Naturalists Flock to 24-hour BioBlitz Survey at Hennepin

Image courtesy of the News Tribune
More than 90 people from Illinois and surrounding states flocked to one of Illinois most successful conservation and nature restoration sites Saturday for Putnam County’s first-ever 24-hour BioBlitz.

Event organizers, many of them wearing T-shirts carrying the words, “So many species, so little time,” showed up at the vast Dixon Waterfowl Refuge south of Hennepin with the goal of finding as many species of birds, plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and insects as possible. In the process, they were hoping to find species that had not been seen — or recognized — since the wetlands restoration began in 2001.

The Wetlands Initiative invited volunteers to help, and more than 90 showed at noon Saturday, putting on sunscreen and bug spray. Some prepared for an all-day and all-night quest.

They were ready to look for everything from wading birds and snakes to owls that would be called in by Steve Bailey from the Illinois Natural History Survey around 10 p.m. Saturday. Some came to see the wetlands, marsh and sandy bluff-side seep area for the first time, and others showed up in hopes of finding plants or animals they hadn’t seen before at the nature preserve.

“This is one of the birding hotspots of all of Illinois. More than 270 species of birds have been found here and there are 920 in all of North America, so one-fourth to one-third of all birds in North America have been found here,” said Gary Sullivan, senior ecologist for The Wetlands Initiative.

Teams mobilize
While he was talking, one group had just launched canoes to search for turtles and to check minnow traps and “cover boards” plopped down in and around the marsh in hopes of attracting shade-seeking salamanders and snakes. Another group including nature-close-up photography expert Dick Todd of Princeton headed out in a flat-bottomed boat to do fish-sampling.

A research assistant from Chicago Botanical Garden, Anna Braum, was heading out on a plant survey with another group. Her focus is on endangered and rare “plants of concern,” and she was particularly excited about getting to explore the Dore Seep, along the southeast shore of the Hennepin-Hopper Lakes area. It’s a partially wooded, partially marshy, sandy-soiled partial-hillside prairie where groundwater comes to the surface. There’s not much habitat like that in Illinois anymore, and since it’s been allowed to go back to a natural state, she’s interested in seeing what pops out of the ground.

Also heading out from the BioBlitz base (tents near the parking lot) after noon orientation were Starved Rock Audubon Society members and Ottawa residents John and Cindy McKee. They led a group of net-carrying naturalists including retired Mendota grade school superintendent Bob Chinn on a search for butterflies, damselflies, dragonflies.

Chinn was on his first BioBlitz, but it was by no means his first time volunteering at a natural area. He usually spends several weeks per summer working in Glacier National Park. While he was hunting with the McKees, they found an unusually-colored tiger swallowtail. Its wings are yellowish at the top, orange-ish in the middle and have the typical dark blue with colored dots at the bottom. John McKee said this particular swallowtail in southern Illinois has evolved to, sort of, imitate the orange spots on the pipevine swallowtail, which has caterpillars that are poisonous or not palatable to birds. Along the theory of Batesian mimicry, this swallowtail has mimicked a butterfly that birds have learned to leave alone.

Amphibious assault
In another group, amphibian and reptile expert Tom Anton from the Field Museum, college student and Fermilab summer naturalist Tristan Schramer and food scientist and herpetology fanatic Joe Cavataio headed out, looking under tree bark and rotting deadfalls for snakes and scanning the wetlands and partially submerged logs for turtles. They’d found and temporarily captured a 6-foot-long bull snake that was just getting ready to shed its skin, and they had spotted painted turtles and their relatives, redear sliders. They were hoping, however, to find something unusual, like a map turtle or a line snake. Anton said there’s a historic record of a line snake being found in Granville in 1933, and they could show up if the habitat is right.

“It’s exciting if you find things that are re-colonizing a place,” Anton said.

Restore it, and they come back
Re-colonization by native species is exactly what The Wetlands Initiative wants to see happen. About half of the species of plants in the marsh edge and prairies were planted either by seed or forbs by TWI and volunteers. Seeds from plants found in isolated spots have been redistributed around the preserve. In all, about 700 species of plants have been found at the site that mainly hosted soybeans and corn in summer. Since the initial stocking efforts, fish species, such as alligator gar, once native to Illinois River backwaters, have been reintroduced.

But almost all of the aquatic plants have come up in the lake and marsh naturally. Those grew, Sullivan said, from the seedbed that existed when pumps were turned off and late-1900s corn and soybean fields surrounded by Illinois River levees were allowed to fill up with water ranging from 3 to 6 feet deep.

Birds have come back and continue to find their way to the site. Sullivan said the habitat is right for sora rail and the endangered king rail (small wading birds).

And the habitat is right for birds at the refuge. Sullivan said birds as rare as whooping cranes and black-bellied whistling duck have been found at the refuge, as well as pied-billed grebe, common gallinule, least bitterns, sandhill cranes and black terns. Sullivan said there are 30 endangered or threatened birds in Illinois and 22 of them have been found at the refuge.

Rain dampens plans
Rain prevented the owl prowl Saturday night as well as late-night check of an insect light station, but the biology buffs were hunting again Sunday, said site manager Rick Seibert.

Source: News Tribune