By Dave Brewer and Dee Hudson
Nourished by the fresh air and the beautiful and ever–changing scenery, Nachusa’s stewards tend and restore the land. They work within a vibrant volunteer community, forging lasting and strong relationships as advocates for land conservation. Nachusa’s stewards are physically active individuals who love working outdoors year-round. These volunteers are passionate about conservation and are committed to creating and restoring habitats for native species.
WHO CAN BE A LAND STEWARD AT NACHUSA?
Any dedicated and interested Nachusa volunteer or group of volunteers can steward a unit in the preserve. A steward is responsible for all the management in their land unit: weed removal, seed collection, planting or over seeding, and brush removal. They also lead volunteer workdays throughout the year. No prior accreditation or related degrees are required, just a willingness to learn from others (staff and mentors) and share experiences and insights with fellow enthusiasts.
Meet Dave Brewer, a frequent Nachusa volunteer who has recently decided to steward two units at the preserve.
What first brought you to volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands?
I began volunteering in the late 1980s when my wife and I brought our student groups here for Saturday workdays. I had a very long hiatus from volunteering until I retired last year. After retirement, I took the University of Illinois extension course to be an Illinois Master Naturalist and one of our field trips brought us here. It rekindled my love for the place, and I became a regular volunteer and completed the fire training to assist with the controlled prairie burns. I’ve been a regular volunteer for almost a year. The people here are very welcoming to newcomers and are willing to share their time and knowledge to help me as a new steward. They are also tolerant of my beginner mistakes and lack of knowledge. It makes it that much more of a pleasure to come and work here.
Tell us your background and what inspires your interest in restoration.
I was a science teacher for over thirty years, and I’ve always hiked and camped and enjoyed being outdoors. I feel a strong sense of place here and a feeling of connection to the prairies, marshes, and groves of northern Illinois. With this, for me, comes a need to learn more about them and be more involved in their conservation. We need wild places, and these wild places need our help.
How did you decide to become a steward?
I could have continued helping maintain other stewards’ units forever. Those days were always fun and interesting and gave me a sense of accomplishment and of helping with something important and crucial: prairie restoration. Dee Hudson, the steward of the Thelma Carpenter Prairie, where I spent much of my time last fall, put the idea of stewarding my own unit into my head and gave me a tour of available units. It was a way to be even more connected to the landscape, a chance to learn about and be involved in the cycles and seasons of nature. Above all, it was a chance to be involved in the great science experiment, restoration at Nachusa Grasslands.
What are some of the exciting features of Les Lep and Kittentail Units?
I’m drawn to the small sandstone outcrops and gravelly prairie knobs. I have a degree in geology, so maybe it relates to that, but I love those areas of the preserve. The remnant prairie knobs are sacred ground: you are standing amidst historical plant communities which are hundreds of years old. It is a glimpse into what northern Illinois was like prior to European settlement and the vast agricultural plantings.
What are the restoration challenges in the Les Lep and Kittentail Units?
My first unit is the Les Lep Unit, which I chose because it’s in the middle of it all, and you really feel a part of something much larger. It has a two populations of the rare bush clover, Lespedeza leptostachya and is a popular area for the uncommon ornate box turtle. These are always on my mind when planning what work to do in the area. There is also a healthy population of tenacious birdsfoot trefoil, which is a very invasive weed which needs to be removed.
My second unit is the Kittentail Unit, which is on the perimeter of the preserve and very much hidden from view. I chose this area to steward because I soon learned that being in the “middle of it all” also means that the bison are often hanging out in the place you wanted to work. Kittentail Unit gives me another place to go when the bison are using Les Lep. The big problem there is dealing with the woody invasives that want to creep in from the adjacent lands. This will keep me busy in the winter months, I suspect.
What are some new techniques or concepts you've learned while becoming a steward?
A steward, Jay, who has been here as long as I remember said to me, “Prairie restoration is not just science; it’s also an art.” You can sense if a steward understands this by looking at their plantings. One doesn’t simply collect seeds on a given list and plant them where you think they need to go. You do need to get a feel for the different microenvironments each prairie knob and grassland represent. Pay attention to the soil. Pay attention to the surrounding areas. Pay attention to where the plants are found on the slopes. Jay also said to let Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region be your bible for prairie plantings, so I’ve been slowly working my way through this giant book.
What do you enjoy most about being a steward?
I just love walking around exploring, observing, and bird watching. I enjoy trying to learn all the new plants I’m noticing and learning their histories and Latin names. It’s a challenge and an honor to play a part in trying to expand the populations of the rare plants here and to help the prairie grow. It’s also a chance to build habitat for the turtles, butterflies, birds, and other prairie-dependent animals. There is the sense of being part of something much bigger than myself, of being involved in a project which will be going on long after I’ve passed, a project benefitting future generations.
HOW CAN I BECOME A VOLUNTEER LAND STEWARD?
It’s easy! Begin by volunteering frequently to learn Nachusa’s restoration process. Regularly attending Thursday and/or Saturday volunteer workdays is the best way to familiarize yourself with our management practices. Then notify a staff member or workday leader that you want to become more involved by working alongside more experienced stewards. When you are ready, our project director will show you various land units that need special attention, and you can choose one area to exclusively tend or restore. Staff and stewards will continue to support your efforts and guide you until you are confident on your own. After sufficient mentoring, stewards set their own objectives (consistent with science and Nachusa objectives) and their own schedules.
If you would like to begin the road to stewardship at Nachusa Grasslands, consider joining our Thursday or Saturday Workdays.
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By Antonio Del Valle
Sunrises over the tallgrass praire were a wondrous daily event to behold while surveying at Nachusa Grasslands.
This summer, as part of my graduate research project at Northern Illinois University, I had the opportunity of studying some of the many bird species that call Nachusa Grasslands home. Luckily, surveying birds is an activity that you can do by yourself, which was a key factor in being able to safely conduct my research project in the midst of a global pandemic.
The focus of my research is to determine how birds that breed on the prairie are impacted by some of the large scale disturbances on the prairie landscape—mainly bison herbivory and prescribed fire. Different bird species prefer different types of prairie. Species such as killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) prefer shorter prairies that, at Nachusa, are maintained through the eating of plants by bison and frequent prescribed fires. In contrast, species such as Henslow’s sparrow (Centronyx henslowii) and sedge wren (Cistothorus platensis) prefer dense, tall prairies that are maintained through infrequent disturbances.
A figure describing the relationship between different grassland bird species presence and months since a disturbance event has occurred on the prairie.
Grassland birds are a suite of species that specialize in using prairie habitat as their preferred place to breed and raise young. These species are of particular interest to me because grassland birds have experienced drastic population declines. A recent paper published in Science shows just how serious this decline has been.
Bird populations in North America have declined by three billion individuals since 1970. Grassland birds in particular have declined more than any other group of birds.
But it is not all doom and gloom for these grassland birds. Thanks to the hard work put into the restoration, management, and conservation of the tallgrass prairie habitat at Nachusa Grasslands, there are bountiful places for these types of birds to breed during the summer. My research aims to help us understand more about these declining species. Preserves such as Nachusa Grasslands give me an opportunity to observe them in areas where they are still relatively prevalent.
High quality prairie restorations take a lot of hard work but provide great habitat for many declining and rare plants and animals.
A typical morning of surveying birds starts out by waking up well before sunrise. I set my schedule to arrive to Nachusa around 5:30 AM in order to start surveying during peak bird activity. Coming prepared with coffee and waterproof clothes were key factors in staying awake and dry while traversing the dew-soaked prairie. Upon arriving to a survey point at the preserve, I begin surveying birds via sight with my binoculars, as well as by sound. I record all of the birds I see and hear into my field notepad for five minutes. While surveying, I record the number of individuals of each species, estimate their distance from me, and record any breeding behaviors that are displayed. Surveying in this systematic fashion allows me to look at the data later and compare what birds were seen in what areas, how many were present, and whether I can confirm that they were breeding (according to eBird’s breeding bird behavior codes). Additionally, this format allows me to compare my data to other data sets across different years and potentially different preserves/sites.
The depth of the thatch layer covering the ground is measured by using a ruler. This layer of dead plant material is important for certain species that require cover.
In addition to surveying birds, I also survey vegetation and bison density through dung counts. Vegetation surveys involve measuring vegetation height, thickness of thatch layer, and percent cover of plant species. These measurements give me quantitative values to describe the vegetation structure within different areas of the preserve. Bison density is calculated through systematically counting units of dung at my survey locations. Looking at bison density in different areas of the preserve can help show where bison are spending most of their time (and eating more plants).
One of my favorite birds to observe this summer was the Henslow’s sparrow. This secretive sparrow is rarely seen on the prairie, as it spends most of its summer down low in the grasses and only pops up once in a while when singing or flying. The Henslow’s sparrow song is unique as well. Cornell University’s All About Birds online field guide describes it as the simplest and shortest song of any North American bird, and to me it sounds like a faint hiccup. These sparrows have a greenish wash on their face and fine streaks on their flanks, which help to distinguish them visually from other sparrow species if you have the pleasure of catching a glimpse of them. They, along with many of the other grassland breeding birds, are now on their way back to their overwintering grounds in Central and South America. The prairies will be noticeably quieter until they begin to return in the spring again.
I’m looking forward to analyzing the data collected this summer and preparing for next year’s field season over the next few months. I hope that my research can help provide knowledge to aid in the continued conservation of these grassland bird species. Nachusa Grasslands is a wonderful place to observe these birds and many other plants and animals in their native habitat.
Citations & Resources:
Fuhlendorf, S.D., et al. (2009). Pyric herbivory: Rewilding landscapes through the recoupling of fire and grazing. Conservation Biology 23:588–598.
Rosenberg, K.V., et al. (2019). Decline of the North American Avifauna. Science 366(6461):120-124.
Tony’s ongoing graduate research is supported by the following sources:
By Susan Kleiman
Shrubs and vines can sometimes be underappreciated, or worse, unknown. I will present a blog now and then on those species growing at Nachusa Grasslands. I am starting with five shrubs that we have good photos for, although we have identified at least 45 shrubs species and 20 vines (some woody and some herbaceous). By shrub I mean woody plants that attain less than 20 feet in height and often have multiple stems rising from the same roots. I will not include species that normally grow into trees, such as oaks (these and other trees can be shrub-like in form due to repeated fires causing them to re-sprout with multiple stems).
I seek to understand the shrub component of Nachusa more fully. I do think from my reading and observation that many of the shrubs were historically present in our area in thickets or along waterways, not as single bushes dotting the prairie. I think we should carefully plant the seeds of shrubs in appropriate places. Some bird species, such as Bell’s vireo, yellow-breasted chat, willow and alder flycatchers, cedar waxwing, common yellowthroat, and indigo bunting, as well as others, particularly need shrub habitat.
Shrubs are a major component of Nachusa’s grassland ecosystem in certain places. The Nature Conservancy calls our region the Prairie-Forest-Border Ecoregion. The State of Illinois calls our natural division the Rock River Hill Country-Oregon Section.
Writing in the Geological Survey of Illinois in 1873, James Shaw said of Lee County, “The north-western part of the county, where Rock river cuts across the corner, is rough, hilly, and in places picturesque, especially in the vicinity of that stream. The hills and ravines in this locality are partially covered with dense underbrush and scattering timber.”
In 1860 Dr. M. S. Bebb described the flora of Ogle County in a letter to a friend, which was also shared in a publication called Prairie Farmer. He says, “The rise at the border of the valley is usually covered with forest trees which have here found protection from the prairie fires, such as Quercus macrocarpa, Tilia Americana, &c with a variety of undershrubs and herbaceous plants, common everywhere in the woods of this latitude...” In the part about the groves he says, “Beneath we find an abundant growth of shrubs, principally Hazel (Corylus Americana) and Cornus paniculata*, the Hazel often extending out into the prairie for a mile or more, forming what is called a 'Hazel ruff'.”
Mary Sackett wrote in her journal in May of 1842, “Sometimes our road lay across the prairie, sometimes through the thickets where the crabapples, choke cherries, strawberries and other fruits were in bloom, making the air very fragrant.”
Some of our shrub species seem weedy and others difficult to grow, or even rare. This is likely due to the past disturbances such as plowing, over grazing, and over shading, or lack of disturbance by fire.
* Cornus paniculata is now Cornus racemosa, gray dogwood.
Ninebark Physocarpus opulifolius, Rose Family Rosaceae
This is a gorgeous, widespread native shrub. I just saw some on the Olympic Peninsula. Its genus name Physocarpus is Greek, meaning “fruit like a pair of bellows.” The species name opulifolius is Latin, meaning “splendid foliage” or having the leaves of Viburnum opulus (referring to a European plant, Guelder rose). Luckily this species is hard to misidentify here at Nachusa Grasslands.
Besides having good nectar for bees and butterflies, the large landing platform of the flower clusters is perfect for beetles, and the pollen is easily available to their chewing mouthparts.
The clustering fruits have unique bladder coverings, and in fall the fruit and leaves can often be quite colorful.
The common name of ninebark refers to the papery and shreddy bark of older branches. In open growing situations the shape of this shrub tends to rounded with weeping branches drooping to the ground. It is said it reaches a maximum height of ten feet, but I have not seen one taller than about seven feet here.
At Nachusa we have a few ninebark here and there, often mixed with other shrub thickets and fence lines with such species as American plum and dogwood. It is said that it prefers stream edges, gravel bars, moist thickets, but it is also found in dry areas here.
Many cultivars of this species have been developed by plant nurseries.
Prairie Willow Salix humilis, Willow Family (Salicaceae)
The genus Salix is Latin for willow, and humilis is also Latin, meaning low, humble, grounded, or from the humus (earth). I have not seen it taller than three feet here, and I can only think of five clumps outside of the one next to the Headquarters parking lot, so look out for this special bush, usually on dry remnant hills.
Deer and rabbits will browse the twigs and leaves. The catkins and nectar are very important to a great many insects in the spring.
Willow bark is the original aspirin, in use for at least 3500 years!
Common Elderberry Sambucus canadensis, Moschatel Family (Adoxacea, formerly in Caprifolicaeae)
Sambucus is Latin for elder-like, perhaps also derived from Greek sambuce, an ancient wind instrument, referring to the use of the stems to make whistles after removing the pith. Sometimes this shrub is called American elder. Elderwood in Europe was used to make a kind of harp called a sambuca. Canadensis refers to Canada, the country where this species finds its most northern distribution. This species extends all the way south to Bolivia.
Elderberry forms colonies by root suckers and is most often found on our fence lines. The bark of the stems has distinctive, raised dots (lenticels) and leaf scars with connecting lines between the opposite compound leaves (not to be confused with ash species, Fraxinus).
I have noticed that the cluster in my yard flowered most profusely the same year it had been burned, rather unlike many other shrubs we have, which can take several years post burn to flower. The flowers can be used to make a lemon-scented drink. But the berries are the best known part of the plant, used in wines, jams, jellies, and pie fillings.
The flowers attract a small variety of insects. Leaves and twigs are browsed by deer, and the fruit is eaten by all kinds of birds and other animals. Unripe fruit, leaves, and stems are toxic to humans. Cooking the ripe fruit destroys the alkaloids.
Smooth Sumac Rhus glabra, Cashew family (Anacardiaceae)
This family of plants produces urushiol, an irritant, and includes poison ivy, mango, and cashews. Smooth sumac does not seem to irritate. Rhus is the classic Latin name for this genus, while glabra is Latin for smooth. This is Nachusa Grasslands’ only extant Rhus, as far as I know. We have, however, planted fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatic) in some areas. Smooth sumac is claimed to be the only native shrub found in each of the lower 48 states.
Smooth sumac tends to grow in large clones that can sometimes shade out other species. Our fires often keep it shorter and sparse enough to allow prairie under the stems. In some places stewards have tried to reduce sumac stems through basal bark treatment.
Individual shrubs are either male or female. The flowers, pollinated primarily by bees, also attract a number of beetles and bugs. It seems that the leaf beetle, Blepharida rhois, is the only insect that can eat the leaves which contain strong tannins, phytols, and compounds related to gallic acids. The beetle larva puts its concentrated feces on its back to deter predators.
At Nachusa, smooth sumac is the last shrub to leaf out in the spring and one of the first to lose chlorophyll in the fall, usually turning a brilliant red. The bright red fruits have a lovely lemon taste and tartness. They can be eaten and used to make a refreshing drink, and in fact have been for thousands of years. Many animals eat the fruit as well, and various natural dyes have been made from all parts of the shrub for coloring cloth and plant fibers.
Wafer Ash or Common Hop Tree Ptelea trifoliate, Citrus family (Rutaceae)
Ptelea is Greek for elm, alluding to the winged fruits similar in appearance to elm seeds.
Trifoliate is Latin referring to the three leaflets of each leaf. It is neither an ash nor a hop, although the strong odor of the plant is similar to, but not as nice as, the beer-making hops. The fruits were tried as a hop substitute to no lasting effect. The pale greenish-white flowers attract bees in the spring. The wind-carried seeds turn brown in the fall and persist into winter. Each wafer actually has two seeds, unlike the wafers of elms.
This species, along with one other at Nachusa, prickly ash (wait for my next blog), are the only hosts on the preserve to the larva of the giant swallowtail butterfly, Papilio cresphontes.
This shrub is quite common here, tending towards weediness, in my opinion, as it pops up all over the prairie. It is usually no more than eight feet tall with multi-stems. I have occasionally seen them here or off site as tree size, six to eight inches in diameter and 20-30 feet tall. This is in situations without frequent fire.
Hyam, Roger and Richard Pankhurst. Plants and Their Names: A Concise Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 1995.
Kurz, Don. Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri. Jefferson City, MO: Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1997.
Petrides, George A. A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.
White, John. Rock River Area Assessment, Volume 2. Springfield, IL: State of Illinois, 1996.
Wilhelm, Gerould and Laura Rericha. Flora of the Chicago Region: A Floristic and Ecological Synthesis. Indianapolis: The Indiana Academy of Science, 2017.
If you would like to play a part in habitat restoration for native shrubs at Nachusa Grasslands, consider joining our Thursday or Saturday Workdays, or give a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to support the ongoing stewardship at Nachusa.
By Charles Larry
The sound of the sandhill crane seems to echo across an immense gulf of antiquity. Cranes evolved during the Eocene (56-33.9 million years ago). The earth was warmer and wetter during this time, and in North America, with vast areas of prairie, savanna, marsh, and shallow inland seas, it was ideal habitat for the ancient ancestors of modern cranes. This early crane was likely a relative of the crowned crane now found in Africa. Fossil remains of this early crane have been found in North America, dating some 10 million years. But then the climate in North America started to cool, eventually bringing about the Ice Ages. These events saw the disappearance of this early crane on the continent. At some point a relative of the modern crane, one suited for cooler climates, evolved here. The earliest fossil of this later crane was a bone almost identical to that found in modern sandhills. This fossil was found in Florida, dating back 2.5 million years. Modern sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) are divided among two and six geographical subspecies, depending on sources. Generally, there are the greater and lesser sandhills.
Nachusa Grasslands has had sandhill cranes stop over for brief periods over several years. In August of 2018, even a pair of whooping cranes stopped and then moved on! As far as is known, this is the first time that a pair of sandhills have nested and raised two colts (as the young sandhills are called) at Nachusa. It is usual for sandhill cranes to lay two eggs, a few days to a week apart, but it is rare that both colts will live to fledge. Some reasons as to why only one colt survives are various predators, lack of sufficient food, and sometimes the aggression of the older crane toward its slightly younger sibling. At Nachusa both of the young have fledged and are flying.
Sandhill cranes usually mate for life. They become sexually mature at two years old but four or five years old is more likely to be when mating begins. Sandhills are well known for their "dancing" during mating season. This behavior is not fully understood, as cranes of any age may dance at times not related to breeding season. It is thought to also be a way of working off aggression.
Both sexes participate in the building of the nest, constructed in or near water. Nests are composed of plant material found near the nesting site, such as cattails, sedges, rushes, and grasses.
Nests can be six feet in diameter. At breeding time both sexes "paint" their feathers with clay and mud. The birds are normally gray in color, but the painting changes the feathers to brown. This is thought to be a camouflaging technique to blend in with the nesting site.
Both parents incubate the eggs. While one sits on the nest, the other is either standing guard or gathering food. The female usually sits on the nest during the night. Hatching is about a month after laying. After hatching, the cranes abandon the nesting site, moving to a hidden spot somewhere still near water.
The parents are fiercely protective of the young. Many predators are a danger to either the eggs or the colts. Among them are coyotes, foxes, raccoons, owls, and various hawks, all of which inhabit Nachusa Grasslands.
Sandhills eat a variety of food, from insects such as grasshoppers or dragonflies, to aquatic plants and tubers, to small mammals such as mice, to snakes and worms. They will even eat the eggs of other birds, such as red-winged blackbirds, rails, and ducks. More recently, sandhills have learned to forage in cornfields and will often flock in vast numbers doing this. During breeding season, they are very territorial with an average territory range of about 20 acres. Until the cranes abandon the nesting site, where they are more or less isolated, they will defend this territory from other sandhills and predators by various aggressive displays and even fighting.
By late summer the sandhills will probably move to an area where there is a larger crane population and more abundant food to fatten up for migration, which will happen sometime in the fall. The juveniles will stay with the parents during migration and through the winter. Sometime in the following spring they will separate from their parents and go out on their own. The main winter flyways for migration in this area are either south to Georgia or Florida or over to Texas.
Sandhill cranes are threatened, as is true of cranes the world over. Climate change is one major threat. Droughts have become much more frequent, and wetlands are disappearing. In some states cranes are hunted. In the past, this resulted in the extinction of sandhills from Washington State in 1941. They have now been reintroduced to this state in small numbers. Farming conversion to incompatible crops (soybeans) over crops like corn also threatens cranes. Probably the biggest threat is from loss of habitat from urbanization and development.
The sandhill crane is a magnificent bird. It would be tremendously sad if someday the sandhill crane were to join the thousands of species disappearing from our planet. To hear no more the sound of this bird, which author Peter Matthiessen says is "the most ancient of all birds, the oldest living bird species on earth." Sad indeed.
Johnsgard, Paul A. A Chorus of Cranes: the Cranes of North America and the World.
University of Colorado Press, 2015.
Forsberg, Michael. On Ancient Wings. University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Matthiessen, Peter. The Birds of Heaven, North Point Press, 2001.
If you would like to play a part in habitat restoration for sandhill cranes at Nachusa Grasslands, consider joining our Thursday or Saturday Workdays, or give a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to support the ongoing stewardship at Nachusa.
By Erin Rowland
Summer Science Extern
Picturesque restorations like this are made possible by the work of volunteers and stewards on the ground. Science provides a new lens to better understand the impacts of this work.
When I think of prairie restoration, I tend to think of the hands-on. I picture crews of volunteers collecting buckets of seed, or the summer crew fanned out in a line spraying weeds. Even the science done at Nachusa tends to conjure images of researchers trekking through the tallgrass after Blanding’s turtles, rodents, or butterflies. When I pictured my summer as Nachusa’s summer science extern, these were the images that filled my head. I couldn’t wait to spend my weeks under the sun trapping small mammals and surveying plant diversity. Meanwhile, the universe had other plans.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, research looked a little different this year. Many field scientists were able to conduct safe and socially distant work, while some researchers had to cancel their field seasons altogether. I was one of the unlucky ones. Instead of a summer in the field, I spent the summer at a computer. The funny thing is, this turn of events helped me to see the big picture.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a broad category of science that combines geography with other disciplines to create smart maps and analyze data throughout space and time. It’s a booming field, and it touches every aspect of our lives, whether we see it or not. GIS is used in everything from urban planning to public health to ecology. It allows us to ask and answer really interesting questions such as how the arrangement of land patches and proximity to different types of cover impact everything else on the preserve.
This summer, I spent my time looking at the preserve from above in aerial imagery, trying to understand how all the pieces fit together. I spent a lot of my time converting old images of prescribed burn locations into a digital format, a process that feels a lot like a small child playing connect-the-dots. Tedious as it may be, this labor of love will help us see patterns through time in a new way. We can now easily ask how frequently certain areas of the preserve are burned and what that might mean for the plants and animals who live there.
Historically, records of prescribed burns were hand-drawn and not very precise. Our new digital fire maps are uniform and standardized, which will improve our ability to use the information.
The second aspect of my work this summer was a bit more practical. Collaboration is one of the most valuable components of research at Nachusa Grasslands, and it’s part of what makes me so excited about working there. There’s such great diversity in the projects at Nachusa, as you can clearly see from the spectrum of projects funded by the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands science grants. One of my goals this summer was to compile a map of all the long-term research sites on the preserve, as well as to describe the types of data collected on these plots. By making information about data more broadly accessible, we can support better science that can benefit Nachusa and other prairie restoration sites. Researchers are better able to collaborate if they know what data exists and to whom to talk about it.
A map of long-term research sites at Nachusa will help researchers to more effectively collaborate and establish new projects more easily.
The third part of my work this summer was beginning to understand the impact of human-made boundaries on a natural system. Plants and animals don’t care at all about the arbitrary places we draw our lines on a landscape. A piece of habitat is all the same to them, regardless of who owns it. This means that we have to be aware of the places where we create borders and boundaries and understand the impacts that they may have. A simple mowed path for a stewardship vehicle may seem minor to us, but might represent an insurmountable obstacle to a vole.
One of the most exciting revelations of my work this summer is a success story in the tallgrass. I conducted analysis to understand how insulated different areas of the preserve are from the surrounding landscape. I created a heatmap to illustrate distance from the edge of the preserve, an attempt to classify land by how far it is from the proverbial “edge.” The results showed that the best-insulated area of the preserve is part of the original purchase that established Nachusa Grasslands. Not only was a beautiful portion of remnant prairie preserved, but the land around it was converted to create a pure prairie landscape with a buffer of protection from the surrounding agriculture and development.
This map helps us to understand how close various areas of the preserve are to non-prairie edge. We can see which areas are the most insulated from external impacts.
Management happens at a variety of scales. Many decisions are made at the smallest scale: an invasive species can be removed from a part of a unit, and seeds can be collected from a rich patch of big bluestem to be planted next year. What’s harder to consider is how these seemingly small decisions work in tandem to create larger-scale impacts. The preserve looks different from above than it does on the ground. The challenge for managers is to be able to simultaneously see the prairie and the plants, as well as the forest and the trees. To meet the needs of a prairie restoration, one has to imagine the view of a turtle or a ground squirrel, in order to imagine a patch of grass as your whole world. At the same time, one must consider the big picture. Making decisions on the small-scale for the sake of specific animals or desirable plants can negatively impact the overall health of a system.
What excites me the most as a researcher at Nachusa is the opportunity to do science that helps us make better decisions in restoration. By taking a step back out of the grass this summer, I had the chance to look at the preserve from a different perspective. I gained a new appreciation for the complexity of a prairie restoration project and the multi-faceted decision-making with which land managers are tasked. Now I look forward to taking my maps and figures and using them to ask more questions about how our work changes the landscape and how the landscape changes our work.
Erin Rowland's ongoing research on small mammals and landscape ecology is supported with a Scientific Research Grant from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. The Nachusa summer science externship is supported by The Nature Conservancy.
To get involved withe the critical on-the-ground work at Nachusa, consider joining our Thursday or Saturday Workdays or giving a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to Scientific Research Grants.
If you are interested in learning more about Erin's small mammal work, check out the recent blog by Jessica Fliginger or contact Erin to learn about opportunities to volunteer!
By Chandler Dolan
Bumble Bee Technician
The scene: It’s a classically humid, July afternoon. A gaze across the prairie shows patches of yellows and pinks, suggesting the presence of yellow coneflower and wild bergamot. As the heat intensifies, the birds and bison seem to slow. You stand quietly, intently listening to the sounds the grassland offers. Suddenly, a loud buzz tears through the patterns of bird melodies and katydid song. A familiar yellow and black face emerges from under a canopy of partridge pea: a bumble bee.
Bumble bees are familiar insects. The shaggy combination of yellow and black (and sometimes orange) hairs with a plump, round build makes these insects nearly unmistakable. Their role of pollinating beautiful wildflowers and food plants alike is an important ecosystem service they provide us, free of charge. Their friendly buzz and frantic foraging suggest a healthy ecological system. Unfortunately, bumble bees face an uncertain future. Through habitat loss, pesticide use, and disease, many bumble species have experienced significant decline and are becoming increasingly rare.
Thankfully, Nachusa gives refuge to three threatened species of bumble bees, including the critically endangered rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). In 2017, Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar discovered the presence of the rare bumble bee at Nachusa in the form of a foraging worker. This was a great discovery, as the current distribution of the species is fairly unknown. To know this species was living at Nachusa was special and has given rise to new research opportunities and questions to be answered.
With the new motivation of a federally endangered species in the Grasslands, new projects have begun! The 2020 season is the first season we have boots on the ground (in the form of me!) to monitor bumble bee abundance and diversity across all species of bumble bee at Nachusa. We start with simple questions: What species of bumble bees are here? How many of them are there? What flowers are they using? By answering these questions, we can start to form new questions and learn about the Grasslands. This season is all about exploration, experimentation, and just getting a sense of the bumble bees at Nachusa.
Endangered Bumble Bees of Nachusa Grasslands
As mentioned, the rusty-patched bumble bee is a federally recognized endangered species in the United States. In fact, it is the first bumble bee species to be listed on the United States Endangered Species Act. This characteristic bumble bee sports a unique “rusty patch” on its abdomen, which is one of its best identification traits, hence the name. The decline of this species is somewhat mysterious and very sudden. Prior to 1996, this species was abundant throughout much of the Midwest and Northeastern U.S. After 1996, the species tumbled into rapid decline and is now extremely rare in the Northeast. Most records of this species today are sporadically reported in the Midwest, but at very low rates.
In the seven weeks I have been surveying, I have detected two rusty-patched bumble bee workers at Nachusa. To know this species is still present and not extinct is a great discovery alone. But understanding the way it uses the mosaic and where it chooses to nest is still up for question, and is difficult to answer with such sparse sightings. Our first sighting occurred very early in the field season. In fact, it was the fourth day of surveying! Seeing a single rusty-patched worker busily foraging on beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) was a great way to start the season. Our second was about a month later on July 17th. Upon my arrival to a hill to do some quick exploration, the very first bee I spotted was the rare but distinct bumble bee methodically feeding on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). I held back tears of joy as I quickly netted the bee for proper identification.
Nachusa also houses two other declining bumble bee species: the golden yellow bumble bee (Bombus fervidus) and the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus). Bombus fervidus has quickly become one of my favorite species, as its striking yellow abdomen and bold, black thorax band are impossible to miss. While these species are not recognized as endangered by the federal government, they have documented declines that warrant them a “vulnerable to extinction” assessment by the IUCN Redlist. I’m happy to report that these species are detected regularly and seem to like certain parts of the Grasslands. One day we hope to answer these questions: What parts of Nachusa are these vulnerable species found, and why? What makes one patch of habitat more suitable than another?
Bumble bees are interesting. Their familiarity provides a calming energy, as their small wings effortlessly lift their seemingly oversized bodies and loads of pollen to provide for the nest and its offspring. But despite how recognizable they may be, there is still much to learn about them. Simple things such as their habitat and favorite flowers are yet to be fully understood. A closer look into the world of bumble bees reveals a world of individual decision-making by our hairy friends that we are working hard to better understand. One of the first steps to conserving a species is to better our understanding of them. With the first long-term bumble bee surveying season at Nachusa underway, we hope to better understand our bumble bees and to one day provide them the best habitat we can. To lose a species is to lose a piece of a puzzle. Once gone, the picture will never be the same, with a hole no other piece can fill.
*** UPDATE: On July 29th and 30th, two more rusty-patched bumble bees were observed at Nachusa! That makes a total of 4 observations this season! ***
Dr. Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar's ongoing research on Nachusa's bumble bees is supported with a Scientific Research Grant from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands.
If you would like to play a part in helping the bees at Nachusa Grasslands, consider joining our Thursday or Saturday Workdays or giving a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to Scientific Research Grants.
Chandler Dolan graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in December of 2019. Throughout Chandler's career as a young biologist, they have been continually drawn to endangered species ranging from the rusty-patched bumble bee to neotropical parrots and migratory songbirds. As Chandler dives deeper into the world of bumble bees, they hope to pursue bumble bee conservation as a long-term goal for graduate school.
By Jessica Fliginger
Blanding's Turtle Field Technician
State-endangered Blanding's turtles call the wetlands of Nachusa Grasslands home. Head-starting programs hope to combat juvenile mortality and give young turtles a better chance of survival.
Sprawled out in the palm of my hand, the fidgeting turtle eagerly stares at the glistening water ahead. I lower my hand to the surface water and can feel its tiny claws push off my thumb as it glides away. The turtle stops briefly to poke its head out of the water and scan its surroundings before vanishing into the sedges.
The Blanding’s turtle, a long-lived, late maturing, semi-aquatic turtle, is a declining species in dire need of conservation efforts. Endangered in Illinois, Blanding’s face a multitude of threats including habitat loss and fragmentation, nest and hatchling depredation, road mortality, and commercial collecting. To learn more about the threats to Blanding’s turtles in Illinois, check out my previous blog post. Low juvenile survival, the main driver of population declines, has prompted many conservation agencies to intervene through head-starting programs, in order to provide protection for vulnerable hatchlings.
In 2019, managers at Nachusa Grasslands and Richardson Wildlife Foundation initiated a joint head-starting program for endangered Blanding’s turtles in cooperation with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County (FPDDC) and the Lake County Forest Preserve District (LCFPD). As a result, more than 70 one year-old Blanding’s turtles were released into native prairie habitat at Nachusa Grasslands and Richardson Wildlife Foundation. At each site, 37 head-starts were released, 20 with transmitters and 17 without. By equipping turtles with custom-built transmitters, scientists at NIU will be able to track and monitor their movements, growth, and survival — key information for a conservation-reliant species. Data collected will inform managers on critical areas for the turtles, in addition to what predators are present and the impacts they have on hatchling survival. As we have discovered, there are many components to developing and implementing a management plan for the Blanding’s turtle population at Nachusa, and measuring its success will be a long-term commitment.
Equipped with a radio transmitter, a young Blanding's turtle is released into the water. This turtle will be tracked and measured to monitor its survival in the wild.
The Blanding’s turtle head-starting program involves annual egg recovery from nests, incubation, and captive rearing of hatchlings. After assisting Dr. Richard King during nesting season for four years, I can say that catching a female in the act of laying its eggs is not an easy task. I’ve learned that every nest counts, especially because there are so few adult female turtles, and their clutch sizes are so small. Last year, Dr. King and I successfully tracked all females to their nesting sites and collected 41 eggs! Upon recovery, these eggs were transported to the FPDDC, where they were incubated. Since Blanding’s turtle sexes are determined by temperature, females were incubated at 30°C and males at 26°C. Once hatched, the LCFPD captive-reared the turtles for a year until they were released this June.
After the 20 head-start turtles were released, I began tracking them using radio-telemetry three times per week. Although locating the small turtles has its challenges, I have grown to enjoy it. I collect data on GPS location, environmental variables (e.g. muck and water depth), and any notes on behavior if I can get a visual on them. The majority of the time the turtles are in the water, staying cool in the muck or trying to evade my presence by swimming away. On good days I will find them basking on logs or near the edge of the water. They are extremely skilled at camouflage, as their shells blend in with their surroundings.
Every two weeks I physically locate each turtle to take measurements and confirm survival. Finding the turtles can turn into quite the ordeal; once I had to stick my arm down a crayfish burrow to pull a turtle out. It mostly involves digging through the mucky water and sifting through sedge root masses until I feel something hard. When I finally find the turtle, I weigh it (in grams) using a small scale and use calipers to take measurements (in mm) of its shell. I take measurements on carapace (upper shell) length, carapace width, plastron (bottom shell) length, and shell height. They usually flail their arms and legs as I take measurements, trying to pry away my calipers with their tiny claws. Although the turtles struggle, they have never attempted to bite me (unlike snakes, mice, and snapping turtles), making them the most pleasant animals to process.
A released head-started turtle has its shell height measured, flailing its legs through the process. Digital calipers are a helpful tool when measuring wiggly turtles.
This year, we managed to collect seventeen eggs for head-starting — a lot fewer than the previous year. Losing two of our adult females from 2019, in addition to several sneaky females nesting undetected despite regular checks, has impacted the number of eggs we were able to collect. In the future, we hope to locate new adult females so we can supplement the number of eggs admitted to our head-starting program.
It has taken many years to accomplish our goal of a head-starting program and would not have been possible without support from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands, Nachusa staff, NIU Biological Sciences Department, Forest Preserve District of Dupage County, and Lake County Forest Preserve District. Results from research on the head-starts will help guide future management plans for Blanding’s turtle populations at Nachusa and Richardson Wildlife Foundation. I’ve had a lot of fun tracking the Blanding’s turtles at Nachusa and it has made me appreciate what an incredible species they are. Blanding’s turtles are one of reasons why Nachusa Grasslands is such a special place.
Some members of the next class of head-started Blanding's turtles. Though numbers of eggs were lower this year, the program will carry on!
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 Thursday or Saturday Workdays or giving a donation to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. Donations to Friends can be designated to Scientific Research Grants.
Jess Fliginger worked for Nachusa as a restoration technician during the summer of 2016. She has continued to be involved at the preserve, helping researchers conduct fieldwork and gather data. Working alongside Dr. Rich King as a volunteer in 2016 and a field technician for the past three years, she has collected data on Nachusa’s Blanding’s turtles. In addition, she has been volunteering with small mammal research since 2015, and worked for Dr. Holly Jones as a small mammal field technician in 2019. Currently, she is monitoring the first-year Blanding's head-start turtles at Nachusa.
By Connor Ross
Nachusa Restoration Technician
It should go without saying that 2020 has been a pretty, let’s say, interesting and hectic year so far. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start date for the 2020 crew to the beginning of June also disrupted the scheduled prescribed burns earlier in the year. A diminished burn season, with one of the wettest Mays on record, means that our native vegetation has grown thicker and that the invasives have started to strike with a vengeance. The 2020 crew thus faces some unique challenges, especially as we are a smaller bunch this year, but we have already covered lots of ground and are ambitiously weeding and seeding.
Our main focus these last few weeks has mostly been on controlling invasives. Already, we have been showering king devil, sweet clover, and birdsfoot trefoil with herbicide. Oxeye daisy and the occasional alfalfa plant have been sprayed when convenient, but unfortunately, the late start to the season means that we have been unable to control red clover. Nonetheless, the four of us have traversed quite a bit of acreage; we managed to sweep a full 70 acres for sweet clover on June 5th!
Seed collection is ongoing and will increase as the season progresses. Already we’ve collected pussytoes, lots of wood betony, and the lovely prairie smoke! We’ve also learned that an abundant harvest of dwarf dandelion seeds won’t even constitute a handful, prairie ragwort will make you sneeze, and that you need an abundant supply of pantyhose to collect Hill’s thistle seed. The 2020 crew looks forward to collecting as much as we can this summer and dealing with the unique properties of each seed, from bunches of spiderwort that’ll dye your hands blue to the aptly-named porcupine grass seeds that will stab you through your work gloves!
Meet the Crew
By John Vanek, PhD
Associate Wildlife Biologist®
As scientists, we know a lot about snakes. We know that snakes evolved from lizards. We know that snakes don’t have eyelids or external ears. We know they can eat things bigger than their own head. Some species, like the black-tailed rattlesnake, are good mothers, stick around after birth, and protect their offspring. Recently, it was discovered the snakes can even have friends! Suffice it to say, snakes are awesome. So awesome, in fact, that some of us prefer them to grasshopper sparrows and fringed gentians (don’t hit me!). Yes, we herpetologists (scientists that study reptiles and amphibians) are a weird bunch, with our metal probes and pillowcases . . . anyway, I digress.
While we know a lot about snakes and how cool they are, we still have a lot to learn, particularly when it comes to ecological restoration. Unlike birds and insects, snakes don’t have wings. Snakes are also terrible at crossing roads (probably because they don’t have legs). So, the big question is if you build it, will they come? That is, if you go through the hard work of restoring an old ag field back to tallgrass prairie, will snakes recolonize the site? Dr. Richard King and I tried to tackle this question in a recent publication creatively titled “Responses of Grassland Snakes to Tallgrass Prairie Restoration.” In short, yes, but it’s complicated!
The eastern fox snake (Pantherophis vulpinus) is one of many species that make Nachusa Grasslands their home. Friend to the farmer, this species feeds mostly on rodents. Unfortunately, due to a habit of vibrating their tail (see video at the end), they are often confused for rattlesnakes and killed.
Before we dive into what we found, how do herpetologists actually study snakes? It’s not like you can lean against a shady bur oak and listen for the sounds of singing snakes (yes, this is a playful dig at my ornithologist friends). One option is to simply walk around and look for snakes. This is, however, not very effective. Think of how many snakes you’ve stumbled across at Nachusa. Maybe a handful at most, right? Certainly not enough to do some fancy statistics. Nor will snakes stumble into a tiny metal box baited with peanut butter (sorry mammologist friends, I had to make it fair to the ornithologists!).
So, what is the intrepid herpetologist to do? We take advantage of a snake’s natural tendency to hide under things, so we employ something called “artificial cover object surveys.” What this means is that we put out things that snakes will hide under (in our case plywood boards and rubber mats), and then go back later and check each one. What does a check entail, you may ask? Great question, and the answer is simple: bend down, lift the board, and then try to grab every snake you see! Simple, but not easy; those little buggers are fast!
An unexpectedly large common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) found under a board. Even seasoned herpetologists get impressed by big snakes!
Now the nuts and bolts of our study. To address the question of snakes and habitat restoration, we deployed approximately 240 snake boards across 12 restoration units (2–25 years since restoration) at Nachusa. We (ok, mostly Rich) checked each board roughly once a week from May to October from 2013–2016. This resulted in sacrificing our lower backs for science a total of 15,720 times over the four years. (The astute reader may notice the math doesn’t work out perfectly, and that’s because life often gets in the way of checking snake boards!) Was it worth it? You bet! Overall, we caught 1,028 individual snakes of four focal species: 90 plains garter snakes, 112 eastern fox snakes, 347 Dekay’s brown snakes, and 479 common garter snakes. Each snake was given a unique marking so we could identify it if captured again, and we also measured and weighed each snake. We also found a few other species in small numbers.
Right off the bat, we see that all four species readily colonized tallgrass prairie restorations at Nachusa, which is great news! We also found that there was no relationship between restoration age and the abundance or occupancy of plains garter snakes, eastern fox snakes, or common garter snakes. That is, newly-restored sites were just as likely to have these species as older restorations. However, older sites were much more likely to have Dekay’s brown snakes than younger sites. This is a really cool finding, as Dekay’s brown snakes are the smallest of the four species (adults rarely exceed 18 inches), and they also have the smallest home ranges. This suggests that smaller species with limited dispersal capabilities might be slower to colonize restorations. Intuitive for sure, but it’s always great to have data!
Finally, there was a glaring omission from our snake board data: we found zero smooth green snakes! This was really odd, as the species was once common across northern Illinois, and we found them to be relatively common at nearby Green River Wildlife Management Area. However, snakes can be really hard to find, so the question became, “Are smooth green snakes truly absent from Nachusa, or did we simply fail to find them?” To address this, we took our data from Green River and used a statistical technique called logistic regression to calculate something called a "detection probability". The results? Given our approximately 15,000 cover board checks, we estimated there was a 99.9% chance we would have detected them if they were indeed present at Nachusa. Could we have missed them? Certainly, but it is highly unlikely.
So, why are there no smooth green snakes at Nachusa? The most likely explanation is that they simply did not survive in the small remnants at Nachusa prior to restoration. Like Dekay’s brown snakes, smooth green snakes are quite small and are probably not so great at colonizing new areas. In addition, smooth green snakes specialize on eating insects and spiders, and they may be particularly susceptible to insecticide use relative to other species with broader diets. So, if they didn’t survive at Nachusa, crossing miles of roads and ag fields might pose too big of a challenge. Therefore, while a “wait and see” approach might work for other species (such as Dekay's brown snake), captive breeding and translocation may be necessary to establish populations of smooth green snakes at Nachusa. This approach has shown great promise in the Chicago suburbs, and I hope one day to see the tail end of a smooth green snake slipping away into a tussock of little bluestem at Nachusa Grasslands.
In conclusion, we found that Nachusa boasts plentiful populations of at least four species of grassland snake, and these snakes are not limited to the remnants, but occur broadly throughout restoration units. Other species also occur, including the eastern hog-nosed snake, eastern milk snake, North American racer, and common water snake. However, the smooth green snake, a species that is common in nearby Green River Management Area, appears to be truly absent at Nachusa. I propose they be considered a candidate for assisted translocation or reintroduction, pending further study, of course.
Thanks for reading! Have you seen any snakes at Nachusa? If so, what kind? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to send me an email for snake identification help from Nachusa or anywhere else!
Many harmless snakes, such as this eastern fox snake (Pantherophis vulpinus), will defensively vibrate their tails.
By Elizabeth Bach
Ecosystem Restoration Scientist
It’s a chilly, rainy spring afternoon, and I sit in front of the computer. Yet I can feel the heat of a sticky August afternoon, hear the whine of cicadas, and see the golden blooms of sunflowers. Mentally, I’m systematically walking through the prairie, carefully identifying all the plants. At Nachusa, many of us, myself included, find working outside in the prairies, savannas, and wetlands most rewarding. However, there is an incredibly important part of conservation work that happens at the computer: data entry and analysis.
As the staff scientist at Nachusa, one of my primary duties is to analyze and share data. My primary tool for this work is a free program called “R.” In R, I can manipulate data, produce graphs, run statistical tests, and even produce a final report. Analyzing these data helps everyone at Nachusa refine restoration practices, inspires new ideas, and deepens our knowledge of the habitats and the organisms that live there. Sharing these data in presentations and publications allows us to share lessons learned and best practices used at Nachusa with others in both the conservation and scientific communities. In turn, we also learn from data from other sites. At Nachusa we are lucky to have several scientific researchers working at the site, who collect, analyze, and share data with us. We also have some data, collected over the years by The Nature Conservancy staff and collaborators, which haven’t been analyzed and shared. A key goal for Nachusa is to analyze these legacy datasets and share them.
All this brings me back to my computer on an early spring afternoon. When there is less work to be done outside, I’m busy working with datasets on the computer, building graphs, thinking through which metrics best represent the observations made on the prairie, and building statistical models to understand how the Nachusa ecosystem has changed and how it might continue to change into the future. All this work is done with a few lines of code on the computer. While very different from the outdoor joys and challenges of data collection, there are both joys and challenges with this work.
I often think of data analysis as a mystery to solve. What will the data show? What will I learn? How might this challenge or confirm observations from other scientists in other places? Every dataset is a new adventure, and I find a sort of excitement in that. It can also be frustrating. I spend a lot of time finding and correcting mistakes. There is no travel guide to inform my decisions. Fortunately, I can work with collaborators as travel buddies on these adventures, to bounce ideas off them, and gain a new perspective. One of the joys of working at Nachusa is being at the intersection of many paths of scientific research and natural history observation. Working with people with different expertise, skills, and perspectives deepens my understanding of science, the tallgrass prairie, and Nachusa.
Elizabeth Bach is the Ecosystem Restoration Scientist at Nachusa Grasslands. She works with scientists, land managers, and stewards to holistically investigate questions about tallgrass prairie restoration ecology.
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.