Springtime Sings on the Prairie: SUST Major Tiffany Mucci Reports on Her Spring 2016 Internship at Midewin

This spring 2016 semester, several students in the Sustainability Studies Program here at Roosevelt will report and reflect upon their sustainability-related internship experiences. Here’s another post from Tiffany Mucci, a senior SUST major interning in plant conservation and ecological restoration at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, about 50 miles SW of Chicago.

The tiny spring beauty is an early bloomer at MNTP. (photo: T. Mucci, March 2016)

The tiny spring beauty is an early bloomer at MNTP. (photo: T. Mucci, March 2016)

Spring is in the air. The trees are budding, the ground is thawing, the flowers are blooming, and the frogs are croaking!

Springtime at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie signals a new season of ongoing ecological monitoring. Each year, volunteer citizen scientists participate in ecological monitoring programs for birds, butterflies, frogs, plants, and water quality. Frog monitors – or “froggers” – track the presence of eight frog and toad species which live in this prairie’s many wetlands. Midewin’s ecological monitoring webpage explains that the data collected by citizen scientists “help directly with part one of our mission to conserve, restore, and enhance the native populations and habitats of fish, wildlife, and plants” (USDA Forest Service).

As froggers, we don’t hunt with our eyes, but rather our ears. It is easiest to detect and identify a frog by its mating call, so we conduct our surveys when the conditions are ripe for activity. The mating seasons of our resident frogs run from mid-March through late-July, and because they are nocturnal, we do our monitoring after sundown. Other factors including air and water temperature, humidity, and rainfall also determine the likelihood of whether males will be calling or not.

Western Chorus Frog (source: Chicago Academy of Sciences)

Western Chorus Frog (source: Chicago Academy of Sciences)

Even though there are eight species of frogs and toads known to inhabit Midewin, we memorize the unique mating calls of about a dozen, supposing that other regional natives might turn up here someday. In mid-March there are only two kinds of frogs that we expect to hear: the Western chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata) and the Northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens), both early breeders. You’ve probably heard the shrill ensemble of Western chorus frogs before (they’re very common in this region), whose sound is generally described like that of running one’s finger over the teeth of a comb.

Northern Leopard Frog (source: Chicago Academy of Sciences)

Northern Leopard Frog (source: Chicago Academy of Sciences)

The Northern leopard frog is also common, but its mating call may not be heard as regularly as that of other frogs. The reasons for this are that the call is rather soft, and they sometimes do the majority of their breeding on just a couple of choice spring nights. The croak of the Northern leopard frog, which has two parts, is described by the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ “Calling Frog Survey” as “a coarse snore,” followed by “raspy sounding chuckles” (Chicago Academy of Sciences, 2016). It’s a groaning serenade that only another frog could find attractive.

On my first night as a monitor, I meet up with two veteran froggers, Gail and Mary, on Midewin’s southwest side. The last tinges of sunset have just faded to darkness as we pack into one car and let ourselves through the secured gates of the property. Due to Midewin’s size, we must drive to each wetland site for surveying, slowly bumping along gravel roads and muddy two-tracks. Tonight’s destinations take us through a bunker field, a feature distinctive to Midewin, the grass-covered mounds looming darkly over us as eerie reminders of this place’s wartime past.

Former TNT storage bunkers at MNTP (source: Chicago Tribune)

Former TNT storage bunkers at MNTP (source: Chicago Tribune)

From WWII through the 1990s, this site was part of the former Joliet Arsenal, a facility which the EPA’s Superfund Program website states to have been “one of the largest and most productive ordnance complexes ever built” (EPA, 2016). The bunkers, which stored the arsenal’s explosives, have thick walls of concrete and are covered almost entirely in earth. Too cost- and labor-intensive to demolish, rows of vacant bunkers remain here as pieces of history and prairie nouveau.

My partners and I have parked in the middle of a two-track, large ponds to either side of us. We exit the car and step carefully through mud and grass to get as close to the water’s edge as we comfortably can. Gail and Mary check the air and water temperatures, and we record other environmental indexes before hushing ourselves and officially listening for frog calls.

Sunset at Midewin (source: Jerry Heinrich, USFS-MNTP)

Sunset at Midewin (source: Jerry Heinrich, USFS-MNTP Facebook page)

The high-pitched “creeks” of passionate male Western chorus frogs are loud and unmistakable. We strain our ears in hopes of detecting the less obvious call of the Northern leopard frog. Instead, a Canada goose splashes and honks from somewhere out on the water. When all has quieted down, we tune in once more…

The sound comes so faintly at first that we can’t say for sure if it was imagined or not. But sure enough, low and guttural, the snore of a lone Northern leopard frog comes again, reverberating in the night air. The three of us exchange fervent whispers of confirmation, feeling almost the same excitement as a lady Northern.

References:

Chicago Academy of Sciences. (2016). Chicagoland Frogs. Retrieved from http://frogsurvey.org/?page_id=9

EPA. (2016). EPA Superfund Program: JOLIET ARMY AMMUNITION PLANT (LOAD-ASSEMBLY-PACKING AREA), JOLIET, IL. Retrieved from https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/csitinfo.cfm?id=0501170

USDA Forest Service. (n.d.). Ecological Monitoring. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Retrieved from http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/midewin/workingtogether/volunteering/?cid=stelprdb5292651

Tiffany Mucci head shotSUST senior Tiffany Mucci is spending her spring 2016 semester interning at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington IL, working with staff and volunteers in their restoration program. During the May 2015 section of SUST 390, she authored this creative non-fiction essay about Midewin. This year Mucci is also co-editing the new Writing Urban Nature project for the Roosevelt Urban Sustainability Lab and serving as Assistant Editor of the SUST at RU blog. 

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