Environmental Almanac: Take a walk on the wild side (of campus)
I take great pleasure in the activities and energy that mark the beginning of a new academic year at the University of Illinois in August. But I also make time to recharge by connecting with the natural world every day, whether by taking the long way as I cross campus for a meeting or a class or a dedicated walk at lunchtime.
If you're new to campus (or even if you're not) here are some tips on how to do that.
Kiss a frog
OK, you may not be able to get close enough to kiss one, but you can probably get close enough to see one. Just head for the Boneyard Creek, which runs through campus from First Street to Lincoln Avenue, half a block north of Green Street.
Bullfrogs often bask on the sandbars in the creek and even on rock ledges that border it behind Engineering Hall. (If you get out to Japan House or over to the Second Street Basin in Champaign, you can also find bullfrogs there. Find them by walking around the edge of the pond and watching them jump in.)
Go dragon hunting
While you're near the Boneyard Creek, make time to notice the wide variety of other life associated with the stream, despite the way people sometimes disrespect it. In summer and fall, this includes a variety of damselflies and dragonflies, which feast on the many smaller insects the creek supports. With just a little bit of practice, you could even learn to identify some of the more conspicuous of these — widow skimmers, for example, which sport large dark patches at the base of their wings.
When the water of the Boneyard is running clear, a patient observer can even begin to identify the fish that live there, which include largemouth bass, green sunfish, creek chubs and striped shiners. Would you believe the Boneyard Creek supports more than 20 species of fish?
Find a falcon
In recent years, a peregrine falcon has staked a claim to some of the tall buildings near Fourth Street, including Sherman Hall and Illini Tower. It is typically in town from late August until March, when it takes off to spend the breeding season elsewhere, perhaps the Arctic tundra. The first report of its return for this year on the local birders listserv came on Aug. 13.
The easiest way to find the campus peregrine is to scan the ledges along the tops of the tall buildings near Fourth Street. It's slightly smaller than a red-tailed hawk — the football-sized bird of prey you see perched along the interstate — and its back and wings are a bluish-gray.
Like living on a prairie
Campus boasts a number of spots where plants native to the tallgrass prairie are incorporated into the landscaping, and many of those plants peak in beauty at this time of year. These oases range from very small ones, such as the planting in front of the headquarters for the Campus Honors Program on Oregon Street, to very large ones, like the one that surrounds the Business Instructional Facility.
Look for prairie dock and other members of the Sylphium genus, with their yellow flowers that grow on stalks taller than people, or New England aster, which explodes with purple blossoms right through the fall and attracts all manner of bees and other pollinators.
And if you have the time, by all means get out to see the 3-acre prairie restoration project at Florida and Orchard (just east of the president's house). After four years, and with dedicated leadership from retired UI researcher John Marlin and the labor of many, many volunteers, it's in spectacular shape right now.
Rob Kanter is a lecturer with the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society, and Environment. Environmental Almanac is supported in part by the UI Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment and can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.