September 2015

City Council Passes Wetlands Assessment

The City Council voted unanimously 5-0 to approve the funding to retain the 
renowned firm of Hey and Associates to conduct a complete ecological assessment of the Prospect Heights wetland areas comprised of the tributary creek at Camp McDonald road, the Slough, Hillcrest Lake, and the spillway to McDonald creek.

The assessment was proposed by the Natural Resources Commission in response to the record low water levels and vegetation overrun the areas have been experiencing over the last few years.

The scope of the work to be conducted by Hey and Associates is as follows:

1. Cursory water quality assessment.
2. Aquatic life in both the Slough and Hillcrest Lake would be assessed in an ecological         context.
3. Plant life in the Slough and Lake would be assessed. Emergent, submergent, floating       and invasives.
4. Assessment of sediment and bottom contours.
5. Wildlife assessment, 
6. Assessment of inlets and outlets.
7. Assessment of the tributary watershed area.
8. Assessment of historical data.
9. Final assessments are to be considered in the context of recent climate conditions and     global climate change.
10. A report will be issued that interprets the findings and makes recommendations for           management of the wetland.

Click here to see the full proposal form Hey and Associates.

Also included in the PHNRC proposal and approved was the funding for the addition of a flashboard riser system to raise the water level in the wetlands for the winter to limit the effects of a winter fish kill. The flashboard riser system was also proposed by the Hillcrest Lake Homeowners Association and purchase and  installation is pending yet another engineering study to be conducted by Globetrotters Inc. to understand the effects of implementation and approval of the plan.

Timing for the purchase and installation of the device is not yet known.

PHNRC Installs Duck Huts

Three Wood Duck Huts have been added to the slough area to provide safe nesting for local area Wood Ducks. The Duck Huts are a gift of visiting guest speaker Bruce Shackleford.

Installed by PHNRC commissioners Peter Hahn and Dana Sievertson, it is hoped that the new huts will encourage more nesting at the wetlands.

Wood ducks adapt very well to man made artificial nest boxes or duck huts.  Habitat destruction in the early 1900's led to a drastic decline in wood duck populations and uncontrolled hunting led to wood ducks being protected for some time. 

"We know wood ducks live and breed in the Isaac Walton slough and feed in the Hillcrest lake, Said PHNRC Commissioner Peter Hahn.  "We hope that the addition of the three new duck huts will provide more nesting opportunities and in turn increase the number of wood ducks.  The male wood duck is one of the most colorful and distinctive of our resident ducks," added Hahn.  For more information about wood ducks, check out

Remnant Resources are Vital to Restoration

A remnant prairie is an original, native natural community that has survived on the site to the present day, which usually means that it was somehow saved from the plow. Prior to settlement, 60% of Illinois, approximately 22 million acres was covered with vast expanses of prairie. Although Illinois is called a prairie state, only 0.01% of this once dominant ecosystem remains, often times with many small, fragmented remnant “postage stamp prairies”. 

A remnant prairie is a small piece of what the original landscape was historically, so it is a wealth of source material for restoring and propagating other areas to improve their ecological function. We are very fortunate to have two such areas in very close proximity that have been a vital resource in our restoration efforts at the Slough, the ComEd Bike path prairie and several local installations around the community.

"While these local areas may not truly qualify as pure remnants, they remain a very high quality source for many prairie species," said PHNRC commissioner Agnes Wojnarski. "Historical aerial photos suggest that the areas may not have been plowed. Soil surveys performed at the remnant prairie, however, showed there were varying levels of disturbance across 6 randomly chosen sample areas. I still believe there must be a patch that we didn't sample to explain the strong prairie plant community that is there," she concluded.
Compass Plant                                                                   Prairie Dock
Regardless of the classification, the sedge meadow and the remnant prairie remain an invaluable resource. "Thirty percent of all the seed that was sown last December at the ComEd bike path prairie restoration came from these two areas," continued Wojnarski. "If we had to buy this on the open market, we are talking thousands of dollars. More importantly, we know that this seed is from a local genetic source, called ecotype and that is important for the health and robustness of the plant community."

As fall comes rushing in, local seed is becoming available again. "Seed has already been collected at the sedge meadow and is now finished for the year," said Commissioner Dana Sievertson. "The sedges we have collected this year will go to replace invasive reed canary at the slough in December where they will play a vital role is detaining and filtering runoff before it gets to the water. We are just starting to collect at the remnant prairie. That seed will go to our greenhouse program to be turned into native plant plugs and sown at the slough and the ComEd prairie project."
In order to ensure that these vital resources are sustainable, they must be managed and that means that workdays get scheduled to remove the invasives that threaten all the good guys. "There is an ebb and flow to everything," added Sievertson. "At our last work day, we started out to collect the last of the available sedges at the sedge meadow only to find they were past so we took the opportunity to remove a massive amount of invasive purple loosestrife that would have surely taken over the meadow next spring before moving on to the remnant prairie to collect there. Invasive teasel, sweet clover and vetch are the bad guys at the prairie and time will be set aside to manage them in the future, in order to protect these important pockets of our natural history from further invasion.

Invasive managment at the sedge meadow
Fall is a beautiful time to be working in the prairie. Volunteers always take a little time during the workday to take a walk and marvel at the biodiversity and beauty of the prairie. If you close one eye and use a lot of imagination, you can envision a vast ocean of prairie as the settlers saw it, stretching out into the horizon in each direction with seemingly no end. 

Nature Speaks Kicks Off This Month Doug Taron Added to Speaker Lineup

The much anticipated "Nature Speaks" lecture series kicks off this month with our first speaker Bruce Shackelford on September 22nd at 7:00 at the Prospect Heights Public Library.

Bruce is here to present "Life Abounds Beyond the Burning Prairie" and will be discussing adaptive management tools for ecological restoration of prairies and wetlands via selective herbicides, prescribed burning, hydrological controls, mowing, flame torching, seeding/planting and will include the showing of a television documentary he wrote and narrated "Woolsey Wet Prairie – After The Burn". Click here to register.   For all the information on Mr. Shackleford"s talk, click here.

We are also very pleased to announce the addition of Doug Taron PhD, Curator of Biology and Vice President of Research and Conservation at Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Mr. Taron manages the 2,700 square-foot Judy Istock Butterfly Haven; oversees management of the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ collections; and heads the institution’s insect conservation biology research. 

His captivating presentation, "Butterflies of the American Prairie" will be held on Wednesday, April 19th 2016 at 7:00 pm at the Prospect Heights Public Library. Complete information for Doug Taron's talk may be found here
Photo courtesy of Doug Taron                                          Photo courtesy of Doug Taron

Are All Plants Equal?

For decades, the ecological importance of native plants has been well established throughout scientific literature. There are many reasons for this and perhaps the most important one has to do with the strong linkage over thousands of years of evolution between plants, insects and animals. In a shared ecosystem, native plants have evolved alongside other native species, thousands of insects, birds, bacteria and fungi. They have developed complicated mechanisms to attract pollinators and ward off predators. They are invaluable as a food and shelter source for thousands of different species.

Why is all of this important and why should we care? People often forget that the earth is one big, fragile ecosystem made up of thousands of smaller, interdependent ecosystems. If one goes, they will all go.  We have to care because our ecosystems are becoming severely fragmented and are losing their capacity to function.  Humanity is dependant on ecosystems in order to sustain growing populations and life as we know it. Without them, we will continue to see degradation of clean air, clean water and food sources that we all need to survive. Climate change, pollution, oceanic "dead zones" and dangerous drops in pollinator populations all are scary forewarnings of the future if we continue to  ignore the problems and take no action.

Plants are often at the bottom of the food chain and drive the forces in nature that result in ecological stability. Plants and insects have evolved direct relationships that are unique to both species. Many insects such as the Monarch butterfly, are specialists. Monarchs are dependent on milkweed plants for their larval stage. Without milkweed plants, Monarchs will cease to exist. Some insects even look exactly like the plants that they have evolved with to protect themselves from predation.

Many people believe that birds eat seeds and berries, which they do.  In their reproductive stage, however, birds rely almost exclusively on insects. The mother bird brings back scores of caterpillars for her fledglings every day for weeks. Without those caterpillars, she would not be able to feed those baby birds. Without the special plants that the caterpillars depend on to grow, there would be no caterpillars.

It has become our cultural norm to landscape in a way that does not facilitate caterpillars. We have become accustomed to seeing less birds and fewer species of birds. Lush, green lawns have become a status symbol, a cultural aesthetic at the expense of caterpillars and birds. With the millions of acres of existing lawns across the US and the continued development of more and more everyday, the outlook is not good. Conventional, non-native lawn grass has very shallow root systems, it does a very poor job of absorbing storm water and retaining or filtering harmful herbicides and chemicals before they reach our waterways.

So do we just put in more plants? It is not that simple. Ornamental garden plants are beautiful, but they often come from Asia or Europe. For thousands of years, our insects and animals evolved with the plants in their local region, not with the plants from far away. In turn, they do not have the capacity to use them. Some may be sources if nectar, but they do not support a population that needs to feed on them. Cultivated varieties of native plants are not the best way to go either. Even a simple change in the color of a flower to produce a showier plant may mean life or death for an insect if they have evolved to be the exact hue of the flower to stay out of sight of birds that are looking for them.

Oak trees used to be the dominant tree species across the region for thousands of years before settlement dramatically changed the landscape over the last 150 years. An Oak tree can support over 500 different species of caterpillars. In contrast, the nonnative Norway maple can sustain two types of caterpillars and they are not native.

So how do we change it, how do we make it better? If everyone landscaped in a way to promote biodiversity and sustainability of important natural resources, collectively we have the potential to make a profound difference and perhaps the monarch wouldn't be so dangerously close to extinction and pollinators would bounce back. If just half of all of the lawns across the country were converted to native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers, it would be equal to a greater area than all of the national parks in the country combined. It is certainly worth a try.
The PHNRC is happy to say that residents of Prospect Heights have been listening to our strong message about the importance of natives. Some have only been observing and yet it has been enough to pique the interest and the desire to be part of the solution. After the replacement of a small portion of nonnative turf and invasive brush with native seed and plants, a dramatic change has been noticed at the Slough. Hundreds of monarch butterflies and many other species of butterflies and pollinators have been seen at the Slough this year. Residents have also been marveling at the monarch caterpillars, and showing their children things that weren't so common just a year ago.

Residents have gone so far as to ask for guidance about native landscaping. Several neighbors have already replaced patches of lawn with native grasses and flowers. Some will have seed donated and sown by PHNRC this winter to propagate native plant communities right outside their front door or window. The community response has been incredibly supportive and PHNRC hopes that it will continue to grow. We are always willing to help any resident that wants to make a positive difference.
As a community, we should change the culture to appreciate a stripped milkweed stem or a holey leaf as a sign of progress, a sign of cyclical life as opposed to an aesthetic blemish. In this we gain a broader perspective and a greater understanding of nature.

PHNRC will be working with the City and proposing a modification to the tall weed ordinance to allow for more native plantings. Each small patch of native plants adds biodiversity and restores a small, yet incredibly important ecosystem service

Rise of the Monarchs

Anyone who has been outside this summer near the Slough, Hillcrest Lake or the ComEd prairie could not help but notice the onslaught of butterflies. Residents have remarked about the increased numbers of Monarchs butterflies and caterpillars. "When we moved here 3 years ago, we never saw Monarchs or any other kind of butterflies for that matter," said Slough resident Nancy Sublette. "Now, we see several different varieties every day," she added.

Joan Bruchman noted birder and butterfly person, recorded the following butterfly species at the Slough on August 3rd based on about 15 minutes of viewing:
Cabbage White
Common/Orange Sulphur
Monarch (2)
Peck’s Skipper 
Tawny-edged Skipper 

Other species observed by local area residents include:

Eastern tiger swallowtail
Black swallowtail
Red-spotted purple
Hundreds of Monarch 

There is no doubt that the restoration work that includes several varieties of milkweeds 
at the slough and the prairie, has had an impact on the butterfly populations. We look forward to the continued progress.
Photo courtesy of Joan Bruchman                                    Photo courtesy of Joan Bruchman
Copyright © 2015 Prospect Heights Natural Resources Commission, All rights reserved.

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