There's no better way to fully appreciate the beauties of a nature preserve or understand the efforts needed to maintain one than spending time with the people who take care of it.
So recently, I took advantage of an opportunity to accompany such a group for a day at Horseshoe Bottom Nature Preserve, which lies within Kennekuk Cove County Park in Vermilion County.
Horseshoe Bottom is not a site most people are likely to visit. Access to it requires a fair bit of hiking on unmarked trails, and only a few boundary signs even tell visitors they've found the place. But it's a site that supports a magnificent diversity of plants and animals I think you might be interested to know about all the same.
The leader of our group was a friend of mine, Rick Larimore, who is retired from work as a wetland ecologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey and who has served as volunteer site steward at Horseshoe Bottom since the mid-1990s. In this role, he seeks to maintain the ecological integrity of the site, primarily by controlling exotic, invasive plants.
The other members of the crew were Joe Boise and Will Wright, college students who are employed this summer as interns by the Urbana-based conservation group Grand Prairie Friends.
Our first business of the day was to check some traps that Illinois Department of Natural Resources scientists have set to monitor for turtles in a shallow swamp at the preserve this summer. Unfortunately, we found the traps empty, as they have been nearly every day since they were first set out at the beginning of the month. The only turtle caught so far has been a snapping turtle, and it's another species, Blanding's turtles, that is the primary target of this effort.
To make matters worse, raccoons had torn into the traps and chewed open the cans of sardines being used for bait. We repaired the traps and reset them, although nobody seemed very hopeful that the next day would turn up any Blanding's turtles either.
Before leaving the swamp, we took time for a closer look at some of the many amphibians it supports. Everywhere, the water was alive with larval salamanders, dark, 2-inch-long creatures that resemble the tadpoles of frogs and toads. Some of these already exhibited the legs and other features that will enable them to graduate to life on land as the swamp dries up over the summer.
The margins of the swamp were quite lively, too, with tiny cricket frogs so thick it was difficult to set a foot down without stepping on them.
By midmorning, we were headed through the forest to a drier, more open site overlooking the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. There, the mission was to kill autumn olive and multiflora rose, two exotic, invasive plants that would crowd out much of the native plant life if left unchecked. This is done by spraying herbicide on the bark at the base of targeted plants.
While work went on there, we made a point of identifying the birds that called nearby. Among them were some fairly common ones, such as eastern wood pewees, indigo buntings and red-eyed vireos, as well as others that birders get more excited about, especially a Kentucky warbler.
We finished the workday at a prairie restoration on the upland adjacent to Horseshoe Bottom, where autumn olive and multiflora rose are also a perennial problem. Unless someone goes to the trouble of knocking them back each year, Larimore assured me, the prairie restoration would soon give way to a dense thicket providing no enjoyment for people and extremely poor habitat for wildlife.
If you are interested learning more about some of the unique natural areas in our region, and equipping yourself to help maintain them, check out the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist Program administered by University of Illinois Extension. The program is now accepting applications for the fall training session. Call 333-7672 or visit http://web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/mn .
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.