GO Prairie Rivers 2019 Steward Newport

Fred Newport of Champaign, shown with his wife, Sandy Lu, received this year’s River Steward Award at the Prairie Rivers Network annual dinner for his volunteer work at the Homer Lake Forest Preserve and Kaufman Lake in Champaign. Newport volunteered more than 120 days last year removing acres of invasive species along the shoreline and fishing out trash from the lakes.

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River steward of the year

Not quite two weeks ago, retired Centennial High School English teacher Fred Newport was paddling his kayak around Homer Lake when he spotted a preening cormorant perched on a branch protruding from the water. He grabbed his camera and let the wind blow him slowly past the web footed fish eater as he snapped frame after frame. He thought he was getting too close, but the cormorant just ignored him. So Newport took advantage, snapping pictures from angles he could never get from the bank.

“I went around (him) three times, and took 895 pictures,” said Newport, a former springboard and platform diving coach at the UI who lives in Champaign with his wife, Sandy Lu Newport, has always loved the water.

After retiring from teaching in 2012, he turned to kayaking for fitness.

“I became addicted…,” said Newport, who paddles various local waterbodies regularly from the moment any ice fades in late winter to as long as weather allows in late fall. “I loved either being in or on the water. It’s a mystical experience. It’s wonderful.”

Five kayaks later -- ranging from the very stable slower “workhorse” to his smooth speedy racer -- Newport’s fitness routines have also become wonderful opportunities to experience nature and a personal mission to care for the local environment.

In 2015, he became a Master Naturalist, which he describes as “creating a point of light” by exposing him to such an array of different opportunities to volunteer. A lot of Master Naturalists are trail stewards, helping to maintain the paths.

And that’s what Newport has become, on the water.

From his kayaks, he began picking up trash along the shorelines at Homer Lake, Lake of the Woods, River Bend and Kaufman Lake. He picks up a lot of bobbers, lures, bait boxes, bottles and soda cans and “all kinds of things,” he said. And that evolved into removing invasive species along the shorelines as well, like Amur honeysuckle -- the invasive white-flowered bush in spring and red-berried foliage in fall that chokes out other natives and does not benefit wildlife.

Newport’s tools of trade: Paddle, loppers, curved handsaw, trash picker, herbicide for invasives, gunny sack (for the wet trash) and his camera with water proof bag.

It’s 5.25 miles around the perimeter of Homer Lake, according to the statistics- and record-keeping former coach, whose efforts to keep the shorelines clear of trash and invasive plants were recognized Oct. 25 by the Prairie Rivers Network.

The organization awarded him this year’s River Steward Award for his 120-plus days of volunteer work on the water.

“It seems odd to me that someone is patting me on the back for being in my happy place,” said Newport, who has also fallen in love with documenting through a camera lens the many interactions he’s had with nature being on the water so often.

The preening cormorant is just one of many. He’s observed a blue heron snag a fish from the water on the end of its bill, and another heron miss his meal.

“You could tell it was disgusted with himself,” Newport said. “It was hilarious.”

He’s observed ospreys in tree tops, the secretive green heron, a prothonotary warbler, spawning grass carp, barn/tree swallows feeding on break from their migration, American toads mating, barn swallows raising their young at River Bend, and lots of dragonflies, damselflies, horsetails, water bugs and sandpipers. Then there was a red winged blackbird diving at him, because he was close to its nest.

“It’s those interactions that cause me to learn,” said Newport, who researches what he’s seen or photographed.

Ducking under a honeysuckle on the edge of the shoreline once, he suddenly spotted a common water snake curled up with the tail of a live catfish in its mouth. It’s not the only snake he’s seen while navigating under or around dead branches and foliage on the shorelines.

“It’s nature’s parade that keeps drawing me back. I never know what I’m going to experience,” he said.

Shotgun turkey harvest low

Here’s a report from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife on this fall’s shotgun turkey season, which posted low numbers again. It does not include Champaign or Vermilion counties, which are not open to fall shotgun turkey season.

Statewide in the counties that are open, hunters harvested 301 wild turkeys during the season Oct. 19-27. That compares to 320 harvested statewide in 2018. It’s the fourth consecutive year marking a record low, according to IDNR.

The record high harvest for the fall shotgun turkey season was set in 2005 when 1,218 birds were harvested. This year, 1,504 permits were sold compared to 1,444 last year (4,968 were sold in 2007, the highest total on record). This year marked the first year leftover permits were available over-the-counter.

Fall gun hunting for turkey was open in 56 of Illinois’ 102 counties. The top counties for harvest this year were Jefferson (24), Williamson (24), Marion (20), Knox (18), and Jo Daviess (15).

Archery deer and fall turkey permits

Illinois Archery Deer and Illinois Archery Fall Turkey seasons are open through Jan. 19. Permits are available over-the-counter at DNR Direct license and permit vendors. You can find a vendor near you on the IDNR website.

Spring turkey applications

Resident hunters can apply now for the first lottery for 2020 Illinois Spring Wild Turkey Season permits online. Go to the IDNR website for more information. The application deadline for the first lottery for 2020 resident spring turkey permits is Dec. 1.

Reporter

Tracy Crane is a Danville-based reporter for The News-Gazette. Her email is tcrane@news-gazette.com.