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The Long View

 

As I turned onto a red dirt road and crossed the narrow WPA-era bridge, a shaded road of washouts and coarse gravel opened into bright oak savanna. Upon entering the Wedel property a diversity of ecosystems greeted me; I immediately loved the place. Oak openings on both sides of the lane, leading to upland savanna on the left and saturated sedge meadow to the right. Beyond that a large shortgrass prairie, which I later found out had spurred the Wedels initial love for prairie.

No more than a minute after meeting, we were talking prairies. Their enthusiasm for native ecology was like caffeine and our conversation bounced between plant communities, birds, insects and natural history; but the primary subject was prairie management. At Prairie Moon we frequently emphasize that establishing a native plant community from seed is a long-term process, requiring 3-5 years. It takes rare dedication to see a long-term restoration project expand and thrive; especially over 30 years.

All members in the Wedel family show an impressive patience in successful prairie restoration while maintaining a strong sense of “land ethic,” both attributes that have grown and evolved with the farm. (Tom) “When we bought [the property], I knew nothing about prairies. Literally nothing. I grew up in Tennessee, and I was a woods person. I figured if somebody gave me 1,000 acres I could fix it with trees. I was going to turn this property into north woods. Then we discovered prairies and now, if it’s not Oak, forget it.”

Starting with Prairie Grasses
The Wedel’s connection to their land originates in 1972, when Tom and Eva purchased the 398-acre former dairy farm. They opted to rent out portions of the land for field-crop production.  In 1986 the tenant stopped farming and a decision was made to put the cropped areas into CRP. Their county agency offered several lists of cover planting options, one being “warm-season grasses.” Tom inquired what these were and the county agent replied, “They’re prairie grasses”.

TomAndyAdam
Tom, Andy and husband Adam, standing in a field of brome that will soon be over-seeded with native species.

Wedel_Savanna

The Wedel Family (L to R): Tom, his wife Eva, Andy and husband Adam,  Davin’s husband David, and Davin. Taken in Tom’s “Retirement Gift,” which was seeded in 2008, after the site was cleared of invasive and weedy underbrush. At the time of photographing (mid-July) the planting showed large stands of Butterfly Weed, Wild Quinine, Hoary Vervain, Pale Purple Coneflower and Prairie Coreopsis.

Unexpected Returns
Along with the list of warm-season grasses, their county agent suggested that “to do it right” they should consider planting forbs (wildflowers) with the grasses. After seeding the initial site with grasses there was $214 left-over. Tom contacted (a young) Prairie Moon Nursery and ordered small amounts of a dozen or so species. This initial planting site (see photo above), has developed into a wonderful plant community. In addition to species introduced as seed, a growing number of plants have appeared that were likely in the soil seed-bank all along.  (Davin) “Since we’ve been managing [the land] a lot of unexpected species have come up. After seeing [those species] we’ve had other remnants pop up that we didn’t know were there.” (Andy) “Most people are going to find that if they have some land that wasn’t completely abused for decades, if they start treating it well, burning it, and seeding in native plant [species], they may see some things coming up that they didn’t expect.”

In the Wedels’ case this rings true. Species unseen on the property, maybe in fifty or more years, have appeared and are recolonizing the landscape. For example, following the clearing of underbrush and two controlled burns, an oak savanna area has yielded two species that were never reported in their county.

Fostering the unexpected return of species once  thought to have been plowed away forever requires a patient approach with realistic expectations. A rare model that the Wedels adopted early in the process. (Eva) “[We thought] maybe we should concentrate on what is here, instead of what we can make be here; and then we can supplement [species] later on.”

Increased biodiversity starts with native plants, and the resurgence of native species brings with it a greater understanding of ecological relationships. It also brings more responsibility to approach land management with open eyes, open ears and patience.

New_Mowed1The woodland in the upper-left has been cleared of invasive woody vegetation and burned while the adjacent wetland flourishes after several years of management and over-seeding.

New_Mowed1Everyone gathers around a young Lupine, the first seen since this savana restoration was started. After removing overgrown woody vegetation and conducting controlled burns, this area was fall planted one year ago and is being mowed through the entire first growing season.
New_Mowed1A new restoration project is started with repeated mowing through multiple seasons. Persistent mowing prevents weedy vegetation from dropping additional seed on the site.
New_Mowed1The Wedel Family (L to R): Eva and husband Tom, Andy’s husband Adam, Andy, Davin’s husband David, and Davin. Taken in the initial 18-acre site which was seeded in 1987.

Hummingbird Haven

The Hummingbirds of Hummingbird Haven

With frequent talk of neonicotinoids in the news, awareness of pollinators like butterflies and bees has grown in recent years. What is known: habitat loss, lack of suitable forage, and pesticide use are the primary causes of pollinator decline. What is seldom noted is that these pressures are not limited to insects. The perils faced by all pollinators continue to escalate but some are getting help.

Hummingbird Haven

For over forty years Lois White of Smithfield Illinois has admired, studied, fed and advocated for the protection of hummingbirds. The Central Illinois farm where Lois and her husband Creel reside has been their home and livelihood for over fifty years. Perched along the Spoon River valley, their property bears more resemblance to a diverse wildlife preserve than to the agricultural model on which it was founded. With prairie and woodland, streams carpeted by stone, and a legacy of sensitive farming practices, the farm, now known as Hummingbird Haven, is a sanctuary devoted to the wild occupants that it benefits.

 

The devotion to one species in particular began several decades ago, when Lois started noticing a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds near the house. She observed the hummingbirds more closely, putting out feeders and plants to serve as forage. As her knowledge of hummingbird behavior expanded, so did her passion for these tiny but capable birds.

Now, with four decades of experience, Lois White is an outstanding advocate and citizen scientist, and her efforts are utilized by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which conducts hummingbird-banding sessions three times per year (May, July and August) on the property. Hummingbird Haven is also open to the public, at no charge. During my visit, a couple from the Chicago area arrived unannounced, having driven almost four hours, to relax and observe hummingbirds in the comfortable shade of Lois White’s front yard. Thirty minutes later her phone rang. The coordinator of a master gardening program was calling to arrange a field trip for a group of participants. “We’ve had bus loads of people arrive,” said Lois. In 2014 more than 2300 visitors traveled to rural Fulton County to visit Hummingbird Haven.

Hummingbird Ecology

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sustains on nectar and small insects. Nesting within deciduous woodlands of the eastern United States and Canada, it is the only breeding hummingbird species native to the eastern United States. Every year Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate north from Central America to mate, often undertaking a direct flight over the Gulf of Mexico, quite a feat for a bird weighing less than 0.2 ounces. After reaching their breeding ground, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will mate one or two times per season, with females occasionally building new nests while their first fledglings are still dependent. According to Lois, she has observed 3-4 fledglings per female in a single season, due in great part to the ample food, protection, and nesting supplies provided at Hummingbird Haven. Unaided, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds usually fledge 1-2 young per season and have been known to live up to nine years. A recent banding session at Hummingbird Haven captured an adult that had been banded seven years earlier. “They’ll keep coming back, year after year,” Lois said.

Feeding Hummingbirds

While eating lunch at a local cafe, Lois pointed out a collection of hummingbird feeders that were hanging around the building’s windows. Some of the feeders were quite ornate, of which Lois said, “That feeder is for the people, not for the birds.” Indeed the feeder, forged in the shape of a fish, was quite ornate but contained many difficult-to-clean glass folds, and lacked a suitable perch. “Young [hummingbirds] can expend as much energy hovering for food as they consume from the food source itself,”  she said.

Feeders take up quite a bit of Lois White’s time. With over fifty feeders strategically placed around the property, a substantial effort is made to clean and re-supply them regularly. Bulk amounts of cane sugar, which is boiled into simple syrup “nectar,” must be replaced every 3-4 days to prevent fermentation. Fermentation and contaminated feeder reservoirs are detrimental to a hummingbirds’ health. Just as harmful are the red dyes added to commercially mixed hummingbird feed. “These feeders are designed to attract [humming]birds without the added red of food coloring” which, according to Lois, causes irreversible kidney damage. “We need to get the word out, and tell people that this red colored feed is killing our [humming]birds.”

From Feeders to Forbs

Several years ago Lois’ granddaughter Emma began learning the importance and significance of native plant communities through her undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. With encouragement from her professor of Conservation Biology, Emma started planning a native pollinator garden at Hummingbird Haven. The initial garden was staked out and arranged two years ago, and included a Mix & Match Potted Tray from Prairie Moon Nursery. “The flowers [plants] we received were absolutely beautiful and strong enough with minimal care after planting” Emma said. “We have been very happy with the plants that were sent to us.”

After a few plants began to flower, Emma and Lois noticed that the hummingbirds were singling out the native flowers, favoring them over the non-native species. In the second year, they decided to expand the pollinator garden with another Mix & Match Potted Tray and seed packets of twenty-five species.

Now a first year graduate student with a focus in pollinator and plant interactions, Emma is pushing ahead with the research that she started two years ago at Hummingbird Haven. This spring, in the pollinator garden’s third year, Emma and Lois plan to expand the garden perimeter with native forbs (wildflowers) and grasses, utilizing their third Mix & Match Potted Tray. “It’s amazing how the hummingbirds fly right to the natives,” Lois marveled. “We’re getting so many people that want to see the native garden, even though it’s only in its second year. People want to see our native plants.”

Visitors are welcome during the summer breeding season but are encouraged to call ahead of time. Visitors are also encouraged to attend one of the seasonal hummingbird-banding days. There is no cost to attend, but for a $5 donation to the Lincoln Land Birdbanders Association, you can “adopt” a hummingbird.

Lois White, Hummingbird Haven
16411 N Co Hwy 2, Smithfield, IL 61477
(309) 783-4375
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When referring to “pollinators,” most people think of the charismatic species: butterflies, such as the Monarch, or bees, such as the introduced European Honeybee. In reality tens of thousands of species provide the essential reproductive role of pollination. Beyond the 12,000+ North American Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) species, or 4000+ North American species of native bees, beetles, flies, bats, and birds, like hummingbirds, play an essential role in the reproductive cycle of plants.

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