Friday Foto: The light to the city

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse we see today is actually the most recent in a line of lighthouses that helped transform the city into one of the world's busiest ports in the 1800s. The oldest was built in 1832 and stood near where the Michigan Avenue Bridge is today. But early harbor developments moved the river entrance further into the lake, triggering a need for a second lighthouse just two decades later. 

The current structure has directed traffic into the river harbor for more than a century. When it was first constructed in 1893, it stood at the end of a jetty extending from the river mouth. It wasn't until 1917 that it was relocated to the outer breakwater. 

Learn more about Chicago's rich maritime history at chicagowaterwalk.org


Species spotlight: Least bittern

Where we take a moment to explore some of the unique and impressive species that call the Great Lakes home. 

Sun-gazer. Squirrel of the marshes. Smallest heron in the Americas. Measuring about a foot in length and weighing in at less than 4 oz., the least bittern is widely spread but rarely seen. 
Least bitterns make their homes among the reeds of dense wetlands. Even with a migratory range from southern Canada to northern Argentina, this threatened bird remains elusive, making it hard for wetland managers to get an idea of their numbers. 

Migrating to the Great Lakes each summer to breed, least bitterns fly only at night. And as if that didn’t make visual identification difficult enough, they also prefer to flee from predators and approach their nests on foot. On top of it all, least bitterns are well camouflaged. When threatened, the bird will freeze and point its head upward, exposing vertical striping on its throat that allows it to blend in with its surroundings—thus the nickname "sun grazer." They will even sway in the breeze to match the motion of the reeds. 

Elusive as they are, least bitterns are more often heard than seen—a low cooing from the males and a ticking from the females is the best way to "spot" them. Nests are made by constructing platforms of reeds above the water. Even these are camouflaged. A canopy of surrounding marsh plants is crimped in place above the nest. 

But the 4-5 eggs laid every season won’t be in the nest for long. Over the span of roughly 50 days, the chicks will hatch, fledge, and leave the nest to start hunting on their own.

Like squirrels leap from branch to branch, least bitterns walk among the reeds 2-3 feet above the water, allowing them to hunt in areas well outside the wading range of larger birds. Balancing on a reed, they strike down with their long bills to catch their prey. Their diet consists of fish like minnows and perch, insects, frogs and other small amphibians, invertebrates, crayfish, and even mammals like shrews and mice. 

We'll have more species spotlights in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out our spotlight on lake sturgeon


Great Lakes ice coverage has its ups and downs

With spring in full swing, ice cover on the Great Lakes is down to about 20 percent. But it wasn't that long ago that the news was abuzz with the possibility that 2015 would break a record held for nearly four decades. In the end, coverage this winter topped out at roughly 89 percent—not enough to beat the 94-percent record set in 1979. 

But that isn’t to say that this wasn’t a record year. In fact, it was the second winter in a row that more than 80 percent of the basin was under ice. That hasn’t happened since the 1970s.

What makes this record even more surprising is that it ended decades of declining ice cover. The culprit for the switch was a persistent weather pattern that brought colder-than-normal temperatures to the eastern U.S. 

“The last two years are a great reminder of the role seasonal variability plays in total ice cover,” said Molly Woloszyn, IISG extension climatologist. “Warmer global temperatures could mean less Great Lakes ice cover overall, but there will still be winters with higher-than-normal cover thanks to seasonal changes.”

The recent spike in ice cover has had major economic and environmental repercussions. Thick sheets of ice continuing into spring hinder shipping, as the icy traffic jam on Lake Superior last week proved.

Ice also slows down evaporation, leading to higher spring and summer water levels. Due to this year’s extensive ice coverage, the Army Corps of Engineers predicts that Lake Michigan will be 14 inches higher this summer than last year—8 inches above its historical average. And the story is similar on the other lakes.

It’s too early to tell whether there’s another icy winter in our future. Perhaps the biggest unknown centers around El Nino. If this global weather event occurs in 2015, we can expect higher temperatures and less ice. Otherwise, we may be looking at year three of more than 80 percent ice cover. 

Learn more about the impact of winter ice cover and what to expect this summer in the latest Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook report.  


High school anglers join the fight against invasive species

Last weekend, high school anglers from across the state gathered at central Illinois’ Clinton Lake to battle for one of the top honors in competitive bass fishing—the Big Bass award. But the teams participating in the Illinois Bass Fishing Club High School Open  walked away with a lot more than awards and prize bags. The 150-plus competitors and coaches also left with "how-to" tips for stopping aquatic invasive species (AIS) in their tracks.

AIS prevention has become a fixture at this annual tournament, one of few in the state that allow students to hone their skills and learn about ways to carry their love of bass fishing into college. During the tournament’s four-year history, IISG specialists have joined teams at the Mascoutin Recreation Area to talk about the threat of invasive species and what anglers can do to halt their spread. Frequent announcements from Illini Bass Fishing Club members each year also remind students and parents alike of the importance of “leaving the lakes better than we found them.”

“No one cares more about Illinois’ fisheries than fishermen,” said Luke Stoner, former Illini Bass Fishing Club president and tournament director. “It’s our job to keep them as healthy as we can, and that includes fighting the spread of invasive species.”

This is not the only event where conservation has taken center stage. In fact, in the last decade, groups like the Shawnee MuskieHunters and Illinois Bass Federation have expanded their interest in casting technique, water safety, and fishing etiquette to become leaders in invasive species prevention.

Tournaments and club events give young anglers a chance to practice easy steps that prevent AIS from hitchhiking to new habitats and wreaking havoc on food webs and recreation. For example, removing plants, animals, and mud from all equipment, draining all water from your boat and gear, and drying everything thoroughly with a towel after a day on the water will help keep waterways clean and healthy. Throwing any removed plants and unused bait in the trash is also a simple way to join the fight against aquatic invaders.  

“To be really effective, these practices have to become routine—the first thing you do after leaving the water,” said Sarah Zack, IISG’s aquatic invasive species outreach specialist. “That’s why it is so encouraging that Illinois anglers and boaters are learning these practices early and are being encouraged to share them with their friends and family.”

Learn more about IISG’s invasive species prevention program, Be a Hero – Transport ZeroTM, at TransportZero.org. And for more information on Illinois high school bass fishing tournaments, visit www.TheFutureFishesHere.org

***Look for this story in the April 3 edition of Illinois Outdoor News


Friday Foto: It's time to get out and see the sights!

Nearly 47 million domestic travelers visited Chicago in 2014. And many likely snapped a few photos at the "The Bean." Cloud Gate—as it's formally known—is one of the region's most popular attractions, but it's far from the only one. In fact, southern Lake Michigan and its communities provide rich opportunities for outdoor activities for visitors and residents alike. 

Whether you're interested in boating, fishing, swimming, or walking along Chicago's lakefront, be sure to check out our new Recreation page. 


DNA tools help biologist find elusive species

In the Great Lakes region, the word “eDNA” is never far from “Asian carp.” And for good reason. The technology was originally applied by Notre Dame scientists in response to the federal government’s need to discover—and ultimately control—the spread of this voracious invader.

But in the six years since, environmental DNA has become a commonly used tool for detecting fish and other aquatic organisms. Biologists in the UK use it to locate crested newts, Kentucky scientists use eDNA to monitor salamanders, and a city in Washington state even plans to use the technology to track an invasive snail threatening salmon habitats. And scientists see even greater potential on the horizon. 

Think of eDNA as forensic detective work. When a silver carp, salamander, or other aquatic animal shed skin cells, they leave behind traces of their DNA. Using the method developed at Notre Dame, scientists can run water samples through a fine-meshed filter, separate DNA from any other microscopic particles, and determine whether any of the genetic material matches the species they are looking for.

“The importance of the method lies in its ability to detect the presence of recluse species or ones with population levels that make catching them difficult,” said David Lodge, a Notre Dame biologist and director of the team that developed this forensic method.

Most of the testing done so far has focused on finding the genetic material of a single species. But Lodge, Notre Dame professor Michael Pfrender, and their team are working on an approach that would allow scientists to map the aquatic life of an entire habitat by sequencing all the genes in a water sample. Although it wouldn’t replace the more time-intensive field studies, this strategy could help natural resource managers know where to target conservation efforts. Lodge received funding to develop a metagenetics approach from the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation after early results of IISG-funded research revealed ways to strengthen eDNA sampling.

Despite its growing use, eDNA testing is not without controversy, especially when it comes to Asian carp. And the approach does have its limits. eDNA doesn’t tell scientists how many fish there are or whether they are alive or dead. The genetic material found in the water could also come from other sources. There could be feces from birds that fed on Asian carp elsewhere. And boaters and anglers could unknowingly be transporting DNA from one waterway to another.   
These possibilities cast some doubt on eDNA results. In fact, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has said they no longer react to these results alone and are instead looking for entire fish. 

Still, supporters say the technology has huge potential.

“Nothing is as sure as holding the fish in your hand,” Lodge said, “but the repeated findings and patterns of Asian carp eDNA make the alternative explanations for how the material got there less plausible.”   


Cultivate healthy, beautiful landscapes with natural lawn care

Residents across Illinois and Indiana are taking advantage of the warmer weather to plan garden and yard projects. Adrienne Gulley shares some with easy tips for keeping your lawn green and the water clean. 

Nothing is more appealing than fresh flowers and green grass. But the chemicals we put on our lawns each year can end up in our lakes and rivers, where they lower water quality and harm aquatic ecosystems. Fortunately, you don't have to give up your beautiful landscape to protect our waterways. This summer, take the Lawn to Lake pledge and adopt these natural lawn care practices: 
  • Mow at a 3” or higher. Longer grass shades out weeds and retains moisture better.
  • Leave grass clippings on the lawn. They're a natural fertilizer. 
  • Aerate soil to reduce compaction.
  • Water deeply, slowly and infrequently to build healthy root systems.
  • Test your soil to determine your fertilizer needs. 
  • Fertilize with a thin layer of compost in the spring and fall.
If you aren’t practicing these tips already, it may be a good idea to simply focus on one tip at a time. Understanding the impact of nutrients from our lawns is the key to keeping our waterways healthy. 

I will be sharing these and similar tips with members of the Illinois Lake Management Association during their Point of Discussion educational series tonight in Springfield. Visit www.ilma-lakes.org for more information.