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Nature News

Goings On in the Natural World, Locally and Beyond


Fall 2018

October 2018– Fall migration is a drawn out affair in northern Illinois. Not an intense rush like spring migration. Its one of the best times to observe birds in the forest preserves.

As summer gives way to autumn, you can feel change in the air. You can smell it, and hear it. Even before the hardwood trees begin their slow gilding, several species of birds begin their annual migration to warmer climates for the winter. Birds such as flycatchers, warblers, swallows and swifts that feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates are the first to retreat to the south where food resources are more plentiful. With migrants on the move, forest preserve woods, prairies and wetlands can be transformed from tranquil to dynamic overnight, with a suite of new species to identify.

September is the best month for seeing a wide variety of migrating songbirds. Warblers are most numerous and diverse during the first three weeks of the month, and so are flycatchers. Thrushes and vireos are moving, and by late in the month, sparrows are also migrating. Shorebird migration continues strongly throughout September. Blue-winged Teal and Green-winged Teal appear in large numbers now, but most ducks are later migrants.

In the forest preserves you may notice increasingly large flocks of blackbirds, cowbirds and starlings which form undulating airborne formations called “murmurations.” The mechanism by which hundreds of birds can all fly in instant synchronicity, as if one body, seems to be another of nature’s great mysteries. But science has recently offered some answers to the question of how masses of birds move so intricately.

Researchers have observed that nearly instantaneous signal processing occurs when each starling simultaneously copies the movement of every other bird in the flock. This is accomplished by flying as close to their neighbor as possible and instantly imitating any variations in speed or direction taken by it. In other words, if any one bird turns and changes direction, all birds follow its lead by copying the movement of the bird nearest to them.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are summer residents in Illinois and the most common species of hummingbird in the eastern half of North America. Like most other hummingbirds around the world, they migrate south each fall. Wintering in Central America between southern Mexico and northern Panama, they find abundant insects (nectar simply fuels their insect-hunting activity) and avoid cold temperatures. Some adult males start migrating south as early as mid-July, but migration peaks in late August and early September. The number of birds migrating south may be twice that of the northward trip, since it includes immature birds that hatched during the summer, as well as surviving adults. By mid-November the fall migration is essentially complete throughout North America.

Did you know most birds migrate at night? Now, during the peak of the fall migration, thousands, sometimes millions, of birds migrate across North America. While we are sleeping, songbirds wing by high overhead. While it’s largely an unseen migration, it’s not a silent one. Most of these birds vocalize while on the wing, making night flight calls (NCFs) that sound nothing like their melodious breeding calls. So during the day these birds rest and feed, and protected habitat such as forest preserves provide the shelter and food they desperately need.

Geese, swans and cranes migrate during daylight hours, and can often be seen and heard as they fly overhead in graceful V formations. Pecatonica Wetlands and Ferguson Forest Preserves are great places to see wading birds such as the great blue heron, sandhill crane, and dabbling ducks in October. Visit these preserves and others on rivers in early November to see geese, swans, and diving ducks.

Interactive Bird Migration Map – Check It Out Here
A new animated western hemisphere bird migration map was recently developed with data collected by citizen scientists. What’s impressive is HOW MANY BIRDS MIGRATE RIGHT THROUGH OUR REGION! The Mississippi and Rock River flyways are major travel corridors, and the quality habitat we provide here in Winnebago County is critical to the successful north and south migrations of millions of birds!


Spring 2014

Midwestern frogs decline, mammal populations altered by invasive plant, studies reveal – May 2014


Researchers at Lincoln Park Zoo and Northern Illinois University have discovered a new culprit contributing to amphibian decline and altered mammal distribution throughout the Midwest region — the invasive plant European buckthorn. This non-native shrub, which has invaded two-thirds of the United States, has long been known to negatively impact plant community composition and forest structure, but these two innovative studies slated to publish in upcoming editions of the Journal of Herpetology and Natural Areas Journal demonstrate how this shrub negatively impacts native amphibians and affects habitat use by mammals including increased prevalence of coyotes and other carnivores.

Amphibians are facing an extinction crisis worldwide, with 165 species likely having gone extinct in recent years according to the Amphibian Ark, a coalition of conservationists devoted to seeking solutions to the decline. Lincoln Park Zoo Reintroduction Biologist Allison Sacerdote-Velat, Ph.D. and Northern Illinois University Professor of Biological Sciences Richard King have identified European buckthorn as a contributor to amphibian decline in the Chicagoland area. The plant releases the chemical compound emodin, which is produced in the leaves, fruit, bark and roots of the plant, into the amphibian breeding pond environment at various times of year. Sacerdote-Velat and King’s research has found that emodin is toxic to amphibian embryos, disrupting their development, preventing hatching.

“Levels of emodin in the environment are greatest at leaf out, which is occurring right now in early spring. This coincides with breeding activity of several early-breeding Midwestern amphibian species including western chorus frogs and blue-spotted salamanders,” explained Sacerdote-Velat. “Several amphibian species exhibit low hatching rates in sites that are heavily infested with European buckthorn.”

The Chicago Wilderness 2004 Woodland Audit found that in the Chicagoland area alone, more than 26 million stems of European buckthorn exist with a density of 558 stems per acre. Whilst this study specifically found emodin to detrimentally impact development of two species of frogs, Western chorus frogs and African clawed frog (a common test species for environmental toxicity studies), Sacerdote-Velat and King hypothesize that emodin may impact the reproductive success of other frog species in regions where buckthorn is not native.

“Western chorus frogs are quite common in the Midwest, and people in Illinois who have never seen them have probably heard them in the springtime,” said King, who has continued to conduct research with Sacerdote-Velat after having served as her Ph.D. adviser at NIU. “The new study demonstrates how a shrub that is viewed by many as a decorative plant can become invasive and have unexpected and damaging effects on natural ecosystems.”

Additionally, new research from the zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute reveals how the presence of the invasive shrub in forest preserves and natural areas correlates to increased prevalence of carnivores. Previous research by Ken Schmidt of Texas Tech University and Chris Whelan of Illinois Natural History Survey documented that these carnivores can prey more easily on native bird eggs and nestlings such as robins when nests are built in buckthorn and honeysuckle compared to nests built in native shrubs or trees.

“The relationship between invasive plants and wildlife is complex. This is the first study of its kind to investigate the association between buckthorn and habitat use by mammal species,” explained Director of the Urban Wildlife Institute Seth Magle, Ph.D. “We know based on prior research that birds which build nests in buckthorn are more susceptible to predation. Our study found that the presence of buckthorn alters wildlife distribution and attracts some carnivore species. We now know that there are significantly more coyotes, raccoons and opossums in buckthorn invaded areas, and significantly fewer white-tailed deer.”

Magle hypothesizes that the carnivores could be drawn to buckthorn areas because birds and their nests are easier to prey upon. He suggests that deer may be avoiding these areas because buckthorn is an undesirable food source, and also due to the increased prevalence of coyotes. Research shows that deer fawns are a relatively common food item for Chicago-area coyotes.

Both Magle and Sacerdote-Velat agree that these findings are significant. The studies demonstrate how the high-density prevalence of this non-native plant is shifting population dynamics and negatively impacting a variety of native animal populations. They suggest land owners and managers should consider invasive species management and habitat restoration. In some areas, like Lake County Forest Preserve District where Sacerdote-Velat works regularly, ecologists and land managers have been committed to removing buckthorn from the area. “I hope that this new research will encourage other regions and land managers to take swift and decisive action to work to remove this invasive plant,” she said.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Lincoln Park Zoo. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.