Mayslake Update

by Carl Strang

Mayslake Forest Preserve has been quiet, and for the most part remains in winter mode. Large numbers of American tree sparrows still are present, though they are wandering into an expanded portion of the preserve. For instance, one day in late January they shifted to the off leash dog area and, joined by some juncos, a couple song sparrows and a white-throated sparrow, fed on weed seeds.

Here is one tiny portion of the flock that contained more than 100 tree sparrows. One of the song sparrows is in the center.

Here is one tiny portion of the flock that contained more than 100 tree sparrows. One of the song sparrows is in the center.

In another part of the flock the tree sparrows are joined by a few juncos.

In another part of the flock the tree sparrows are joined by a few juncos.

At long last the stream corridor marsh has begun to refill.

A tiny, shallow pool had gathered by January 29.

A tiny, shallow pool had gathered by January 29.

That initial pool was perhaps 30 feet across.

That initial pool was perhaps 30 feet across.

A front brought heavy rain, then cold that froze the collected waters.

Here is the marsh two days later.

Here is the marsh two days later.

We continue to get periods of rain, and the river bulrushes have begun to collapse.

By the end of last week, perhaps 80% of the marsh had water in it again.

By the end of last week, perhaps 80% of the marsh had water in it again.

With the ground frozen, much of the rain is running off, but some is collecting in depressions like the marsh. We can hope for the rain to continue and perhaps avoid a repeat of last year’s drought.

In the meantime, skunk tracks have begun to appear, one of the early signs that spring is coming.

A Little Water

by Carl Strang

For months now I have included a walk into the center of the stream corridor marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve in my weekly rounds. When would water return? As I have documented this past year, the drought dried up the marsh, with the last surface water vanishing in mid-July.

The last puddle was here.

The last puddle was here.

The open mud quickly filled with a tall dense growth of an opportunistic plant, the river bulrush.

The bulrush transpired enough water that the marsh remained dry through the autumn.

The bulrush transpired enough water that the marsh remained dry through the autumn.

A recent all-day rain finally brought a little water into the marsh, as I discovered last week.

It is perhaps 3 inches maximum depth, and most has frozen.

It is perhaps 3 inches maximum depth, and most has frozen.

The area is at most 20-30 yards across.

The area is at most 20-30 yards across.

Not much yet, but it’s a start. I’m hoping to see the marsh full by spring, and will be interested in following its repopulation.

Drought Ended?

by Carl Strang

The drought that characterized the first half of summer was broken locally by a series of thunderstorms. The contrast was clear when the time came for the Roger Raccoon Club creek walk at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. In the first session there had been no water flowing.

Sawmill Creek on June 27.

Last week all had changed.

The kids could explore and hunt for critters in the entire length of stream, rather than just a few pools.

As for the stream corridor marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve, on Monday I found that dense vegetation was growing in the basin’s damp soil.

There still was no surface water, however.

Much more rain needs to fall to compensate for what was lost earlier. In the case of the marsh, additional rain will need to exceed the transpiration by all those plants.

Going, Going, Gone

by Carl Strang

The drought we have been experiencing this summer in Illinois has taken its toll on the marshes at Mayslake Forest Preserve. On Monday of last week I took a panorama series of the stream corridor marsh to show how small the pool had become.

The west end

The center

The east end

At that point the pool was perhaps 30 feet wide and 50 feet long, but only inches deep. By Friday it was nearly gone.

At this point a single photo was sufficient to show perhaps 50 square feet of a pool only an inch or two deep.

Monday of this week, but a puddle remained.

Perhaps 5 square feet by less than an inch of depth.

On Tuesday it was gone.

Damp soil only marked the center of the marsh.

The basin was punctuated by the whitened shells of crayfish.

When will this marsh again see white river crayfish?

Some residents could emigrate easily, some could bury themselves and become dormant, but others could not, and when the water eventually returns the community will need to reconstruct itself.

Dry

by Carl Strang

Last week was the first session of this year’s Roger Raccoon Club. One of the highlights always is the creek hike, which takes place during the overnight campout. We camp at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, and in the afternoon head over to Sawmill Creek and walk up that shallow stream to the dam, where we spend a good couple of hours. This time, though, we discovered a clear consequence of this year’s drought.

The streambed was dry for nearly all its length.

I don’t remember seeing this before. I knew, though, that there would be pools here and there, and the kids were eager to find what animals might have been concentrated in them.

The pools thus became collecting points for children as well as critters.

Crayfish were a popular focus of catch-and-release efforts.

Max shows one of the bigger ones.

There were minnows, as well, and a water snake.

Paige, whose reputation as the group’s champion frog-catcher was established on the first two days of the program, caught a bullhead that had taken refuge beneath a rock.

Most kids repeat the program, and so they either have seen the stream in its more typical flow, or will do so next year. Most of their best lessons are learned through direct experience of nature rather than through any jabbering I may do.

Lessons from Travels: Mayan Civilization

by Carl Strang

As I recall from elementary school history class many decades ago, we were given the impression that Europeans brought civilization to the New World. That may be true if “civilization” is equated with European culture (i.e., circular reasoning). Today I look at such things biologically, and long have regarded civilization as the evolution of any culture that creates the illusion of division between people and nature. In general that means the construction of an architecturally elaborated space in a part of the landscape that has been cleared of its wild vegetation. It also depends upon the previous establishment of agriculture (artificial selection of certain wild plants and animals to the point where they are domesticated), which allows people so to concentrate their populations. By that definition, there were many civilizations in North, Central and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans. Today I want to focus on vestiges of ancient Mayan civilization I saw in Central America.

This is the view from a tall Mayan building at Tikal, in Guatemala. Today the surrounding space is filled with forest. If it looks familiar, it may be because this spectacular scene was included in one of the Star Wars movies.

Over the years, many Mayan towns and cities have been discovered buried in the vegetation.

This building was uncovered at a smaller site in Belize.

By measures of architecture, agriculture, the technology required to shape and move masses of stone, and the social organization needed to accomplish these things, Mayans were thoroughly civilized.

This building alone, one of several enormous structures at Tikal, is a wonder. The climb those people are making is very steep and up huge steps clearly designed to inspire awe.

They had written language and mathematics as well.

Mayan writing, designed to last.

Recent research suggests that the drought which ended this civilization may not have been extreme. All it took was a reduction in summer rainstorms so that the reservoirs dried out. The intensive agriculture needed to support so many people in cities collapsed. Over time, a vast region that had been cleared for civilization was reclaimed by the forest. At least there were remnants of forest sufficient to do the reclaiming.

Do I need to state the lesson plainly? These people did not have an inferior or faulty civilization. In every significant respect it was the equivalent of ours. They no doubt assumed, as we do, that the Universe supported them and their way of living, and it would go on forever (or at least until 2012, small joke there). Their huge concentrated population was balanced upon the climatic conditions that supported their technology. As we can see, that balance was easily upset. They had removed their forests, which in part set up the drought, the climate change, which defeated them. Their descendants survived because they could fall back on an earlier, more dispersed way of living, and they had not completely trashed their soil and landscape. Their population was in the tens of thousands, rather than billions.

Some of the Lessons from Travels are chilling.

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