January 2016

New Police Chief Has a History With
Natural Resources In Prospect Heights

As a boy, the newly appointed Prospect Heights Police Chief Al Steffen grew up in a small town north of the Twin Cities. Much of his youth was spent alongside of the St.Croix and Apple rivers. His great great grandparents were of Norwegian descent on his mother's side, French and German on his father's side. Both were early settlers in the St.Croix valley. 
In the age of pay phones, devoid of the internet, cellphones and GPS, the Chief and his best friend at the age of 14 set out for a week long, 75 mile canoe trip that started on the Namekagon River then down St. Croix River. "It was packed with unimaginable adventure," the Chief recalled. "At the time, Eagles were abundant and we saw them throughout the trip but the biggest highlight was seeing a sow black bear and three cubs. Seeing a bear in the wild is always exciting but this was quite something."

On the next to last day of the trip, they pulled ashore in a small town to check in. "We stopped to use a pay phone to call our parents to tell them we were OK and where to pick us up the next day," he said with a smile.
Photo courtesy of Susan Steffen

The Chief is an avid birder with a capital "A". His knowledge of birds would make one's head spin. During the fall and spring migrations, young Al would find himself positioned in potholes out in the rough watching and documenting the arrival of all the new birds. "As a young kid, it was my favorite thing to do. I would be out there for hours watching all the ducks passing through and making drawings of them," he said. "The annual migrations were a big part of life." he explained. 

He recalled the time he spent at his grandparents house watching a never ending barrage of ruby throated hummingbirds. "In the morning they would sparkle like jewels in the light. In the summer we also had scarlet tanagers and rose breasted grosbeaks.  The alfalfa and hay fields were full of Bobolinks and meadowlarks.  In the winter we had evening grosbeaks, tufted titmice, redpolls, juncos and the ubiquitous chickadees and common nuthatches.  The occasional boreal nuthatch would make an appearance at the suet feeder," he added.
Yellow Lake Bluebird                                                           Yellow Warbler
Photos courtesy of Susan Steffen

After graduating high school, Al enlisted in the army. After two tours of duty, he was stationed in the Chicagoland area. "As I was finishing up my enlistment, I decide I wanted to go into law enforcement. I had two offers, one was from Prospect Heights. I chose Prospect Heights because the small town atmosphere reminded me of home and I really wanted to be a part of what would be at the time, a startup force. It was an exciting time." 

Enter Dr. Wurtz. Soon after Al started at the police force, he was introduced to Dr. Wurtz of the famed Walnut Woods. As it turned out, Al and Dr. Wurtz were originally from the same neck of the woods and the two became fast friends.

"When I graduated from high school," he said, "I swore I would never do two things again ever; milk cows and chop wood. Then Dr. Wurtz asked me if I could handle a chainsaw and if I knew trees." At the time Dr. Wurtz had already planted Walnut Woods but needed assistance in maintaining the trees. So starting in 1993, he began scaling the trees as a volunteer, keeping the stand trimmed in such a way as to groom them for lumber. In exchange, Dr. Wurtz permitted Al to bring his children fishing on the pond that he had created and kept stocked with fish.
Walnut Woods

Just to the north of the walnut stand was a parcel of land that was overrun with invasive buckthorn and
 osage orange. Dr Wurtz wanted to plant the area with Burr Oaks. As one of the last things he did at the site, Al spent an entire summer clearing and chipping the invasives and planting the now awesome stand of burr oaks in the Walnut Woods. "Soon after, Dr Wurtz was no longer able to manage the woods any more. That is when we sought the transition to the Park District," he said.

If you walk the site, you will notice bald cypress randomly distributed in the woods. "Someone had told Dr. Wurtz that this was as far north as they would grow. He planted them to see if it was true. Turns out they were right."
Northern Lights in Northern Wisconsin - Photo courtesy of Susan Steffen
Starting this January, Al Steffen will have worked his way up from a rookie officer to the Chief of Police of the Prospect Heights Police Department. Throughout all those years, his love of nature and total emersion in the natural resources of Prospect Heights has never waned. "There are times, when the stress of doing this job, or any job for that matter can start to become overwhelming. In those times, I drive to the slough and recenter myself. Especially in the spring and the fall during migrations. I find doing a quick bird count puts it all back into perspective."

"I love the work that the Natural Resources Commission is doing at the Wetlands and at the Prairie. I have read the Hey report and I look forward to the day when a drive by of the slough and the lake will feature a natural shoreline instead of turf grass. It is the way things should be."

Prospect Heights is very fortunate to have a Chief of Police that is so well grounded in the natural world. Who wouldn't embrace a guy who's favorite book is "A Sand County Almanac"?

Anonymous Donation Provides Summer Intern for PHNRC

The Natural Resources Commission has received the generous gift of a paid summer intern position from a long time supporter of the Resources Commission who wishes to remain anonymous. "This generous gift will enable the Resources Commission to accomplish a great deal of restoration work that would be impossible to get done during our work days alone," Said Chairperson Agnes Wojnarski. 

In the summer of 2016, one intern will be chosen to work for 12 weeks over the summer from 30-40 hours per week. The PHNRC will be looking for a student who is already in the field of environmental sciences and interviews will start sometime in April.

The internship will contain a great deal of training in native and invasive plant identification, invasive species control, seed collection and  propagation, and the ecological principals of natural areas management; all very important for a successful career in the field. 

PHNRC is looking forward to the internship this summer not only as a way to get a lot of necessary work done in the natural areas around Prospect Heights, but also as a way of promoting education and fostering a love for our environment.

"We cannot thank the donors enough for this incredible gift, " said PHNRC  Commissioner Dana Sievertson. "It is a testimony to the purity of their intention that they would choose to remain anonymous." 

HABITAT…. The Fungus Among us is Lichening it.  The mosses too!  

Around the Slough, the wonders of nature are alive and thriving even in the dead of winter.  During our workdays, volunteers can’t help but marvel at the organisms that they find growing on dead logs, trees and snags. 
Fungi are remarkable organisms that are in their own kingdom (Fungi), separate from plants. They do not contain chlorophyll or a way of producing their own food. As a result, they live on dead material like leaves or wood, or they can form relationships with other organisms that can be beneficial to both (symbiotic) or harmful to one (parasitic). The fungi that most people know about are mushrooms, but there are many other important forms all around us. Fungi can either produce disease, make your toes feel itchy or make bread, beer or cheese. (Yes, yeast is a fungus too)!
Fungi's role in decomposing organic matter is also well known, but what many people don’t think about is the importance of fungi in the ecosystem and the partnerships that they form with plants, trees and animals for survival.
Lichens, for example, are remarkable, complex organisms that form a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga. The fungal portion depends on the algal partner to photosynthesize and produce food for it, so it can grow and spread. There are around 3,600 species of lichens in North America, but many have yet to be discovered!

Why should we care at all about these life forms other than to admire their beauty?

Lichens provide shelter, forage and building materials for birds, insects, and mammals. Lichens line the nests of many species of birds, for example. Birds use lichens to camouflage their nest and for water resistance. Studies also show that certain lichens may be used by birds for their antimicrobial properties. 
Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest made of lichen and spider webs

The ecological significance is even more pronounced when we think of insects that have evolved and adapted over thousands of years to take advantage of lichen habitat. Some use lichens as a disguise, while many others depend on the habitat that they provide. Let us not forget that baby birds need thousands of insects to grow up into adult birds! 
Lichen Grasshopper (Trimerotropis saxatilis)                      Lacewing larvae

What about humans? What do lichens do for our species? Lichens have the amazing ability to absorb everything in their atmosphere, especially pollutants. Heavy metals, carbon and sulfur are all absorbed into the lichen thallus. They are very sensitive to atmospheric pollution by smoke or fumes and are an indicator species of polluted environments. Scientists can even extract the toxins from lichens to determine the levels that are present in our atmosphere.
Lichens can grow on healthy trees, but more often they grow on stressed or unhealthy ones. The mysterious appearance of a colorful growth on a tree can sometimes cause concern for the homeowner, blaming the lichen for a disease. A stressed tree may have bark that becomes more brittle, and more sunlight penetrates as the leaves fall off the tree, permitting lichens to attach themselves more readily. The lichen may have taken advantage of the decay, but is rarely the cause. Although there are fungi that can cause diseases in trees, we should not blame all fungi, as most are innocent and even beneficial.
One of the most interesting organisms that can now be found around the Slough are the mosses. They are in the plant kingdom and have tiny green “leaf like” structures that contain chloroplasts, so they can convert the energy from the sun into food. They produce structures on top called sporophytes that release spores, being their main way of reproduction. Mosses, liverworts and hornworts are closely related and are grouped together as “bryophytes”. They are usually green, which is a good clue to their identification.

Mosses are some of the oldest and simplest plants on Earth. They were the first plants to survive on land after having evolved from algae 500 million years ago and are believed to be the ancestors of all of the land plants we see today. They are also indicators of clean environments and will not grow in heavily polluted habitats.

So the next time you see a growth on a log, stop for a moment to admire and marvel at these beautiful complex life forms. You can use a hand lens to get up really close. You will be amazed at what you see!

So What are Those Mysterious Mounds that Keep Appearing at the Slough?

PHNRC has not only been removing invasive buckthorn during our workdays, but also working hard to ensure that vital habitat, such as deadwood, is left behind.

Many people think that dead trees and logs serve no purpose, but that is very far from the truth. It is not only important for fungi, lichens and mosses, but for many other creatures that need a hiding place, a food source or a place to live.

Dead trees provide habitat for many species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. By some estimates, the removal of dead material can mean a loss of habitat for up to one fifth of the animals in the ecosystem. There are three forms of dead wood important for wildlife: snags, logs and brush piles.
One of the most important habitats is called a “snag”. This is simply a standing dead tree left to decompose naturally. Snags provide perching sites and important cavities required by many animals. There are many cavity nesting birds, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, brown creepers, owls, eastern bluebirds, chickadees and wrens. Bats, squirrels and opossums use tree cavities as well.

Not only do snags provide cavities, but the crevices that form between the peeling bark and the trunk of a tree provide protection for bats and amphibians. The decaying wood also hosts fungi, and attracts insects that are used as a food source by many along the wildlife food web.

Snags should not be left where they pose a threat of falling near a path or a road, however leaving a few carefully chosen trees that are dead or dying are vital habitat resources for wildlife in natural areas.
Large diameter logs left on the woodland floor provide shelter, a humid moist climate, basking sites and food sources for a great deal of wildlife.

Salamanders, toads and frogs need moist conditions to keep their skin wet.  The humidity inside and beneath large logs is a sought out refuge for many species of amphibians and reptiles. The upper sides of logs are often used for basking in the sun. If you see a fallen tree that sticking out above the water in a sunny place, make sure to look for turtles, as it is one of their favorite spots to bask.
Mammals such as mice, voles and shrews also use the inside of logs as nest sites and hiding places. The many ants, worms, snails, grubs, spiders and beetles that call a log their home are in turn important food sources for birds, mice and snakes.
Brush piles are smaller diameter branches of wood that have been collected together into a mound. They provide important shelter from the weather. Inside a brush pile, the cool shaded conditions are sought out by numerous species of amphibians and reptiles, and can be a place to avoid predators. The upper portions are used as perching sites and and nesting sites by many species of birds.

In areas where there are few shrubs, songbirds depend on brush piles for nesting sites. As the wood decays, insects are attracted and so are the animals that eat them. And as the food web continues, owls, hawks and foxes may come to brush piles to feed on the smaller prey.

Animals have specific habitat requirements to satisfy their basic needs of food, water and cover. The PHNRC expects to see an abundance of wildlife with all of the many habitat improvements that volunteers have been working so hard to provide for the many creatures around the Slough.  

John McCabe Talks Fire on The 26th!

Nature Speaks is gearing up for our Winter speaker, John McCabe, the Director of the Department of Resource Management for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

By most estimates, humans discovered fire over a million years ago and began controlling and using it as long as 300,000 years ago. Prairies evolved with fire by accident and intention and today it is a very essential tool in the restoration of prairies and land management.

John McCabe's 
presentation, entitled “Fire and the Forest Preserves of Cook County”, will discuss some of the history behind prescribed fire and fire in general at the forest preserves.  The presentation will focus on prescribed burning in the urban environment and how the Preserve applies this critical management tool safely and effectively across our holdings.
Photo by Joe Occhiuzzo

John is recognized as an expert in conducting prescribed burns in the urban environment and is a lead instructor for the Chicago Wilderness Midwest Ecological Prescription Burn Crew Member training course.   He expertly coordinates projects and communicates with volunteers, partner organizations, contractors and interns to ensure thoughtful and effective habitat management.  He is also responsible for managing the recently released Natural and Cultural Resources Master Plan which proposes concrete solutions to set the Forest Preserves’ land management direction for the next 25 years. 

John coordinates spring and fall burn seasons and supervises the department’s resource management, trails, wildlife, ecology, project management, conservation corps and fisheries divisions. He has participated in almost 500 fires in his twenty plus years working for the District.

The presentation will be held at the Prospect Heights Public Library in the Borland Meeting Room starting at 7:00. Registration for the event is required. Please visit the registration link here.
Copyright © 2016 Prospect Heights Natural Resources Commission, All rights reserved.

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