Nachusa’s small creatures help citizen scientists monitor stream quality. Collection, identification, and a tally of macro-invertebrates from the local streams are used as an indicator of stream health. The monitoring is done through a statewide program called Illinois RiverWatch, established to help determine stream water quality throughout the state and provide a warning of potential problems. At Nachusa, the program was started in the spring of 2014 before the bison arrived, so RiverWatch is not only used to monitor stream health, but also to help identify changes due to their introduction. This is the fourth year collecting RiverWatch data in three Nachusa streams: Wade Creek, Clear Creek, and Johnny’s Creek.
Illinois RiverWatch trains citizen scientist volunteers to collect, identify, and preserve important indicator species of macro-invertebrates found in streams throughout Illinois. Macro-invertebrates are invertebrates large enough to see with the naked eye. Examples include insect larva, snails, and aquatic worms. One person in the stream monitoring group is required to have the eight-hour RiverWatch training class; four hours in the classroom and four hours hands on in a stream. At Nachusa, we are fortunate to have several trained monitors and interested volunteers lead by Mary Vieregg. Others that often join in the fun are Cindy Buchholz, Mary Meier, Jan Grainger, Matt Friberg, Tim Ngo and myself. Interested people who have not been trained by RiverWatch can participate in the stream monitor with a trained lead.
A site is selected and the locations are documented and approved by RiverWatch. The same site and locations are used each year, so changes from year to year and over time can be observed. At the site, the first step is to mark off the sampling area with flags 50 feet and 100 feet upstream and downstream from the selected site. Then, a map is sketched marking stream contours, significant features, and the day's sample locations. In addition, water depths, stream velocity, stream color, and temperature are recorded. Lastly, the vegetation around the stream is noted, along with the amount of shade cover; the stream bottom substrate is observed and recorded. Pictures can be taken and included with the sample data. Much of this data is recorded after the dip net hits the water in order to minimize any disturbances to the stream and the macros living in it before the collection.
The preferred collecting tool is the dip net. Designed with a sturdy cloth sleeve and mesh bottom, water can easily pass through and allow macros to collect in the bottom. There are five stream habitat types that RiverWatch samples, using the dip net collecting techniques. In order of preferred use:
Once the samples are collected and placed in buckets, the challenge is to pull the fast-moving macros from their watery homes. This is done using a shallow white pan, forceps, eye droppers, and carbonated water to help slow the critters down. Once captured, the macro makes the ultimate sacrifice, as it is deposited in a vial of pure alcohol for later identification and recording. All the macros taken can be combined into one sample. Once all the macros are pulled from the shallow white pan and put in vials, the gear is packed up and the crew returns to the barn for lunch. After lunch the work of sorting, identifying and counting begins.
Macro invertebrates can be seen with the naked eye, but for identification some of the key differences only become clear under a microscope. For example, mayflies fall into seven categories and key features on the gills, legs, and antennae are more easily seen through a microscope. Damsel fly larva, whether broad-winged or narrow-winged will determine their indicator number. Dragonfly larva are large and don’t need to be identified down to species, only that they are present and the number found. The process of identifying, sorting, counting is continued until the specimens are determined and recorded. The vial containing all the day's collection is labeled and sent to the RiverWatch administrator, who then forwards it on to professionals who double-check identification and the count. Feedback is then provided to the citizen scientist to help improve identification in the future.
Each macro used as an indicator species is assigned a number. The lower the number, the more conservative the species and the less tolerant of pollution and other disturbances. A formula, based on the assigned number of each species, the total count of each species, and the number of organisms found, is used to determine the Macro-Invertebrate Biotic Index (MBI). The lower the MBI number, the higher the stream quality.
Nachusa stream quality is good in Clear Creek and fair in Wade and Johnny’s Creek. It is too early to see a trend in improvement or degradation of water quality. An effort is made to sample the streams close to the same date each year, but an annual variance in weather conditions can account for some difference in the MBI. Only after many years of monitoring are trends likely to be seen. Following the introduction of bison, changes to the stream banks have been observed. In the sample area around Johnny's Creek, the vegetation has been eaten or trampled. Stream banks that were heavily vegetated are now bare. Near Wade Creek bison hair was found on the plants, but no disturbance was noted in the Wade Creek sample area. The changes in streams being made as a result of restoration efforts and the introduction of bison won't be measured in months or even years, but in decades and centuries. Careful observation, good science, sometimes unnerving patience, and prudent management will help restore the portions of these streams that run through Nachusa back to a functioning and evolving ecosystem.
Note: Clear Creek is outside of the bison enclosure.
To volunteer for the RiverWatch program at Nachusa, contact Mary Vieregg. For more information about citizen scientist training, visit the website for Illinois RiverWatch .
The blog today was written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer citizen scientist for Nachusa.
In the summer of 2008, my oldest son Mark asked if we could become members of the Field Museum in Chicago. He wanted to attend member’s night. This is a special event where the mysteries of the third floor of the museum are open to the public. Those readers, who have been to the Field Museum, are already familiar with the wonderful natural history displays on the first and second floors. What are less familiar are the third and fourth floors. The third floor is devoted to scientific research and investigation related to the natural world around us. On the fourth floor the ideas for presentation and display are created and brought to life.
It’s on the third floor that this story begins. My family had been investigating the different rooms where the museum scientists had set up displays, highlighting details of their research. We walked into a room where a crowd had formed around a scientist busily dissecting a tiger that had recently died at a local zoo. He removed parts and explained what each one was and what he was looking for as a scientist. Each part was measured and compared to other specimens, to better understand changes taking place in tigers over time.
A nametag read Dr. Bill Stanley, and Bill was answering questions as he worked. Mark asked, “How does one become a scientist?” Bill answered, “I started as a volunteer, as did many of the people working here.” He gestured to his assistant and explained that the assistant was currently a volunteer. Bill went on to explain the many benefits of volunteering. For him, and many people, it is their first introduction to their life’s work. He said, “Find something you might like, and find a way to volunteer. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it interests you, try it. Maybe it turns out it’s not your thing, move on, try something else. It’s a great way to learn something new, learn about yourself, and spend time with people that share similar interests.” He went on to explain that one must be 16 years old, or accompanied by a parent, to volunteer at the Field Museum.
On the morning of Mark’s sixteenth birthday, Mark took a train downtown and began volunteering in the bird lab on the third floor of the Field Museum. Dr. Bill Stanley and Mark became friends, and Mark is currently involved in a graduate degree related to things he learned at the Field Museum. My two younger children also took Bill’s advice, and also found their life’s work through their volunteer experiences. My wife finds satisfaction and friendship through an organization called “Arlington Cares” which provides assistance to families in need in our local community. Myself, I find volunteering and helping at Nachusa Grasslands to be richly rewarding!
My journey to volunteering at Nachusa started long before TNC began land acquisitions in Lee and Ogle counties. As a boy, I lived in Glenview and right behind my house, after crossing railroad tracks, was a wooded area called “The Grove”. I would often walk through The Grove to find peace and solitude. It was dense with buckthorn and the ground was mostly bare, but some native plants would emerge. Plants like Mayapple, Jack–in–the–Pulpit, and wild onions. Oh, what a smell when walking through the wild onions during their peak, a delicate sweet smell of onion, not the overpowering kind that comes from slicing onions. Once in the fall, in a moment of mischief, I lit the dry grass along the railroad tracks on fire. The flames burned high, but it was a still day, and after the initial fuel burn, the flames subsided and I put it out. In the spring, much to my surprise, this area was lush with tender green grass. The difference from the nearby grass was dramatic and caused me to ponder on the possible reasons the fire brought this change.
As an adult, I worked with a group of volunteers interested in native plants and birds. They had received permission to work in the Cook County Forest Preserves. The mission was to clear the invasive buckthorn to allow light through to the ground, where it was hoped original native plant communities could be revived. Originally called the “North Branch Prairie Project”, the focus was to open up portions of the forest floor, return native plants and fire, enhance native plant diversity and suppress invasive species. In spite of the name it was understood that we were working with different ecosystems. The name has now been changed to “North Branch Restoration Project” to reflect the varied ecosystems. Whether it was prairie, woodland, or the newly recognized but poorly understood Oak Savanna, the idea was to bring forest preserve conditions back to presettlement times. It was during my time working as a volunteer with the North Branch that I learned of “The Midwest Oak Savanna Conference”. It was at this conference that I first learned of Nachusa and signed up for their newsletter. The idea that The Nature Conservancy would buy up remnant prairie, return fire to them, and then buy adjoining land and restore it, captured my imagination. I would read every newsletter and ponder the work of clearing brush, breaking drain tile, and removing fence. I would look for articles that suggested some rare plant, bird, or animal now called Nachusa home, and that its populations at Nachusa were increasing.
I picked up a flyer for Illinois RiverWatch training, a program that uses citizen scientist volunteers to monitor the health of Illinois rivers. It was at this training class that I met Mary Vieregg, a long–time steward and volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands. Mary was organizing a group of volunteers to sample the creeks at Nachusa and get data on stream health, pre-bison. I had never been to Nachusa and asked if she needed help. So my first trip to Nachusa was to help collect, identify, and count macroinvertebrates from Wade Creek in early spring. I was awestruck! Before I even made it to the barn I began to notice all the prairie plants. The diversity of plants growing alongside the driveway testified to how special this place is. It was a place I wanted to be, and when I began meeting and working with other volunteers and the staff at Nachusa, I felt welcome and appreciated. Project Director, Bill Kleiman, and Restoration Ecologist, Cody Considine, are knowledgeable, organized, and never waste a volunteer’s time. There are always projects for just about every interest. Wherever one’s talents lie there is a need waiting to be met. In addition to RiverWatch with Mary and friends, I help with brush cutting, weed sweeps, trail maintenance, fire equipment maintenance, frog monitoring, data recording, brush and prairie burns. The list goes on.
Volunteering at Nachusa is a wonderful way to connect with nature and other people. Work at your own pace and take time to appreciate the wonderful views. Admire the flowers, insects, and incredible birds. Explore your creative side and be inspired to write, photograph, or paint. If you like organizing, help with the annual “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration. If you’re mechanically inclined, maybe helping with vehicle maintenance is for you. Sometimes a scientist may need help with collecting data or other aspects of their research. I personally find the science of the prairie to be most fascinating. There are tasks for all ages and abilities. Come join the effort to restore Nachusa to a living example of the past. This living past will provide a home for species that need the very special habitat that is Nachusa!!!
Today's blog was written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands.
Dedicated to the Memory of Dr. Bill Stanley.
"What a package of potential a seed is! Most of the prairie seeds I harvested weigh almost nothing but contain the genetic plans for a future.”
Nachusa volunteers and stewards collect 125+ seed species for both new and field–overseed plantings. Seed collection begins at Nachusa around mid–May and continues through the first week of November. This year 100 new acres will be planted to prairie and about a dozen stewards will overseed 150 acres or more on various newer restorations.
How much seed is needed to plant 100 acres to prairie this fall?
About 5,000 pounds!!!!
Equipped with buckets, bags, scissors and clippers, stewards and volunteers walk through the fields searching for mature seed. Harvesting seed by hand is time–consuming and labor intensive, but there are advantages. Some seeds are on tiny plants close to the ground and located on rocky slopes. The only way to harvest these is for collectors to crawl on their hands and knees to pick each seed individually.
The Queen Anne's lace was first introduced to North America by early European settlers. Left unchecked, this non–native biennial species can aggressively spread, preventing the Illinois native plants from flourishing. So, to promote the health and diversity of the native species, Queen Anne's lace is one of the weeds Nachusa stewards and volunteers target for removal. For more about Nachusa's invasive plant management, read this PrairiE-Update that discusses clearing and weeding.
I was one of fifteen volunteers who met at the Headquarters Barn for the Saturday morning workday crew. Led by volunteer steward, Ron Deters, one of our tasks was to remove Queen Anne's lace from the prairie in his unit. As we drove into the Harold Walkup unit (Ron's unit), we were met with a sea of Queen Anne's lace everywhere!!! Wow! With all the rain this summer, this non–native plant had definitely flourished. Ron certainly needed our help this day! I asked Ron where he wanted the crew to begin. He said he wanted to weed the remnant hill first. (A remnant is a piece of land that has never been plowed, so the original native plant communities have survived to present day.)
I have always felt the remnants are the most important part of Nachusa. They hold the history, the magic, and the courage of the prairie. So, I have concentrated most of my efforts on restoring/maintaining the remnant knob and I am beginning to meet with some success. I have also over–seeded the restoration and now see more compass plant and gayfeather that were not there last year. Also, the bison seem to like the Walkup unit very much so it is fun to see what their activities produce and the changes that occur. (except when they wallow on the cream baptisia!)
Ron Deters first began as a volunteer for Nachusa in 2013. He attended many Saturday workdays and was drawn to The Nature Conservancy's successful prairie restoration. Ron quickly earned his sawyer certificate, qualifying him to remove non–native trees and shrubs from the preserve. Three years later, Ron is now a mentor to new want–to–be sawyers at Nachusa. Ron participates in prescribed fire as much as possible and is the volunteer steward for the Harold Walkup unit.
I'm a retired librarian from NIU. I've been taking photos at Nachusa for over 20 years.
I am a nature photographer and freelance graphic designer. I have been taking photos for Nachusa since 2012.
I am the manager's daughter and a resident prairie critter. I currently attend Sauk Valley Community College and I have been drawing Nachusa my whole life.
I am a semi–retired teacher and the Steward of Nachusa's East Tellabs unit. I have returned to the grasslands after 30 years in the north.
I am a hobby naturalist who works with knowledgeable people to help restore native ecosystems at Nachusa and in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Exotic And Invasive Plants