Summer 2003
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                                                                                                            Summer 2003

King of the Gnats

The Empidonax flycatchers are known as a hard to identify bird species. The genus name means "King of the Gnats: and for good reason, since they eat many kinds of insects. In particular, the yellow-bellied flycatcher has caught my eye again as a migrant in my backyard.

About five years ago, a yellow-bellied stopped to eat bugs in my yard and acted much the same way. It was a non-singer, unlike other flycatchers. It fed low in the understory, it was tame and allowed close approach for a photo, and it was easy to identify.

A blooming black locust perfumed my yard and attracted all kinds of insects. The "King" put this tree to good use and even perched on the same place on the fence as the one who visited so many years before, right next to the black locust.

The yellow breast and greenish back make this bird an easy one to identify and an exception to its brother flycatchers who are rather difficult to pick out unless you hear a song or call. My records show I heard this species call back in 1994 at Iroquois county SWA. The call sounds like "per-wee", a kind of musical whistle.

Not all bird watchers have experience with this species as it migrates late to nesting sites in dark boreal forests in mid to late May. Most birders overlook this quiet but friendly migrant traveler.

I know someone who uses "yard guard" insecticide to keep out unwanted insects in their yard, like mosquitoes. I thought how my flycatcher would have not come to my yard if I had done that.

Our fears of mosquitoes reminded me of a recent Michael Moore movie where news media used all kinds of fear stories that attract viewers. How sad it is that over-reaction to West Nile Virus, mad cow disease, or stranger crime causes unreasonable fears that affect our environment.

My backyard list is up to 93 species of birds, the sighting of the yellow-bellied flycatcher makes me realize and appreciate insects that come to the yard and birds that eat them.

-------- John Baxter

Kankakee Valley Audubon Society




Notes from the Urban Forest

Why do trees around our homes and businesses need fertilizing?

The natural forest floor is a fertile reservoir of nutrition. The falling leaves, branches and even whole trees return to the soil ensure a perfect balance of both the organic and mineral content of soil nutrients. A major component of this natural fertility is the community of organisms that inhabit the soil and process the basic ingredients into chemical forms that can be readily absorbed by the trees. Some of the best-understood organisms are the various species of fungi that colonize the roots and assist in the uptake of certain nutrients, especially phosphorus. Without these symbiotic relationships, trees will be under-nourished and eventually decline.

When we take the tree out of its natural woodland environment, we set up a potentially stressful situation. When our houses and other buildings are constructed, the naturally fertile soil is either removed or destroyed through compaction. Trees and other plants must have a balance of mineral and organic chemical sources along with air and moisture to ensure optimum growth and resistance to insects and disease.

The first step to establishing the consistency of the forest floor in our disturbed urban soils is the use of mulch. The Morton Arboretum conducted tests planting trees of the same size and species. One group was planted without mulch and the grass was allowed to grow back to the trunk. The other group was mulched with 4-5" of composted woodchips to the drip line. The same amount of watering was done form each tree. In the group without mulch, 5% of the trees died and the rest were still struggling to get established after 7 years. The group that was mulched suffered no mortality and on the average was twice the size and twice as healthy as the unmulched after 7 years.

It is, however, very important how you mulch. All too often, mulch is piled high up against the trunk. This is a no-no. The value of mulch is in the width of the bed. Mulch should never actually touch the trunk, but should be pulled back a couple of inches from the bark. (see diagram)

Never roto-till under a mature established tree. You will be destroying tiny absorbing roots, most of which are within the top ten inches of the surface. If you wish to develop a ground cover or perennial bed under a tree, it is best to allow composted mulch to work into the soil over a couple of years first.

In addition to mulching, there is another way to introduce a natural nutrient balance to your trees. You may provide an organic-based fertilizer that, as much as possible, duplicates the conditions of the forest fertility. Technically, a "fertilizer" must contain nitrogen. The service products I use are carefully referred to as biologicals and require analysis for application specific to problems. For example, heavy clay, sandy loam and so forth. The do-it-yourself person can spend a lot of time doing research, go the easy mulch route, or contact a consultant service. Correct mulching is the vitamin pill; biologicals and other fertilizers are treatments. The best and least costly local source for the easy mulch route for a do-it yourself project is the product of wood chippers. However, it is important that these chips are at least one year old and at least partially composted. Broken down alfalfa hay is another good source. The most popular mulches, largely because of their attractive appearance, are shredded hardwood bark, cypress and cedar bark. These are fine but cost between two to four times more than chips or hay.

For more information on natural fertilizers, you may visit the website: Spring and fall are the best times to fertilize trees, but with non-burning organic products it can be done any time.


-----by Rob Frothingham

Certified Arborist,

Landscape Architect



Wetland Wonders

Rapidly disappearing from the landscape, wetlands are a little-appreciated natural resource. Northern Midwestern United States has historically been a very water rich region, at a time when desertification plagues up to one third of the earth’s land area. As we gain deeper appreciation for the critical role wetlands play in ecosystem balance, hopefully protection will not be too little too late.

Wetlands are lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface. Wetlands are lands transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land is covered by shallow water (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).

There are many kinds of wetlands in the world, ranging from marine estuaries such as intertidal marshes and deltas, to prairie potholes.

Peat land is a generic term for any wetland that accumulates partially decayed plant matter. There are two types --- bogs and fens. A bog is a peat-filled depression with acidic and somewhat anaerobic water. Sphagnum moss holds large amount of water and acts as an ion exchanger. A bog is a rain-fed, peat-accumulating wetland that has no significant inflows or outflows of water and supports acid-loving plants and mosses, particularly Sphagnum species. A fen is a mineral-rich peat land, sometimes referred to as an "alkaline bog." It has a neutral to alkaline pH, and is mineralized as a result of water input from ground sources or elevated slopes, receiving some drainage from surrounding mineral soil and usually supporting marsh like vegetation. Fens form at low points in the landscape or near slopes where ground water intercepts the soil surface. Ground water inflows maintain a fairly constant water level year-round, which leads to accumulation of organic material and gives fens a spongy feel. Fens include herbaceous plants such as grasses and sedges, and look like meadows. Fens provide important benefits to a watershed, including preventing or reducing the risk of floods, improving water quality, and providing habitat for unique plant and animal communities.

Marshes are one of the broadest categories of wetland and in general harbor the greatest biological diversity. Natural marshes may occur next to open bodies of water that do not flow but may have fluctuating or changing water levels. They also form in depressions in the landscape (ponds, kettle ponds), as fringes around lakes, and along slow-flowing streams and rivers (such riparian marshes are also referred to as sloughs). Playa lakes that occur in the eastern plains are also considered marshlands. Marshes typically have mineral soils but can also accumulate organic material. They are frequently or continually inundated and characterized by herbaceous vegetation adapted to saturated soil conditions. Vegetation typically rises out of the water, such as cattails, bulrush; or submergent/floating, such as pondweed and duckweed. Marshes provide excellent habitat and forage (e.g., insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and algae) for water birds. Northern Midwestern marshlands are famous for wild rice harvest, a traditional staple for the native people.

A wet meadow is grassland with waterlogged soil near the surface but without standing water for most of the year. Wet meadows depend on precipitation or ground water as a water source. Additionally, many wet meadows are maintained by water from irrigated croplands. They are found in depressions or on flat landscapes. A wet meadow typically appears darker or greener than the surrounding lands. Wet meadows characteristically have mostly herbaceous plants such as grasses and sedges, and although they may look like fens they do not have the organic soil or year-round high water table of a fen. Wet meadows provide important benefits to a watershed, including improving water quality and providing habitat for wildlife including deer and Sandhill cranes.


Riparian wetlands are associated with moving water and are intermittently or seasonally flooded. They typically have a high water table because of proximity to subsurface water. Riparian wetlands are commonly recognized by bottomland, floodplain, and streambank vegetation such as trees and shrubs. They are uniquely characterized by the combination of high species diversity and high productivity. Riparian wetlands are a particularly valuable part of an ecosystem, receiving large inputs of water and nutrients from upstream sources during flooding. Riparian wetlands and their associated aquatic habitat are important for nutrient cycling through the breakdown and decay of organic matter, keeping the silt load down in the main channels. Riparian areas are an important part of food chain support, providing litter, nesting habitat, fish habitat, including nurseries for small fry in quiet areas with protection from larger fish, and forage for wildlife, including water birds.

A Shrub-carr is a wetland thicket, with shrubby vegetation such as dogwood, willow and alder.


For more information on wetlands and preservation of this important part of our local ecosystem, look on these Internet sites:                                                                                                                        


Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Colorado Department of Natural Resources

Dr. John Yunger, Governors State University



"we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master."

---- Earnest Hemmingway

Outdoor Educators

By Liz McKinney

Environmental Education major

This April, I and five of my friends went to the Student Outdoor Educators Conference at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. The conference was started four years ago and is planned, hosted, and presented entirely by students.

Since there’s nothing I like better than hanging out with other outdoor educators who share my passions, dreams, concerns, and interests, I thought I’d write about the experience. This is what I learned at the 2003 SOEC.


I know a community of people

That most people never notice.

You can find these people outdoors,

Cavorting through the woods

Wearing wool sweaters and beat-up Technica boots,

Often with a group of kids in tow.

If you were to meet one of them on a trail,

She would smile readily and engage you in conversation,Mostly preferring to listen rather than to speak.                                                                                           

Her bright eyes would encourage you

With interest and acceptance,

Trying to draw out of you your own insights.

At the same time, out of the corner of her eye,

She would catch the flight of a robin,

The hop of a rabbit,

And the dangling of a brown leaf.

Left over from last year’s Little Death.

If you were to accept her invitation

To come hang out with her friends sometime,

You’d find yourself in a gathering of smiling people

Of all sizes, shapes and values.

You might be a little intimidated at first,

As you’d probably walk in to find them

Running around laughing, pretending to be chickens,

Or vegetables, or superheroes, or something.

But the same people, when engaged in a conversation

About music, religion, education, conservation biology,

Or any number of other subjects,

Would most likely express informed and mature opinions,

Perhaps quoting Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, or David Orr.

This community is spread all across the world,

Connected by a veritable web of common interests;

A web of inspiration, of tradition,

And a hope for the future.

A future where the world lives in peace

Not because on nation has dominated others,

Not because of laws and rules and treaties,

But because we love and understand each other.

We, this community of separate individuals,

Have come together and learned to accept our differences

In order to work for such a future

In which all people will know, and love, themselves.

Because when people are experiencing, every day, the sheer joy of living,

They forget themselves,

And begin to radiate a deep and genuine love for the rest of the world.

We are outdoor educators,

And we are changing the world.

Lastly, I’d like to share something that Glen, a fellow student said to me last night. "Earlier I was looking around the gym, noticing what people were doing ... you were doing your German homework, some people were reading books, or writing, or playing on the climbing wall, or just talking to each other. I thought about all those teachers who just keep giving us more and more time-filling assignments, convinced that we don’t do anything worthwhile anymore ... and here we are, at a professional conference put together entirely by students, who want nothing more than to learn."


Trees ... by Hermann Hesse

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to

represent themselves. Nothing is holier; nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: a kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought; I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my

branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers; I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of

me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It’s a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts. Trees have long thoughts, long breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.



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last updated on August 26, 2013