Tag: illinois river

Everyday Nature: Cartoonish Coot Chicks

Most baby birds, cute though they may be, are not exactly colorful. This makes good evolutionary sense: Baby birds, unable to fly, make easy meals for predators.

They thus must blend into their surroundings. A drake mallard or canvasback is a colorful, striking water bird, but baby ducks are nondescript. They disappear into the marshy reeds, making it harder for a hungry raccoon or mink to find them.

Not so the American coot.

Adult coots are fairly drab birds. But their babies? They look like they were designed by a deranged tattoo artist.

The front half of the coot’s body is covered in orange-tipped plumes, giving them a jarring appearance. We’re not used to seeing baby birds covered bright feathers. While this orange fades rather quickly—in about six days—it still leaves them conspicuous when they are at the most vulnerable stage of their lives.

This coloration makes them more susceptible to predation. What advantage would such feathers possibly confer?

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Science at Emiquon: Restoring a “Wetland of Dreams”

The airboat whirs over the shallow wetland, as huge flocks of coots, ducks, herons and other birds flush before me.

It’s the kind of scene that could entice one to wax rhapsodic on the beauties of untrammeled nature.

Except this isn’t. Not quite.

Just six years ago, this expansive wetland was cornfields and a cattle feedlot.

It’s now Emiquon Preserve, a 6,600-acre project on the Illinois River that is one of the largest floodplain restoration projects in the Midwest.

How do you go from cornfield to wildlife paradise?

The easy answer is to invoke Field of Dreams: Build it, and they will come.

The hard answer: Research, and lots of it. Behind Emiquon’s incredible conservation success is an extensive science program.

Each March, the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Therkilsden Field Station at Emiquon—the preserve’s flagship research center—convenes a gathering of researchers to share results from their studies.

While it may look like the wetland is nature primeval, it is this research that is restoring what once was known as the “inland fishing capital of North America.”

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Big Fish: Return of the Alligator Gar

Once they were the river’s top predator: a fish that could reach ten feet or more, with thick armored plates as scales and imposing jagged teeth.

You would see their long, tooth snouts poking out from the river’s surface, gulping air—their adaptation for thriving in warm, deoxygenated water.

Alligator gar.

They thrived in a large swath of mid-western and southern waters, but by the early 1900s, they were already starting to disappear, a trend that continues to this day.

They were declared extinct in Illinois in 1994. But a new restoration and research effort aims to bring back these incredible fish, and help conservationists at other rivers and waters better protect them.

When fisheries biologists Rod Hilsabeck and Trent Thomas of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources decided to return the alligator gar to their state, they knew they needed a perfect location. The Nature Conservancy’s Spunky Bottoms Preserve fit everything they sought.

Formerly farmland, Spunky Bottoms is now 2000 acres of restored wetlands and uplands. It consisted of perfect gar habitat: backwaters and sluggish pools with lots of vegetation. It also was not connected to the adjacent Illinois River, making it easier for researchers to capture and study the fish.

Research is a key component to the reintroduction. Nathan Grider, a master’s student in biology at the University of Illinois-Springfield, is working with Dr. Michael Lemke and partners to study two key aspects of gar restoration.

They are studying how fast gar will grow when restocked into an area. They are also analyzing their diet, and in particular, if the gar will eat (and control) the non-native carp that swim Spunky Bottoms and so many other waters.

This information will help inform gar reintroduction and protection efforts throughout their range.

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Experiment: Freshwater Mussel Restoration

Tharran Hobson dons a wetsuit and wades into the wetland. Soon he is swimming, diving, fishing around—“pollywogging,” he calls it—finally emerging with his muddy bounty, a small wire cage.

As underwater treasures go, it doesn’t look like much: A wire structure with a silt-covered tray in the bottom.

But this contraption may hold the key to restoring some of the least understood and most abused creatures in the Mississippi River system: freshwater mussels.

Conservancy scientists and partners are currently testing whether restored wetlands might be suitable sites for freshwater mussel propagation efforts. If it works, it could be another important tactic in the restoration of freshwater mussels that once existed in Midwest rivers by the millions.

I’m joining these scientists at the Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve, a 6800-acre restored floodplain along the Illinois River (a significant tributary of the Mississippi). This project has already been successful in drawing in thousands of migrating waterfowl, and in restoring 30 native fish species.

Could it also serve as a breeding project for mussels?

That’s what I’m here to find out.

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Feature: Building Wetlands for Clean Drinking Water

Can building wetlands reduce dangerous high nitrate levels and thus provide clean, safe drinking water for thousands of people?

Yes.

But, when it comes to ensuring clean water, not all wetlands are created equal.

Biologists know how to restore great wetlands to draw in ducks and shorebirds. Restoring wetlands to also help people may require a different approach.

That’s the focus of an intensive research effort conducted by Nature Conservancy scientists on the Mackinaw River watershed in central Illinois. The wetlands—while providing wildlife habitat and healthier rivers—are being designed and tested to provide safe drinking water for the 90,000 residents of Bloomington, Illinois and surrounding communities where the town’s primary reservoir has had a history of high nitrate levels.

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