduction of the bison in 2014. As opposed to keeping something inside a fenced in area, these fenced plots function as “exclosures” and keep bison outside the fenced area. Building on plant community data taken in 2014-15 and 2017-18, I’m collecting additional data to compare changes in the vegetation diversity, structure, and abundance along with soil compaction between grazed and ungrazed land over time. With the mentorship of Dr. Bach and my advisor, John Harrington, these data will be analyzed and contribute to both the advancement of my degree and the understanding of how bison have impacted Nachusa’s vegetation.
In addition to the various science program tasks, opportunities abound to participate in stewardship activities and learn more about careers in ecology outside of academia. I’ve gotten to track Blanding’s turtle, set traps for small mammals, participate in evening moth surveys, observe rare plants in their natural settings, improve my R coding ability, utilize ArcGIS to create new maps, collect seeds and control weeds with the seasonal crew, and talk with highly knowledgeable volunteer land stewards. I can honestly say there’s no place I’d rather be this summer than at Nachusa Grasslands, and I’ve already become a better ecologist as a result.
By Riley Nylin
Nachusa Grasslands Restoration Technician
Spring showers have brought the May flowers, as well as very cold and damp conditions this year. With the invasive species and the native plants beginning to appear all at the same time, the 2019 crew has been quite busy. Because many plants have appeared later this year as a result of the weather conditions, the crew has had to work extra hard to ensure that each seed gets picked and each weed continues to get sprayed.
As the summer continues, the crew is hopeful for drier conditions, so that they can continue with typical restoration activities. For the remainder of June and July the crew will focus heavily on controlling invasive species through spading and spraying, so that they do not force out the beautiful native plants. The crew has already begun to tackle the sweet clover, king devil, and bird’s foot trefoil. While this is going on, seed collection has also slowly begun. Although it will not be in full swing until August, collection of plants such as pussytoes and prairie phlox is already in progress.
Once the crew has hand-picked almost 275 species of seed and placed them in barrels to dry, there will be well over two tons of seed that will need to be dried, milled, and mixed. The crew will then get the honor of producing their very own planting for the year. This year the planting is a 63-acre lot that was previously used as agricultural land. At the end of this process the 2019 crew will have covered a lot of ground in weed sweeps, seed collection, and new prairie!
Meet the Crew
By Jessica Fliginger
Today, half of the world’s freshwater turtles and tortoises are threatened with extinction. Due to the alarming rate of turtle disappearance, they are now among the most threatened group of vertebrate animals on earth. Turtles play critical roles in maintaining the health of our food webs and losing them could have negative effects on our ecosystems.
In Illinois, Blanding’s turtles are listed as state endangered, making it illegal to possess or collect this species without the proper permit. Populations are in decline throughout their range, which extends from Canada and Novia Scotia, south into New England, and west through the Great Lakes to Nebraska, Iowa, and northeastern Missouri. In general, their populations are small, discontinuous, and often isolated. Blanding’s are long-lived turtles and can live up to 80 years. Females don’t reach sexual maturity until 14 to 20 years and have small clutch sizes ranging anywhere from 5 to 20 eggs. Based on this information, I’m sure you can gather that Blanding’s turtles, like most turtles, face a multitude of challenges in our human-dominated landscape where there are plenty of predators to avoid.
It’s extremely hard to have a bad day out on the prairie when I’m using radio telemetry to track Blanding’s turtles at Nachusa Grasslands. The "smile" they exude reflects their behavior; they are pleasant to handle and not at all aggressive, unlike snapping turtles I’ve encountered.
I have been fortunate to spend the past two years working as a Blanding’s turtle field technician for Professor Dr. Rich King in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Illinois University. In an effort to promote recovery of the state-endangered species, he has been using radio telemetry as a tool to better understand which areas the turtles are utilizing so they can be protected and management plans to improve their habitat can be implemented.
Additionally, radio telemetry can be used to improve Blanding’s turtle hatchling recruitment. If you’ve ever tracked any animal you understand what I mean when I say, “Easier said than done!” Finding a turtle on a mission to lay her eggs is hard enough, but trying to predict if and when she will lay her eggs seems like an impossible task. Although it’s a lot of hard work, Dr. King and I have pretty much figured it out.
After we have taken our data, the hatchlings are released back into the wetlands near their nest sites. In order to increase their chance of survival out in the wild, it has become necessary for us to assist the Blanding’s turtle population. It may take several field seasons of tracking them at Nachusa before we can get a full understanding of how they are using the area or if there are any other individuals present. For the time being, what’s important is that we are monitoring their movements, protecting critical habitat, and sparing the hatchlings the overland journey of getting to the wetlands.
Blanding’s turtle eggs are particularly vulnerable to nest predators such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, mink, and coyotes. High nest failure means low recruitment level and if juveniles are not surviving then that’s when a population begins to decline. Moreover, roads located near wetland habitat, movement corridors, and nesting areas increase risk of mortality for Blanding’s turtles.
It’s always a good idea to keep a lookout for turtles crossing the road. I know if I see a turtle in the middle of the road, given the opportunity, I will pull over and move them out of harm’s way! You never know, it could be a state-endangered Blanding’s turtle. As an undergraduate, I grew fascinated with Blanding’s turtles after seeing one for the first time on a biology field trip and I’ve always wanted to find a way to help them. Little did I know I would get to do just that!
Dr. Richard King's ongoing research on Nachusa's Blanding’s turtle management strategies is supported with a Scientific Research Grant from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands.
If you would like to play a part in helping the turtles at Nachusa Grasslands, consider joining our Saturday Workdays or giving a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to Scientific Research Grants.
I am a nature photographer, a freelance graphic designer, and steward at Nachusa's Thelma Carpenter Prairie. I have taken photos for Nachusa since 2012.
I have been a high school French teacher, registered piano technician, and librarian. In retirement I am a volunteer historian at Lee County Historical and Genealogical Society.