Friday, November 18, 2011


I recently purchased this sign and thought it would be a cute addition to Habitat Home. While walking the trails this morning I spotted evidence of a beaver. I thought this little chopped down tree was interesting and a good example of what a beaver does.

But then as I walked further along the path, I came to this ....

The beaver or beavers are doing some damage here. Beavers are herbivores and will use just about any tree along our river corridor; willow, river birch, maple, cottonwood, sweet gum, black cherry, dogwood, and oak. The beaver is probably living in a burrow dug into the riverbank which is about 20 feet away. Beavers, the largest rodent in Illinois, were once almost extinct in Illinois. They were reintroduced in the 1930s and are now thriving. We could apply for a trapping permit as trapping is allowed from November through March. But we won't as it looks like we have lost the trees already. Maybe tonight we can watch him finishing the job!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Prairie Wedding Day Photos

October 29th was a BIG day for us at Habitat Home. It was wedding day! The ceremony was actually at our small rural church about 3 miles away, but it was a desire of the bride, our daughter, to have wedding photos taken in the prairie. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day and even more thanks to our wonderful farmer friend for providing tours about the property on his tractor-driven hayrack.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sun Art

Something new for the little garden shed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


woodchuck (Marmota monax)
We noticed this large Illinois herbivorous rodent, the woodchuck (Marmota monax) or groundhog, out sunning on our patio under the deck this afternoon. By the time I fetched the camera, he was hiding out under the stack of firewood behind the house, and attempts to get a closeup view resulted in a rather (for a woodchuck) quick escape (photo above). But we had a calming conversation with him for a while in the garden before he ambled off into the woods.

Habitat Home is a great place for woodchucks, although we rarely see them. They like forest edges but can be found in more open fields, stream banks, railroad embankments, and even residential areas. This little guy will probably start putting on some weight now in preparation for his true hibernation over winter. He will curl up in a burrow, body temperature dropping to 39°F and heart rate to 10 per minute; woodchucks rouse once in a while, and might even emerge briefly on warm winter days, but only rarely on February 2.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Giant Swallowtail

Giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) on Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
We have noted the bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) previously, but have never posted about this frequent visitor to them, the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). This largest of Illinois butterflies (4 to 6 inch wingspan) goes through two generations in Illinois and then overwinters as a chrysalis. They feed on a variety of vegetation found at Habitat Home, including these bottlebrush buckeyes, milkweed, clover, and phlox. They are a beautiful sight as they make their "hopping" flight way across the yard. Note: the photo above is one of those that is worth clicking on to open up a higher resolution version to ponder in more detail; for example, it looks like the butterfly's proboscis has passed behind or right through the flower.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Apple Trees

We have three standard apple trees on our property. Like the cicadas (see previous post) the apples are unusual this year. This is the first year that we have apples on all three trees. The trees were planted in 1993. Previously, all have born fruit but not all in the same year.

Since all the trees are producing fruit this year I may just have an opportunity to harvest some apples this year. There may be enough for the deer, raccoons, squirrels, birds, possums, skunks and us!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

13-year Cicadas

Upon returning from our vacation to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, we were welcomed home by the droning trill of thousands of cicadas. 2011 is the emergence year for so-called Brood XIX, the Great Southern Brood of periodical cicadas. One species of Magicicada, these cicadas (not locusts, that's a whole different order) live underground for 13 years, feeding on the sap of friendly tree roots. By some unknown signal, they then all emerge in May and June to quickly fly around, eat, mate, and lay eggs in a matter of 5-6 weeks. A strange life cycle, to be sure, but apparently a successful one. 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas are found only in the eastern U.S. and nowhere else in the world.

I am incapable of picking out to which of the 3 (or four?) species that these Habitat Home cicadas belong. Apparently, one species differentiator is the song, sung only by the males. So I have included here an audio recording for those who might care (see link below). This recording includes an obvious bird in the background, but both the chirps and the drone are from these cicadas, mostly in the crab apple tree where these photos were taken.

For more information, see:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Iris and Golden Alexander

After seeing how iris was invading the cemetery in the prior post, I spent the day removing iris from several natural areas at Habitat Home. I love iris, they are beautiful and so easy to grow. But they are not native and look rather out of place in a native habitat area. They can wander about and form large patches eliminating the native plants. I removed any iris from the large native areas that are being restored to native habitats (savanna, prairie and the meadow).

The iris in the above photo, however, is in a front bed planted with both natives and exotics. This iris blooms at the same time as the Golden Alexander, Zizia aurea. That is all it does, it looks lovely while they are both blooming. It adds no value for birds or insects or mammals. Even the deer leave iris alone. I wish I could.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Prospect Cemetery Prairie

Thanks to a recent Facebook post from Grand Prairie Friends, we decided take a short ride to Paxton to see some spring prairie flowers. The site is right off the road and one enters though the unlocked memorial gate. There is no path so we just wandered about the cemetery complete with old grave stones lying about. The site has a serious Day Lilly and Iris problem which is being worked on. It was so enjoyable to see plants that once were native to this area that, sadly, one seldom sees any more.
prairie phlox (Phlox pilosasrc)
prairie phlox, Phlox pilosa

false toad-flax (Comondra umbellata)
false toad-flax, Comondra umbellata

yellow star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta)
yellow star-grass, Hypoxis hirsuta

wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis)
wood betony, Pedicularis canadensis

hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens)
hoary puccoon, Lithospermum canescens

This site is a reminder of what we have lost. It was sad to see the barren adjacent farm field, the plastic factory across the street, the landscapes of the neighborhood homes and the neglected tombstones lying about. All signs of what our society is up to, except for some folks at Grand Prairie Friends who make an effort to maintain some of the few remaining high quality prairie remnants in our area. The folks at Habitat Home thank you.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wolf River Apple Tree

Our three apple trees are loaded with blossoms this year. These are the blossoms of the Wolf River Apple tree. We also have a Honey Gold and a Lodi apple tree. All three apple trees are standard size trees which we planted in 1993. They are reminders of an idea of having an orchard at one time. I am however glad that we did plant them. They do provide food for many animals and birds and add beauty to the site.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Great Egret

Great Egret (Ardea alba)Yesterday the whole bottom field was flooded. This is the area that we burned last month (see the previous post).

Today as we watched the flood waters recede we were delighted to see this bird in the bottom flooded field. Great Egrets (Aredea alba) were once threatened in Illinois due to both habitat loss and the desirability of their feathers for ladies hats. But today, egret feather hats are no longer in style and many habitats have been restored to suit the egret. They like marshes, wetlands, and river floodplains where they patiently walk about seeking frogs, fish and snakes. This egret successfully stabbed a frog and walked about with the frog clamped in its bill, as shown in the photo above. It dipped the captured frog in the water every so often, then squeezed it between its bill. After about ten minutes of this it finally swallowed the whole frog. The egret stayed around all day and was joined by a great blue heron and a pair of Canada Geese.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Day after 16th Annual Prairie Burn

The view from our deck this morning.

Yes, we do burn every year because the area is a floodplain and produces so much vegetation. Please note the intentionally unburned areas on the right and very back of the prairie, leaving some bird and insect habitat intact.

Annual Prairie Burn

Prescribed burn (photo by Rachel Smith)This was the 16th burn of the tall grasses (Big Bluestem, Indian grass, Switch grass, and various forb stems) in the bottom floodplain at Habitat Home. We were a little reluctant to do the burn yesterday (Friday, March 25th) as there was not much wind (wind speed 5 mph with gusts to 8 mph) and it was cold (39 degrees). However, neighbors Tom, Sue, Rachel, Jake and friend Phillip, neighbors Betsy and Peter, and Master Naturalist Eileen were all able to help out despite the short notice. (It is spring break after all!)

We gathered together at 1 pm. Lex was the burn boss and explained the plan to the group. Everyone was outfitted in cotton clothes, boots, gloves, flappers and handkerchiefs. Water, both for drinking and fire suppression, was readily available. The local volunteer fire department was notified as were the neighbors. The burn was started against the wind, along the west edge and south borders, then moving to the upwind side along the east and north edges. It was one of the most classic burns, actually putting itself out when the various lines met. We were treated to high leaping flames and the heat from the fire was welcomed on such a cool day. The 5 acres were burned in less than 90 minutes. Thank you neighbors for all your flapping, and thank you Rachel for the photojournalism and permission to use this photo.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Trash removal

Or is it Art?

We usually try to remove objects when they first float in, but for some reason this tire has remained in its artful position till today.

Today the weather was great for a spring cleanup. This time of year it is easy to spot trash that has been previously hidden by leaves, plants and snow.

This year there were a lot of plastic bottles, the usual aluminum cans, Styrofoam items and another tire. Unfortunately we were not prepared to haul out the old refrigerator that floated in. Wonder how we are going to get rid of that? It truly is not a piece of art.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shed Antlers

Yesterday was a warm sunny day. Perfect for a walk around the property and a good time to look for shed antlers. Cory, our wonderful hunter, was lucky enough to find this pair. Even though the antlers are very different, Cory thought that they were antlers from the same deer, the smaller antler a possible result of injury of some sort to the deer.

Antlers are shed every year about this time. They are not always found as they lie among the leaf litter and since they are calcium rich, they are sought by many other animals, for example, this squirrel we watched a couple years ago.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


We are spending the day digging out from the previous snow and sleet storm here at Habitat Home. Everything is covered in ice. A beautiful sight this morning as tree branches and the snow sparkle in the bright sunlight. In this photo you will notice the ice but what you might not notice is the lack of crab apples on this crab apple tree. They are all gone. Usually the crab apples on this tree last though the winter (they must not be too tasty). But this year, the apples were all gone by Feb. 1. So remember to feed the birds. There is not much out there for them to eat and what is out there is covered in ice.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Starved Rock

The last few days have been spent at Starved Rock State Park.

The weather was cold but with proper clothing one was able to hike the icy trails to see the beautiful frozen water falls,

Frozen waterfall in St. Louis Canyon
and hike up to starved rock and view the bald eagles and other waterfowl.

bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) hangin' out below the lock and dam
We stayed at the Lodge which has the largest double stone fireplace in Illinois. If you do decide to go I would strongly recommend a pair of ice grippersfor your shoes or boots. The well traveled trails have become a combination of matted snow and ice and are very slippery. A week day visit is preferable; I was told that the weekends can get quite busy.
If you prefer guided tours, there is an all day trolley tour on Wednesday and on Thursday morning there is a guided hiking tour.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Evaluation Time

I have been reading the Prairie Ecologist blog for some time now. I was particularly thankful for the information he imparted to his readers in the recent post "How should landowners evaluate their prairies."

I have often wondered about this. What should one be looking for and how could we actually measure what we are doing? Mr. Helzer has given us some very specific things to do and observe, one of which I can start doing tomorrow: observing tracks in the snow.

A very good blog and a very helpful post.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

More Snow

Due to the cold and snow, there is not a lot happening at Habitat home. It is very enjoyable to walk around and observe the beauty of winter but being so cold brings one back indoors rather least me!

So I have just finished reading Urban and Suburban Meadows: Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spacesby Catherine Zimmerman. Not only is this book informative, with a wonderful plant list of native plants grouped according to soil type and information on where they occur naturally in the US, it also has great photos. The author explains in great detail and with wonderful photos how to establish a meadow and then how to maintain it. If that is not enough, there is a great regional resource guide in the back of the book.

Unlike most of the books listed on this site, this is not just about the Midwest. But I am adding it here because it is an excellent and easy reference source to check and see if that plant you are adding is indeed native to your area and if it will grow in the type of soil you are planting it in whether with plugs, plants, or seeds.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Resolved: Projects for 2011

It being 1/1/11, we "naturally" are drawn to the notion of making new year's resolutions. Here they are:
  • Build and place more bluebird houses. We appreciate the presence of bluebirds as they are excellent insect hunter/gatherers, and undoubtedly contribute to moderating the number of mosquitoes and wasps in our back yard. Habitat Home has at least one bluebird family in residence every season. In 2010, one pair had two broods, and there were bluebirds flying about through late fall, although it is hard to say if these were all local juveniles or birds migrating through. But the houses need to be watched during the May through July nesting season, and sparrow nests must be removed as they occur. We resolve to be more encouraging to returning bluebirds.

  • Invasive species removal. We have written about this issue at length before, but it cannot be overemphasized. We did not accomplish our goals for removal in 2010, but then the job will never be finished. So this year we resolve to be out at least once per week with the chain saw, clippers, and spray bottle of glyphosate (to apply sparingly to the stumps and/or plant leaves as appropriate) to remove the Habitat Home "Big 4":
  1. Bush Honeysuckle
  2. Autumn Olive
  3. Lespedeza
  4. Yellow and White Sweet Clover
  • Remove old fencing. This is not so much a habitat improvement goal as an aesthetic and safety improvement. We'll leave the ten foot corner marking the section boundary (Habitat Home occupies pieces of two sections of South Homer township) but remove some of the remaining fence separating the old tilled fields from the hillside woods and older pig grazing areas.

  • Enhance the meadow. The hillside east of the house started as four garden beds, which have slowly evolved into a meadow by some minimal introduction of native plants. Our plan this year is to intentionally manage this area by increasing the diversity of natives (providing sources for seed for propagating elsewhere on the property) and to group them (better serving as a showcase for the different plants for visitors and ourselves). We patiently await our 2011 catalog from Bluestem Prairie Nursery (Hillsboro, IL). A major spring project, this!
Sounds like quite a bit of work, eh? I'd better stop writing and get outside!