Posted Online: June 01, 2013, 11:05 pm

733 in 24 hours: Scientists, volunteers take species census in Milan Bottoms

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Photo: John Greenwood
Jessica Flondro, at right, an Augustana College student, examines her dip-net Saturday afternoon during the 24-hours of BioBlitz, in which more than 30 scientists from throughout the region came to the Milan Bottoms, which is the largest stretch of floodplain forest and marsh along the Mississippi River in Illinois, to sort and catalog the samples coming in from the field.
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Photo: Chet Strange
Ray Geroff holds out an American Copper butterfly discovered during the BioBlitz, a 24 hour event aimed at cataloging the ecological and biological diversity in the Milan Bottoms. It was a first-recorded sighting of an American Copper in the Milan Bottoms region.
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Photo: Paul Colletti
A diamondback water snake was among the rare finds at the Milan Bottoms BioBlitz.
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Jason Koontz closely examines plants in order to identify them during the BioBlitz at the Milan Bottoms on Saturday, June 1, 2013. Botanists used reference books in order to help identify some of the more than 160 plant species collected.
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Photo: John Greenwood
An owl was spotted in the tall grasses of the Milan Bottoms on Saturday afternoon during the BioBlitz.
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Photo: Paul Colletti
Karen Rivera weighs fish caught in the Milan Bottoms conservation area as part of the 24-hour BioBlitz on Saturday, June 1, 2013. Twenty different species of fish were caught as part of the daylong catalog effort.
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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Volunteers Ralph Weiss and Tim Murphy and catalog the bird species, Saturday, June 1, 2013, in a portion of the Milan Bottoms, as part of the BioBlitz, a 24-hour event aimed at cataloging the ecological and biological diversity in the area.
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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Dr. Sam Heads, a professor of entomology with the Illinois Natural History Survey with the University of Illinois, works to identify an insect species during the BioBlitz, a 24-hour event aimed at cataloging the ecological and biological diversity in the Milan Bottoms area.
How to cover a BioBlitz, an intensive 24-hour exercise in finding and identifying as many plant and animal species as possible within a given area?

With an intensive 24-hour reporting effort, of course.

Radish magazine editor Sarah Gardner, Dispatch/Argus reporters Kevin Smith and Anthony Watt, special-sections editor Spencer Rabe, and correspondent Lisa Hammer, along with photographers Paul Colletti, John Greenwood,Todd Welvaert and Chet Strange, worked in shifts to cover the BioBlitz conducted Friday-Saturday in the Milan Bottoms in southwest Rock Island.

Enjoy their report.

2 p.m. Friday: The beginning

By Sarah Gardner

In the Milan Bottoms at 2 p.m. Friday, the sky was overcast; the ground was soggy; the Mississippi River was rising in the floodplain forest; and the forecast called for rain.

Eric Anderson was not perturbed. "When it's wet out here, things are the most interesting," said the volunteer coordinator of the 24-hour "BioBlitz," during which an attempt would be made to catalog as many species of plants and animals as possible in a 92-acre tract owned by the River Bend Wildland Trust

The trust land is part of the 3,500-acre Milan Bottoms, an ecologically rich area made up of floodplain forest and wetlands in southwest Rock Island. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls about half the Bottoms, with the remainder held by private owners, according to a draft action plan for the area prepared by the Natural Land Institute.

Mr. Anderson, an area arborist, said the blitz, sponsored by the Wildland Trust, was arranged because two threatened species -- Blanding's turtles and banded killifish -- were discovered in the Bottoms in the last year, raising questions as to what else might be living there.

More than two dozen scientists and naturalists from around the Midwest, along with local volunteers, joined the effort to find out.

At 3 p.m. Friday, when the biological inventory officially began, the cloud cover suddenly broke, and sunlight flooded the area.

Dr. Sam Heads, an entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey of the University of Illinois, darted into a field with a sweep net and deftly scooped up the first species of the day: a monarch butterfly.

"It's a male," he said, gently parting the wings and pointing to pheromone patches on the wings.

Within two hours, the insect team had netted and identified another first -- a tiny American copper butterfly, never before recorded in Rock Island County.

Meanwhile, Ann Sullivan of the Wildland Trust and Bob Clevenstine of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Rock Island carried a laundry basket of live traps to the edge of the forest in hopes of catching a few small mammals.

Each trap was baited with a mixture of peanut butter, oats and sunflower seeds. A small clump of clover also was placed in each trap to serve as bedding for any animal that would spend the night in the cage.

"We're assuming the animals will be trying to avoid water, too," explained Ms. Sullivan as they searched for patches of dry ground on which to set the traps.

"I'm personally also trying to avoid poison ivy," quipped Mr. Clevenstine.

Although they thought the wet weather might be keeping many of the mammals from getting out and about, they remained hopeful that at least a few would be waiting for them in the traps come morning.

6-10 p.m.: Herons and bats, but no owls

By Kevin Smith

Though organizers also feared the threatening weather would deter nature lovers from attending the public events planned in conjunction with the BioBlitz, about 30 enthusiasts set out on the guided wildlife tour of the Bottoms that began at 8 p.m. Friday. I joined them.

Anthony McCracken, of Milan, said he has driven by the Bottoms countless times and has always wondered what plant and animal life call the Milan Bottoms home.

When a neighbor tipped him off that the restricted-access preserve would be open to the public during the BioBlitz, he jumped at the opportunity to scope out the area.

"I just like going out in the woods," Mr. McCracken said. A mushroom hunter, he simply enjoys being outdoors, he added. "I like to hear the sounds at night."

Wild grasses, both native and invasive, covered the otherwise swampy surroundings, and various insects skirted about the vegetation.

We made our way to more wooded surroundings around the time the sun was setting, and the guides quieted the crowd to try to lure in owls. But after a variety of owl calls and several minutes of waiting, only the herons and the bats seemed interested in the ruckus.

A hobbyist birder and wildlife enthusiast, Wolfe Repass, of Peoria, took advantage of the nature walk even though he had to be up early Saturday morning to assist with bird observation.

The trip to the Bottoms was his first to an organized wildlife survey. "It's kind of addicting once you get into it," he said of his hobby.

The tour weaved through shallow water and tall grass back to the main research tent, where biologists were hard at work, labeling and classifying the many specimens collected earlier in the day By 9:30 p.m., most of the general public had cleared out.

Dr. Heads was still diligently documenting the many discoveries that had been made throughout the evening. Work would keep him from doing much sleeping, he said, but he couldn't have been in better spirits.

"Best job in the world -- I get paid to do my hobby," he said. "I've been obsessed with insects since I was 4 or 5 years old."

Now he travels the world to participate in other BioBlitzes, and works to raise public awareness of science and conservation, he said.

He would like to bridge the gap between scientists and the general public. "It's nice to show the people that this is what we do, (and) this is how we do it," he said.

10 p.m. Friday - 5 a.m. Saturday: The Bottoms at night, a story in two parts

By Anthony Watt

Part 1. The Bug Hunt

In the last hours of the last day of May, a small group of children and a scientist clustered near an electric light in a tent, capturing insects.

The difference in their methods was the enormous.

The children laughed, bounced, waved their hands and cheered as they struggled to lay hold of small, nimble creatures that had no wish to be restrained by people. The kids used red plastic drinking cups or their hands.

Within this small cloud of happy bedlam was the scientist: Dr. Heads.

He was holding a small contraption consisting of a hollow, yellow metal pipe projecting at a right angle from the top of a plastic vial. Attached to the vial's bottom was a long length of plastic tubing.

To make his captures, Dr. Heads placed the end of the pipe as close to an insect as he could. He then placed the open end of the tube in his mouth and inhaled. The suction overpowered the insect and pulled it through the tube into the vial.

One of the children grabbed a bug that had found its way onto Mr. Heads, then told him about it.

"What? Off my head?" he replied, unruffled at the invasion of his personal space. "Yeah, that will happen."

Dr. Heads taught as he worked.

"What's that one?" a boy asked him.

Dr. Heads told him it was a green lacewing. "Green, golden eyes -- it's a beautiful thing," he said.

The captured insects were taken to another tent, where they joined many others that were being processed and cataloged.

Dr. Heads said there is actually very little information on Rock Island County's insects in archives. The BioBlitz is an opportunity to remedy that.

Part Two: Impressions of a flooded forest during a late-night canoe ride

The recent wet weather has kept the Mississippi River high, and much of the Bottoms is under water. I went out in a canoe at midnight with Mr. Anderson and Mike Trudell, a volunteer.


-- Hundreds of minnows, tiny, slender and teardrop-shaped in the light of our headlamps, flitted and flickered about on errands of their own. Below them was a crayfish that would have seemed graceful if seen alone, but among the fish, appeared slow and creeping. Above them all briefly appeared two black water beetles, neither larger than two match heads put together. They glided swiftly through the light, crossing paths to make an "x" before disappearing again.

-- There were long, tiny trails on some of the trees we passed. They glittered in our headlamps. I presume they were the work of snails or slugs, though I saw none.

-- Several floating logs, more rotten than the others, had sprouted miniature forests of leafy green plants. They looked like the tiny islands from pictures of the Pacific Ocean.

-- There was a wide, open expanse of water surrounded by dark tree lines on either side. While we were there, it was heavily overcast, and the orange glow emanating from the lights of Rock Island bounced off the clouds and then the water. The reflected orange light was so bright we did not need our lamps to see.

-- During our return to camp we saw a green glow in the grass. We thought it was a lightning bug, but when Mr. Anderson picked it up, we found it was a tiny canoe-shaped bug, slender at both ends and wide in the middle. Its body was divided into segments, similar to a pill bug, and it moved on delicate, almost invisible legs. Its head was at one end, and the glow at the other. None of us had seen one before, so we took it back to camp for the collection.

5-10 a.m. Saturday: An early-morning birding excursion

By Spencer Rabe

I arrived at the Bottoms base camp just before sunrise. The only people up were volunteer Mike Klag and fellow reporter Anthony Watt -- and the hundreds of birds that had little regard for the absence of light.

Whether it was the bird calls or the recently broken air mattress that awoke him, Mr. Anderson emerged from his tent. Wrapping his head with a red bandana, he sleepily greeted us, remarking that "only the crazy people stayed overnight."

As dawn broke, people slowly emerged from parked cars or arrived from hotel rooms. ("Hotel scientists" some called them in joking fashion.) Either way, they all shared the ritual of bathing themselves in a cloud of bug spray.

Soon enough a collection of about 15 scientists, naturalists and amateur photographers had gathered for the morning's bird-watch trek. The group resembled a ragtag militia with everybody clad in uniforms of khaki and knee-high boots, armed with binoculars or cameras draped around their necks. The brigade split into two groups, and our group headed west.

Joining me were early arrival Mr. Klag, Ralph Weiss from Muscatine, Tim Murphy from Moline, and Dispatch/Argus photographer Todd Welvaert.

Walking along a trail, we stopped every few minutes to look and listen -- and to swat away the constant cloud of gnats forming around our heads.

"What's that on the post?"

"That was a song sparrow."

The group continued as a red-tailed hawk darted above the trees. Mr. Weiss and Mr. Murphy identified different species, while Mr. Klag recorded the results on a clipboard. When we hit a trail that followed the overhead power lines north to the Mississippi River, Mr. Murphy, thinking he had heard an American redstart, stopped the group.

He instructed people to spread out to look for the bird. "Some birds respond to pishing," he said as he cupped his hands around his mouth making a sound that resembled a loud whisper. "Pssst." No luck.

As we followed the power lines, Mr. Murphy stopped to point out birds. Resembling a confused clock, his arms darted in different directions, pointing out birds and their sounds. Right arm at 2 o'clock pointed at a red-bellied woodpecker. Left arm at 9 o'clock signaled a chickadee call. Right arm at 4 o'clock indicated an indigo bunting.

As Mr. Klag recorded the sightings, Mr. Murphy explained how complex birdcalls can be. He recalled a Cornell University study that reported 22 different variations of a titmouse call.

The terrain became wetter and muddier. New calls were discussed -- "that's a Baltimore oriole" -- and fresh deer tracks were evident in the wet silt.

I asked Mr. Klag how many species our group had recorded. His response was 37. He laughed when I quizzed him if he had the correct spellings. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure about the regular spelling." The scientific names must come later.

A side trail that ran parallel to a flooded field gave the group an opportunity to see a barred owl, which allowed a few photos to be taken before disappearing back into the flooded woods.

Mr. Klag and Mr. Weiss continued to log birds on the return trek. I asked the pair what happens when there is disagreement on bird identification. Mr. Klag explained that most people defer to the more experienced ear, which in our group belonged to Mr. Murphy, a probation officer with a biology degree from the University of Illinois.

Mr. Weiss said there are a number of different factors in bird identification, like observing the bird's physical behavior. "You just keep picking it up," he said.

10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Saturday: Missing bugs and other mini-sketches

By Lisa Hammer

No robber flies:Western Illinois entomology instructor Ken McCravy said it was "kind of weird" not to see any robber flies, which perch on vegetation and then use their really strong legs to fly out and grab other insects, then use a beak-like structure to suck body fluids. "It's pretty high up on the food chain, a good indicator species of what other species are present," he said. "It's strange that they're not here. I don't know. Maybe they're just kind of skittish. Too many people around."

Shrimp: Volunteer photographer Gregory Kiester, of Clinton, Iowa, was taking pictures of a shallow container holding one shrimp to document the find. "One of the biggest things I was surprised to find out about is that there were shrimp in the river. I've been around the river my whole life and I still find out new stuff all the time," he said.

Diamondback water snake: Herpetologist Mik Holgersson's look of excitement couldn't be mistaken. He had a big find, a diamondback water snake. "I've never seen one of these personally until today," he said, adding, "It's the first I've positively ID'd as far as 'it's not a northern water snake.'" He was in a kayak and saw the snake on a log. He took pictures first, then stuck his paddle out and managed to lift the snake directly into a small net. "It was luck," he said. Other snakes found were plain garters and common garters.

An injured barred owl?Observers weren't sure if a barred owl found in the grass along the trail was injured or not, but visitors were getting within a couple feet of it while taking pictures. Sean Georgi of Augustana College's biology department said he'd noted the owl's location in case someone wanted to return later to check on it.

Unbridled enthusiasm: Isaiah Ford, 13, of Rock Island, pulled an enormous tadpole as big as the palm of his hand from the shallows of the water. At a certain point Saturday morning, he had caught most of the tree frogs on display at the main camp. Five-year-old Lily Fuhr captured a two-inch frog and cheerfully gave it to her mother, Stephanie Fuhr. "We're just here to play," explained Mrs. Fuhr.

New trees planted: Elliot Brinkman, of Champaign, a representative of the Prairie Rivers Network, directed the planting of 100 swamp white oaks. It was his second time at Milan Bottoms."I just got here and started doing the planting, but it's a wonderful place," he said.

Elusive dragonflies:William Taylor, an entomology student at Western Illinois University, said one of the more difficult tasks he had was catching a dragonfly. He said he got help from Mr. McCravy to get the critter out of the net without releasing it. Louie Morales, another WIU entomology student, noted that the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly is that the latter's wings fold upwards, not out.

Gars that fit into an ice-cube tray: Someone said they had never seen fish identifiable as gars that were small enough to fit into one section of an ice-cube tray, but volunteer Allie Clark of the Friends of Nahant Marsh said that when they do pond studies with school groups, they see gars that small.

Bowfin fish: An ancient type of fish, bowfin found ranged from tiny babies to 10-15- pounders. WIU professor Tim Spier said a fascinating feature of the adult male bowfin is that during breeding season, its tongue turns completely green. "They're really gorgeous," he said with a grin.

1-3 p.m. Saturday: The final push

By Sarah Gardner

Shad. Carp. Largemouth bass. Longnose gar. Shorthead redhorse. With a practiced hand and an expert eye, Karen Rivera pulled wriggling fish one by one from a large tub of water and called out their names. Then she laid them on a board to measure their length, scooped them onto a scale to weigh them, and plopped them into another container of water to be returned to the river.

Ms. Rivera, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was assisted by Nick Anderson, an intern with the Illinois Natural History Survey, who scribbled down the names and numbers as Ms. Rivera called them out.

Both were perched on a boat that had been pulled on a trailer right from the river to the edge of the main tent where, in the final hours of the BioBlitz, the scientists and naturalists were working furiously to sort, identify and catalog as many species as possible before the event ended at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Small groups of people fanned out from the tent into the surrounding prairie and woodlands, some led by volunteer tour guides from the River Bend Wildland Trust, others hoping to bring in a few more samples from the field.

Among them was Mr. Clevenstine. Although only one of the 16 traps he had set out the night before had captured an animal -- an adult male harvest mouse weighing 33 grams -- he chose to look on the bright side. "At least I didn't catch a skunk," he noted.

Now, his attention was focused on retrieving an acoustic detector he had set out the previous evening to record bat calls. Unfortunately, they would not be included in the 3 p.m. tally for the event, as the recording would have to be sent off to an expert to be deciphered. But Mr. Clevenstine said he was hopeful the calls of Indiana bats would be among those recorded.

Even though they are an endangered species, "there is no good reason they wouldn't be here," he said, explaining they had been identified in similar locations nearby.

As the 3 p.m. deadline approached, all eyes turned to Angella Moorehouse of the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission, who was charged with adding up the data.

One survey boat remained out on the river, caught on some driftwood. Ms. Moorehouse, cell phone perched on her shoulder, typed their results into a computer so they could be included in the final tally.

When she was finished, she stood up and came to the tent center. Grinning broadly, she declared. "We've recorded nearly 740 species!"

The BioBlitz was hosted by the River Bend Wildland Trust. Partners for the event included the Natural Land Institute, Illinois Nature Preserve Commission, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Prairie Rivers Network, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Interstate RC&D.

At a glance: 733 species

Organizers of the bio blitz hoped they might catalog 500 species during the 24-hour period. In fact, the event exceeded expectations: 733 species had been identified and recorded by the end of the event, with many more collected to be identified in a lab at a later date.

The 733 species included:
- 415 insects
- 166 plants
- 60 birds
- 30 spiders
- 29 aquatic invertebrates
- 20 fish
- 13 reptiles