Rob Kanter holding a small garter snake
Photo by Rob Kanter
May 20, 2016

A love of life—even snakes [from the archive]

Thanks to a friend who’s more observant than me, I recently discovered a new species of reptile in my own backyard, a plains garter snake. Maybe I should clarify by saying I mean the plains garter snake was “new” to me, not new to science or the wider world.

Compact discs, etc. spread out on a table for sale.
Michelle Lauterbach
April 07, 2016

Sonified Festival to feature ecological music and arts

This week Environmental Almanac continues its series featuring students from the School of Earth, Society, and Environment who are developing their skills to communicate about environmental topics.

Jess: Hear that? It’s the sound of combs being used as musical instruments. At the Sudden Sound Concert, presented by the Global Arts Performance Initiative and funded by the U of I Student Sustainability Committee, Tom Nunn and Paul Winstanley performed an hourlong, uninterrupted concert, using instruments made from found materials--balloons, combs, scrap metal and so on.

Music for Hard Times, Nunn and Winstanley’s performance, is just one in a string of environmentally-focused events that will culminate with the Sonified Sustainability Festival on April 16th. Jason Finkelman, Director of the Global Arts Performance Initiative and the mind behind Sonified, hopes these performances will engage the public in an appreciation of and dialogue about “ecological music and arts through performance.”

Gilleece: The use of the word “sonified” in the title of the concert series conveys the purpose of the festival well. “Sonification” is defined as "the communication of information through non-verbal audio." This describes how recycled instruments have been the focus of the series, but also how this festival is a way to convey the message of sustainability through unconventional means. Tom Nunn and Paul Winstanley embody this ideal of sonification--unconventional and interpretive.

Nunn and Winstanley have been working together since 2010. Their duo specializes in producing organic-sounding music that they improvise on homemade instruments. Nunn’s niche is creating instruments out of recycled materials, which he has been doing since 1976. While he emphasized that he was not initially motivated by the the idea of sustainability, Nunn had ideas about how his art, and others like his, played into the ideals that sustainability represents: “You’re already winning, you know, starting with the idea of recycling. So whatever comes out of that just adds to that.” 

Michelle: There will be two more events for the Sonified Sustainability Festival, the first being a gallery show by  Ken Butler, a Brooklyn-based artist whose sculptural “hybrid instruments” are manufactured with recycled and repurposed materials. This exhibition, titled “Hybrid Visions” will open to the public on Thursday, April 14th, 2016 at 4:30 p.m in the Illini Union Gallery. It will feature his musical instrument sculptures and will express how re-invention and hyper-utility have hidden meaning and associations that can momentarily create a striking and re-animated cultural identity for common objects.

The festival will then culminate at the start of Earth Week at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, April 16th. This all-ages event with free admission will feature live music by Ken Butler using his recycled instruments. Local musicians and interactive art making focused on sustainable practices in the arts and an accompanying information fair will provide visibility of local sustainable projects, programs, and organizations all working towards a greener future.

Tune in next week to hear about an effort that encourages people to "Skip the Bag."

Profile of a light brown bird with dark speckling on the ground. Very long bill and tail cocked upright.
Greg Lambeth
March 18, 2016

Return of the American woodcock—another March madness

One of the early season highlights of birding in central Illinois is the widespread return in March of a bird called the American woodcock. Indeed, for some birders this phenomenon holds just as much interest as that other one more commonly known as March madness.

The woodcock belongs to the shorebird family, whose more familiar members include sandpipers and plovers. But unlike its cousins, the woodcock prefers habitat composed of moist woods, open fields, and brushy swamps. You won’t see a woodcock poking along beaches or mud flats the way other shorebirds do. Most of the time the woodcock is so secretive and so well camouflaged that unless you witness its courtship display, you’re likely to see one only if you come close to stepping on in it, and it flushes. Then you are startled by an explosion of wings at your feet, after which you’ll have five to ten seconds to watch the bird fly before it lands and takes cover again.

On the ground, the woodcock’s appearance suggests that it was constructed by a birdmaker who didn’t pay strict attention to the shorebird blueprint. It’s a plump bird, about eleven inches long altogether, although its bill accounts for three of those inches. This bill is highly sensitive, which enables woodcocks detect the vibrations made by earthworms underground. And it features a flexible tip that can be opened to grasp worms even while the rest of the bill remains closed. 

A woodcock’s eyes bulge out like black, stick-on doll-eyes that are attached in the wrong spot—just a little too high up, and too far back on its head. Odd as it may look, this arrangement allows the woodcock a super wide field of vision—nearly three hundred sixty degrees. This is quite a useful adaptation for a bird that spends so much time with its nose to the ground.

Appearances aside, what endears the woodcock to birders is the strange and elaborate courtship ritual that the males perform at dusk and dawn in the spring. Many people have written to describe this behavior, although none so eloquently as Aldo Leopold, whose book, A Sand County Almanac, has done so much to inspire the modern conservation movement.

This is how Leopold describes the male woodcock’s “sky dance”:

He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began and there resumes peenting.

Depending on conditions, the male woodcock may repeat this performance for a half hour or more.

If you would like to see the sky dance for yourself but don’t know where to look, check out one of the upcoming “Woodcock Walks” conducted by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

See more bird photos by Greg Lambeth at

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