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.
By Mary Meier
Nachusa Grasslands volunteer
Each May, Nachusa Grasslands’ staff and stewards usually dread the appearance of one of our major weed adversaries, reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea — RCG). This year, however, we may welcome the opportunity to attack the invaders, if and when we are released from our “stay at home” restrictions. The prospect of heading out into the field laden with herbicide backpacks is very appealing right now.
What is reed canary grass? RCG is a coarse, cool-season perennial grass with erect hairless stems that grow from 2 to 6 feet tall. Densely clustered single flowers at the top of each plant change from green to purple to tan in late spring. Shiny dark brown seeds form during the summer months and shatter easily. Reproduction takes place both by seed dispersal and underground rhizomatous roots that create a thick, impenetrable mat just under the soil. Seeds can float down waterways and also spread via animals, humans, or machines. For example, Nachusa’s bison and deer populations may brush up against the plants and then carry the seeds in their fur.
Where does reed canary grass grow? The plants thrive in moist areas, including marshes, swamps, prairies, meadows, fens, stream banks, and swales. It is especially abundant in disturbed wetlands, but can also appear in high quality native habitat.
How did reed canary grass arrive in northern Illinois? Since the 1800s, agronomists have encouraged planting RCG for forage and erosion control. Some states prohibit selling the seeds, but Illinois does not. A native species actually exists, but it is almost impossible to distinguish from the more aggressive Eurasian variety. At Nachusa Grasslands we strive to eradicate all occurrences of RCG in order to diminish its ecological threats.
Why does reed canary grass cause problems in our natural areas? RCG forms large monocultures, crowding out native species and building up a tremendous seed bank that germinates year after year. The thick thatch that forms from rhizomes and collapsed stems is especially problematic, as it prevents more desirable seeds from germinating. RCG, therefore, reduces native plant and insect diversity, while providing little shelter or food for wildlife.
How do we manage reed canary grass at Nachusa Grasslands? Spraying grass herbicide is our main approach. The staff and stewards treat RCG with Intensity, a post-emergence grass herbicide (1% clethodim). Even though clethodim does not kill the plants’ roots, it helps set back the grasses and allows sedges and forbs to move in. Around waterways and high-quality natural areas, the crew uses the same formula with extra caution to reduce overspraying.
What are some other reed canary grass control methods? Research and experience show that burning and mowing can actually stimulate regrowth of RCG but may also be useful in removing thatch prior to overseeding. Digging up rhizomes is labor-intensive and disturbs the soil, so other weeds may then invade the site. In small patches, cutting off the seed heads and disposing them off-site can be effective when combined with herbicide application. Covering with shade cloths is another option for large infestations.
As with all weed management projects, best practices depend on overall goals and objectives, the size, distribution, and location of RCG infestations, willingness to use herbicides, and available human and equipment resources. In addition, every method requires follow-up monitoring, treatment, and establishing native species as we strive to extirpate this very challenging invasive species.
Mary Meier has been a dedicated volunteer at Nachusa since 2002. She is currently an officer for Friends of Nachusa Grasslands, an Autumn on the Prairie festival organizer, and a member of the social media team. Along with her husband Al, she stewards the Dot and Doug Wade Prairie Unit, which is about half restoration and half remnant.
By Angie Burke
Volunteer Coordinator, The Nature Conservancy
We are all familiar with the saying “It’s the little things that matter”, and it’s the management of the tallgrass prairies at Nachusa Grasslands that has made a big difference for the littlest of things— mammals. Our paper “Early Small Mammal Responses to Bison Reintroduction and Prescribed Fire in Restored Tallgrass Prairies”, coauthored with Dr. Holly Jones and Dr. Nick Barber, sheds light on how the varying management of prescribed fire, coupled with the reintroduction of grazing bison, has created a habitat haven for the small mammals in a mix of agriculture and rural development.
blocking our safe access to a site, to capturing meadow jumping mice awakening from their winter slumber, every sampling season held a new adventure for us.
Some of the little buddies we captured and released were deer mice, white-footed mice, prairie voles, northern short tailed shrew, meadow jumping mice, harvest mice, and my favorite, the 13-lined ground squirrel. Rain, snow, or shine, the little buddies are welcomed to the study each season with excitement by the many stewards, volunteers, and scientists that call Nachusa home.
In the first two years since bison were reintroduced, we found fewer small mammals in older sites relative to new restorations and fewer as time since fire increased. Additionally, there was a higher diversity of what we did document in those older sites and slightly lower diversity (fewer than one species, on average) in sites where bison were present. This difference was driven mainly by prairie voles; fire removes litter and residual dead vegetation which is important habitat for voles. The overall abundance was especially influenced by the deer mice, which are able to use the areas with a higher prevalence of bare ground associated with frequent/recent fire on the landscape.
Overall we found that bison reintroduction had fairly weak impacts to small mammal communities in the first few years. Bison, when reintroduced at a relatively low stocking rate, are not likely to cause significant shifts to this community or, by extension, to the seed predation and dispersal functions they serve in prairies. The many different types of habitat created by the managers at Nachusa varying prescribed fire with grazing bison maintain the diversity of small mammals on the landscape scale. Continuing to document the changes in the small mammals through time, while capturing the changes with other animal, invertebrate, and plant composition, will help to show how the little things matter on a big scale when it comes to tallgrass prairie restoration.
By Dee Hudson
On March 7th Nachusa hosted a refresher day for the Nachusa and Middle Rock Conservation Partners fire crews. The day was sunny, and spring was in the air—a perfect day to light some prairie fires.
How do you become a fire crewmember?
The Nature Conservancy has three requirements for a potential fire crewmember:
1. Pass the pack test.
This requires each person to carry a 24-pound pack for two miles. The trick is that the pack test must be completed in 30 minutes or less. Long-legged individuals have a bit of an advantage, while short-legged people really need to hustle.
2. Complete the S-130/S-190/I-100 online course work.
These courses are self-paced and give an introduction to the basics of wildland fire training. There are questions at the end of each video section, and they must be answered correctly in order to continue to the next section. Before beginning the online course, candidates must contact Nachusa or another agency that will supervise the fire training, as a sponsor is needed to complete the online course. After the online portion is complete, there is one day of hands-on training.
3. Attend a fire refresher.
Nachusa’s refresher this year focused on learning to use the pumper equipment and hand tools during live fire exercises.
By Jess Fliginger
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake a fritillary butterfly for the well-known monarch; both can be seen fluttering across the prairie during the summer months, are similarly-sized, and are orange with black markings.
In 2017 I spent the summer surveying for butterflies, particularly regal fritillaries and monarchs, in remnant prairies across the Loess Hills of Iowa. From my experience, the only way to get close enough to identify, or be fortunate to snap a photo of a butterfly is to move slowly and cautiously towards it as it’s fixed atop a flower, busily sipping nectar. Be prepared to pursue a fidgety butterfly for several yards as it swiftly drifts from one flower to the next. It took a great deal of practice and patience before I was able to become a stealthy butterfly ninja. Upon closer observation, the difference between a monarch and a fritillary butterfly becomes more apparent.
There are 14 species of greater fritillaries (genus Speyeria) and 16 species of lesser fritillaries (genus Boloria). Both have a widespread range and can be found across the northern half of the United States into Canada, in some southern states, and parts of Mexico. Greater fritillaries inhabit woodland openings, meadows, prairies, and other open habitats where violets are present, while lesser fritillaries primarily live in wet meadows and bogs. Although greater fritillaries are much larger than lesser fritillaries, it can still be difficult to tell them apart while in flight.
In total, there are 6 species of fritillaries that call Nachusa Grasslands home: great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia), aphrodite fritillary (Speyeria aphrodite), silver-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene), meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona), and variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia). The most common, and easiest to approach, is the great spangled fritillary. Of these, the regal fritillary is the only state-threatened species.
A prairie-specialist species, regal fritillaries have drastically diminished throughout the Midwest, with only two localized populations remaining east of Illinois and several small isolated populations east of the Great Plains states and western Missouri.
Typically, fritillaries have one brood and one flight period from June to August. Females lay their eggs near violets (Viola spp.), the caterpillar’s main food plant, in shady areas on the underside of dead vegetation. Soon after, the larvae hatch, crawl into nearby leaf litter, and sleep through the winter without feeding. During late winter to spring, the caterpillars begin munching on newly-sprouted violets and mature rapidly. Once fully grown, they pupate for several weeks until an adult fritillary butterfly emerges. Clearly, without violets there would be no fritillaries! Luckily for fritillaries, Nachusa has 7 species of violets throughout the preserve, as well as plenty of nectar sources to choose from.
Equally as important to their survival, adult fritillaries require a large variety of nectar sources from native and non-native plants. I usually see them on coneflowers, goldenrods, ironweed, blazing-stars, milkweeds, mints, clovers, thistles – just to name a few. Plant any of these, along with violets, in your butterfly garden, and maybe a beautiful fritillary will pay you a visit.
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 in 2018 and 2019, 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. Lately, she has worked and volunteered in land restoration to enhance her skill set. She plans on assisting with prescribed burns at Nachusa this upcoming spring.
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.
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.