My favorite moment of spring is the blooming of daffodils. But this year, I am adding a new highlight: the uplifting sound of…frogs.
I have to admit, I’ve never heard such spring peeping at the Chicago Botanic Garden before. But last weekend, as I enjoyed several long walks here (including one with my sons on Mother’s Day at 6:45 a.m.!), I felt serenaded by a loud chorus of frogs and toads. (Some visitors are even mistaking the sound for chirping birds.)
Working off the hypothesis that the Garden’s shoreline restoration efforts have helped increase frog and toad populations here, I turned to Garden scientists for answers.
And this is what I learned: of the Garden’s 385 acres, nearly one-quarter (81 acres) is water. More than three-fourths of the Garden’s shoreline has been restored since 1999, addressing long-standing erosion problems. Most recently, the Garden restored 1¼ miles of shoreline around the North Lake; the ten-month project was completed in summer 2012. As part of the project, we added more than 120,000 native plants—the largest perennial planting project in the Garden’s history—to stabilize shoreline soil. The sturdy plants, some with roots more than 6 feet deep, resist erosion and enhance water quality by filtering eroded soil and excess nutrients. The renovated shoreline provides an enhanced habitat for our aquatic life, which includes wood ducks, double-crested cormorants, and snapping turtles, along with bullfrogs, American toads, and other members of their croaking chorus. Build a healthy habitat and they will come!
Adding to the cacophony is an even bigger chorus than usual because of our “compressed” spring this year. Usually, the frogs emerge first, followed by the toads. This May, the frogs and toads are singing together—but not for long; come to the Garden soon if you want to hear them.
Even if you miss hearing them, I encourage you to listen to the short audio clip above and think about frogs (at least for a few seconds). Sometimes, we overlook the humble frog in favor of the more romantic songbirds in spring. In popular culture, the frog tends to fare better in other parts of the world. In Japan, for instance, the frog is considered a symbol of good luck. The Japanese word for frog is kaeru, which also means “to return.”
When I hear the frogs at the Garden from now on, I will think about how their return, spring after spring, announces that they’ve come home. I am proud that our conservation actions here have given them a healthy habitat in which to thrive, and I feel grateful to the frogs for giving me a moment to reflect on the importance of the Garden’s mission: We cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life.
Did you know that one in every three bites of food you take required a pollinator visit? Pollination is essential for many of our favorite foods—from almonds to vanilla, and so many fruits and vegetables in between.
The decline of pollinators around the world is threatening not only our food supply but also the function of plant communities and ecosystems. Multiple factors play a role in pollinator decline, including land-use changes, pesticide use, climate change, and the spread of invasive species and diseases.
The well-documented plight of the iconic monarch butterfly has become emblematic of widespread pollinator decline. Perhaps many of you, like me, have childhood memories of setting out with a butterfly net and a jar with nail holes in the lid. I recall with pleasure catching and admiring monarchs up close until it was time to set them free. I worry that children may not have that simple pleasure much longer. After their previous all-time low population count in 2012–13, monarch numbers dwindled even lower this past winter (2013–14), when monitored in their overwintering location in Mexico.
In the case of the monarch, several factors are likely contributing to its rapid decline. Loss of forested wintering grounds; loss of the milkweeds, which are their larval host plants; severe weather events; and a reduction of nectar plants along their migration routes due to drought have probably all contributed. Three leading monarch experts, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Dr. Chip Taylor, and Dr. Karen Oberhauser, have all cited GMO (genetically modified) crops as a leading factor in the decline. Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) once thrived on the edges of farm fields throughout the Midwest. Modern farming techniques use herbicide-resistant crops coupled with an increased use of herbicides; the native milkweeds are disappearing, and as they go, so do the monarchs.
On Friday, June 6, the Chicago Botanic Garden will host a symposium by Make Way for Monarchs: Alliance for Milkweed and Butterfly Recovery (makewayformonarchs.org). Members of this group conduct research on monarch butterfly recovery and promote positive, science-based actions to avert collapse of the milkweed community and the further demise of the monarch migration to Mexico. They aim to promote social engagement in implementing solutions in midwestern landscapes through collaborative conservation. Speakers include Gary Nabhan, Lincoln Brower, Chip Taylor, Karen Oberhauser, Laura Jackson, Doug Taron, and Scott Hoffman Black. They will discuss monarch decline and tangible solutions we all can help implement. Mr. Black will also present a lecture on monarchs at World Environment Day, Saturday, June 7.
There are things all of us can do: from planting milkweeds and other native plant species that provide nectar throughout the growing season, to minimizing pesticide use, and to supporting organic farmers. We can also become citizen scientists, reporting monarch observations to programs like Monarch Watch and Journey North, or working with the Monarch Joint Venture.
Perhaps, with our help, new generations of children will continue to know the joy of admiring the beautiful monarch butterfly, and then letting it go to continue its amazing migratory journey.
You know it’s bad news when the troublemakers—such as Queen Anne’s lace, purple loosestrife, or another invasive species—start to take hold in the landscape. Imagine the sight at Illinois Beach State Park when a dense thicket of more than 20 invasive species took over a ten-acre utility corridor—and began to grow steadily toward 50-foot-high power lines.
To ComEd, which manages the utility corridor, the thicket was potentially hazardous. According to safety regulations, plants under such transmission lines should grow no higher than 10 feet to ensure that overgrown plants do not interfere with service lines and threaten power disruptions.
In 2010, ComEd turned to the Chicago Botanic Garden for help in managing the overgrown narrow leaf cattail, reedy phragmites, common and glossy buckthorn, and other invasive species. “We reached out to the Chicago Botanic Garden as a partner to research the transmission corridor and see, over time, with different maintenance practices, what would come back,” said Kevin Jury, senior project manager for vegetation management at ComEd. “We wanted to use the information to guide our practices and see if there was something we could tweak in our process to reap an economical benefit and a benefit for the environment.”
As a result, the Garden developed a pilot program to research ways to turn overgrown corridors into sustainable native landscapes. “We’re interested because ComEd is the second-largest landowner in the state, and improving the habitat could have a major impact on the whole region,” said Greg Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation vice president of science at the Garden. “It fits the type of public-private partnership that allows companies like ComEd to be better stewards of their land and allows the Chicago Botanic Garden access to land for use as a research opportunity.”
Now, in the program’s third year, plant life abundant nearly 200 years ago has reemerged with surprising vigor. Tall stalks of scouring rush—the same kind used by prairie homesteaders to scrub pots and pans—are growing under power lines alongside bright red cardinal flowers (Lobilia cardinalis), orange-petalled Michigan lilies (Lilium michiganense), and eastern prairie fringed orchids (Platanthera leucophaea).
Nearly 300 different plant species, including 225 native species and 40 newly identified species, have been recorded on six research plots. The plots are bounded by transmission towers and divided into three experimental conditions: two sites receive annual spot treatment with diluted herbicide solutions that control broad-leaved plants but protect grasses; two receive prescribed burnings every two to three years; and two sites are left unmanaged as experimental controls.
In addition to the current research sites at the state park, two new research locations are underway in Vernon Hills and Highland Park.
When the research is finalized in 2016, the Garden, ComEd, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources aim to implement the most effective approaches in ComEd’s ongoing maintenance of 3,000 corridor right-of-way miles and 5,300 miles of power lines throughout northern Illinois. “The lasting impact of this partnership will reintroduce, protect, and enhance native ecosystem locations throughout northern Illinois,” Mueller said. “We are hopeful the lessons learned from this collaboration can one day serve as a road map on how a groundbreaking public-private partnership can protect natural habitats beyond northern Illinois.”
Visit the Garden for World Environment Day on Saturday, June 7, and discover how you can make an impact in restoration and conservation.
This post was adapted from an article by Jeff Link that appeared in the winter edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Tranquil, peaceful, and serene are words often associated with the McDonald Woods, which wrap around the northeastern edge of the Chicago Botanic Garden. But to Jim Steffen, senior ecologist at the Garden, the oak woodland is a bustling center for natural processes and species, and may hold answers to unsolved scientific questions.
“Nothing out there exists by itself. It’s all a network,” said Steffen. Since he arrived at the Garden 25 years ago, he has used his powers of observation to document, study, and breathe life into the systems that sustain a healthy woodland.
In the late 1800s, most area native oaks were cleared for settlement, leaving behind a fragmented and altered landscape. Invasive plants, including buckthorn and nonnative critters, such as all of our present-day earthworms, moved in. The climate began to change. While many may have thrown up their hands and walked away from this complex puzzle, Steffen saw a treasure.
At age 15, he began to explore the natural world in earnest and to grow the insight that guides him today. After taking a course in his community, he was federally licensed to band birds for research, a pursuit he followed for another 40 years. As he searched for hawks, owls, and other birds of prey, Steffen couldn’t help but notice the activity beneath his feet. Among the fallen leaves were scuttling rodents, insects, and blooming plants. He realized their presence was integral to the entire community of life in the woods.
“I started getting more into how those things are related rather than just narrowly focusing on the birds or the plants,” he said.
Steffen developed a broad ecological background as he pursued his education and worked toward a career in conservation science. He was hired to manage 11 acres of woods alongside a nature trail at the Garden. Now, that management responsibility includes more than 100 acres.
Although he does not expect to recreate the exact natural community of the past, Steffen does aim to grow an oak woodland of today. “My goal is to increase the native species diversity and improve the ecological functioning that is going on in the Woods,” he said.
Early in his career, he successfully advocated to expand the managed area to include adjacent acres. His management activities and detailed inventory work has grown the number of species there from 223 to 405. Of those species, 345 are native to the region.
The leaf canopy of the second-growth woodland was nearly 100 percent sealed when he arrived. It is now more open, allowing sunlight to punctuate the ground—encouraging the reproduction of oak species and promoting the flowering and seed-set of the native grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. The rewards of his work? Less carbon being released from the soil, improved water retention and nutrient cycling, and a place to bolster native species of plants and animals.
Each season brings new challenges. This winter, Steffen, his crew, and hired contractors carefully removed nearly 600 ash trees killed by emerald ash borers, cleared three acres of mature buckthorn, and conducted a six- to seven-acre controlled burn.
“It’s a difficult thing to do,” he said of oak woodland management. Steffen is grateful for each helping hand. “I’d say I’d be about ten years behind if it hadn’t been for my dedicated volunteers who help with the physically demanding work.”
Springing Into Action
This spring, Steffen and his team will begin to collect seed from more than 120 native plants they nurture in the Garden nursery and from dozens more in the woodland.
The process continues through November. It includes plants like the cardinal flower (Lobeliacardinalis), which was once common in Glencoe’s natural areas.
Steffen also collects seed from external natural areas, bringing new genetic diversity into the Woods to strengthen existing plant populations. (This is an increasingly challenging task, as 50 percent of his collection sites has been lost.) Collected seeds are scattered in prepared areas of McDonald Woods, either in the spring or fall, or sometimes in the middle of winter on top of the snow.
“Everything you see growing, walking, or flying in the woodland is just 10 percent of the picture. In any native ecosystem, probably 90 percent of the diversity is at and below the soil surface,” he said. An entire network of plants and other living organisms exist and interact there, helping to sustain what grows above them. Oak trees and most other native plants rely on entrenched fungi, for example, to deliver nutrients and water or protect them from herbivores and disease.
Microarthropods living in the leaf litter and soil, such as tiny springtails and mites, and larger organisms including spiders, also play important roles. Together with a volunteer, Steffen has dedicated 14 years of work to better understanding those interactions. They have found several species never found before in Illinois and some that even appear to be new to science. “We are still identifying some of the things we collected ten years ago,” Steffen said. And similar, rarely studied subcommunities exist higher up in the trees. “That’s another hint as to how complex the system is and how much we don’t know about it,” he added.
Some things are clear. A pioneer of oak woodland restoration, Steffen was among the first to notice that the natural layer of decomposing oak leaves and plant material was vanishing from the ground in the McDonald Woods and most other woodlands in the region. He attributes the effect to higher levels of nitrogen from the decomposing leaves of nonnative plants, and the presence of exotic, invasive earthworms. “Because so many organisms live in that layer and depend on it for survival, they are disappearing,” he cautioned.
But first, it is time to take in the rewards of winter. May is peak season for migrating birds in the Woods, including warblers and flycatchers. Sedges will bloom, along with spring ephemerals such as trillium.
Activity is everywhere, and it is a welcome sign of progress for Steffen. “It’s much healthier now than it was when I started,” he said. “All this diversity is able to function more easily now.”
The McDonald Woods are also an educational resource. Steffen will lead a rare off-trail hike there this year, and teach classes in bird watching and sedges through the Garden’s Adult Education programs.
Learn more about Jim Steffen and watch a video about his work.
There was a nice assortment of birds at the Garden this morning!
White-crowned sparrows were the most abundant, and could be seen in almost every location. I saw a few warblers scattered about, but none in any large numbers. My best spot for finding birds was along the water in the woodland walk area of the Sensory Garden. I saw black-and-white warblers, Nashville warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, gray catbirds, warbling vireos, palm warblers, flycatchers, and an ovenbird.
Southerly winds are expected for the next two days, which should bring in a LOT more birds. Now is the time to get out your binoculars and cameras and see some of these amazing birds for yourself! In a few short weeks they will be gone.