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 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 Mary Meier
What do 400 hours of volunteer stewardship, $7,000 in donations, and 100 hours of social media posts have in common? They are all components of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation’s Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program.
The Foundation encourages increased local support and participation in the care of habitat by providing grant funds as a match to local dollars raised and labor donated.
Friends of Nachusa Grasslands has been approved for grants totaling $32,000 if we fulfill requirements under several categories:
Friends chose Nachusa’s Orland Prairie, a prairie remnant on the west end of the Big Jump Unit, for its habitat restoration project site. Volunteers have already begun attacking the 23-acre parcel that is heavily infested with the invasive shrub autumn olive. Non-native honeysuckle is also rampant in the area.
Mike Carr, Orland Prairie volunteer steward, who has been working on the unit for several years, says,
“I really enjoy brush clearing, especially the nasty stuff.”
Both autumn olive and honeysuckle are some of the most tenacious foes that Nachusa’s volunteers battle.
According to The Nature Conservancy, “Autumn olive is quickly becoming one of the most troublesome shrubs in central and eastern United States. High seed production, high germination rates and the sheer hardiness of the plant allow it to grow rapidly.”
In addition, a University of Illinois extension website says, “Controlling bush honeysuckle is vital to the preservation of native ecosystems in Illinois. Bush honeysuckle currently poses one of the greatest threats to forest ecosystems in Illinois.”
Saturday workday crews and individual volunteers are using herbicides to kill the woody brush invading Orland. Later this year and early next year, we will over-seed the area with native species collected during the harvest season, conduct prescribed burns, re-contour unsightly gravel pits, and remove non-native trees and large debris from fence rows at the site.
Our long-term goal is to establish a diverse prairie planting on the 23-acre site, providing for long-term weed management and suppression of non-native shrubs and trees. Ongoing stewardship efforts, including volunteer labor, herbicide application, and controlled burns, will gradually help integrate the target area into the surrounding habitat.
How can you help Friends earn the stewardship grant? Volunteer for a Saturday brush clearing workday at Orland Prairie — the next one is on June 9. During the summer and fall, you can also help collect prairie seeds for Orland from the preserve. The Friends Social Media Team uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our website to promote volunteer opportunities.
You can also follow Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation’s Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about the Foundation.
There was a time when seasonal migrations of passenger pigeons arrived with “a loud rushing roar, succeeded by instant blackness.” A black dense cloud of birds would darken the sky for hours, if not days, over the place we now call Nachusa.
Passenger pigeon droppings fertilized the earth. The birds’ consumption of woodland seeds was an important mode of dispersal for many plants. While roosting and nesting the combined weight of their bodies was enough to break branches and topple whole trees, resulting in a thinning of the forest which allowed light to reach the ground.
A flock of the now extinct birds visited Oregon, Illinois in 1843. Observer Margaret Fuller remarked, “Every afternoon [the pigeons] came sweeping across the lawn, positively in clouds, and with a swiftness and softness of winged motion, more beautiful than anything of the kind I ever knew. Had I been a musician, such as Mendelssohn, I felt that I could have improvised a music quite peculiar, from the sound they made, which should have indicated all the beauty over which their wings bore them.”
It is hard to overemphasize just how numerous passenger pigeons were. The dramatic drop from the flocks of billions to zero in less then a human lifetime was a wake up call to the exploitation of birds and other wild animals. The disappearance of the passenger pigeon prompted legislators to enact laws protecting birds and game.
Representative John Fletcher Lacey, on the floor of the House of Representatives on April 30, 1900, introduced what would become the first Federal bird-protection law.
Nachusa is the home of many plants, animals, birds and insects that were once common and are now rare. Walk one of the five trails at Nachusa and bear witness to rare species in revival. A few examples of rare species that call Nachusa home:
I recently had the pleasure of experiencing a rare bird at Nachusa. I was at the Headquarters Barn after a day of adventure and when I heard the call I wondered, “What bird makes this wonderful sound?” It announced its name with each call: “Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will.” Once a common bird, whip-poor-wills, like all nightjars, are in steep decline. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds,” night jars are hard to breed in captivity, and there are no excess populations from which to take birds for a reintroduction project. Scientists are not sure of the reasons whip-poor-wills are disappearing. Loss of open under-story forest is one possibility. At Nachusa clearing brush and returning fire to the woodlands begins to restore habitat. This habitat provides an abundance of insects, including moths, beetles, stone flies, and grasshoppers. These are favorite foods of whip-poor-wills; they hunt just after dusk and right before dawn, or on moon-bright nights they may hunt all night long. In one of those true mysteries of nature, whip-poor-wills seem to time egg laying so the chicks hatch ten days before a full moon, providing the parents extra time to gather food for fast growing chicks. When at Nachusa listen for the sounds of this rare bird.
The passenger pigeon migrated into history before people realized the toll their activities were taking on wildlife. As awareness grew, people acted through government to protect native birds and animals. In time non-profit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) bought lands of high biological diversity to preserve as many species as possible. TNC’s Nachusa Grasslands preserves and restores high-quality grassland, savanna, and woodland remnants for the future. Those high-quality remnants are the anchor areas to restore former agricultural areas back to nature. The Friends of Nachusa Grasslands aids this effort by supporting science research, to better understand the impacts of restoration efforts and how they might be improved. It’s too late for the passenger pigeon, but not the whip-poor-will and other species that will benefit for generations to come from the efforts at Nachusa.
This week's blog was written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer at Nachusa.
Prince, Jennifer. Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
"Passenger Pigeons in Your State, Province or Territory." (2012). Retrieved from: http://passengerpigeon.org/states/Illinois.html.
Greenberg, Joel. A Feathered River Across The Sky. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2014.
"Eastern Whip-poor-will." (2017) Retrieved from: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Whip-poor-will/overview.
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.