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Nature's Light Show!

Posted on June 11, 2021

Our favorite light show of the summer isn’t necessarily 4th of July fireworks, or stars in a clear night sky (though we do love those too!). It’s the beautiful twinkle of fireflies decorating an evening landscape. They are such a common sight that we rarely pause to think about what a fascinating phenomenon we are witnessing. I mean, they light up! That’s kind of amazing, right? 

 So what creates that lovely glow? Well, they have special light organs located under their abdomens. When the bugs take in oxygen, the cells in these organs combine it with a substance called luciferin, which produces a "cold light" with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. And why do they do this? To attract mates, why else?

These insects (actually members of the beetle family) only live two to four weeks once they've reached their adult stage. That means they only have two to four weeks to mate. And when you are a little black bug looking for OTHER little black bugs flying around in the dark? It's really helpful to have a flashing beacon on your rear end. Generally, fireflies flash their lights intermittently, in patterns unique to each species. Get a lot of them looking for love in one area, and you've got a pretty cool light show. 

Fireflies also flash as a defense mechanism. We don’t know this from experience, but we’ve been told that fireflies taste pretty bad. The lights are like a signal lamp flashing morse code to predators: "I’m not food! Move along!"  
 
There is one exception to this: the female fireflies of a particular genus, Photuris. These "femme fatales", as they are known to entomologists for reasons that will soon become apparent, are able to expertly mimic the different flashing patterns of other genuses, tricking a hapless male into thinking he has found a mate. Instead, the photuris firefly EATS HIM. See, photuris don't naturally have the yucky-tasting compounds that make other fireflies distasteful to predators... but they can absorb them by eating the fireflies that do have them. Moreover, they can then pass them on to their own eggs to defend the next generation. And you thought the human dating scene was stressful! 

So the next time you are watching a firefly light display, keep in mind the drama that is really happening before your very eyes! 

Trees, Trees, and More Trees!

Posted on May 14, 2021

Image at left: mapping the new trees at Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve

More cool stuff is happening at Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve! After we conducted the prescribed burn as a part of the prairie restoration there in early April, we've been busy planting trees as we work on the forest restoration process. Side note: look at all the vegetation coming back, just one month post-burn! 

In fact, this week we planted 2,500 trees, consisting of  21 species, at three different preserves: Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve, Leonard Wildlife Preserve, and the Merritt/Younger Family Preserves. These trees are helping revegetate old agricultural fields at the Memorial and Leonard Preserves, and are filling in gaps from previous logging activity at Merritt/Younger. 

The planting was funded by The Wildlife Society through their Climate Adaptation grant. The goal of the grant, and our project, is to plant trees that should be well adapted to future climate conditions in this area, thus providing sustainable wildlife habitat. We have lots more restoration projects and recreational improvements to come this year at all of these preserves, and at our new Sugarwood Forest Preserve! Stay tuned! 

To reduce your carbon footprint, start at home!

Posted on April 23, 2021

Yesterday was Earth Day, so it seems like as good a time as any to think about climate change. It’s a huge issue, which can seem overwhelming and insurmountable. So let’s zoom in a bit—specifically, to your house. What are some simple ways you can shrink your home’s carbon footprint?

First, why focus on your home? How much difference can THAT make? Well, a lot, actually. Buildings in the US are responsible for 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions across the country. If your furnace and hot water heater are powered by gas, they are releasing carbon dioxide into the air. Your lights, refrigerator and computer use electricity, produced by power plants that are often burning coal and gas. So looking at ways to save energy in your home can have an impact. And as a bonus, you’ll probably save some money too.

Obviously, there are big changes you can make, like ditching your furnace and installing solar panels instead. But there are also some much simpler—and less expensive—ways to reduce your greenhouse emissions.

1. Here’s an obvious one: re-evaluate how you set your thermostat. As humans, we don’t really need to be in a constant 70-degree environment. Don’t be so quick to click on the A.C. in the summer. Open windows at night, when the air is cooler. In the winter, put an extra blanket on the bed and bump down the thermostat at night. During the day, open the blinds so the sunlight helps warm the house a bit.

2. Give your doors, windows, and foundation a once-over. Are there cracks where air is coming in? That will make your furnace and air conditioner work harder to keep your home’s temperature where you want it to be.  A little caulk or weather stripping can make a big difference in reducing your energy output.

3. Swap out your old incandescent light bulbs for LED bulbs. They use 75% less energy, and last 25 times longer.

4. Invest in a smart power strip, which is a power strip that you can program to click off at a certain time. Many of our electronics—TVs, cable boxes, laptops, printers, etc.—are using a small amount of power all the time, even when you’re not using them, like overnight. It all adds up! Try plugging them all into a smart power strip that’s programmed to shut off at night.

5. Finally, if you are in a position where you are buying a new furnace or hot-water heater, opt for electric over gas-- the idea is to remove fossil fuels from your home. A caveat with this one: you won't reduce your carbon footprint completely right away, because as we mentioned above, a lot of electricity is still coming from coal and gas. But, the idea is that it will eventually, as more and more of our electricity is produced from non-carbon sources, like wind, solar, or nuclear. 

For more tips, from how to reduce your meat intake to how to start composting, check out NPR's Life Kit podcast... this week's episodes are all about climate change, and how you can make a difference in your day-to-day life! 

How does your garden grow? April Edition

Posted on April 16, 2021

We don't know about you, but we are positively dying to get out into the vegetable garden! It's still a little early to put some seeds in the ground, but there are quite a few things that you can start planting now that can tolerate, and even kinda like the cooler weather.

Seeds germinate based on the temperature of the soil they are planted in at seed level… which is generally an inch or two beneath the surface. At this point, soil temperatures are probably in the 50s… maybe even a hair lower after the recent cold weather we’ve been having. Some seeds will germinate at these soil temps, and some are a no go… they will just sit in the ground and rot.

Stuff you DON’T want to plant now: tomatoes, peppers, green beans, or any kind of squash or vine vegetable. These guys need warmer, sunnier, drier weather to do well (don’t we all??).

Veggies that will germinate and sprout at these cooler temperatures are spinach, beets, peas, lettuces, chard, kale, cabbages, parsley, onions and turnips. Some say kale even tastes better after a frost. And spinach and lettuce like this weather even better than the hotter sunnier months-- in the heat of the summer, they bolt really quickly. All of these plants can handle a frost or two once they’ve sprouted, but if we get a really cold snap where the nighttime temperature will go into the 20s, you’ll want to cover them. But we will tempt fate and say that we are pretty confident those days are behind us now.

This is a great time to plant what you can, as there are fewer insects and diseases around to threaten them. So get out and get that garden started!

Burn, Baby, Burn!

Posted on April 9, 2021

We all like a good fire, though we often think of it as a destructive element, difficult to control and consuming everything in its path. In other words, fire is great as long as it stays nicely contained in your firepit.

But fire can also be extremely beneficial—necessary, even—for a healthy ecosystem. It’s a common and very effective tool in the land management and restoration toolbox…and it’s one we just used this past week when we did a prescribed (or controlled) burn at the Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve, as a part of the prairie restoration we’ve undertaken there.

Why fire? Well, it’s a natural way to get rid of invasive plant species that have encroached the ecosystem, and it also helps prevent the spread of diseases and pests that can be harmful to the native plants and animals. A fire rejuvenates the ground by recycling essential nutrients back into the soil, promoting healthy growth of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. This in turn creates desirable habitat in which native wildlife can thrive. Finally, it reduces hazardous fuels that can build up in the ground over time, protecting surrounding human communities from destructive, uncontrolled fires.

Of course, there is a reason why these beneficial fires are called prescribed burns. A lot of planning and expertise is necessary to keep the fire under control, burning only what and where you want it to! A good burn plan considers lots of factors. Weather is a big one, for obvious reasons. How humid is it, how windy is it? Which direction is the wind blowing (we don’t want a big cloud of smoke hanging over I-94, for example)? We also will consider the level of moisture in the vegetation. It shouldn’t be bone-dry but we probably don’t want to do a burn when everything is fully leafed out and very green either. For this reason, spring and fall are typically good times of year to do a prescribed burn.

Other considerations include what kinds of fuel and ignition types will be used to light the fire? We want it to spread and be sustainable, but also to move slowly enough that we are able to manage it, and to allow any wildlife to get outta Dodge until it’s safely out. Also, what boundaries are we using to ensure it doesn’t spread somewhere we don’t want it to go (like a neighbor’s yard)? These are called control lines, and they can be natural, like a river, or man-made, like a road or a dug out trench line.

After the burn, native vegetation comes surging back surprisingly quickly! So while the front part of the Memorial Preserve looks kinda charred and ugly now, just give it a month or two… you’ll be amazed at the transformation! Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram… we’ll be posting progressive “after” pics of the regrowth!